Disclaimer: All people and places listed in the text of this document are real. All events actually took place as described herein. Any resemblance to fictitious people, places, or things, is purely coincidental, and should they cause the reader or the reader's friends and relatives to bear grievances against the author, the author will politely bow his head in apology and spit on their toes.
- Scot Ranney.
In South Korea there is a special spring holiday when only the necessary part of the country's workforce (those jobs that create or further conditions that allow the country to survive as a whole) is allowed to go to work. It seems that in South Korea, entertainment is not one of those things deemed necessary for the survival of the country. So, for one brief moment in time, the band had two nights off in a row, which resulted in nearly three full days of freedom. Just like everyone else in South Korea, and most of Southeast Asia, our workweek consisted of six days. In our case, the band worked six nights every week, so two nights off in a row was a rare and welcome treat.
A few nights before, while Andy was putting his upright bass away for the evening, he casually remarked, "Let's take a road trip." And just like that it was settled. Andrew and Scott and myself would partake of this adventure together. Andy is a bassist from Seattle who I found one day while he was warming up for a rehearsal at the University of Washington. I asked him to play something, heard some good notes, and a few months later he was on his way to Seoul as part of the band. Scott, a mutual friend of Andy's and myself, lived in Seoul because his father had a position with the American military forces in South Korea. He attended an American high school on Yongsan army base in the day, and frequented the various nightclubs during the evenings. We decided to arrange for a rental car to be ready on Saturday so we could begin our journey as soon as the band finished playing sometime around one in the morning.
Andy and Scott picked the car up the afternoon before we left and brought it to our apartment. I gazed lovingly at our new vehicle. A four door Hyundai sedan with a back seat large enough to stretch out comfortably in, providing you were no longer than four feet. It sheened silver-gray and reflected the crisp sunlight of early spring. Spring is about the best time to be in South Korea because it's not winter or summer. Winters are harsh, cold and windy, and summers are what prompted Dante to write about his Inferno, except not even Dante knew about the humidity.
The car seemed to smile innocently at us, welcoming us to use it as we saw fit. Inside and out, the Hyundai was spotless. Even the engine compartment had been cleaned. The odometer had about 4000 kilometers on it, and almost immediately I felt sorry for the little sedan. Two musicians and an insane eighteen-year-old were going to be living in this vehicle for three days and nights.
We packed the very most essential items into the car. Sleeping bags, beer, and our sunglasses.
That night the gig lasted longer than usual, or at least it seemed like it, and the vocalist would often snicker because she knew what sort of control Andy and myself were displaying due to the anticipation of the trip. Now a few words about pop/jazz vocalists are in order. Unfortunately, the vocalist is a necessary evil for these kinds of gigs. Oh, to have a vocalist in the tradition of Ella or Sarah or Billy that would be heaven on stage. Unfortunately, with the amount of money the band is usually paid, I can't afford to hire a vocalist with experience or talent. So I take the money and find a vocalist with looks, because in the harsh reality of business, it doesn't really matter if she can sing or not because that's not what she is there for. As sick and demented as it is, the vocalist stands on stage to draw in the sex starved male patrons. Andy once remarked we could all make a little more money if we sent the vocalist back home and taped a pair of breasts onto a microphone stand and put it in the middle of the stage.
The nightclub we played at is called J.J. Mahoney's, and it's located in the lower level of the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Nightclubs in hotels are the places to go in Southeast Asia for evening adventure. Local clubs are sometimes fun, but mainly for locals who can't afford the great nightclubs, which are always located in hotels. J.J. Mahoney's even has its own parking lot and entrance so the patrons hardly even know they are in a hotel, yet at the same time guests can take the elevators down and enter from the other direction.
The club itself is patterned after the dark woody styles found in Irish pubs. There is a lot of polished wood, shiny brass, dim lighting, and quite a few dark corners. The club consists of two main areas separated by an entryway, which is sometimes the scene of spectacular fights between hostile and usually rather inebriated patrons. The disco is the larger of the two areas, and is broken up into several sections with walls and glass to separate them. Among several areas devoted to dining, there is a dance floor, pool table, darts, a square shaped bar with six to eight bartenders in the middle of it, and several wooden pillars that the local prostitutes lean against to advertise their availability.
The other section of the club is smaller and caters to the more introspective, or to people who want to have a nice dinner and watch a band playing live music, or even to women who are interested in musicians and wonder if the old saying about artists is true. The dark walls of this room are covered with hundreds of framed black and white photos of old entertainment stars, from musicians to actors to vaudeville shows. The bar is an arc, and the bartenders stand between the bar and the stage. From the stage, the band could see nearly every part of the room, so when Andy gave me the code by saying, "Scot, we should have lunch at 10 o'clock." it was easy to see Ji Yun walk through the entrance to the club.
Ji Yun was a wonderful young woman from a sea town called Sosu, just a couple hours south west of Seoul. Of course I had neglected to mention anything about the road trip to her, and she had showed up expecting to spend some time with her mi gook namja chingu, her American boyfriend. As luck would have it, I knew that her best friend Jen, a Californianized Korean girl, happened to be playing pool with her boyfriend in disco section of the club.
So as I often did when people showed up unexpectedly, I diverted them to someone else. I told Ji Yun that Jen would probably love to see her, and as expected, Ji Yun went straight into the pool area of the disco to chat with Jen. Andy and myself used the opportunity to take the emergency exit.
The emergency exit consisted of a shortcut through the kitchen to an outside door that opened to a high narrow ledge on the side of the hotel. The view from the ledge showed the flickering lights of the Kangnam district reflecting off the Han-Gang (the Han River) a few kilometers away. As it moves sluggishly east to west, the Han-Gang separates Seoul, a city of more than twelve million people living scrunched together in harmony. If there is another war, everyone on the north side of the river is supposed to evacuate to the south side before the armed forces blow the bridges up to slow the invaders. People stuck on the north side have a life expectancy in the minutes in the event of an invasion from North Korea. We savored the view for a moment, as we always did when on the emergency escape ledge, and then carefully followed (it was always best not to take the shortcut when juiced) it to the back stairway, bringing us to the main entrance of the hotel.
We found Ji Yun waiting at the entrance. She had a way of standing, a way of holding her mouth closed, and a way of looking at me slightly from the side, that let me know immediately how much trouble I was in. She angrily explained that Jen had told her about the road trip. She also wanted to know why I didn't say anything, and that she wasn't going to leave until I explained myself.
I had known Ji Yun for a few months at that time, which in Seoul meant that we were almost married, so I knew her fairly well. She also knew me fairly well, and with all this familiarity she didn't mess around when she wanted something. This was something I liked about her. It took a few minutes of explaining in Korean and English that road trips were a guy thing, as well as an American sacred ritual not to be hindered by something as insignificant as mere explanations. Then I told her we would be happy to bring her to one of her friends' houses on our way out of town, and when I returned to Seoul we could do whatever she wanted. She bought it and we all happily made our way to the apartment to meet Scott and the Hyundai.
The problematic difficulties experienced when attempting to speak a mixture of Korean and English to someone who spoke no English were sometimes insurmountable. Trying to figure out where Ji Yun wanted us to take her took an effort worth writing about, but not here. Eventually, after a multitude of oden-choks and when-choks, right turns and left turns, we made it. I said good-bye to Ji Yun, and as I drove back the way we came, we immediately become lost in the tangled maze of roads that made Seoul up.
At one forty five in the morning we wanted to be on the highway, making our way to Kangnung, a beach on the East Coast of South Korea. Instead, we were driving around in circles in the city of Seoul and it's confused suburbs that haven't changed in five hundred years, searching for a highway that would allow us to escape. We drove out of the city, back in, out, gave up on several likely possibilities, and finally found the expressway two hours later. It was apparent we were at the expressway because tollgates soon appeared in front of us.
When we reached the tollgates we couldn't find Kangnung on the placard of cities that could be reached by driving on this road. According to the map, this particular expressway would take us to the East Coast, and to Kangnung, but it looked like we had to pay for some interim city along the way. Well, our map wasn't quite that good, so we had no idea which city to tell the man behind the window. Each city had a different price. So in deference to the known stupidity of the white man in Korea, I shrugged my shoulders and weakly pronounced the cheapest name on the list. We would learn how to deal with tollbooths as the trip went on. Then we were on our way.
Our road trip in South Korea had started. A peninsula roughly two hundred and fifty miles long by about one hundred and fifty miles wide, South Korea is not a large country. The East Coast is smooth and full of beaches, while the South and West coasts are made up of bays and harbors and fjords. There are cities and towns spread evenly throughout the country, and the highway systems of the country are very well kept due to the fact that in case of war, one of the most important features of the winner usually is the ability to quickly transport equipment and supplies. This perpetual near state of war with North Korea is also a cause of major traffic difficulties. Though a cloverleaf system of exits and entrances to expressways and such is an intelligent way of keeping the traffic flow brisk, one explosive can destroy a cloverleaf and paralyze a section of roadway. South Korea doesn't put cloverleaf systems in their highways thereby creating the most mired traffic snarls to exist anywhere in the world.
In other respects, driving in Korea can be quite an experience. Sometimes it's like a video game where you only have one life. In Seoul and other cities the excitement of driving can only be compared to running around a busy freeway with a blindfold on. I revel in such experiences, probably because they haven't killed me, though I haven't tried the freeway blindfold thing yet.
The sight of cars showing the wounds and scars of battle are everywhere. The only cars without dents and dings in Seoul are Mercedes driven by chauffeurs hauling very important people around. It's not because the chauffeurs drive any better than the average guy on the road that they are without noticeable car damage, rather, it's only because they can afford to have every last bump and ding repaired almost as it happens.
As our trip began it soon became all too obvious that this night was not an ordinary night. Two kilometers out of the city we found the expressway to be full of cars that weren't noticeably moving, and it was past three in the morning. The shoulders of the freeway were also blocked. Koreans who must have thought they were tired had stopped their cars on both the right and left shoulders and fell asleep in them. This bothered us because it meant we couldn't use the shoulders to escape the traffic. In an hour we had traveled one kilometer, and in another hour, another kilometer.
Morning twilight slowly began revealing the grisly scene around us in greater detail, and though we hadn't traveled much at all, we smiled because all the people sleeping on the shoulders began waking up and driving. As soon as the possibility arose, we turned off the highway and began driving on the shoulder for as long as we could, passing angry Koreans by the dozens until we'd come across a car that hadn't gotten off the shoulder yet.
Reentering traffic also had its exciting points. Eye contact seemed to be forbidden, so, the method of moving into traffic consisted of moving as close to the other cars as possible, and whoever was an inch ahead finally won the battle of the spot. Sometimes we would break the golden rule of no eye contact by rolling down our windows and waving and yelling at the people next to us trying to get their attention so we could ask them if they would let us in. The people seemed frightened enough by our antics that normally we were successful. One time a fruit truck driver laughed at us, his gold and black teeth flashing malevolently in the early morning sun while his six inch long mole hairs drifted carelessly in the breeze, and blocked us in for a much longer time than was necessary. When we finally passed him we yelled Korean obscenities that seemed to anger him, so we decided it was good.
Our map showed that in another couple kilometers we'd find an exit that would take us to a two-lane side road traveling in roughly the same direction. We could follow that road through the mountains to the ocean. We wouldn't make it to Kangnung, but instead we'd arrive at the coast at a town called Pukp'yong-ni, thirty kilometers south of Kangnung. Our path was clear, the decision had been made, and our excitement level rose. Not only were we three white boys in Korea on a road trip, we were going to travel on the back roads, dodging chickens and goats and crazy fruit truck drivers.
We pulled off the freeway and stopped at the exit-toll gate. I smiled and spoke fluent English to the man attending the gate and gave him the slip of paper the first toll gate supplied me. He complained about something, and it sounded like money, and I bantered with him in English again, complete with smiles and knowing winks. He finally waved us on with a look of disgust. We made it through all the various tollgates in this manner and paid about five dollars total for something that should have been about sixty.
The mountains of South Korea are sharp and young, formed by the action of earthquakes, volcanics, and erosion. Beautifully sculpted by nature, they were sacred pinnacles in ancient times when Buddhists roamed the land, traveled into forests, and climbed high on mountains in search of enlightenment. These mountains are still beautiful today, though trails have been carved, blasted, and cemented into every one of them. Sorak-San, Mt. Sorak, is one of the most amazing mountain conglomerations I've been lucky enough to come across. Four or five spikes made of granite poke out of the hills like the fingers of a giant stone hand. The perpetual mist that curls about the top is magical, and sometimes dragons and other mystical creatures with secret knowing eyes fly about its jagged peaks battling with ancient Chinese gods. Well, I never really saw the place, but I've seen pictures, and I even have a calendar.
I drove for many kilometers past vast rice fields on terraces cut out of low hills before we started climbing the mountains. We saw family grave sites on the peaks of hills marked by stone cylinders and mounds, old style huts with thatch roofs and mud walls, people stooping in the paddies with no boots and huge straw hats, and many other sights National Geographic would have been proud to take pictures of. After a while, the signs of civilization began disappearing as we traveled further into the mountains. With some surprise, we found the mountain roads to be fairly well built. They were wide, swept, and full of banking curves, and of course for the most part, uphill. The poor little Hyundai whined in displeasure
A funny thing happened on the way to the pass. As we all knew from the battles in the streets between taxis, buses, and cars, the yellow and white lines painted on the roads of South Korea are nothing more than designs to make them look better. Unless my idea of what these lines are for is completely wrong, I had always assumed that as a driver, one of my main functions included keeping my car inside two of those lines, preferably somewhere on the right hand side of the road in most countries. After contemplation, it seemed logical to assume that the possibility exists that in South Korea, the proper car position in relation to the road lines is right down the middle. This seemed utterly plausible as trucks hauling fruit, fish and other commerce from the east coast roared down the mountain roads heedless of nothing but taking the corners as close to the inside edge of the road as possible. If this meant running us off the road, so be it.
During this time of anticipating death in the mountains of a country far away from our own, we perfected the famed, "apricot throw from the passenger window into the oncoming traffic tactic". That and the most creative ways of flipping those truck drivers exaggerated birdies.
Eventually we made it to the pass and the mountains were nearly close enough to touch. Giant knives and spikes of granite towered haphazardly and surrounded us like mythological guardians.
Driving down the other side gave me pleasure. Not the sort of pleasure one might derive from a comedy movie, finding another girl that for a few days seems like the most special thing in the world, or even having a good piece of red licorice. No, this pleasure is the feeling of going fast and laughing in the face of the basic truth that death awaits even the smallest of mistakes.
The little tires holding our little car to the road left little black marks and made noises as I sped around corners. The Hyundai, a gutless wonder uphill, had the acceleration of a racing car going down. I laughed, a high pitched frightening laugh that often causes mothers to pull their children into the house and then close the shutters. I laughed again when Andy and Scott began complaining of what can only be described as, "butt rash". Due to the high forces involved in my cornering, Andy and Scott would slide back and forth on the vinyl Hyundai seats as I raced down the mountain road. The basic truth reared its immortal head for a moment as I slightly lost traction around one rather tight corner. Luckily we didn't start spinning around. I guess Driver's Ed wasn't such a bad idea, after all.
We came out of the mountains around ten in the morning and found a rest stop with a view of the ocean. We took pictures here, and frightened some Korean people by laughing insanely in unison while we pointed at the ocean in the distance. One picture in particular I remember. We were very nice to a few girls and explained that being musicians made us OK guys. They finally agreed to take a picture of us with our camera. This picture, with the ocean azure below us in the distant background, the sunshine, our hippie travel clothes, and the grins of freedom on our faces, illustrated the entire feeling of the trip.
After the rest area and the replenishing of our munchie supplies, we followed the road as it continued towards the ocean along the same general path as a rather large but slow moving river. We were tempted to visit a cave along the way, and even drove several kilometers down the gravel road to the parking area. When we found two hundred Koreans standing around waiting for their tour, we decided it wasn't for us. We were also beginning to find the need for sleep at this time.
Finally we arrived at the ocean. A solid mass of gray had covered the sun and the water looked black and foreboding. We stopped and watched for a while as huge waves broke against the same rock structures that they had broken against for all time. The freezing spray of the sea revived us somewhat and we drove south along a highway that was parallel to the ocean. Eventually we found what we were looking for. A place to park the Hyundai and a sandy spot sheltered by a rock formation. We were out of the chill wind and splatter of the ocean, and the area was flat. Perfect for sleeping bags.
We ate food cooked on a butane stove, an item quite popular in South Korea. It's a portable thing just the right size to put a stone BBQ hotplate on. The reason these are so popular is because when you go to someone's house, it's tradition that they provide food for you and anyone with you. Sitting around a table one or two feet high, there might be one or several of these little gas stoves with rock hotplates on top where everyone cooked their own meat and vegetables, leisurely drinking and eating until everyone was happily drunk. Life in South Korea isn't that bad.
After we ate sleep came quickly. Several hours later we awoke, uncomfortable and hot. The gray mass of clouds had burned away in the early afternoon. From the amount of sunburn on the sun side of Scott's face, we surmised that the sun had been out for several hours. One side of Scott's face could have been a training picture for what color a crab should be before eating. His ear looked like a wrinkled red appetizer, and his blistered eyelids had swollen so that they hung low with the weight. Andy fared better, as did I, because we had worn our sunglasses to sleep just in case of such an event occurring, and I had put the cover of the sleeping bag over my face in the off chance that the sun happened to show itself.
Being awake provided us with the opportunity to eat, and allowed Andy and myself a chance to crack some fine jokes about sunburn.
We packed our belongings, now coated with sand sticky from rotting seaweed, and got back into the car. At this point we decided to rotate driving, so I reluctantly gave up my spot behind the wheel. I'm one of those people who needs to be behind the wheel or I start shaking uncontrollably and begin quoting from the Bible in a voice very much unlike my own, except in the rare times the driver is competent, when I quote in my own voice. I can relax when my brother is driving, and Andy is a good driver. Scott is not a good driver. That I'm still alive today I attribute to some good karma I must have stored up from positive actions in my youth.
As we traveled south along the East Coast, we passed through towns, fishing villages, and farming communities. Though South Korea has over forty four million people alive, most of this population is found in the larger cities. Once in the countryside, people are rarely seen and sometimes it is easy to feel as if there weren't any people at all. Sometimes we passed fishing nets that were drying on the road, and other times there were mounds of what looked like sand on the road. We stopped for a moment to look at one of these mounds that would take up three or four feet on each side of the road and last for kilometers. It was rice, drying in the sun. We filled up a little bag with some of the rice and spent the remainder of the first day driving south.
An hour before sundown it seemed like a good idea to search out a beach to camp on. We stopped at many likely possibilities and wandered around looking for the perfect spot. Some places were too close to homes, some were too close to the road, some were too dirty, and some stunk from festering putrid fish guts everywhere. We finally followed a long driveway through a coastal farm area until we came small cleared area with enough room to park the car. At this time we were getting a bit desperate for a beach because the sun had begun dropping below the mountains to the west and darkness would be complete in a very short time.
There were several fields near the area we parked the car in The path to the beach was between an onion field and a cabbage field and was about six inches wide and made of loose soil. We stepped on a few onions, but after a couple of trips, our sleeping bags, beach blankets, and beer, were all out on the sand. We even built a small campfire, which was completely illegal. We could attract North Koreans that way, or so I was told. But there were a couple of other campfires on the beach a few kilometers away in either direction, and they were much bigger than ours.
We were isolated and comfortable, so it was only a matter of time until Scott brought out his little replica Chinese opium pipe and filled it with an aromatic substance from Nepal. I had never smoked hashish before, but I smoked it a few times after. It was lucky we had the hashish, because until we took a few puffs, we had no idea that the strange misty lights in the distance on the ocean were UFO's. We discussed this idea for quite some time.
Seeing UFO's didn't bother us, and due to the physiological effects of the hashish we fell asleep after one more quick debate of whether or not we should be worried about the strange alien lights, that only in some deranged and twisted world could have ever been fishing boats.
We woke in the morning a few hours after sunrise by noises from the farm areas directly behind the slight sand and beach grass embankment that hid the fields from our sight. Tractor noises, people speaking, and work being done. We suddenly had the idea of leaving right away. We packed up and began walking up the embankment to the small trail between the onion field and the cabbage field. A Korean man stepped into view near our car, and in the distinct Korean manner of the upper-middle-class, had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, thumbs in his belt (not in front, but at the sides) and the perfect posture to accentuate his gut and lack of any chest muscles. They practice this stance for occasions when they want to show people that they dont actually do any work but rather tell other people what work to do. He looked at us with sideways glance number six. "I'm seeing three white guys walking out of my fields as if they were here all night long?" Scott answered this unspoken question by picking an onion out of the field and happily asking, "Can I have this?"
We quickly loaded the car, thanked the man for being so kind and not doing anything inhumane to us, and left. We followed the dirt road to the highway in the distance, and turned south. Scott thought it was his turn to drive, so he controlled the Hyundai, but I still controlled the horizontal.
As we drove south along the coastal road, a two-lane highway that went through all the quaint but smelly fishing villages and other small towns along the coast, we noticed a definite lack of white people milling about. We were stared at, we were laughed at, and we were waved to. Being a minority in Asia is common and not even unpleasant, but being a stranger is. Some of the people who gawked at us looked as if we were the first whites they had ever seen.
The road followed the terrain, and around us I could see rolling grass-covered hills with wind blown trees that were reflections of Chinese nature paintings. Sometimes the view of broken down fishing huts and piers would dominate all others. There were also times when we had to wait for old wrinkled ajimas to lead their cows down the middle of the road. We passed a special forces military training center and received about an equal number of happy waves and middle fingers.
Scott often grew impatient with the slow pace the few drivers we encountered happened to be travelling on these back roads, and took up the habit of passing. I've never had a problem with passing cars. If a person were going skiing, sometimes passing a few cars is the difference between a good parking spot and a bad parking spot, the difference between fifty feet to the ticket booth and two hundred feet. Nothing wrong with passing provided one does it in a safe and sane manner, like fireworks.
I've never been one to describe Scott as "safe and sane", and I'm not sure if anyone has ever described him that way. At one point we were tailgating a black jeep close enough to put a "kick me" sticker on it's bumper. The driver of the jeep emphatically used his arm to express his wishes that we slow down. Scott let out a brief expletive and gunned it. In a Hyundai, "gunning" it means stamping down on the accelerator and waiting for the effect to take place. Some time later in the year you'll feel the car speeding up, and this is when we passed that black jeep. It didn't seem to matter to Scott that we were in the middle of a town complete with old women, cows, and fruit trucks. Miraculously there were no fatalities.
About thirty seconds later, the black jeep we had just passed turned on the red and blue lights we had failed to notice, and pulled us over. The two men inside sauntered out like a couple of CHIP's rejects, and one of them tapped on the driver side window. Scott unrolled it and immediately smiled broadly and began explaining the situation in fluent French. At the same time, the police man was trying to explain in broken English that he wanted to see Scott's driving license. When Scott seemed to fail to understand, the policeman tried repeating the word "passport". Andy, while feigning sleep on the back seat, had tried to hide the film canister full of hashish into the stuffing of the driver's seat, but didn't have any luck. I don't know where Andy eventually put the hashish, but later I found out the entire ordeal was quite stressful for him.
In the meantime Scott was speaking French and exasperating the policemen to no end. Finally they spoke to me, and while I had no working knowledge of the French language except for what I've heard Steve Martin make fun of on old comedy records, I forced out a few guttural noises that sounded suspiciously as if I was choking on a baguette. Scott answered me and we had a mock French conversation. Scott beautifully speaking the language of romance, while I choked out throaty phlegm covered noises supposed to masquerade as words. Somehow it worked and nearly sounded like a conversation. Luckily the Korean police that we were quickly making friendly enemies of, knew even less about the French language than I did or they would have known that "license" and "passport" are virtually identical in French and English.
Eventually, after failing to confiscate our driving license (which we didn't have) or our passports (which we weren't admitting we had), they wanted us to go with them. Scott was very anxious not to and started going off in French again. Finally, I got them to see that I was going to drive, and I was going to drive slowly. I made them understand this because I said, "Chun chun hee", smiled and nodded my head while pointing to myself. Speaking a Korean word was a mistake for one of them said in English, "Ah, you speak Korean very well." I covered up the mistake by speaking my version of French again and saying, "Hanguk mahl, chokumheo", which means that I spoke very little Korean. Well, they finally let us go after watching me take the wheel and berating Scott in my painful and rather pitiful rendition of the French language. I drove for the rest of the trip.
Scott is the kind of guy who walks into the club and never has to buy a drink. He makes people think he is their best friend, and always has been their best friend, and always will be their best friend, simply by sitting next to them and shaking their hands. If he wanted, I'm sure he could convince an entire city into thinking the best thing to do would be pay his rent and cook his food. Scott has a rare thing called charisma, and even the more rare gift of knowing exactly how to use it. It's a good thing he doesn't want to be president.
A while after our experience with the local constables, we found an expressway that would take us inland and south. By this time tollgates posed no more problem roasting up a dried cuttlefish for squerky (squid jerky). Our goal was Pusan, the largest city on the south coast. The expressway gave us the opportunity to see how fast the Hyundai could run for extended periods of time on good road conditions. I found we could average around eighty miles per hour, which meant we had to drive in lane number three on the left. I came up with a few truths about driving such a car at high speeds, and came up with them fairly soon.
First, it was important to watch out for the ruts in the roads caused by overloaded fruit trucks. The ruts will give the car "speed wiggles". Speed wiggles are usually associated with certain skateboarding conditions, however, when driving a Hyundai at high speeds in fruit truck ruts, speed wiggles can occur when the car turns one direction, and the driver compensates in the other direction, but somehow the compensation is too much. So, the driver then compensates back in the original direction, and pretty soon a dastardly circle is created where there is just no way to compensate correctly, and the only way to get out of it is to take the foot off the accelerator pedal. The second truth had to do with windows. Evidently, when Hyundai designed our car, they did the wind tunnel experiments with the windows closed. If we left the windows open during these times of excess speed the car would handle extremely poorly and I would often think about the third truth that consisted mainly of being splattered like one of the huge cicadas on our windshield.
There were times that the expressway would enter a long flat valley and turn into a huge road with six or seven lanes on each side. There would be no concrete dividers in between oncoming traffic, just a few orange plastic poles and huge yellow dotted lines around four by twenty feet. At first such things puzzled us. They would last for a mile or two, and then the expressway would return to normal. After a few of these I came up with an answer that satisfied our curiosity. These particular sections of expressway could be made into airstrips in times of stress or if North Korea decided to invade.
Every so often, the expressway would disappear into a city of which we had no map. We had a map of the country, but most of the smaller cities with only one to four million people in them weren't included on the tourist maps we had in our possession. During these times we would "use the force", so to speak, and randomly choose roads in the hope of finding our way out again and back onto the expressway. Strangely enough, we were never trapped for long in one of those convoluted cities. Somehow we would find our way out.
There was a time we had decided that we might as well take up residence in a particular city because escape seemed impossible. As we drove, we followed the largest line of cars in the hopes that they were going somewhere important, and we saw a very interesting looking tower. We decided to head towards it for a closer look. As it happened, the turn for the express way was in the same direction as the tower and we escaped from the city. During another confused episode of city driving, we thought it might be nice to drive next to a little river because once again all hope of finding the expressway had disappeared. Then, all of a sudden, there it was. The deity of luck and traveling must have been watching over us during those times.
We arrived in Pusan in the late afternoon. Pusan is the second largest city, or thereabouts, in South Korea. Pusan contains a huge American military base, beaches, office buildings, and of course cows being led through the streets around fruit trucks which drove slowly through the streets of the city while the drivers recited the items for sale through a megaphone. Luckily our map contained a small inset of Pusan, so we were able to make our way through the city's convoluted streets to the main tourist beach.
There were a couple factors involved in our decision to go to the tourist beach area instead of some lesser-known local area. First, the Hyatt Hotel existed in Pusan in this beach area, and we wanted to see the nightclub where the live band at this hotel performed. Second, Pusan is a beach town, and the closer to the beach we were, the more of a beach town it was. As we neared our destination, the shops began to cater more for the crowds of the beach with wares such as towels, beach mats, sunglasses, and beach munchies. Soon we were driving down a hill that would bring us to the beach road. The smell of the ocean and ocean-related products wafted throughout the air, and the sun made the polluted water ahead of us look almost blue.
We drove down the beach parkway, a sandy drive with construction on both sides, and finally chose at random a left-hand turn near the Hyatt Hotel. We had to create a space since rush hour had started, but being in South Korea had some advantages. We simply drove into the oncoming traffic and amidst much barking and horn blowing, the cars in the other lanes stopped and let us through. In this way we gained face. Three westerners driving around in Pusan acting just as inconsiderate as the local drivers caused a few smiles to break through the sour looks on most of the faces we saw. Luckily, the driveway I chose just happened to be connected to the Hyatt parking lot entrance by a wide sidewalk. The Hyundai is a small car and after a few angry looks from people who had to step aside for us on the sidewalk, we entered the Hyatt Hotel parking garage, pretended to be guests, and parked.
We were now free to wander the beachfront of Pusan. The temperature had risen twenty degrees Fahrenheit to somewhere around seventy-five, and we were dressed wrong. In the parking garage we changed into our road trip beach clothing (which for me consisted of a loose tee shirt, ratty cut off jeans, and sandals) and walked into the hotel. We were underdressed for the Hyatt, but after explaining that we were the band from Seoul, we were allowed a quick look at the nightclub, which was all we needed. We walked out the front door into a humid and warm atmosphere. The feeling of walking outside the hotel doors reminded me of walking off an air-conditioned plane into a humid and tropical climate such as Hawaii.
The hotel stood as a barrier between the beach and us. In the other direction, on the other side of the busy street full of cars and fruit trucks, we saw the big 'M'. A great treasure would be buried there, we were sure, and Spencer Tracy would have been proud. We enter the door under the golden arches and had lunch in the local McDonalds. Immediately, we were items of curiosity and local school children gathered around and took pictures while their friends sat with us. It was fun, but unfortunately all good things must end. The main problem this time stemmed from the inherent jealousy of Korean men. When the high school and college girls began joining us for pictures, their boyfriends would gather together to plan the best methods of inflicting unnatural alterations to our bodies.
Though the pain of leaving these beautiful women alone and unprotected in the McDonalds stung deep, we regretfully decided it would be best for all concerned that we gracefully exit and make our way to the beach.
We walked along the boardwalk above the beach for a while, admiring the various craft and food booths. Unfortunately since it was springtime, there were no sunbathers. Strangely, even if the weather on a particular day is very nice, Koreans will not go sunbathing until it is officially summer season. And in the fall, even if it snows and the temperature is well below freezing, they will not wear winter clothing until winter officially, by the calendar, arrives. I never subscribed to these beliefs and as usual dressed for the occasion and often found myself much more comfortable than Koreans around me.
At times, the boardwalk we strolled along seemed nearly four meters above the sand of the beach. Of course, the pull was strong, and I decided more harm would be done to my psyche if I resisted, than to my body if I went with it. So I gave Andy the camera, took a quick look below, then casually made my way to the opposite side of the street parallel to the beach. The road cleared of people and cars for a moment, and I took off running as fast as I could towards the drop. I jumped and tucked my legs and smiled broadly, for just at that moment I was flying again. Another moment and a rather large distance later, I solidly impacted with the sand-covered ground and rolled to my feet. My grin as I brushed the sand off my clothing and legs must have been the dominant feature of my face as bystanders looked at me, again, as if I was more than just a little bit insane.
We separated for a while and I wandered into the interior streets of the beach area to explore a bit more of the shops not directly created for tourists. I was also thirsty and needed to find a cheap bottle of water. While looking for water I found some incense I hadn't seen before, and bought that as well. Incense is one of the few things I accumulate and actually care anything about, so I was happy to find a new strain.
After replenishing myself, I searched for Andy and Scott along the beachfront shops. The shops and booths along the beachfront in Pusan overflowed with items that would be luxurious at American Pier 70 curio shops. Carved items of jade in shapes of turtles and other animals selling for mere dollars, handcrafted items such as necklaces, ornate opium pipes, dried skates and squerky, towels, sunglasses, baseball hats, carved wooden figures of various pagan entities, postcards, hanging baskets and other woven goods, beach mats, rice wine, soju (Korean vodka made from sweet potatoes), and all of this is in a cluttered room with barely space to walk in. Other shops would have basically the same, but would also have food items such as kim-bap, a rolled rice snack in seaweed, or mandu (pot stickers), or any number of things. I found Andy and Scott in one of these shops haggling with the shopkeeper over the price of a replica Opium pipe about three feet long.
We had spent several hours in Pusan, but we had no intention of spending the night there, so with fond memories, we found the car and left. We drove west and north until we once again found a road that was parallel to the ocean. We were disappointed that most of the beach areas on the western coast seemed to be huge mud flats. Perhaps the currents were different, or perhaps they were some sort of coastal agriculture, but in either case, there were no deserted sand beaches to be found as we drove north. Once in a while we would pass through a harbor town with fishing boats and such tied to metal spikes stuck in the sand, but these places seemed more than just a little bit crowded, probably due to the lack of beaches anywhere else.
The sun was low and in another hour or so it began disappearing below the horizon. The need to find a beach grew with each passing moment, so I began driving down any side road that seemed promising in the hopes of finding sand.
We drove through fishing villages, occasionally on top of nets drying in the evening or sometimes on ropes tying boats close to the shore. At one point we drove through a town where the main street was a twisted bumpy path, probably not meant for automobiles. We became the center of attention, as children would run up close to us with wide eyes and then run away to find their parents. Some of these roads were so thin that if stopped, it would have been impossible to get out because we wouldn't be able to open the doors. I had to back several hundred feet out of one of these, a feat of driving expertise that I may never be able to repeat again.
Bordering the paths we precariously tried to drive on between houses in these towns were valleys, canyons, and even chasms, about a foot wide and three feet deep. Presumably during monsoon these ditches would act as drainage rivers. At the time I didn't visualize the mad rush of muddy water on its way to the ocean. No, the only picture I could imagine had everything to do with snapping an axle or two of our Hyundai if I made a mistake.
Driving fell on my shoulders like a comforting arm, thankfully. As I mentioned, just about the only time I feel comfortable in a car is when I'm behind the wheel or asleep, or completely deprived of all sensory input as a passenger. As far as I can tell, people generally don't mind my driving. Perhaps it's because I nearly ooze the puss of confidence, or perhaps it was because they don't really have any choice.
After another hour or two of hopeless dead ends and wrong turns, we found a dirt road that seemed promising. After a couple kilometers of a bumpy rock strewn road full of holes and other obstacles, we came to a little beachside hotel without a beach. Just a huge pile of rocks that formed a spit that unfortunately we drove much too far out on. The challenge of driving out onto the spit was minimal, but backing the car off the spit proved a bit more awkward. Scott and Andy had to use flashlights to light the holes and rocks and washed out sections as I drove slowly in reverse wondering when I'd be just a bit too close to some unstable soil and find myself upside down in a kelp farm. After this tedious task, we took a branch in the same road that brought us to the beachfront motel and began driving, as far as we could tell, roughly parallel to the ocean shore.
The dirt road we traveled on at this time crossed many other roads that looked exactly the same. At times I would randomly choose one to turn on, following it for a while until boredom set in, and then another would be chosen. We didn't seem to be getting any closer to a beach, so we continued this style of driving and probably would still be doing it today if we hadn't noticed the lights that would appear and disappear as we changed course over and over. These lights had nothing to do with UFO's, rather, these lights were car or truck lights, and each time we saw them they had slowly creeped closer to us in this convoluted madhouse grid of dirt roads we were on.
When the four vehicles arrived, an angry Korean man got out of each one. The things they drove weren't cars by any means. These vehicles would have held four of the cars we drove around in and still had room for more. Huge, gargantuan dump trucks, obviously possessed and evil and held in check by the sheer will of their dark masters. Four pairs of headlights shined on us from four directions and angry Korean men stood together muttering and lighting cigarettes while trying to decide what to do about us, three westerners in the middle of nowhere. Probably, they were trying to decide if anyone else knew where we were so they could let their demon trucks have at us. It is a well-known fact that demon trucks need human blood every once in a while. At this time Scott, always one to know just when and say the wrong thing, got out of the car and happily said, "Tambe Juseo?" In English, this means, "Can I have a cigarette?"
Andy and I watched with misgiving as Scott walked closer to the four workmen who watched him like hungry crocodiles watch a water buffalo stroll into the water for a drink. Eventually I joined the party and explained in broken Korean that we were looking for a beach. The men said, "Abseyo." Direct translation of this word means, "nothing." If someone asks you if you have a pen, you can say, "Abseyo." This will mean everything from "no", to "pens don't exist in my universe and neither do you." I didn't feel like debating the point with them and pointed in another random direction and somehow asked them if it was the way out. They pointed in another direction, and before Scott could say something else I pulled him back into the car and began driving. They allowed us to leave and didn't give a cigarette to Scott.
A while after leaving the demon truck masters, we became more aware of our hunger than our need for a rest, so we altered the search to find a suitable place to cook the steaks we had been lugging around on ice for two days. We stopped at a beach resort that was deserted because of the late hour and walked around for a bit. The resort was dirty, sandy, unkempt, and looked almost unused. It had a feeling of someone trying hard to make a resort but being able to do nothing to keep it alive. It felt dead and dreary, and we didn't want to cook our steaks at that place and eat them too.
About five kilometers out of the resort town, at two in the morning, we came across a Korean girl in the road frantically waving for us to stop. Her features were elven and beautiful, and I'm sure we were all wondering what sort of luck brought her to us and whether or not she had friends who also wanted a ride. However, before those thoughts went much further, she hysterically asked us, in Korean, if she and her boyfriend who was hunched over in pain next to her in the darkness, could have a ride to the hospital in the town we just left. I knew enough Korean to understand the gist of her question and translated to the guys. It was agreed that we could do this. Scott was stuck in the back seat with two people who were suffering from eating bad seafood. Our main concern, of course, was to get these two people to a hospital before the bad seafood they ate made its presence in the car. Scott seemed to be the most insistent of this concern. Vomit is bad and has a peculiarly rancid odor. Seafood vomit, as I can only imagine, is probably much worse.
I grinned as we screeched around corners and nearly flew off rolls in the road, but we made it back to the town in a couple minutes. We dropped the sickly pair off with a local policeman walking the early morning beat, and turned around to continue our way north. Eventually we rounded a curve in the road and found there a spot that seemed a likely place to eat our steak. It was past three in the morning.
I parked the car with the headlights facing the beach and along with Andy and Scott walked to the sand. The air chilled me a bit, but I didn't notice because something else of interest took hold. I walked back to the car and shut off the lights. Then we watched the waves as they broke on the shore. Small waves, no more than five inches high, yet hundreds of feet long, broke in long diagonal lines on the beach. Even in the darkness of the night we could see it because this water had some phosphorous in it. Microorganisms with chemicals that caused them to glow in the dark seemed to be abundant in this section of the ocean. One could kick the beach gravel and see a few glowing sparks in the water. It looked nice. But it smelled bad. We couldn't eat here because fishnets were spread out for drying and it smelled like there might still be fish pieces in them.
We got back into the car, turned the ventilation on high once we were on our way, and continued north for about fifteen minutes before we came across a fishing pier. We decided to eat at this fishing pier, in the early hours of the morning, and be happy about it. We started the butane stove and put the steaks on, and then took some time to relieve ourselves off the pier. It was at that time we learned the real meaning of phosphorescence.
The water glowed green. Not only did it glow green, if you spit or tossed a rock into the water, it looked like some sort of glowing entity, like an alien living creature that had taken over the ocean. It seemed to be made of jelly, and as it moved it gave off an eerie glow that would cast shadows. Every little ripple set off another green explosion. In the blackness of the moonless night, the ocean was a mass of green plasma. I had never seen anything like it before, and I'm not sure if I'll ever see anything like it again. We ate our steaks in silence and waved goodbye to the fishermen who had begun showing up after fishing most of the night in their boats.
Once again I drove the Hyundai north, this time in search of a place to sleep. During our trip, the poor car had begun developing so many squeaks and rattles that I could have sold them to mouse and snake factories. Dust caked the car inside and outside, the alignment was so far off it took an effort to hold the car to a straight line, and somehow a crack had developed in the front windshield. None of this was important, however, because we were getting very sleepy, and I was no exception.
We drove into Kunsan next. Kunsan is about three hours south west of Seoul. It has an American military base on it and is primarily an industrial city. Some of the most memorable scents and odors and otherwise bad smells I have had the privilege of partaking of came from Kunsan. The city is also full of roads that go nowhere and have nothing near them. We drove down some of these empty roads which were totally devoid of any meaningful direction or destination, and the desolation around us shook off our sleepiness. Creepy is not the right word to describe the scene, but it will have to do.
The rest of Kunsan sported a polluted and littered look. Grease and garbage could be seen everywhere, and on the road we traveled on I had to be alert for larger objects such as tires, propane tanks, dead cows, and decrepit fruit trucks that happened to be in our path. We decided Kunsan was the armpit of South Korea, a dirty, smelly, festering, infected armpit, and we never wanted be there again.
We continued north and soon saw signs to Seoul. The tollbooths were about the same, and playing stupid paid off again. At about five in the morning we were exhausted, myself included, and I dont drive in that condition. We pulled into a gas station and found a place to park. I set my alarm for five hours later.
We arrived back in Seoul around one in the afternoon. I let Andy and Scott take the car back after we unloaded it. When Andy and Scott returned they said the woman who took the car back couldn't believe the state of disrepair it was in and wanted to charge more, but Scott had charmed her into letting us get away with it. Good thing, too, because we were nearly out of money.
That night the band played as usual and the memory of the road trip played in our heads like a movie that never ended. The road trip experience ranks as one of my best Asian experiences. I want to have this experience again someday, and I want to do it with the same two guys, and perhaps this time we'll have a larger vehicle so Ji Yun and a couple of her friends can come along.
Copyright (C) 1997 by Scot Ranney