September 14, 2009

As the coordinator in Pyeongchang, Stuart said, I’ve finally come to the one place in the world where I can scream “The South will rise again” anywhere in the country and be unanimously cheered by everyone in sight.

First off, a little warning to everyone.  The reason why Airtran Airways tickets are so cheap is because they do not transfer your luggage to any connecting flight.  They may also forget to mention this in the itinerary.  After a chaotic registration with Asiana Airlines (we were both surprised that I had not brought my bags to the booth), I was rushed through security to jump on the plane right before it departed.  There was nothing to do but sit with my anxiety and the never-setting sun that accompanied us across the Pacific.  To the flight attendant’s credit, they attempted to simulate the darkness of night by closing all the shutters and killing the lights.  This all took place on the 18th of August, which seems quite a long time ago now.

At Incheon Airport, it was confirmed: my bags had been left in San Francisco, and I had only two changes of clothes.  One of which I’d worn on the flight, and the other that I changed into at the airport in order to look presentable at the EPIK registration table.  It’s not like I took it upon myself to change outfits; it had been strongly recommended that I do so in an email.  Of course, it turned out not to matter in the slightest.  At orientation, the staff gave me two extra light blue EPIK-logo polos out of pity, in addition to the one everyone received.  I also managed to get two Footprints t-shirts from a friend.  However, I still had only two pairs of boxer shorts.  There was frequent laundry to be done.

Orientation in Jeonju lasted a total of eight days.  My bags arrived on the last, just in time to toss them on the bus to Wonju the next morning.  It was an enjoyable time nonetheless.  Lectures ran from 9 to 5:30, and Survival Korean class after dinner from 7 to 8, afterwards finding us at a restaurant nursing pints with shot glasses of soju.  I saw one of the Korean films that were playing each night: a war epic about two brothers forcibly drafted during the conflict of the early 50’s that divided this peninsula.  I went to a public bathhouse for the first time.  It’s a little awkward at first to be walking around bare-assed in front of people, but you get over it after a few minutes soaking in the hot tub.  Once you’re all squeaky clean and dry, they thankfully provide you some pajamas to relax in.  The unisex area had three large gray domes of salt rock: a cooler sauna with mats and wooden head rests.  You can even spend the night on a bunk bed, if you choose.

That was over two weeks ago.  I’ve been living in a small mountain town called Pyeongchang ever since.  It has the advantage of hiking trails within a five-minute walk from my apartment, and the disadvantage of extreme isolation compared to my days in the hectic capital of Chile.  However, distance is no problem when you’re living in a country the size of Uruguay.  Seoul is only 2-3 hours by bus, and Wonju, the nearest source of a real nightlife, is only an hour away.  I was there last weekend for a boozy night out capped by Noraebang.  “Norae” means “singing,” and “bang” means “room.”  Yes, it was a karaoke joint, but the private rooms with a bunch of friends and a round of beers is much more fun than you’d think.

The weekend before found me in nearby Jeongseon for a barbeque with more orientation friends: Niselle and Genola from South Africa.  We set up the tiny charcoal grill on top of the washing machine on Gen’s back porch, which in retrospect was a terrible idea.  The porch is enclosed by a roof and sliding windows with bug screens.  We even put down sheets of paper underneath it to keep the washer from getting dirty.  I did have an inkling of where this would lead, but at the time I was unaware that we also had the choice of taking the grill up on the roof.  Before the conflagration though, Gen and I had to figure out how to light the coals.  When burning paper didn’t work, Gen put a portable stove eye under it.  It was a perfect shot for There, I fixed  That got the coals burning after a few hours, and we were cooking the meat when we put in two large cylindrical coals, whose particular function we had not been able to discern.  They immediately lit up in sparks, scorching the meat and making us feel incredibly stupid at the same time.  It was shortly after that the paper underneath caught fire and filled the apartment with smoke.

We doused the flames with tap water, and I was asked to carry the smoking grill up to the rooftop, to which I replied, “you can go up on the roof?”  All parties agreed that the roof should be the designated area for all future grilling endeavors as it is a large concrete patio.  As I set the grill down, I noticed another much like it only a few feet away.  They say that conflict is the spice of life, but I would humbly submit “trial and error” as a close second.  With the smoke cleared, we had the reward of a scrumptious feast followed by drinking games.

The next morning, Nis and Gen decided it was time to get their toilets fixed.  Both had become clogged.  After much gesticulating with the plumber, they learned, to their absolute horror, that you cannot flush toilet paper in South Korea.  My experiences in South America had, thankfully, already prepared me for this fact of life, which I had begun to suspect after seeing the ominous small wastebaskets next to each and every porcelain throne.

And with that, I’m done being creative for the evening.  I’ll write about the school where I teach next time.