Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Trek to Daegu

I woke up approximately once an hour, but I slept more soundly in the Seoul airport than I had on any of my flights. Around 4 a.m., the man in the floor-cleaning truck came loudly by, so I decided to rouse myself from "bed" and head to the bathroom (an actual bathroom, not an imagined room in my new "home") to wash face, brush teeth, and so on. I stood at the sink and thought, "Wow, I've been in these clothes for a while. Without showering. And without taking out my contacts. Good times."

Next I went back to my very favorite 24-hour airport convenience store and checked out the coffee selection. The Starbucks frappuccino-in-a-bottle cold drink was tempting, but at 3500 won not nearly the deal the Cafe-Latte-in-a-can was at 900 won. Plus, who could resist a can that said "loving you loving latte"? I drank up, made some more calls to the home front -- an old pro now at this calling card -- then headed to bus land to try once again to escape Incheon.

The woman sold me a bus ticket for the early morning discount price of 8000 won (instead of the usual 13000 won) and I was all set to pick up the bus to Seoul Station, which could be easily had at berth 4B. Or 10A. Or 12A. Or 5B. Which one? Well, it depended on whom you asked. One official gentleman behind the counter, in response to my query, circled the 12A on my ticket, so I decided to go with that one. I stood there for a while, in the dark pre-dawn, and eventually a bus pulled up. I handed my ticket to the driver and clarified, "Seoul Station?" He nodded, placed my bag in the suitcase area, and motioned "have a seat." Triumphant! We set forth, and I watched from my window as the sun rose over Seoul and we drove into the city.

Apart from the sheer astonishment of being in Korea and realizing that the outskirts outside my window were the outskirts of Seoul I was feeling many things: fatigue, still; relief; incredible curiosity as the Korean language floated around my head. In the city itself, I was pleased to learn that the five stops were announced in Korean and English, even though I knew that mine, Seoul Station, was the last stop. Lest ye be deceived, that bilingual perk was only due to it being an airport bus, the airport being the only place I could count on English subtitles to my new life.

On the Seoul Station street I spotted Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks. The driver courteously told me in English, "Seoul Station!" but I had already figured that out, since we had made all the other stops. I asked him, having consulted my dictionary, "Ki-cha? Daegu?" (train? Daegu?) He pointed to the stairs going down to a subway, so I headed toward them. The driver tapped his horn and I looked up to see him excitedly motioning to me to go down, then keep walking, then up again. I nodded; he waved. I smiled; he smiled. My hero.

The subway was a typical dirty subway complete with homeless people, dirty floors, scary bathrooms ( I opted not to use the in-the-floor Asian "squat toilets"), and lots of turnstiles. And not a lick of English. I kept walking, and walking, and walking, suddenly quite silver-lining happy that my luggage had been lost and I did not have to drag it with me on this trek. And then just as suddenly I was at the end of the corridor extraordinaire, where I found stairs up to a round plaza, then an escalator up to "Seoul Station" - in English! - and a big, airy, clean train station with many ticket windows, shops, escalators, Dunkin' Donuts, etc. I bought my ticket for Daegu and found a restroom, which had a sign outside that noted "2004 Seoul's Best Toilet." That's good enough for me!

Well, I just *had* to visit Dunkin' Donuts. Come on! Who could resist? They had sandwiches on the menu but were baffled by the concept of "egg" or "cheese" for said sandwich, so I got the "bagel and cream cheese set" and a decidedly small iced coffee. I called the school director, John, to let him know I'd be arriving on the 9:36 a.m. train, and I was on my way. The KTX (for, I think I recall, Korean Train? Transit? Express...something like that) is a snazzy new express train that gets me from Seoul to Daegu in just a hair over an hour and a half. Nice seats, a snack car, a little informational video, and KTX magazine included. Future rail lines in the works. My train would continue on to Pusan without me. All in all, the most pleasant leg of my journey so far. Or maybe I was just happy to be finally nearing the journey's end.

And so - Daegu. Up the escalator, through the turnstile, and there was John, not even bothering to confirm if I was Linda, partly because I had sent pictures to the school in advance, per their request for when they met me at the station, but undoubtedly also partly because I stood out amid the Korean travelers who weren't stumbling around in a wide-eyed daze. He carried my bag, ushered me into his SUV, and drove me a short two or three minutes through Daegu to my ... temporary digs.

Well, it's true, he informed me. There was a problem with my apartment. I think at this point he was like, I can't believe I have to deliver ANOTHER piece of news to this girl for her to contend with/adapt to, but I was fine. Turns out the place I was going to live fell through because they ('they' meaning official Korean people) are renovating an entire swath of high-rise apartment buildings, so for the interim until a new apartment is set up I am staying in the studio apartment attached to the school's headquarters where the CEO stays when he is in town. Nice!

It surprised me a bit when John turned the car onto the sidewalk in front of the school HQ building, but I've since realized that these huge sidewalks are in fact made for parking, in addition to walking. It's not a bad system. Up the stairs, through a large classroom, and there I was in the back studio apartment, complete with TV-VCR-laserdisc-DVD/CD player, bathtub, washing machine, kitchen sink/counter/fridge/microwave, and lots of mint green decor with touches of pink.

John gave me the phone number there, which I would share with the school HQ during business hours, and then he took me for a quick walk around the neighborhood. I bought water and orange juice, spotted yet another Dunkin' Donuts (my third so far, and only ONE Starbucks, in Seoul...), and just generally reveled in the lively Sunday morning urban random glory of it all. He pointed out the Burger King, to ensure I could eat something today if all else failed. Much obliged, my friend. He told me the Canadian teachers who would be my co-workers at the school were on an excursion to another town that day -- I was invited had I arrived in a timely fashion -- but that he would have them call me that night. He gave me one of their cell phone numbers as well. And then he left me, and on that day I rested. And it was good.

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