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Mike's Adventures in Korea 1994

Part 2: Welcome to Korea

Tired, dehydrated, dirty, sweaty, and hungover, I stepped off the plane.  The first thing I thought was that I was going to puke.

Being July, it was hot, like in the 90s.  Being that Korea is a peninsula, it is very, very humid.  Think Florida type humidity.  Think humidity so thick that you almost have to swim through it.  Then, there is this smell.

It's hard to describe the smell.  It's almost a cross between open sewage, rotting fish, car exhaust, ocean, kimshee, rotten vegetables, and smoke.  It's a very pungent smell, unlike anywhere else I have been (the closest I have smelled anything similar is Mexico).  Jim started calling it "the essence of topanga," after something he heard in a Zima commercial.

So, we made our way through the airport toward customs.  Unlike Germany, though, this is not a very efficient customs office.  We have to collect our luggage and wait in line for almost two hours to clear customs.  I had to run to the restroom, because the heat, humidity, and smell were so overwhelming, I thought I was going to vomit.  It stunk so bad, that I decided in the future, I would just vomit outside.

Getting through customs was very difficult.  In Germany, whenever I met with someone who didn't speak English that well, they spoke German, and often the words were close enough (since English is a Germanic language) that I could sort of figure out what they were saying.  When that failed, they could write down the words or point to a sign and I could sort of read what they were trying to get at.

But in Korea, everything is spoken and written in Hangul.   I had no clue what anything said that wasn't written in Western letters, and even then it was generally a challenge.  So, I had to fumble through customs until I finally had a Korean who spoke decent English explain to me that I had to register the serial number on my Japanese-made Sony Walkman and had to promise not to sell it in Korea.  No problem.  You see, there is still a string anti-Japanese feeling in Korea.  There will be more on that later.

Clear of customs, we now had to make our way to Osan Air Base, which was about an hour away.

Kimpo Airport
The view of Seoul from outside of Kimpo International Airport.  There are lots of Hyundais and Daewoos here.  Note the humidity so thick you practically have to swim through it.

Someone had told us there was a bus that would take us to Osan, but we couldn't find it.  Then, when we did find it, we found out that we would have to wait about another two or three hours.  Jim and I found another guy who was going to Osan, and we decided to pool our money and get a cab.

So, right now it was around 9 PM or so on Saturday evening, but to me, it felt like it was about 8 AM on Saturday morning.  I was extremely tired, and I was ready to go to sleep anywhere, so I just wanted to get to the base quickly.

So, this cab driver, driving this tiny Hyundai, throws our stuff in the trunk and starts strapping it to the roof of the car.  The guy who was with us was moving there for a year, so he had a trunk and a few bags, but Jim and I each had a single suitcase, as we weren't planning to be there that long.  Still, we were surprised at how much this cab driver could stuff in and on this cab.

We all pile in.  Jim and I are in the back and the other guy is up front.  We are driving, and it is silent, as we are all tired.  It is now dark when we leave the airport, and we see all the advertising signs lit up all over town.  As we get on the highway going south (Highway 1, also known as the "Unification Highway" - the only major interstate highway in the country), we notice all the cars are driving without using their headlights.  The cab driver sort of explains to us how the lights blind the drivers in front of them, so they turn them off.  So, the people behind us didn't want to blind our driver, so they have their lights off, and he didn't want to blind the guy ahead of him, so he has his off.  If there wasn't so much traffic, it might be dangerous, but since we are all bumper to bumper at all of about 5 miles per hour, it wasn't that dangerous.  Besides, I was feeling too terrible to be concerned. 

So, we are sitting there in silence listening to the radio play Korean music and play the news in Korean, and I realize that I have been incommunicado for about 24 hours.  Just then, the cab driver turns around and says something.

"Kimilsungdead," he says.  Huh?

"What did he say?" I asked.  I am hard of hearing.

"It sounded like he said something like 'Kim il Sung is dead'," Jim said.

"Yah, yah," the cab driver says, "he die, he die!" 

Ah, crap, I thought.  Everything was on edge for months, and then Jimmy Carter achieved a break-through with the North Korean dictator.  Now that the North Korean dictator was dead, were all bets off?  Besides, who was in charge up there?  What surprises were in store for us when we arrived at our base?

What a welcome to Korea...

Continue on to Part 3: The Base