Thursday, October 28, 2010

Incheon City (on my Korean travels, October 1-8, 2010)

by Douglas Messerli

After the long 13-hour air trip from Los Angeles to Korea, over oceans I watched every time the clouds briefly opened up a view, I arrived at the Incheon Airport.

I had been told that I would be met by my translator, who would whisk me off to my Seoul hotel.

Although it took me a while to move through passport control and to receive my small bag, I rolled out of the entry doors with a feeling of being on time, ready to greet the person holding a sign bearing my name. No such sign appeared. No signs appeared save discreet hotel announcements: "Meet your Hilton Hotel representative at gate 15, meet your Marriott Hotel guide at gate 21."

I stood still in bewilderment, then turned back to look upon the billboard over my head regarding the flight announcements. So many were listed that I couldn't quickly find my flight number. But I knew I had exited from the door closest to our baggage caravel. What could I do? I had been given, despite several queries, no name of a hotel, no name of a contact. It had been repeated and repeated in emails that someone would be there to meet me.

But after a half-an-hour, I had to admit to myself that there was no one. Perhaps he/she was late; was I early? No, I was on time. She/he was late. I walked back and forth across the waiting area, attempting to strongly convey to those waiting for others that was seeking someone. No one responded in the least. I was not for whom they were waiting.

I even dared to walk out of the waiting area for a few moments, perceiving that there were several such entry gates; but I quickly determined that they were inappropriate spots, containing mostly domestic flights, and returned to my original location. No one even looked in my direction.

So here I am, I thought to myself, at Incheon International Airport without a clue what to do, even if I were to reach Seoul.

I was tired; I had not slept during the flight, and it was now 2:00 a.m. in California time, hours after I usually retired to bed. Well, I sighed to myself, I am a seasoned traveler. I'll take a taxi into Seoul to a major hotel; certainly I can find a single room!

Still—in all meanings of that world—I remained, feeling somehow guilty, that I was at fault. My translator had simply missed me; she/he had gone to the wrong gate or failed to recognize my face, had been delayed in heavy traffic. Fortunately, I'd never witnessed the Seoul traffic jams, for I would have perhaps never strayed.

I walked away. I came back. Walked on. Clearly, no one was going to come for me.
Out of nowhere appeared a kindly Korean man. "You are clearly lost," he began in English.
"Yes," I quickly responded, "I was to have been met by a man or woman to take me to a hotel in Seoul."

"Do you have the number of the hotel or the number of the person who was to have met you?" he inquired.

"No, that's just the problem. I have no telephone numbers whatsoever except for those who planned the event I'm to attend.

"You know," is slowly offered up the facts, "there are four or five major gates. Are you sure this is the one at which you were expected?"

"Yes, it has to be this gate," I insisted, looking again at the overhead listings of flights. My flight was no longer on the board.

"Do you have anyone's telephone number?" he continued, as if speaking to a very small child, which I felt I had become.

"Well, I do," I admitted, but these are only university numbers and, surely, on a Saturday evening, they would not be there!"

"Let us try," he attempted to reassure me, taking out his cell phone and dialing up the numbers I displayed. He rang each number three times without result.

"Thank you so very much for your kindness," I finally cut off his good Samaritan attempts. "No one can be in their offices tonight. I'll just get a taxi into Seoul."

But where in Seoul? I pondered to myself.

At the information desk I described my situation and had my own name paged, hoping that if somewhere were waiting for me they would come to the desk. No one arrived at the desk, and I was not even sure that I heard the announcement.

"Across the way," she blithely pointed, "is a woman who can help you get a hotel." I looked across the way, but no one was there. "She will be back soon."

When her colleague finally returned, I encountered a friendly, good looking woman, seemingly happy to serve me.

I told her my story, hoping she might help me find a hotel in Seoul.

I suddenly remembered my father's absurd way of obtaining hotels during our family travels across Europe in 1965. At each airport in which we arrived—Copenhagen, Paris, Zürich—my father simply approached just such a woman as she who stood before me, and fearlessly obtained quite pleasant accommodations.

In Copenhagen, for example, we stayed at one of the major hotels (I could not identify the hotel in today's listings on the internet). I believe it had to be, however, a four-star hotel, since the series of events that occurred there would not have taken place at a hotel of lesser quality.

My brother David and I shared one room, while my Father and Mother slept in another. My brother quickly drifted off to sleep, but all night long I was kept awake by rumbling and roaring noises, as if a crowd of angry protesters were stationed just a few blocks away.

My parents, so they reported the next morning, had also been kept awake. Dave had heard nothing.

While we spoke at the breakfast table near the lobby, loud screams of young women suddenly silenced our conversation. Across the lobby, in full view of our table, marched a group of musicians, led by two men I immediately recognized as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was June 26, 1965, the day in which The Rolling Stones first performed on their famed first Scandinavian tour.

I had heard their new record, "Satisfaction," just a month before in my Norway dorm room on the English off-shore Radio Caroline. No one else in my family knew who they were or why people might be screaming at them.

"Rockers!" the head waiter contemptuously declared.

In Paris my father found us, again at the information desk, a wonderful hotel just across from the offices of Paris Match, with high-ceilinged rooms and a small elevator that reminds me to this day of the one in the movie Charade. I loved the hotel, although my mother complained vociferously, as she did about any hotel or motel in which we stayed. It was in that hotel room that my father broke into tears as he entreated me to return home from my year in Norway, the purpose, I suddenly perceived, of our little Grand Tour. I had just turned 17, an age when a father's tears still had an enormous impact, and, accordingly, I acquiesced, despite my desire to stay on for the rest of the summer.

In Zürich, once again, through the airport information booth, my father procured a lovely pension, in which my brother and I were perfectly happy, despite my mother's distress on account of heat and noise.

Now, here in Incheon, 45 years later, I knew things had changed. Before this trip I had always planned everything out, arranging for rooms long in advance. I would never have trusted to luck. Yet, in memory of those halcyon days I felt that certainly I could find a single room available in a city with a population of over 12 million inhabitants.

"Do you have a reservation?" she innocently asked.

"No, as I told you, I don't know the name of the hotel in which I was to have stayed tonight."

She smiled sympathetically at my predicament, while reporting, nonetheless, with a complete sense of authority, that there was not a single hotel room to be found in the entire city of Seoul!
I was dumbfounded. "How could that be in a city with hundreds of hotels. There clearly has to be something available."

"It is," she paused, "Saturday, the beginning of the weekend!" as if that explained everything—or anything.

I laughed. "You're not telling me, surely, that not a single room can be found in the city. There must be some place to sleep."

"Nothing," she politely and emphatically declared.

"Perhaps if I catch a taxi to the Hilton, they might have a room for me?"

"Not without reservations," she proclaimed. "There might be something near the airport."

"But I don't want to stay out here," I declared. "My business is in the city." Little did I know that Seoul was situated more than a hour away.

"I'll call the Airport Hilton."

After only a few words, she hung up. "Nothing available there."

"I have to have some place to sleep tonight."

"You don't remember the name of the hotel in which they booked you?" she scolded.

"I enquired, but they never told me. Someone was to meet me here and take me there."

A slightly disgusted look crossed her face, the kind of expression one might save for an iterant gypsy. I was perspiring out of simple fear and frustration.

"There may be one room left in a nearby tourist hotel, the Eulwang Hotel, not far from here. Here's a brochure," she suddenly waved before me as if she had produced it out of thin air. I'll check."

The brochure displayed a white painted, concrete structure in the Korean palace style. The rooms looked somewhat pleasant, in a rustic manner of polished redwood.

She came back to me with an open smile. "They have one room left."

Although I inwardly rolled my eyes in disbelief, I outwardly responded enthusiastically. "Then let us book it," I caved in, like a rube just off the bus. Clearly she was taking in a healthy under-the-table income as that hotel's agent. But what choice did I have? "And what's the price?"

"It's reasonable. Only 85,000 Won." I gasped, trying to convert that into dollars.

"That seems like a lot."

"About $75.00," she responded.

Now I was afraid: at that price it might be a dump.

"A driver will be here to pick you up in 10 minutes. Gate 33," she summarily dismissed me, handing me a slip of paper announcing my reservation. I looked up to discover that I was at Gate 3.

Somewhat relieved, if nothing else, I walked to that far gate and went out onto the sidewalk. There were several large city buses, and others arriving at regular intervals, dozens of them, each sweeping away huge crowds. I waited for a long while, but no hotel shuttle bus arrived.

One large bus, so its sign announced, was headed to Dankook University, the host of the conference I was attending. For a second I fancied riding out to the University, except that I knew no one would be there to greet me, and perhaps, I questioned whether events would even be scheduled there. I waited for a longer while. No hotel bus showed up.

In the very next lane I could see a lineup of taxis. Perhaps I was waiting in the wrong lane? My luggage cart and I rolled out into the next circle of hell, where I attempted to ask a taxi driver if the bus to the hotel—presenting him with my small slip of passage—might be arriving at this location.

After much scrutiny of my paper, he brought out a pair of reading glasses and studied it anew. He pointed back to where I had come. And I retreated, waiting for a longer period.

I was tired, had had no sleep now for over 17 hours. I was anxious to reach the hotel, email my hosts, and crawl into bed. No bus arrived.

With grim determination, I returned to Gate 3 in order to complain. My friendly guide was waiting upon other suckers, and I had no patience left. I grabbed the brochure which she had previously offered, and marched out to the waiting taxi line: "Can you take me here?" I asked.
He too brought out his glasses to study the brochure. Fortunately, the flier contained a small map of the area. And after a brief survey of the thing, he walked me forward to his cab. Finally, I was on the move, I thought to myself.

"All right," I attempted to calm myself. "When I get to the hotel, I'll take a shower. I'll email Hae Yisoo, the General Secretary of the International Creative Writing Center." He had been my line of communication throughout the months before my arrival. "Perhaps they will meet me tomorrow morning at the airport. Or I'll take a taxi into Seoul, after they tell me where to go. I've traveled a great deal. This is no big thing. It's important to get a good night's sleep."

Looking out the window of the taxi, I noted that we had just passed the Airport Hilton. Many rooms looked empty, but I knew there was no turning back.

We drove down a road on which nothing else seemed to exist, but I realized that much of this land, so close to ocean, must be marshland that I couldn't make out in the dark.

We took another turn and drove down an equally empty road, and then another, and another. Where was this driver taking me? At another turn there were a few of what appeared to be roadside stands, selling fireworks, all lit up by colored firefly lights. A few larger buildings were also lit up by strings of out-door light bulbs, some with red-neon depictions of women in prone positions, which I presumed represented the existence of sex-bars or hotels.

"Where are we going?" I quietly asked.

"This is where," the taxi cab driver mumbled in Beckettese.

"Where what?" I wondered to myself.

Long stretches of empty highways followed, replaced with a few more brightly-lit roadside stands and bars or hotels with sometimes unidentifiable symbols.

"This seems to be awfully far from the airport," I spoke up. "The agent who arranged for my room told me that it was 'airport adjacent.'" I mumbled to myself.

"This is the way. Very popular," spoke the sibyl in the front seat.

We drove on and on into the night.

"Where are you taking me?" I registered some alarm.

"This is where." he repeated.

I wanted to laugh, but couldn't quite get up the energy.

There was another stretch of sexual institutions, another series of what appeared to be fruit stands surrounded by what looked like Christmas lights.

It reminded be, a bit, of the Thai countryside and small villages depicted in Apichatpong's films, which I'd recently been viewing.

Finally, a few higher structures appeared and the driver took a turn into a narrow side-street, what seemed to a dirt alley. He drove half-way up the alley, before backing down and turning at a fork into an equally dark lane. A few yards off lay what looked somewhat like Eulwang Hotel of my brochure.

"Here, arrival!" proudly announced the driver.

I looked around in some small distress, but felt happy to have arrived at any destination.

"Thank you. I'm sorry I doubted you," I apologized, paying him something like 20,000 Won, which seemed like a ransom instead of fee.

He helped me carry my bags to the lobby, filled, it appeared with about 100 people lined up to the front desk. But I soldiered on, suddenly perceiving that these tourists had already checked in and were awaiting their room assignments from the tour guide. Accordingly, I walked straight to the desk.

The young clerk quickly checked me in and, after a shower (in mid-bathroom with a hose), I returned to the lobby to use my computer, since there was no access in the guest rooms.

I sent messages to both Hae Yisoo (who uses the nicknane, Heysoo) and to Ko Un's translator, Brother Anthony—fortunately, because the next day I discovered that Heysoo, exhausted by all the festival preparations, had not checked in on his email; at 11:00 p.m. Brother Anthony called him, and at midnight, Heysoo called the hotel with a message for me: he would be there to pick me up the next morning.

Despite the shouting voices one could discern in the nearby streets along with the occasional explosion of fireworks, I was fast asleep at the time Heysoo called, and slept comfortably all night.

The morning light sent me downstairs for a 5:00 a.m. breakfast, which an even younger clerk described as an "American brunch," consisting of fried eggs, bacon, and French fries. I laughed at the combination as a I bit into a slice of toast, as did the Korean-American couple from Atlanta seated at the next table. There is something surreal about beginning one's day with fries.

As I began to explore the underdone yolk of my egg, the clerk announced that I had received a telephone message, reporting that someone would be here to drive me into Seoul at 10:00.
I finished as much of my "American brunch" as I dared to consume, and determined to take a short walk. Who made up these noisy night crowds? I wondered. And what were they doing in this outpost?

A block away was a huge arch, a marquee, apparently, to mark off one's entrance into what at evening must be an array of small shops selling trinkets, food, and other unidentifiable objects, along with small motels, which, when I looked into their long halls, appeared to be made up of rooms the size of the windowed booths of the red light district in Amsterdam. This, clearly a city of quick and sudden thrills, I perceived, nestled against a nearby beach was what one might describe as a kind of boardwalk, just as run-down and ragtag as the so-called boardwalk of Venice in Los Angeles.

No one was here this early in the morning, although it was already partially lit, as if primping itself for its nightly show. I walked to the end of the street and stared across a small park abutting it. There, spread out in front, was the subject of the conference—the sea, in all its splendor! This was the Yellow Sea, beyond which lay China.

I returned to my "tourist hotel," to observe several buses gathered upon the small street, which the tourists from the night before had gathered around, as if waiting for someone to tell them to climb aboard. It was a desolate spot where Heysoo would find me, a few hours later. I was equally embarrassed that he had felt the necessity to "save face" by coming out to rescue me himself. He might have easily sent the translator or just the driver, I counseled.

"Please don't worry about me. I was fine. I slept well. The sea, even though I didn't know it was close by, must have comforted me, as it always does, by its rhythms."

When we had finished apologizing and thanking one another, I concluded. "There's no problem; here I am!"

"Here you are," he laughed.

We quickly became friends. The fact that, despite his unbelievably hectic schedule for the day ahead, he had come so far to retrieve me, would inure him forever in my heart. And I was secretly delighted in having witnessed another view of the Korean landscape.

Seoul, October 8, 2010

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