Sunday, December 5, 2010

The amazing race

Chuseok – the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving when Koreans spend time with family, give thanks for the fall harvest, and honor their ancestors. Most Seoullites head to their family homes in other cities or the country, but teachers also use the short break from school as an excuse to vacate the city and visit some of the other Korean sites. As Maria, Allison, and I tried to decide what to do with our few days of freedom, it quickly became clear that going to one of the must-see locations was out of the question. The three of us had only arrived in Korea within six weeks of the holiday, and by then domestic flights and bullet trains to popular destinations like Busan and Jeju Island were already fully booked. But we were itching to explore our new resident country and a staycation was less than desirable. So we hedged our bets and decided to venture into the nearby Yellow Sea to the island of Muuido.

Even with a forecast of rain, we wanted to get an early start to escape the stifling heat and a Seoul that was quickly becoming a ghost town so on Tuesday morning, Maria and I set out at 9:30am, a pair of travel-hungry teachers ready to seize the Chuseok holiday. With $10 a day tin huts on the beach calling our names and an estimated travel time of 3 hours, there was little that could hold us back. That is, until we were halted dead in our tracks by torrential rains and monsoon floods. (Welcome to September in Korea.) When we got off the subway in Incheon, we stopped for a bite to eat in the Chinatown right across from the subway station.During lunch our Korean friend Jun called, cautioning us about the impending storm and urging us to return to Seoul. “You will drown. You will be ghosts floating in the Yellow Sea!” he warned. Looking at the light drizzle outside, we laughed at his hyperbole and concern.

Moments after we stepped out of the restaurant we were caught in a downpour. We took cover under the awning of a closed convenience store figuring the rain would soon subside. We were there for an hour and a half. Within minutes the road turned into a gushing river, the rapids collecting all sorts of debris (including Maria’s umbrella) and sweeping it past us down the hill. At one point, we were joined by a pair of Jehova’s Witnesses, but just as they were about to start evangelizing the rising water forced us to retreat onto some plywood tables and our guests made a dash for it down the road, clutching their bibles to their chests and ineffectually holding newspapers over their heads. When the rain slowed we evacuated our shelter for the subway station at the bottom of the hill, only to find that it too had been flooded. It was not long before we discovered that all routes of transit were blocked. We spent an hour in a taxi futilely trying to circumvent the flooding, but wound up right back where we started.

By the time we were able to board a bus to the airport, it was already 6:30 and by the time we arrived at the airport it was 7:08, the ferry to the island closed at 7:30. I’m sure we looked ridiculous as we dashed up and down escalators, our flip flops flying off, our soggy pants sliding down, and umbrellas and backpacks banging against our heads. With only fifteen minutes left we hopped in the first taxi we could find, threw money at the cabbie, and urged him to go “fast! Fast! Kam-sa ham nida!” As the taxi pulled up to the ferry terminal we only had four minutes to spare. With the ferry about to pull away, we raced down the dock and hopped onto the ferry as they powered up the engines. Stepping onto the deck of the ferry we were nothing less than euphoric and our laughing, jumping, high-fiving, and hugging earned us some strange looks and a request for a picture from the Korean Ferry crew.

The trip that was supposed to only last 3 hours had turned into 10. We walked into camp to the sheer astonishment of Allison and James (who had somehow managed to bypass the flooding, leaving hours after us but arriving hours before), soggy yet triumphant. Within minutes we were scarfing down a convenience store meal of rameon, chips, Ghana chocolate, and Cass, savoring every sodium-saturated bite. It wasn’t long before the rain returned, but after our jubilant arrival nothing could dampen our spirits so for the rest of our night we cozied up in our little hut on the beach, playing cards, listening to music, and laughing entirely too much.

Waking up the next day after our first chilly night since arriving in Korea, we stepped out onto the sun drenched beach. For the next two days we spent our days lounging in the sun, playing cards, and eating rameon from the convenience store. The nights we passed eating galbi at the beachside restaurants, bonding with other foreigners over bonfires, sizzling sam gap sal, and Cass, and admiring the stars. Even though I had to head back to Seoul after only 3 days to make it to work on Friday afternoon (I still don’t entirely understand the reasoning behind this) I felt more than satisfied with my first Korean adventure.

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