Text Conversation Over We Chat, 9:22PM
our bus leaves at 7:55, so let’s get there at 7:20.
not sure how to get from the train stop to the bus terminal
It says it’s just connected
I think it’s the bus terminal I went to before
It’s literally just there
I’ll meet you at 7:40
Trust me, you just get on
You’re gonna be late
They won’t even let you on before that
I love you but you’re always late
Not for stuff like this
Imma get there at 7:38 sharp
What if you want to pee
Or get food
Or if it’s not there
If we miss it it’s 17 dollars waahhh
No I swear I know
We’re not gonna miss it
The next morning, 7:50am:
“WHERE IS THE BUS?” I borderline-screamed as Weng-Ching and I ran back and forth across the massive train station (that was definitely not “literally just there” or “connected” to the train station as she had anticipated).
It was a holiday weekend in May, and my friend Weng-Ching (pictured below) and I were taking a bus from Seoul to Gwangju to see a green tea plantation and get some much-needed clean air into our lungs.
We ran onto the bus without literally one minute to spare. I’ll concede that she was right — we didn’t miss the bus. My Type-A heart could have gone without the workout, though.
In true foreigner fashion, we’d forgotten that this long weekend wasn’t simply a day the government gave us to be kindhearted, but a national holiday (Children’s Day), meaning that there was a lot of traffic going out of Seoul. I watched with increasing dread as the estimated ETA projected on the screen kept rolling later and later. Our bus ride was scheduled to last 3.5 hours. It lasted 7.
We’d originally planned to see the Boseong Green Tea Fields, but it was getting late and neither of us was enthusiastic about taking another bus for 90 minutes.
Instead, we regrouped at the station with some wonderful food that I spilled on my dress:
… and then took a 30-minute bus to Damyang to see a bamboo forest. It looked more or less like this:
When we reached the top of a small hill above the forest, I closed my eyes and breathed in the air and savored the way that my soul felt cleaner, lighter.
It was one of those rare moments when I felt in my heart that someone was saying: “this is where you are meant to be right now.”
Whenever I travel, I’m always seeking these moments of inner peace. I’m a destructively introspective person, someone who worries excessively about who I’m meant to be, what I should be doing with my life, whether I’m using eye cream that will give me wrinkles in 20 years, if I should invest my extra money in retirement or fly to Japan while I’m so close, if the pizza delivery man thinks I’m an idiot for not speaking Korean, etc.
Being in Korea has done little to calm these thoughts. If anything, my mind moves even faster these days. After all, I’m out of college now and expected to be well on the road to financial independence, achieving all of my dreams and finding my husband while I’m still young and pretty. But wherever I go in the world, I’m always hoping to find those moments that still all of those thoughts. Just a few minutes where I can just breathe and know that I’m doing something right, that all the choices (and mistakes) I’ve made have led me to something beautiful. It’s these moments, usually some place in nature, that make traveling worth it.
When we reached our hostel in Gwangju that night, we found that they’d accidentally overbooked and given away our room. But don’t fear! The owner (a wonderful and helpful man named Pedro) assured us that he’d gotten us a room at a place just across the street, and he wouldn’t even charge us for it.
But as soon as we saw the neon lights, Weng-Ching and I shared a look that said “this is not a hostel.”
Pedro led us through the lobby — a small area with no staff in sight and only a small slot behind fogged glass, presumably for returning keys. We took the elevator up a few floors, and he let himself in before us.
“It’s very clean,” he said. “Some things here are very nice–”
I saw him grab something on the night stand and stuff it in his pocket. I caught a glimpse of a condom wrapper.
“–and some things not so nice.”
We assured him that this was fine, and he told us to come back across the street to the hostel for a free beer once we’d settled in. As soon as he closed the door, Weng-Ching and I looked at each other.
“Are we in a love motel?” I said.
“Yes,” Weng-Ching said.
“I keep thinking that everyone here is having sex,” Weng-Ching said, dropping her bag on the floor. “Ooh, here’s a big can of hairspray! Oh, wait, it’s bug spray.”
“Yeah, don’t mix those up,” I said.
“But why is there a need for bug spray here?!”
I had no answer for that. Or, rather, I didn’t want to vocalize it.
The next morning, we had a rainy excursion to the May 18 Memorial Park, which commemorates the Democratic Uprising of May 18th-27th, 1980. Essentially, 600 protesters were killed by government troops under Chun Doo-Hwan. Their names are written on black tiles spanning across a giant wall in the underground memorial.
I think it’s important to see things like this if you live abroad. Korea is so much more than Kpop, Kdramas and plastic surgery. I won’t pretend to understand and appreciate Korea the way a Korean would, but I always do my best to see the country in three dimensions.
Finally, we caught our bus to Boseong to see the green tea fields, aka THE ENTIRE REASON I WANTED TO GO TO BOSEONG IN THE FIRST PLACE.
When Weng-Ching and I planned the trip weeks ago, the air quality in Seoul had been abysmal. I’d never realized how I’d taken for granted the perpetually blue Georgia skies and the ability to leave your window open on nice days without letting toxic smog into your room.
“I just want to see green, in all directions, wherever I look,” I’d said to Weng-Ching. “Fields, or plants or something. Just for a day, then I’m happy to go back to the convenience of city living.”
But, because the weather gods despise me, the fields looked less like what you see on Google images, and more like this:
It was still beautiful, but felt less soul-cleansing and more like a scary scene from the first Lord of the Rings movie. The wet dirt painted my sneakers red and we bought green tea ice cream, then looked for the bus back.
The bus driver who’d brought us there had pointed in the vague direction of the return bus stop when we got off, so we followed the road as best we could, despite it being so foggy that we couldn’t see more than 20 feet in front of us.
Eventually, we got to a bus shelter with bus names and times in English pasted to the back wall.
“The last bus back is in 20 minutes,” Weng-Ching said, pointing to the sign.
“Good thing we left,” I said. “The bus could have left and we wouldn’t have known.”
(You can probably guess what happened next)
“Are cars even coming this way?” Weng-Ching said.
I squinted at the road. We were at a sloped section off the highway that looked like the kind of detour you take if your car breaks down.
“This has to be right,” I said. “The sign is here. In English!”
“But the bus was supposed to come five minutes ago.”
“But the sign is in English!” I said again. “There’s no way we messed this up!”
Weng-Ching circled around the bus shelter and examined a sign written in Korean on yellow paper. She started typing it into Google Translate.
“This bus stop–” she read as she typed and the translation came in piece-by-piece “–has been moved–”
“–to a gas station.”
Neither of us knew what to say after that.
We were 90 minutes from our hostel. Taxis wouldn’t go that far, even if we had 200 bucks to pay them. Even worse, we had non-refundable tickets for a 5AM train back to Seoul the next morning. If we didn’t make it back to Gwangju tonight, we were screwed.
I’ve had some close calls in my travels before: I almost got locked in a cemetery in Venice overnight in December, and a French man tried to grab me while I was looking at a map outside a restaurant in Arles. Maybe, because I’d been so lucky, I had this unshakeable faith that things would work themselves out.
That faith was starting to waver.
I (stupidly) cared less about my safety and more about the fact that I couldn’t see a way out of this without losing a ton of money. The trip had already made things pretty tight financially.
We decided to just find this elusive gas station bus stop and see where to go from there. After running across the highway several times, we finally saw it — a sad little red tent in front of a tiny gas station, about 5 minutes back from where we’d been standing. The same bus time table was posted on the back wall, with the last bus listed at 6:40pm. It was 7:10. I briefly considered calling my co-teacher and crying, then even more briefly considered just lying down on the wet ground under the bus shelter and sleeping there in shame until the next bus came in the morning.
Then Weng-Ching said:
“Should I call the travel hotline?”
I blinked. “There’s a travel hotline?”
“In English? Open now?”
“Um, yes. Please do that.”
I listened to her call and wondered how I’d made it this far without realizing there was a number you could call at any time in Korea where a Korean-speaking person could solve all your Korean problems for you. It didn’t surprise me that Weng-Ching already knew about it, because she was one of those people who made living abroad look easy and always seemed to have the answer — a good counterbalance to my perpetual and thinly-veiled internal chaos.
“Okay,” she said, hanging up.
“There’s a bus from here that will take us to Boseong Terminal, and then from there we can take another bus back to Gwangju at 8:20”
“OH THANK GOD.”
If the ground hadn’t been so wet, I would have thrown myself onto it in boneless relief because WE WEREN’T STRANDED IN A TINY TOWN IN KOREA WITH NOTHING BUT GREEN TEA LEAVES.
We made it back to Gwangju safe and sound. It was much later than we’d planned and we had to eat dinner in the station instead of somewhere around Gwangju like we’d planned, but it’s amazing how things like that cease to bother you when you’re overwhelmed with gratitude that you’re not sleeping at a bus stop.
We slept for a few hours in our hostel, then rolled out of bed at 4am, brushed our teeth, put on our glasses, and hailed a taxi while barely conscious. By 9am, we were back in Seoul, hungry and exhausted but left with the rest of the day to recover before going back to work on Tuesday.
Though my vision of lush green tea fields hadn’t exactly come to light, I definitely felt like I could breathe a little better after escaping from Seoul for a few days. Though I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in Korea (the convenience of Seoul is hard to beat), it’s nice sometimes to look up and see bamboo stalks instead of office buildings, to spend time with friends instead of coworkers, and to come home exhausted but with stories to tell.