I’d been in Korea for about seven months when I had my first real chance to hit the road for any period of time. I’d jumped buses up to Seoul and a few other places several times but with the full week off in February I intended to go right off the handle and I figured a great way to do that is to find a port city and get rip roaring blackout can’t walk might’ve pissed my pants drunk. Keep in mind I also had to compensate for my first week off, which was less than a month after I started work and with only a couple hundred bucks in my pocket I resigned myself to reading on my apartment’s rooftop and becoming a master of distinguishing the type, direction and count of F-16s, T-38s, F-117s and other birds flying in and out of Kunsan AFB by the sounds of their engines.
Perspectives change over time but through my eyes in ’05 the Russian district of Busan seemed like a the sort of sketchy place where a person could get blazing drunk and have Interesting Things happen around them and perhaps (hopefully?) even to them. Keep in mind this was before I’d really been anywhere other than Eastern Canada and Korea though, so maybe it’s not that bad at all and I was being a little milquetoast. I strongly suspect my opinion, or at least the degree of it, would be very different now… One of the first things I saw after finding a dodgy shithole yeogwan to throw down my gear was a begger with a vicious bloody hole in his head – like an actual gaping abscess that must have meant his brain was exposed, with little more than a bit of filthy rag half-covering the missing chunk of skull. Barf. Adding to the sketchuation was the presence of four or five trenchcoated Slavs at each intersection leading in and out of Little CCCP, speaking in hushed tones and keeping eyes on those coming and going. Again, my ’05 perspectives probably played a big role here as I’d had little exposure to the Russkies outside of 1980’s Hollywood propaganda, so subconsciously and perhaps even consciously I associated their language with ne’er-do-welling and unwholesome training techniques for boxing.
I scampered in and around the few blocks demarcated from the rest of the city by the prominent use of Cyrillic signage advertising international phone cards and the trenchcoat squads manning the borders, grabbing a beer here, a beer there, digging the hectic Saturday night vibe and looking forward to jumping on a boat in the morning, feeling more and more inclined to get on one to Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East. Busan’s a busy port and at the time there was regular passenger service to a couple Japanese ports, a run to Vladivostok, another to Taiwan and even – thanks to the Sunshine Policy – one to the east coast of Ronery North Korea, where tourists could climb Mt. Keumgang, watch the single North Korean TV channel in their hotel rooms and possibly get shot. In retrospect that might’ve been the best idea because it was only open to visitors from the South for a couple of years before Kim the Second threw a tantrum and sealed it off, which is how it stands nearly a decade on.
Gratuitous Canadian Heritage Moment: Following the first world war a Canadian contingent took part in the anti-communist Siberian Intervention, a failed attempt to support the White Russians and put the run to the Bolshies. The Canadians’ main role was to police Vladivostok.
By and by I found myself sauntered up to the bar cocktail in hand in a dimly-lit place called the Havana, and almost immediately I had a gorgeous and mysterious Asiatic lady sitting next to me. Prostitute was my immediate assumption but I was wrong, more of a “bar girl” – a phenomenon certainly not unique to Busan but unusual for my sleepy home of Gunsan, not something I was really acquainted with, where the lady works for the bar and provides company in exchange for my purchasing her double-price drinks that contained virtually zero alcohol. Cashed up, on the prowl and looking for trouble I didn’t object to that arrangement, and it didn’t hurt that she was an absolute bombshell so I felt like I was getting my money’s worth. Her name eludes me and was likely fake anyway but she claimed to be thirty-three years old, ethnic Japanese, slim but curvy, about 5’10” and had grown up on Sakhalin in what was then the Soviet Union, resulting in her speaking about six languages including English, and she spoke it with a very strong Russian accent. The warmth of what had quickly become a significant volume of whiskey, the exotic nature of being surrounded by shaved-head, leather jacketed Uzbek-Russian toughs drunkenly arguing among themselves and the Solid 10 purring in my ear with that accent gave me the feeling I’d been parachuted into a Cold War era John Le Carre novel and I absolutely loved it.
With a very decent buzz on we left our seats at the bar and headed to a table near the corner at my companion’s insistence. I hadn’t noticed a few dangerous-looking guys walking in but she did and warned me that if they were in a bad mood and heard me speaking English there could be trouble. At this point I still wasn’t sure whether she was a hooker but she hadn’t put any offers on the table and we were getting pretty close so I started putting the moves on her and (I have to admit, to my surprise) she was receptive. After a bit of friskiness I suggested we split but no dice, she had to work until the bar closed. Of course the bar could be open until five or six a.m. and at the rate I was putting back whiskey there was zero chance I’d make it, nor was I sure I’d want to be hanging about that late when the Uzbeks were liquored right to the gills, not to mention my intention of getting a boat at some point. In lieu of tail she asked when I’d be back in Busan, slipped me her number, and although we continued to have a bit of fun I upped the drink frequency out of frustration.
Pounding those drinks was the last thing I clearly remember until some time mid-day Sunday, when I awoke in the belly of a boat feeling like ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag. Wiping the drool off my face and my ad hoc backpack-pillow I rapidly assessed the situation and realized I didn’t have a clue where I was, but the ship was clearly a passenger line and virtually all of the other passengers had already disembarked. I looked out a window to see a city that might have been Busan, I couldn’t really tell, hadn’t seen it during the day, until I noticed some signage that was multilingual but hiragana and katakana were far more front and center than what I’d expect in a Korean port, even an eastern-facing one. Hmm. My verdict was that I’d gotten raging drunk in Korea, somehow stumbled onto a boat and woken up on the opposite side of the Strait of Tsushima. So much for Vladivostok. Nice work MacKay.
Trying not to vomit into my mouth I slowly dragged myself toward customs. I was lagging so badly that most passengers were on the other side by the time I rocked up but I had the privilege of my own line for speakers of neither Korean nor Japanese. The eyes, forehead and wispy white hair of a Japanese septuagenarian gave me the ocular patdown that a drunk gaijin scumbag washed ashore deserves and his face conveyed the appropriate level of skepticism. It likely didn’t improve my situation when I rested my right hand on the surface between us… That is, my right hand with banged up knuckles from a dust-up I’d gotten myself into the previous weekend (but that’s another story).
Old Dude: “Where are you going?”
Me: “I don’t know.” (I clearly learned nothing in Calais.)
Old Dude: “Where are you staying tonight?”
Me: “I don’t know.”
Old Dude: “Do you have a return ticket?”
Me: (After digging through cargo pants) “Umm…. I do, look at that! (Surprise)
Old Dude: (In the most stereotypical Japanese voice you can imagine) “I will let you in, but… NEVER do this again!”
Me: (Bowing my head in shame)
Old Dude: YOU DISHONOUR YOUR FAMIRY!
(Neither of those last two things happened.) Despite being amazed by my blacked-out foresight in buying a return ticket, I was not surprised to find my wallet sans yen. It was almost empty of all currency, but I did have a stack of travelers’ cheques in my bag, something I’d never used before and never have since because of the way things eventually played out with them. I changed over the few Korean Won I had, giving me enough to buy a couple bottles of water that I chugged almost immediately, and walked out the front door of the passenger terminal and into what I had learned a few minutes earlier was the port city of Fukuoka. I had a week and a grand to burn.