I woke up on Saturday bleary-eyed after spending the evening with Sugar, Immortal, and The Bard at a self-serve bar. Beer and soju flowed like a mighty river. As a result, I self-served myself a mighty hangover.
“Mokpo KTX,” echoed in my mind as I slogged through my morning routine – drink water, Duolingo, GRE Question of the Day, drink coffee, Tinycards, Coursera Korean Lessons, drink more coffee, English Vocabulary flashcards, meditate (tough to do after all that coffee), shower.
I double-checked my packing and departed for the train station. I started at the Namak High School bus stop. The Mokpo Bus app informed me that the next bus was 25 minutes away.
“This will not do,” Anxiety-Brain reminded me. “You’re not going to make it.” The hangover dulled his normally harsh tone.
I hate to agree with him, but he was right. I turned up Namak 5-ro and searched for a taxi. Luck was not on my side. There were no taxis. Therefore, I pivoted my plan and found a new bus stop. A different bus from a different line was three minutes away.
“The game is afoot,” I thought. “Let’s do this.”
“Good for you,” Anxiety-Brain replied condescendingly.
I boarded the bus and waited to transfer at a stop ten kilometers away (as foretold by Madame Kakao Maps). At that transfer station, I glanced at the bus screen. My next bus was 20 minutes away.
“Oh great and mystical navigator,” I supplicated, “where to next?”
“A bus arrives in ten minutes at a stop two blocks away. So it is spoken, so it shall be done.” (I wish my phone actually said this. That was complete confabulation.)
Obeying the sagacious app, I walked those two blocks while clutching my duffel bag across my chest like a sexy body pillow. I boarded that second bus, exited ten minutes later, and exhaled with relief. I arrived at the KTX station 25 minutes in advance of my train. With time to spare, I dipped into the on-site convenience store to buy water.
Then I caught sight of a friend.
“What’s good, Big Man!”
I purchased my water, exited the store, and found Big Man and Flat Cap waiting for the same train as me. We shared our common Chuseok excitement as well as our travel plans.
“I’m going to Seoul,” I said. I wasn’t being curt. At this point, that was the full extent of my itinerary.
Big Man is a candid Canadian doing his second tour with JLP. He is a certified extrovert with a boundless social net. His ebullient personality is initially off-putting until you recognize its genuineness – then it is endearing. He previously taught high school for one year on Wando Island. After a one-year Canadian hiatus, he returned to Mokpo to teach elementary.
Big Man’s plans involved Hong Kong, Macau, and his girlfriend. He said she planned it and he wrote the checks. I smiled at this efficient division of labor.
Flat Cap is a JLP rookie like me (but not a stranger of Seoul). Hailing from England, his lovely accent, disarming smile, and even lovelier go-with-the-flow attitude was very soothing during the initial uncertain bus ride from Incheon to Gwangju. His soft-spoken and polite demeanor put my nerves at ease during my second day in Korea.
Today, I learned he would sit only a few seats from me (by pure coincidence). He planned to explore Seoul, stay at a local hostel, and then shoot out to Busan to meet a teacher from his school.
My travel companions (The King, Nightmare, and Potato) were still MIA. All of them were flirting dangerously close with the departure time.
“You know,” I joked to Flat Cap, “if they don’t make it you can crash at our apartment. We have plenty of beds.”
We boarded the train. My fellow misfit companions boarded shortly thereafter. I informed Flat Cap that my offer of complimentary lodging was now off the table. Potato and I sat in two side-by-side seats while The King and Nightmare occupied the other two opposite the aisle.
A three-hour train ride lay ahead. For what is essentially a cross-country trip, I was pleasantly surprised by the speed (I also momentarily forgot that the U.S. geographically dwarfs Korea. Don’t drink too much, kids. It kills brain cells.)
Potato’s presence predicted the playing of cards. This much I knew. For the first 30 minutes, the train was very vacant. We relocated to some unclaimed table seats. Flat Cap showed us a new card game – “Love Letter.” It was a fascinating game of logic and deception.
“Ahhhh!” we angelically sang whenever we played the handmaiden (if you have no idea what I am talking about, Google “love letter card game.” You won’t be disappointed. It’s a riot).
Once we reached Gwangju, a horde of travelers boarded the train. We had the foresight to return to our seats before starting an international incident. A family of Koreans promptly (and rightfully) claimed the table seats.
Back in our assigned seats, travel was smooth. Potato and I were wide awake and down to play games (and play games we did). The King and Nightmare preferred to watch videos on their phones and nap. As a result, the KTX trip was a breeze.
Potato reintroduced me to Crazy 8’s and Gin Rummy. She whooped me at Crazy 8’s. Gin Rummy was a bit more competitive (though I still lost. I am no match for the Countess of Cards).
We then moved on to the “Five Questions” game. I learned this game back home through improv lessons (shout out to Sacramento Comedy Spot). In this game, one is asked to list five things of a particular topic or category as fast as they can (no thinking allowed).
“Five ways you would kill somebody,” Potato proposed.
“Strangling,” I said, shocked by my own answer. “Sniper rifle to the head, poison their glass of wine, push them in front of an oncoming train, and…release a poisonous snake into their bedroom.”
Some questions were dark. Others were hilarious. Regardless, they passed time. Before we knew it, our train pulled into Seoul Station.
After several bathroom trips, one subway transfer, and a whole lot of walking, we bade farewell to Flat Cap made it to our apartment – José’s apartment – in Dongdaemun.
“Is José the English (Spanish) name of a Korean guy or a Spanish guy who lives in Korea?” I asked.
The King had no idea. We never met him. The unsolved mystery haunts me to this day.
“Remember,” reminded The King, “if anyone asks, José and I are friends.”
Airbnb occupies a legal gray area. I vaguely remember this being true in America, but the same is true in Seoul. Therefore, I couldn’t help but make fun.
“Yeah…José and The King go way back. They were war buddies. They’ve seen some things man…and some stuff. They wouldn’t recommend it.”
They must have been friends in a past life because we received great accommodations for a reasonable price. I had a bed (in a low-lying loft) along with a kitchen and a generously sized bathroom for around 25,000 won per night. I couldn’t complain.
After dropping our luggage, we left to see a fireworks festival in Yeouido Park. We hopped a subway, transferred, and emerged to a mass exodus of people.
“Damn,” I thought. “We missed it.”
It was no matter. We wandered amongst the masses, found a convenience store, purchased some snacks and soju, and plopped down in a dark park to drink and chat. These are the moments I live for. These are the moments I am grateful to have friends. Shooting the shit and sharing about one another is the cheapest and most satisfying activity I can think of.
After a leisurely rail ride and a fashionably-late non-firework show capped by joyful jollity, we were ready to explore Seoul – ready to commence our weeklong Chuseok adventure.
Friday night me loves the self-serve bar. I love it so much I can stare at a refrigerator like it’s Aurora Borealis. Saturday morning me realizes I lack the self-control to enjoy self-serve bars responsibly.
This is a reenactment of was me sitting in the principal’s office waiting for my just desserts.
Ancient doodles and calligraphy are beautiful. I’m jealous. All I can do is sign my name so sloppily that it barely resembles English.
Forget Christmas. Giving locks to loved ones beneath the “Shiny Love” tree sounds like a beautiful (and slightly less commercial) holiday. Masterlock – you should market this.