When last we left our intrepid heroes, they were being driven into the rural fog laden farmlands of Taean by the manager of the pension who had given away their previously booked room! In this installment of The Long Weekend, find out where they end up staying for the night, how the evening progresses with a new host, and what befalls our heroes the next morning!
The Unexpected Stay
When we arrived, after twisting turning gravel and dirt roads, at what looks like a cute little farm house kind of place with a man working on his garden in the front yard, we were told this is where we would stay for the night. He opened up what turned out to be one half of a duplex, and started showing us around the spartan space. There were a table and chairs in the kitchen, and a TV on one wall, though no sofa. The bathroom looked clean and roomy, but the bedroom was completely bare.
I had been holding myself together reasonably well up until this point. I don’t like it when my plans fall apart in an oh-crap-what-now way, and I’m not used to riding in random peoples cars. Fortunately, I had my companion who also happens to be a dude, making me feel more safe than I might otherwise as a woman alone. It was still unduly stressful, and the bare bedroom was the absolute last straw. Did this woman who gave away my beautiful room (it was so pretty) really expect me to sleep on the floor in this shack in the woods!!?! ARGH!!!
Be proud of me. I didn’t yell at anyone. Not once. When confronted with the bare bedroom, I allowed my affable smile to turn dark and my brows to furrow in displeasure. We no longer had a translator, so I was still trying to do my best to explain in simple words and signs what the problem was, and finally they understood I wanted a mattress. She explained that there was no mattress here, but that we would have one tomorrow at her pension. Yes, really, again, (in my head only, or possibly under my breath) this is the reason I booked your room ahead of time, so I would HAVE A BED. The lady and the host opened the closet and began to lay thick quilts on the floor in layers to create a softer sleeping surface for us.
We were in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to stay and no way to get anywhere that wasn’t dependent on these people in front of us. This was not the time to appear to be the kind of people they didn’t want around. One of my expat/teacher skills is talking in big words to another native English speaker/adult while using a calm and pleasant tone of voice so that no one knows what we’re talking about. I quickly talked over my feelings with my companion, expressing as much of my frustration and disappointment as possible without letting it out in my voice, then taking some time to consider the fact that we’d been rushed from one decision to another, first by Mr. Awesome (who rushed us to buy bus tickets we never used, and rushed us to get into the car with the pension lady without a complete understanding of where we were going or what to expect) and then by pension lady (who rushed us into the car and then into this house, and was trying to rush us into meals and car rides the next day too).
I knew in my heart and my head that all of these people, Mr. Awesome, pension lady, and duplex host guy, all wanted to help us out, but it was still an overwhelming experience. Finally, I came around to accepting our situation, hard floor bed and all, and I agreed to the arrangement. Pension lady took off, saying she’d see us tomorrow, and duplex host guy said something about dinner that I didn’t entirely understand. It seemed to be something along the lines of dinner in his house with his family, and I figured someone would tell us more when we needed to know.
Accidental Dinner Guests
As we stood on the front porch drinking some of the wine my companion had brought along, our host came out to fetch us. When we walked into their side of the duplex, I was rather taken aback by the fact that he and his wife apparently lived in a single room while leaving the two room side of the duplex empty to rent out. Their bed, which was also a thin futon/thick quilt on the floor, was just next to the small dining table, and their laundry rack was set up along side one wall with clothes hanging from it. Korea is a mind blowing combination of developed and developing that I’ve just never seen anywhere else. I’ve probably mentioned before that during the war, close to 90% of the buildings in Korea were destroyed and now they have cities like Seoul and Busan which are full of skyscrapers and ultra modern services. I got so used to the modern life in Busan that it just didn’t occur to me how provincial life here could be in a smaller city.
Our host asked us, via Google Translate, if we liked Korean food. Without exception, every Korean I’ve met has been surprised that we white folks not only can eat their food, but actually enjoy it. We were treated to a home cooked meal of some kind of fish that was cooked whole, some spicy gelatin dish, kimchee soup, other green based banchan and some seaweed wraps. Our host also broke open a bottle or two of soju to share with us, and although they spoke about as much English as I do Korean (maybe even less), we used what we knew combined with hand gestures and our phone’s translating apps to have a reasonable conversation over dinner.
After dinner, we sat out on the porch a little longer, enjoying the country sounds of the frogs croaking and seeing the fireworks from the revelers down on the beach. Despite the comedy of errors that had led us there, as I sat there full of good food and wine, taking in the night, I finally started feeling better.
We went inside as it began to get chilly and started to wind down for sleeping, laying in our floor-bed, reflecting on the day and our plans for the morning, and telling silly stories about our pasts. Finally I was ready to put out the lights and go to bed, but my companion decided to step out to the porch for one last cigarette. From the bathroom, I could hear the repeated whir of the electric lock and the thunk thunk of the door not opening to repeated pulling and pushing. I emerged from my pre-sleep ablutions to see if I could decipher the mystery of the door. I was successful in my attempts to open it, but this was quite unfortunate as the alarm promptly went off. Our host had entered some kind of code when he opened the door for us upon our arrival, but didn’t share the code with us, and we had simply not closed the outer door until after diner. I had no idea it would go off when opened from the inside nor how to silence it.
I sent my companion to knock on our hosts’ door and ask for help, as there was no way we could possibly sleep through the racket. Honestly, I’m surprised they didn’t come running out when it went off, it was earsplittingly loud, sounding with at least two tones on two different rhythms. The jangling noise sadly ripped away all of my nice peaceful post dinner feelings and did basically exactly what alarms are supposed to do, which is to force you into a state of fight or flight in preparation to deal with whatever emergency is about to happen. I sat on the not-bed, listening to music in my headphones (which did not do anything to drown the alarm) and playing games to distract myself while waiting for the hosts to enter the code. I’m sure nearly everyone has experienced that neighbor’s car alarm at 12am, that thing where you tell yourself that surely they’ll go out and stop it any second now, as time is distorted while your nerves slowly erode and you’re sure it’s been going for half an hour but the clock says it’s only been five minutes, and you’re bartering with yourself about how many more minutes you’ll let it go on before you get up and go bang on the neighbor’s door to make them fix it… or possibly before you go to the car and disconnect the battery. So, yeah, all of that, except it was our door.
My companion finally returned with the code, but no combination of buttons or opening/closing the door would convince it to silence and he had to return to our host’s side of the building again. I fled back into the bedroom, and when the noise finally, blissfully silenced, I called out a plaintive apology in Korean to our hostess who had had to come out of her own bed to deal with the issue aparently, I learned later, by removing the batteries.
I’m not sure if it’s the heated Korean floors or the total physical and mental/emotional exhaustion that I endured that day, but the floor-bed was much easier to sleep in than I had feared, and soon I was blissfully unconcious in preparation for our next day’s adventure.
Can You Get There From Here?
In the morning, our two main concerns were what to do with our luggage and how to get to the tulip festival. I’d done my best to explain (using the internet) that we planned to go to this festival Saturday, that it was the whole reason we were in this place. I didn’t want our hosts being confused that we would sit around doing nothing until they decided to give us a ride somewhere else. I’d told Mr. Awesome, pension lady and the duplex host guy at least twice a piece. Maybe I sounded like a nag, but I did NOT want to miss out on the whole reason we were there.
Part of the plan of staying in the same hotel (pension) for two nights is the ability to leave your luggage in the room and go out to adventure for the day. Since our plan had been massively interrupted by the need to spend our two nights in two separate places, we now had no idea what to do with the bags for the day. It was my plan to ask our host if we could just leave them with him and then come pick them up on our way to the other pension later in the evening. This seemed reasonable because pension lady had told us several times that her house was nearby, and the tulip festival was quite far (15km or so) from both of them.
It took me a little while to get my point across through the screen window, but once I was sure they understood me, they said no. There was some further attempt at communication, but it was well beyond our bilingual abilities or the translating app (which is only good for words or short phrases), so we tried to call some better bilingual people we knew. My companion tried to call Mr. Awesome, but didn’t get through, so I called my co-teacher, apologizing profusely for disturbing her holiday and trying to explain the situation as quickly as possible. There was some extensive back and forth, and at some point my companion did get in touch with Mr. Awesome, but as his English was not as good as my co-teacher’s, I think it caused more confusion than it fixed. I had to reassure the host (via translator) that we didn’t need him to get us to the festival, we could take the bus and follow the directions on the map app. There was a moment where he almost called us a taxi (which in retrospect would have been much easier and not that expensive, but I like using local buses, you see more), and we finally concluded all the arrangements.
He agreed to take our bags over to the other pension for us later in the day while we were out, so that we would not need to come back to his place at all. Bearing in mind this long suffering man and his wife had not been hired by us in any capacity, but rather drafted into service by the person whom we had contracted for lodging with, my companion wanted to gift him with the last bottle of wine he’d brought with him. For the first time since arriving in this country, I actually had to go through the three times offering routine I’ve only ever read about in Korean (and for that matter Japanese) gift giving rituals. I held the bottle with both hands because I really wanted to try to get it right, and it wasn’t until the third time I offered it that he finally accepted.
As we set about wrangling our bags into as compact and easy to carry packages as possible, he began to fret again about how we would get to the tulip festival. I showed him the map, and the instructions for the bus (which were in Korean, btw) and he insisted on giving us a ride to the bus stop. Which since he did not know the whereabouts of, he asked his wife who told him, and we were off. In entirely the wrong direction.
Our walk from the pension to the bus stop would have been about 15-20 min and the weather that day was beautiful, and we didn’t have to carry our luggage, so I didn’t care too much, but our very helpful host drove us in the complete opposite direction of our target bus stop and dropped us off in the middle of a fish festival on the coastline.
The Long Walk
At this point, I passed through frustration into amusement, because there’s only so many things that can go non-tragically wrong before you just have to give in and start laughing. I looked up our location on the map app and discovered it WAS a bus stop, but there wouldn’t be a bus for at least 2 hours. Deciding against waiting at the fish festival (remember, we were just at one of those two days ago), we darted into a nearby cafe for some caffeine and decided to try our luck trekking to the correct bus stop anyway.
Now, map software is only as good as the people on the ground finding roads. You may have noticed that dirt roads, driveways, alleys and parking lots tend not to be on your map? Well, Korea is full of tiny roads. In the big cities, most of these tiny roads are actually on the Korean map app, Naver Maps (tho not Google) because they are stuffed end to end with tiny businesses, but Taean is a much more provincial place and these were dirt and gravel “roads” that were lined with homes and farms. Our map app simply had no notion that these existed and directed us in a straight line from point A to point B. It’s not that hard to keep going the right direction via existing roads, but there’s no way to tell if there’s a faster way, or how long it will take.
We walked through the neighborhood, through some farmland, through a national park and campground and eventually stopped for breakfast at a convenience store. My companion du jour is Canadian and share’s my childhood memories of huge vast swaths of national forest. Korea is a tiny little peninsula and so the campgrounds were little postage stamp sections of forest where tents were practically back to back between the trees. On one side of a road would be tents and trees abutting the ocean, while on the other was a large church and tourist information center looking as suburban as anything.
Convenience stores in Korea not only sell cup noodles, but supply hot water, disposable chopsticks and a place to munch your snack/meal. So we bought some ramen and sat down at the picnic table out front to have breakfast. I was starting to feel like we were the only white people in town… maybe ever, the way people stared at us. In Busan, I can go my whole work week without seeing another foreigner, but the Koreans here in Busan are more urbane about it, either simply not caring or being much more subtle with their staring. On top of that, there’s some serious stereotypes about how white folks eat, travel, go on vacation and sitting out front of this convenience store eating ramen broke them all.
I tried to ask directions a few more times on the second half of our walk, but the idea of a bus stop seemed to baffle everyone I talked to, which was more than a little worrying. About an hour and half after we’d set off from the “wrong” bus stop, we finally sighted the one we’d been aiming for! The schedule indicated we had another hour to wait anyway, so we settled into the shaded seating area across from the panoramic farmland and reflected on our morning.
The cars that drove by often slowed down to gawp at us through their windows, my companion managed to use his newly learned Korean to find the bathroom at the gas station down the road, and I chatted with some friends on Facebook about the general absurdity of the last 24 hours. When our bus time finally arrived, we stood near the road so we would be sure to see it and to be seen. All the buses up to that point had been clearly charted tour buses, so we were very excited to see a bus with a number on the front, like a city bus, come our way. But then the driver waved a sort of dismissive “no” at us and kept going! I’m not sure if he was supposed to stop or not, but no other buses were forthcoming and I began to consider the reality that we’d have to walk up to the gas station and see if we could convince the clerk there to call us a taxi after all.
As we were debating our options, a car pulled into the dirt lot near the bus stop and the people within proceeded to stare at us quite intently. Although several drivers had slowed down to stare before, no one had actually stopped and it was making me a little uncomfortable. I tried to avoid eye contact and focus on solving the mystery of the missing bus. This is solid proof of my cultural biases. As an American and a woman (often travelling alone) I just do not engage with people who are in a position to do things like kidnap me, force me into a car in the middle of nowhere and lock me in a rape cabin. It’s not something I spend a great deal of time thinking about, it’s just a habit to avoid eye-contact, not go near the strange car, and get to a public place if they don’t push off. On reflection, it’s rather sad that this is my default setting and it makes me despair just slightly for the culture that taught me this as a survival technique. Oh, America.
Finally, the driver rolled down his window and called out to us. He asked us where we were tyring to go. I could see that he had a woman with him in the passenger’s seat, but old habits die hard and I still only walked about half the distance to the car before answering that we were waiting for the bus to take us to the Tulip Festival. He briefly discussed something with the woman and then gestured for us to get in the car.
I’ve never ever hitchhiked before.
I’ve taken rides from people I was paying (taxis, Uber, hotel drivers to and from airports and train stations, ride share, and someone’s cousin who needed 5$), and I’ve taken rides for free from friends of friends (people I don’t know, but the person I’m with does). But I’ve never flat up taken a ride for free from a complete stranger. Would I have done it if I had been alone? I don’t know. There’s a good chance I would have taken a taxi much earlier in the day if I’d been alone. Partially for safety and partially because it’s more boring to walk aimlessly for hours without someone to talk to. But I was with my Canadian companion, who happens to be a rather tall, broad-shouldered totally gay male and is just fine with pretending to be my BF as needed to keep up appearances. Go Beards!
Thus it was that we decided to accept the ride as just one more aspect of our crazy weekend. On the way, we encountered some traffic, so the ride was a bit longer than anticipated. Our driver’s girlfriend spoke better English, but was clearly also much more reticent to do so, and the conversation involved a lot of re-translations. He told us he was a Korean movie producer and we tried to talk a little about our favorite Korean movies, but since I’ve only watched them randomly on Netflix, I couldn’t remember any of the titles in Korean at all. We had the normal foreigner conversations of where are you from, what do you do here, etc. But this soon exhausted our conversational abilities and they set about seriously trying to find the festival.
I showed them the route on the Korean map app I had, but they clearly didn’t know how to read it. Not the Korean, obviously, but the satellite map with GPS part. Instead, they asked every traffic cop we passed how to get there, and eventually started asking people walking on the side of the smaller roads. As a result, we missed two turn offs that would have taken us there, and went all the way around the park before approaching the parking lot from the opposite side. I sort of understood why people in the ME had a hard time with map apps, but Korea is supposed to be one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, and unlike our hosts from the night before who might have simply been too old or rural to learn, this guy was a movie producer and probably not much older than me. They both had new smart phones and used translating apps, so as far as I can tell it’s more about maps than technology, but it was still a bemusing barrier.
Having survived the night, our intrepid heroes relied upon the kindness of strangers to get them to their final destination. Stay tuned for the final installment of The Long Weekend: Part 3 – TULIPS! at last…