Walking with Haechi (Part Zero)

24 11 2009

The plane we were on had a passenger manifest that was basically 90% Korean. You could say that simply boarding the plane was already an act of entering a foreign land.

Frankly, I was too excited to get any sleep during the four hour flight. I passed time mainly by reading, filling-up the quarantine and customs forms the flight attendants passed out to everyone. I remmember a brief glimpse of the setting sun. When darkness finally fell, my seatmate Boots – an instructor at the famed Ateneo de Manila – decided to try and decipher the Korean alphabet. I helped out what little I could. Before long, the lights of Seoul could be seen outside our windows.

I remember seeing the Incheon Bridge as we came in to land , and how unfamiliar the lights of Incheon City looked.

Our initial landing was a bit rough – one wheel, the left one, landed first with such a jarring impact it popped one of the overhead storage bins open. I remember taking note of how long it took for the plane to get from the runway to the actual passenger terminal – around 20 minutes. And I remember a curious feeling overtaking me when I saw that the ground crew were Koreans bundled-up for the cold and not my brown-skinned countrymen.

First, lets get this straight: Koreans are tall people. Sure, there are people on the short side, but throughout my stay, I noticed that they were usually the middle-aged and the elderly. Koreans in their 20’s and 30’s, on the otherhand, average 5′ 7″ and up – including the women – which means most Koreans are actually taller than us. For the record, I am 5′ 7″, and in the Philippines, that places me on the short side of tall. This means I don’t meet many women who are taller than me. In Korea, however, I never had to look far to find a lady who could look me in the eye while keeping her head completely level. Add to that the fact that a majority of the female population I saw wore heels, and well…you get the idea…

Incheon International is huuuuge – I later learned it was the largest in the world – so huge that we had to take a monorail of sorts to go from the disembarkation area to baggage claim. In between, we had to stop at immigration to get our passports checked – I remember the fidgety feeling standing in a long line of foreigners (95% of whom towered over me), waiting for the Korean gentleman at the counter to go over my passport and allow me entry into his country.

Having gotten through immigration and customs without a hitch, we got some of our money changed into Korean won before exiting the terminal to meet our handler.

Turns out our handler was this cheerful young lady by the name of Junghyun (the official romanization of (정현) would be “Jeonghyeon”, but Junghyun is what is on her business card). Her English, though halting, was clear and understandable, and she had a big, easy smile. She was dressed for business – mostly grays and blacks. Remember those heels I mentioned? She wore those. She was also wearing what I do believe to be gray, pinstriped “business shorts” over black stockngs – a definite first for me. she strutted through the terminal, leading us to the bus that would take us to our accomodations for the night.

Up to this point, we had felt little of the famed Korean cold that we had fully expected to greet us full blast upon getting-off the plane. Well, when we exited the airport building itself, it was there to greet us with open arms.

Now its true I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, where winter often brings brutal, debilitating cold – but having lived in the tropical heat and humidity of the Philippines for 20 years, whatever antifreeze I had in my blood while in America had already thinned to the point of non-existence. It was cold – really cold. The oldest delegate, Jamel, tried to brave the cold in just a t-shirt and a muffler; that attempt didn’t make it beyond the bus.

Our bus driver (whom we referred to as “Manong Driver” for the remainder of our stay) was this cheerful gentleman in shirtsleeves, a vest, and a tie who did his best to keep pace with the somewhat over-energetic Filipinos who had taken over his bus. We all greeted him loudly (“Anyong haseyo!”) as we got on, and he greeted us back…although I didn’t understand what he said.

The first thing that struck me was that Korea’s highways are wiiiiide…we’re talking eight lanes or more; not even our famed North and South Expressways are quite as wide. They’re also almost devoid of traffic – although the fact that it was 10 at night could have contributed to that.

We drove through the Incheon countryside, and all I could see were the dark shapes of rolling hills, broken only by the somewhat eerie illumination of large expanses of apartment complexes. My dad told me of those complexes back when he was in Korea, but I never really imagined it would be the way I saw it that night. The closer we got to the Gimpo area, the denser the clusters of apartments became.

The main district of Gimpo was a mixture of commercial buildings and apartments, brightly lit with lights and signs advertising…well…stuff – while I can read Korean, I cannot necessarily understand it. We all laughed when we saw a hair salon called The Orange Salon – Jamel quipped it was probably because of all the oranges being sold on the sidewalk infront of it (we later learned why – and it made me feel like an ignorant idiot).

Our lodgings for the night was the Dreamtel Youth Hostel, which was conveniently located in the same building as the NCYOK headquarters. Junghyun apologized for housing us there, but we had arrived in Korea 15 hours ahead of schedule, and so there had been no time to rearrange our reservations at the hotel (more on the hotel in the next entry). You see, there are only two local airlines in the Philippines that make regular trips to Korea, and the airline who’s fares we could afford (Cebu Pacific!!! Wooot!) made only one trip everyday, leaving the Philippines at 4pm. The first item on the NCYOK’s itinerary for us had us having a banquet lunch with the NCYOK president at noon on the 11th, so the only way we could make it on time was to be in Korea on the night of the 10th.

Sorry if that didn’t make sense – suffice it to say that we had quite a bit of time on our hands.

Filipinos as we are, as soon as we had checked into the hostel, we “checked out” and set off into the heart of the Banghwa neighborhood, looking for adventure (and dinner).

Well, we found it – at the nearby 7-Eleven (yay!). The cashier – a bespectacled lady in her late teens – must have been shocked as 13 foreigners (“Waegugin” in Korean) converged on her little store and started wandering around the aisles, loudly broadcasting their shock at the prices (“8000 won for a sandwich???!!!”) in their harsh-sounding language (“Walong libo para sa sandwich?! Ano to?! Ginto?!!”) – we were still converting all the prices to our local currency: a futile effort since no matter how much 8000 won is worth in the Philippines (about 1760 pesos – whoa!!!), we were in Korea (more on prices later). She promptly came out from behind the counter and started pointing out to us the individual items.

A little bit on Filipino culture, for any of my international readers (all one of you! Haha!): even when we are guests in someone else’s house (or country), something inside of us makes us feel awkward when we are served – more often than not, we would prefer to do the serving. I’m not sure why, but its the truth. This was illustrated to hilarious effect during our stay in Korea, but more on that later. In a nutshell, I felt pretty embarrassed that our presence in the store was causing the poor salesgirl to go so far out of her way (about 8 feet from behind the cash register) to serve us – some of us took so long figuring out what to purchase, a small line of some grumpy-looking locals had already formed at the counter, the looks on their faces a cross between curiousity and irritation.I bought a sandwich, nuked it, then hurried out.

There were little tables and chairs set up on the sidewalk, so we had our dinners their, huddled against the biting cold. Guia and Jacky got an instant introduction to just how spicy Spicy Ramyun can be (its just a little short of actually setting your mouth on fire) and got instant runny noses. I took on an extra-spicy curry somebody couldn’t finish (you will know we are friends when I ask permission to finish your leftovers), while Boots got herself a sandwhich with some sort of peanut jelly for filling. Over dinner, this screen in the window of 7-Eleven kept showing this ad for Soju (Korea’s alcoholic beverage of choice), sans audio (turn off the audio for the full, bewildering effect). It thus took me awhile to figure out what it was for. A few moments later, her shift over for the day, the salesgirl exited the store and skipped down the street, apparently happy the whole ordeal with the foreigners was over.

It was so cold outside, everyone seemed in a bit of a hurry to get back to the hostel. Along the way, we noticed these little leaflets advertising the services of a nearby massage parlor with images of scantily-clad ladies strewn about the sidewalk. The ladies themselves stood in these shady alcoves nearby, dressed in black mini-skirts that
exposed their legs to the cold. They had this look on their faces – a look of bored irritation – as we passed them. I was taken aback by the sight of them – I admit that I hadn’t expected to see their sort in Korea, despite me knowing that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, and there is no culture on this Silent Planet that is without them – it is merely a question of visibility.

In case any Koreans stumble upon this blog, please understand – this experience did not, in any way, lower my opinion of Korean society. I was just surprised.

The actual street the hostel was on was off the main road, and we had apartments, a church, and a middle school as neighbors – all but dark and deserted on that cold, late night. I stayed outside a few minutes longer than the rest to take photos of the creepy-looking apartment complex across the road (it was so quiet, I could hear a dry leaf scraping along the road in the wind – from around the bend!)…and to pray. Despite my knowledge to the contrary, there was this thought, deep inside: is God here too? Can His hand reach me here, in this far-away land?

I was nervous – our Korean adventure had officialy begun, and despite all the reading and preparations I had made, I knew next to nothing of what to expect. I turned my back on the cold, dimly lit streets of Banghwa and went to sleep.

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