After five days of vacation spent in Gunsan, I am more than ready to head up to Seoul this morning in preparation for the ski trip that Catfish, NZ2, KiwiKat and I have signed up for through Adventure Korea. Although we’re only leaving for the trip tomorrow, the pick up time is 7:00am so we’re spending the night at Hong Guesthouse in Hongdae which is only a five minute walk from the pick up site at Hongik station. In addition, this long weekend is Lunar New Year (설날 – Seolnal) which, along with Chuseok (추석), is one of the two biggest holidays in Korea. This is a time of mass migration on the roads of Korea as most people travel to their hometowns to celebrate the new year with their families. There is a system as to who travels where (based on the hierarchal and patriarchal system of Korea) and there are various traditions associated with what actually happens at Seolnal but I won’t get into that here.
Getting to Seoul
Since we already knew that the roads would be busy, Catfish and I meet at the Gunsan Express Bus Terminal at 11:35am and manage to get onto the 11:40am bus – with only four other people. We take this as a good sign that getting to Seoul this afternoon shouldn’t be too arduous and most people will be travelling later tonight or tomorrow. The first two hours of the trip are great and we encounter no more traffic than usual in the two and a half hour trip.
We’re excited to finally get to Seoul and know that we’re only approximately 1 km from the Gangnam Express Bus Terminal when we’re greeted with a sight so terrifying that only a picture can accurately describe it. After making it to Seoul in the usual two and a half hours, we start to wonder just how long the final stretch is going to take. We sit on the off-ramp for at least 30 minutes and watch as a passenger approaches the driver, has a hushed conversation with him and then gets off the bus. I’m optimistic that this traffic can’t delay us for more than 45 minutes but when we’re barely off the highway 45 minutes after getting to Seoul, I’m starting to have doubts.
Please Control the Waegooks
Catfish keeps sliding across the bus to take photos of the endless traffic and, frankly, we’re starting to go a little stir-crazy which encourages the two Korean passengers closest to us to move to the opposite end of the bus. We’re meant to be meeting NZ2 in Itaewon after his five day trip to Japan where he proposed to his girlfriend. We’re eager to catch up and run a few errands before heading to the hostel for the night but the traffic poses a serious obstacle. Despite the driver’s valiant attempts to slay the many heads of this traffic dragon, it seems to keep multiplying and we’re soon in the thick of a war of vehicles that every possible police officer in Seoul is attempting to control. It’s the first time we’ve seen so many police officers in one day and clustered in large groups – obviously for their protection from crazed travellers like ourselves.
After another 45 minutes on the bus, we can finally see the Central City sign for the bus terminal and we know that we’re just around the corner from our final stop. However, we’ve been sitting in Seoul traffic for an hour and a half and just want to get off the bus at this point – if we only knew how to ask this in Korean! Finally, the driver says something in Korean and the remaining two Korean passengers jump up so we take this as a sign that we’re being released back into the wilds of Seoul and race the other passengers off the bus, grab our bags and make our way across the road to the relative freedom of the subway. After seeing the chaos on the roads, I’m reluctant to travel below ground where I once again anticipate the type of traffic experienced at Christmas Eve. Fortunately, most people seem to be focusing their chaos-contributions above ground and the subway is no busier than usual so we’re soon in Itaewon where we hastily store our luggage in lockers and head to What the book? to meet NZ2.
We don’t spend too long at What the book? where Catfish buys a copy of Making Out in Korean to study a few essential terms to use with JH. From there, we head to a store that does personalised stitching on beanies, t-shirts and other assorted personal goods. NZ2 is in the market for a new beanie and Catfish and I are still debating t-shirts along the lines of “She made me do it” with arrows pointing to each other. Standing in the shop, NZ2 chooses a beanie and asks for input as to what it should say. Considering the speculation of our colleagues over the past month, I suggest it read “Engaged!” which makes both Catfish and NZ2 start laughing almost hysterically. I even suggest getting one myself that reads “But not to me!” to wear to school on the same days as NZ2 which makes us all laugh even more. Eventually, we decide to pass on this idea and NZ2 gets a beanie that reads “Too Cold :/” in Korean. By the time we leave the store, we’re starving but not in the mood for burgers so NZ2 suggests Gecko’s which apparently makes fantastic fish and chips so he leads the way to this new paradise.
Listen Carefully Catfish
We’re soon seated and salivating over a menu that lists many mouth-watering options. We’re all keen to have fish and chips but the quesadillas also sound delicious so Catfish and I decide to share one of these too. Before you judge us too harshly, we had barely eaten breakfast before leaving this morning and we hadn’t had time to have lunch before getting on the bus so we were starving!
Our waiter places paper place mats in front of us and we notice that there is a picture to colour in on the back. This is probably meant for children but Catfish is the baby in our group so she asks for crayons to colour in the picture much to the amusement of our waiter. When our dinner arrives, the food looks just like fish and chips in an English pub which is something of a novelty here in Korea so Catfish and I immediately pick up our cameras to document this auspicious moment. We’re ravenous so conversation is limited as we attack our food with relish. We make short work of most of our meal before the conversation once again becomes lively.
Since NZ2 was in Japan for my actual birthday – and I was told at my surprise party that I could have a week long birthday – I tell him that he has to have a cocktail with us. We can’t see our waiter so Catfish is dispatched to order drinks at the bar. Within minutes, she returns to the table followed by three very eager and flirtatious waiters who vie to take our order much to Catfish’s embarrassment and our amusement. With all three 20-something men fighting to take our orders, I lean over to Catfish and tell her that she seems to have only heard the first syllable of “cocktails”.
As we finish off our meal, we’re aware of the overly attentive waiters who seem to have taken a liking to Catfish. They circle our table on a loop, constantly looking over until Catfish engages them in further conversation. WanSu, at only (Korean) 20 years of age, is the youngest and has just finished high school as Dan, who is (Korean) 27 years of age quickly points out when we play the Guess How Old I Am game with them. WanSu also tells us that his English name is Jack Sparrow which prompts Catfish to start humming the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: World’s End. I don’t think he quite understood this response in all honesty which just added to the humour of the situation. Clearly WanSu and Dan are having fun, however, and when they hear that we’re all English teachers, they teach us a Korean phrase to use in class when we have one boy who is not cooperating; Malicious Boy immediately springs to mind. The phrase means something to the effect of: When I am kind to you, you be a good boy to me.
Engrish in Itaewon
We leave the pub still laughing and teasing Catfish about not getting their phone numbers and head back to Itaewon station to collect our luggage. While unlocking the lockers, I notice the Engrish instructions that are on the screen when a locker door is open: 33 is the beginning of the locker, After you take the goods until you hear the door beep thrusting. We’re still not entirely sure what this actually means as we take the subway to Hongik station and walk to Hong Guesthouse where David, the manager on duty, seems very excited to finally have people arriving. We get the impression it’s been a very slow day at the guesthouse and this seems to be confirmed when Charlie (another staff member) takes his time showing us around the guesthouse and finally to our room.
Let's Play a Game or Two
We’re waiting for KiwiKat to arrive and NZ2 and I are still teasing Catfish about being a natural flirt. When he logs onto Skype to chat to his new fiancée, I join Catfish downstairs to check emails and we end up chatting to David and Charlie until KiwiKat arrives and we head back upstairs together. Unfortunately, we’re quick to recount the Gecko’s story to KiwiKat who is laughing as much as we did so Catfish, tired of the teasing, excuses herself and heads back downstairs where she is invited to join a birthday party for David’s girlfriend/friend. This is where we find her when KiwiKat and I head downstairs to go to the convenience store and we’re invited to join the party too. We chat to the group for a few minutes and, once again, end up playing the Guess My Age game with this group of Koreans. Koreans and Westerners find it rather difficult to guess each other’s ages so this game often provides great entertainment for both groups.
This game leads to the Guess how long I’ve been in Korea game between us and another English teacher. He’s a bit pompous and tells us that he’s just renewed his contract which, of course, doesn’t impress any of us with KiwiKat by our side. When he tries to guess how long KiwiKat’s been in Korea, he seems to find it hard to believe that someone would stay in Korea for eight and half years without: a) Being married to a Korean or b) Earning a ridiculously high salary. OR c) Maybe we genuinely like our jobs and schools so that’s enough reason for KiwiKat to have stayed here so long which is, actually, the reason for KiwiKat’s long stay in Korea. He can’t seem to understand this third option and we take this as our cue to leave.
We’re all more than ready for an early night which means that, once again, we’re staying overnight in one of the biggest clubbing areas in Seoul and we have yet to even venture anywhere near these despite many invitations from David. Maybe next time we’re in Hongdae, we’ll experience nightlife beyond just the local convenience store.