Following the events described in my previous Throwback Thursday post I stayed within the borders of Canada for about five years. About a year after graduating from university is when I really started traveling though, and I did so like countless other naive 23-year olds have, by taking on an ESL job in Asia. In March 2004 I was working a menial office job, feeding personnel records through a scanner for seven and a half hours a day and directing most of energy into trying not to drool on myself. I typically drank twenty-five to thirty cups of free coffee a day just to get kind of spazzed out and fucked up and make it bearably interesting. One day over lunch I walked to the ferry terminal next door and saw a sign with little more than the words “Teach English in Korea”. Despite it almost being a cliché, not only now but then as well, I’d never heard of such a thing and it sounded better than scanning so I gave my two week notice that afternoon. Fast forward three months, and after several phone interviews with Korean women I couldn’t really understand, a healthy dose of bureaucracy and lost parcels, a whirlwind 1200 kilometer hitchhiking trip to the Korean consulate in Montréal (and getting drunker than two barrels of shit in the process), I found myself leaving Halifax International Airport at about five in the morning, ultimate destination Gunsan. The first two legs of the trip – first to Toronto and then to Vancouver – were fairly uninteresting. The only thing that stands out was how disconnected my body clock was from those of the people around me. Having woken up at two in the morning in Nova Scotia, by the time breakfast was served somewhere above Manitoba I was ready for a few smashes of Jack Daniels. Flying over the Pacific was a bit more memorable, not least because it was my first time leaving North America. Prior to that flight I also hadn’t realized that cross-Pacific flights don’t actually fly over the Pacific, but rather up and over the Arctic. The plane followed the inlet- and island-filled coasts of British Columbia and Alaska until cloud cover took over. The last thing I remember before falling asleep was looking out the window to see clouds below the plane, clouds above the plane, with the red sun the only thing visible in between. Upon waking I started to worry a bit about this Korea place. First, I should mention that nearly every seat on this plane was filled with Koreans. That’s relevant because the in-flight movie in progress was a Mr. Bean episode where the eponymous character got a turkey stuck on his head, and yet most of the passengers had their arms crossed and wore stern expressions, with the only audible laughter coming from myself and one of the flight attendants. I know it was a long flight but come on, a turkey? On someone’s head? That shit’s hilarious.
After sliding through customs I was expecting to meet my “agent”, a woman named CJ who’d acted as an intermediate between myself and the school in Gunsan. She was nowhere to be found, but fortunately there were several helpful Koreans who must’ve been able to tell I was confused, all of whom were willing to lend me their phones. No dice on getting through to anyone though. After an hour of roaming around the airport and wondering if I got the right Korea, a woman identifying herself as CJ approached me and told me to follow her. My relief was short-lived as she just pointed me toward a bus and gave the driver a few bills. She assured me that he would tell me where to get off, and that there was no need for her to come along. I asked her if the bus would drop me off in Gunsan; no, she responded, but it will be in a city about forty-five minutes from Gunsan, and that someone from the school should be there to pick me up. I didn’t have a lot of options at this point, so I jumped on the bus. Despite a significant dose of adrenaline flowing through my veins – not to mention countless numbers of things I’d never seen before, like rice paddies – I couldn’t stay awake. I woke up with someone poking me and the bus driver telling me to get off. I now know that the city I was in was called Jeonju, but at the time I had no idea where I was. I wasn’t standing at a bus terminal with signs and helpful guides, but on a sidewalk of a busy street with nothing in English and no other buses to be found. Deciding to prioritize, I managed to find two things I desperately needed in the same place, a payphone and a coffee shop. I ordered a coffee and handed over a small bill, assuming that I’d get some change back. I then tried to ask for change, but the concept of change is rather difficult to mime. (I reckon I could pull it off now but keep in mind this was during my rookie season.) Not only did I not receive change, but apparently I annoyed someone with my futile hand gestures and flailing of limbs to the point of calling the police on me. The next thing I knew, I was being escorted out of the shop and into the back of their car. Ah, fuck. On the positive side, I did get a pretty decent coffee. I sat on a bench in the back of a police station for a while and was forced to hand over my passport. None of the police had any idea what I was trying to tell them – I handed them phone numbers for both CJ and the school, but with no response from either I wasn’t any better off. Some weird, rough-looking dude who was also being detained did seem to know a few words of English and tried to act as an interpreter. I obviously have no idea what he told them, but they put me back in a police car and dropped me off at a hotel without a word. I definitely hadn’t said anything about a hotel to anyone (I only had a few hundred bucks to my name) but the sun had set and I had no idea where I was or where I was going so a hotel wasn’t the worst idea, either. Having spent a good chunk of time in Korea I now realize that both the folks at the coffee shop and the police were just looking out for me, but being as naive as I was at that time I really had no idea what to expect when the cops showed up. I didn’t really know that Korea’s one of the safest countries in the world and that the police are awesome… (They’re so awesome they’ve picked me up hitchhiking even though it’s illegal and just asked me not to do it again…) This was before “Locked Up Abroad” was on the air, but I’d heard similar stories about “Asia” – pretty much one big indistinguishable blob to me at that time – and didn’t know whether I was going to have to bribe someone to get out of that kind of situation or what. After giving the hotel clerk some money for a room – I’m pretty sure he fleeced me – I found my room and jumped in the shower. It was exactly what I needed, even more than the coffee. I locked up the room and hit the town! I roamed aimlessly, stared in amazement at squid-flavoured potato chips in a 7/11, tried to say hello to a few Korean girls and was giggled at, and eventually found the train station, which had maps of the city and the surrounding cities. An odd-looking fellow approached me while I was studying the maps and tried speaking to me. He couldn’t really speak English, but I was trying to be polite even though he kept asking me my name, which I thought was weird. He eventually got out his mobile phone and called someone, then handed the phone to me. “Um…. hello?”, I asked. “Hi, is this James?” was the response. Long dialogue short, it turned out the person on the phone was the director of the school that had hired me, and the strange guy was the bus driver, sent there to pick me up. Luckily the train station was only about a block from where the first bus had dropped me off, and he took a guess as to where I’d be. He came with me to the hotel and convinced the clerk to refund me for the room; I’m sure I got back less than he charged me, but when I he rebuffed my first attempt to demand more money I said screw it, having the cops called on me twice in a few hours would be a really shitty first day abroad. We went to the school bus, which was understandably painted in a very childish colour scheme. It was a school bus. What I couldn’t understand was that this man in his late thirties was driving around in the bus by himself at night, listening to a fifteen minute-long tape of Christian children’s music on repeat. (I later discovered this wasn’t for my “benefit” – it’s just what this dude did. Weird.) The hour-ish-long drive between Jeonju and Gunsan definitely freaked me out more than anything else that happened, and remains one of the creepier rides I can remember. It was clear sailing from there, though. I got dropped off at the school where I met the rest of the staff then got a lift to my apartment and started teaching the next morning. Since I took virtually no pictures of myself the entire year I was in Korea, the best I can do is the one below – me being an idiot at the War Museum in Seoul about eight months later.