Monday, December 29, 2008

christmas eve 2008 - empty train stations, unfamiliar streets, midnight bath house oasis

well it is officially Christmas day. 12:39am. I can’t say ive ever spent christmas quite like this before. but it isn’t without its own unique charm.

I missed the last train to incheon, where I was planning on spending the night (in the airport) waiting for hiuyan’s plane to arrive. as her plane will be arriving at 5 in the morning, I was left with few choices: it was either go to the airport the night before, or not meet her at the airport at all. my students made it clear that this was unacceptable and that it was my duty to see her arrive at the airport, no matter the cost, and eventually their reasoning had enough effect on me to make me acquiesce.

unfortunately, friendly christmas spirit ended up being my undoing. there were next to no students present for the last 10pm class on christmas eve, so all the teachers combined classes and I led a game of christmas charades. the game had the added effect of making all of us teachers real chummy, and as we closed up the school, the suggestion of a round of beers was non-refusable. I knew I didn’t have much time before the trains closed for the night, but that couldn’t dissuade me from making a ‘quick stop’. I shouldn’t have played that last song on jason’s guitar. I knew I was running short on time. when I finally did leave, it was nearly eleven and my bulging bladder seemed to bounce threateningly as I power-walked to the station.

I would have to change trains at guro station in order to get to incheon. I was anxious the whole way, the incessant urge to pee not helping to calm me down. I got to guro at about ten to twelve and as I got off the train, my heart swelled with hope (although not as much as my bladder) because there were loads of people waiting on the platform for the train to incheon. soon after I got into the queue, however, an announcement came on the loudspeaker informing everyone that there were no more trains for the night. people looked around at each other with confused and worried looks, and eventually everyone made their way up the stairs. i was at a loss. I asked several passerbyers if I had heard the announcement correctly. I had. eventually I took my consolation prize and relieved myself in the station restroom and exited to the street.

as the crowds dispersed, attacking taxi drivers split the streams of people like rocks in a flowing river, shouting out offers of rides to incheon. I ignored them, knowing the price would astronomical. just out of curiosity, however, I asked one guy who was pestering me, no doubt thinking me a potential sucker, what the price would be. he said $80. I said, how about thirty. he said, it’s christmas so how about fifty. I said no and kept walking. I wasn’t sure where I was going. I just heading kept down the same street, following a medium-sized crowd of people who had also just left guro station, and eventually we came to a dimly-lit bus stop. I tried to scan the posted schedules for any buses that might be going somewhere helpful to me; nothing. I was thinking about the possibility of sleeping in a PC-방 (computer ‘bang’ – room; you pay by the hour to use a computer), and when I called my buddy wonchul, he suggested this course of action. thinking that this would be an undesirable yet doable fallback way to spend christmas eve (although not any worse than sleeping at the airport, I suppose), I decided to walk around a bit more to see what I could see. if possible, I was considering staying up all night in a coffee shop or a bar (I did bring along my computer after all) since by now I had to wait only 4 hours or so until the station opened again.

the streets were pretty empty at 12:30. most businesses were closed; only a few places showed any lights glowing like islands among the silent skyscrapers towering in darkness. after wandering around for a while, I decided to pop in at solitary coffee shop that was still open for business. I ordered an americano and flipped on my computer to begin writing this entry. I made it as far as about a paragraph ago (now im finishing the rest at home) when the manager of the place came up to me to tell me the shop was closing. he looked apologetic. I hastily packed up my things, noticing that all the other patrons had indeed left already. it was starting to feel more like a lonely night as I pushed through the door out onto the cold, empty streets.

I walked on a little more, keeping my eyes peeled. I didn’t want to stay in a pc bang if I could help it. I passed a cheesy-looking bar whose only positive attribute was a sign saying it was open until 4am on christmas eve. I kept it in the back of my mind as I walked, looking for another potential refuge from the cold.

after a while I noticed a colorful glow in the sidewalk and looked up. there the bright green letters of a 24-hour 찜질방 (‘jjimjil-bang’ – bath/sauna house) shone down on me. as soon as I saw it, I knew that would be the perfect place to camp out until morning, and I wondered why I hadn’t thought to look for one earlier. it’s sort of hard to imagine such a large public bath on the 8th floor of a building, but once you get inside, it’s like an isolated world. trying to act as casual as everyone else (i.e. not like a foreigner) I put my clothes in a locker, washed myself at the deserted bathing stations, and soaked in the baths for an hour. going back and forth between hot and cold water really put the life back into me, while also refreshing me from the cold, windy outside and soothing my aching body. at around 2:30 I meandered down to the common area and scoped out a likely spot to close my eyes for a couple hours. I hadn’t expected the place to be so packed and noisy (although maybe I should have) on christmas eve (the bath had been virtually deserted, after all). it took me a few failed attempts choosing a place and laying down to finally be able to doze for a little bit. there were tons of young people in gender-segregated groups likely of single people, as christmas is a ‘couples’ day’ in korea. I drifted in and out of sleep in a creative position on a tiny sofa until I got up, groggy, at 4:30 and tiptoed through the maze of people sleeping everywhere to get back to my locker and head back onto the cold streets. when the ‘morning’ air hit me, it was more than a little hard not to go back inside to the cozy, moist bath house.

I made my way through the dark back to guro station and found I was early. a bit too early, in fact. on christmas day, the trains don’t start until about 5:30, so I had quite a bit of time to wait. with only a handful of people scattered across the whole station’s expanse, the numerous platforms looked like odd little islands in a sea of train tracks. it was cold, and with my body facing the direction of least exposure to the wind, I kept looking down the silent, dark tracks for the coming train to incheon. I listened to music (the first song randomly came up as a 15-minute long ambient trip and I just floated away) and waited as the platforms slowly began to attract more christmas-morning commuters. at 5:30 the train eventually came and I made my way to the incheon airport where my girl had likely already arrived and was waiting for me.

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