Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A cuppa Korea

I stayed at a motel in Gwangju last night. At the motel they provide two free packets of instant coffee in each room. I got up this morning and decided to have a cup. So I took the coffee and the coffee cup out of the fridge. Why they kept the cheapo, 1000 won store, bargain Chinese glass coffee cups in the fridge is beyond me. But I left it out for what I thought would be sufficient warming time then made some coffee. I didn't even get a swig before the bottom of the cup popped off and the coffee scalded my left leg from thigh to ankle. Like Marcel Proust's madeleine only a tad more vitriolic, what followed was a tour-de-force of emotion, (and choice cursing), that unleashed some memories of Korea.

Well, actually I just wish it was like that. Okay it was nothing at all like that. I just wanted to reference Proust. And use the words "vitriolic" and "tour-de-force". And "swig". I like "swig". It just sounds like a nice word. Doesn't it? Not like "brush" or "trumpet". They sound a bit ominous to me. "Swig" sounds friendly and harmless. So anyway please indulge my trying to get my money's worth for all the studying I did to get my B.A. in Lit. Well, that's not true either. I didn't study that hard. And actually I didn't read Proust. I just heard about him on The Sopranos. Whatever, cool coffee stories coming up. Well not cool in the sense of temperature, but... God I've completely ruined what was a pretty impressive, pretentious, literary intro to this post haven't I?

I remember the first cup of coffee I had in Korea. I was out with my two co-workers at the time, Kim and Karen. It was probably February or March of '97, about 6 months before the I.M.F. crisis would effectively cut foreigner's salaries in half. It was my first weekend in Korea so, of course, we were drinking. The girls were a hoot! Wish I could talk to them now and see what they're up to. They showed me a few of the bars around Yong In where I started my E.S.L./E.F.L. career. They had done their best, (and succeeded), to make me feel welcome. It was closing time and we were walking, not to say staggering, back to the apartments where we all lived. (Separately, mind you.(They didn't want to make me feel THAT welcome!))

It was chilly but not snowy. Somebody suggested a coffee and it sounded good to us all. I thought to myself that it would be a good way to beat the chill while at the same time easing the hangover I would probably have the next morning. Little did I know that since that night was my introduction to not only Korean beer and soju but also ginseng wine, I would DEFINITELY have a hangover.

But it was 2 or 3 AM. The street we were walking down was just a block off the main road through the part of Yong In we lived in but it could have been any of the residential streets around. Nothing but parked cars, telephone poles, discarded garbage/furniture and soft, yellow street lighting. There and then coffee seemed like a long shot. But I was ready for anything in the new country I was in. At least I thought I was.

We came upon an outdoor coffee vending machine. I think it was probably 100 or 150 won for a little paper cup of coffee. Seemed reasonable to me. That worked out to less than a quarter at the time. The cup was also less than a quarter full so jokingly I complained and asked for my money back. Then I tried it. I spat it out and poured what remained in the cup onto the street. HARSH!

It's one of many acquired tastes in Korea and much like kimchi, soju, bean paste, rice cakes, moo, colbangi, tofu, (but not yet ginseng wine), I have learned to consume and even enjoy the mud puddle, vending machine coffee from time to time.

I think possibly the first time I actually enjoyed the coffee was later that year in September or October. I had spent the entire night before in Seoul, (about 45 minutes by bus from Yong In), drinking, dancing and playing darts with friends. All I had left in my pocket was enough to buy a ticket on the first bus back to Yong In at 5 or 6 AM. I got my ticket, got on the bus and promptly crashed out. I woke up as the bus came to a stop... in Incheon.

I still don't know how the mix-up occured. I maintain that I had bought a ticket to Yong In. I'm sure of it. I mean it's gotta be pretty hard for the ticket agent to mistake the words "Yong In" for the word "Incheon". I DO know that the Yong In bus and the Incheon bus parked side by side at the old bus station in Seoul. So I probably got on the wrong bus. And the person who collected my ticket either didn't notice it was for the wrong city, or didn't want to stress herself out trying to explain it to me in English. Either way I had never been to Incheon before so it was all new to me.

In '97 there wasn't much to Incheon. The airport wasn't built yet and in Incheon, as well as the rest of Korea, there was no such thing as a 24-hour bank machine. I tried two bank machines in the terminal to no avail. I had two hours to kill while I waited for the cash machines to open at 9 AM. So to keep from falling asleep in the bus terminal and looking worse than I already felt, I did some reconnaissance. I walked as far as I could without getting lost and scouted out a few bank machines in the area. None were open, but I had to give it a try. I also remember one other curious thing. It was the very first time I had ever seen it: a SEVEN way intersection. There was a Korea Exchange Bank, (my bank), across a few of the seven roads. It was impossible to know which lights to look at to know when to cross but since it was early and there were few cars, I made it to the bank without incident. The doors were locked.

I got back to the bus station, sat on a bench and waited. I had been up for at least 24 hours. It was characteristically humid and I was wearing a five o'clock, (in the morning), shadow and clothes soaked in several hour old sweat that were hanging off me like slime. And if that wasn't bad enough, the hangover was beginning to kick in. Time crawls in a situation like this. But when you're a stranger in a strange city in a strange land time inches, (no - centimeters), along at a glacial pace.

Nine o'clock arrived like an ice age. I got in line for the nearest bank machine but was not encouraged by what I saw. Sure enough, like the people in front of me, I was unable to get any money from the machine. All I got was an incomprehensible message on the slip of paper that usually included my bank balance. I knew I had plenty of money in my account. I thought maybe the machine was out of order so I tried another. Then another and another. Then I left the terminal and tried several of the bank machines I had located during my recci mission. No luck with THEM either. From bank machine to bank machine my heart was pumping harder and harder, I was walking faster and faster, I was sweating more and more and I was about homicidal when I reached the seven-way intersection for the second time. I think my appearance more than my hand signals for traffic to stop made navigating the intersection to get to the KEB on the other side a whole lot easier! Fellow pedestrians on the way to the "chil-go-ri" had been giving me a wide berth and even crossing the street as I approached them.

I reached the doors and again they were locked. But that did not serve as any dissuasion. This was the last bank machine I knew of in Incheon so I pulled the doors and I think I almost got them open on a few of my pulls, which were accompanied with maniacal expletive yelling. I would pay KEB a good chunk of change to see the security films from that day. I doubt I would even recognize myself if I saw them. I was a mess!

Completely defeated, embarrassed, frustrated and at a point where my give-a-shit meter was registering zero, I returned to the bus station and flopped onto the dirty floor since it was now quite busy and there were no available benches. Still homicidal I was reluctant to look up when I saw the feet of someone shuffle up to me. If it had been a person who wanted to practice their English or tell me not to sit on the floor or just about anything else, I think I might be in a Korean prison right now. But I DID look up and saw a 70, 90-year-old man wearing a festive hanbok offering me a quarter of a cup of steaming mud. He said nothing when I thanked him. He just smiled then shuffled away. And that coffee really DID taste good.

If you've spent some time in Korea you may have noticed from the signs, (time of year, hanboks, empty bank machines), that it was Chuseok, the biggest Korean holiday of the year. Since it was my first Chuseok in Korea I didn't know people emptied out bank machines and traveled all over the country to meet with family and give thanks for the year's harvest. But to make a long story a bit longer, I found a helpful girl who spoke some English and she led me to a machine, IN THE BUS TERMINAL that had some money left in it. So I made it home and slept for about two days.

Bank machines and coffee have both improved in Korea since then. I left my hotel without my morning coffee and went to a Dunkin Donuts in the bus terminal this morning. I met a retired Korean guy named Sung Ho, who has lived in the U.S. and speaks perfect English. We had a nice chat and a cup of coffee together. GOOD coffee. He didn't ask me about my pink left leg.

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