For those of you who don’t know (likely most anybody reading this), the tourism marketing slogan for Korea has been “Korea: Sparkling,” for the last year or so. Presumably, like so many local Asian T-shirts, the actual meaning of this slogan has been lost on its makers, and left as a source of endless ridicule and comedy amongst the English-as-a-first-language crowd. Sparkling, of course, has two potential meanings: shiny and glittery in some way, or amazingly clean. Korea is many things, but shiny or clean are not amongst them. This is a country that doesn’t think to put trash cans anywhere, with the logical end result of litter everywhere. And shiny? Josef Stalin would consider 99.99% of the buildings here a bit too drab for his tastes. “Korea: Sparkling” makes about as much sense as “New York City: Humble” or “Nebraska: Interesting.” I was amazed that they somehow found an even worse slogan than their previous one, “Dynamic Korea,” which of course was hilarious due to the fact that this is probably the second most homogenous country in the world, outpaced only by North Korea.
As you can see, I’ve been a bit down on the Dynamic Sparkle lately. Sometimes, listening to my idiot students parroting their idiot parents’ views on American beef (a HUGE hot button issue here right now, causing mass protests) that they heard from the idiot Korean media just gets old. Under these circumstances, I headed off to my weekend vacation in Gwangju, a small town of a million people in the southwest part of the peninsula.
I took in a baseball game (Kia verses Lotte!) when I arrived, and have a separate blog coming on that. I got myself a killer love motel in the heart of downtown Gwangju, with countless bars and restaurants within 10 minutes walking time, plus a computer and high speed internet in the room for $30 a night. I went to Wolchlsan national park the next day for one of my rare and poorly thought out mountain climbing adventures, though again, I’ll have a separate blog there too. Why the separate blogs? Pictures, yo.
The next day, my final in Gwangju, I headed to the May 18 cemetery. On May 18, 1980, South Korea was still a military dictatorship. In Gwangju, there was a massive student uprising protesting an escalation in martial law. The students and citizens of Gwangju actually succeeded in taking control of the city - for a few days - until the army rolled in with tanks and planes and killed a whole bunch of mostly unarmed people. It’s an amazingly moving story and one I plan to research more, and the cemetery is, as expected, heartbreaking. Each grave has a picture of the person buried within next to it.
The cemetery is quite far from central Gwangju. I had a bus home to catch at 5:10 p.m., and at four I started meandering around the parking lot, looking for a taxi. There were none. I eventually went to the small store to ask the man there where to find a taxi. He pointed to a phone number on his desk. I called the taxi company and asked for a taxi, though that’s as far as I could go Korean conversation, I handed my phone to the shopkeeper, and he spoke to the taxi company. He told me (in Korean, he didn’t speak a word of English either) that they would call back. When they called back, I tried to speak with the taxi company, but I’m still pretty worthless on the phone when it comes to speaking Korean unless I’m ordering food. I handed my phone to the shopkeeper again, he chatted with them, and then told me that a taxi will arrive in 15 minutes. Twenty minutes passed. It was now 4:30. My phone rang again. Again, I gave my phone to the shopkeeper (I’d been hanging out at a picnic table next to the store) and he told me it would be another 7 minutes. I showed the shopkeeper my bus ticket to illustrate the gravity of my situation, and he pishawed my concern, saying that the taxi driver will drive fast.
At 4:38 or so, the taxi arrived. The shopkeeper came out of his store and told the taxi driver about my bus. I got in the taxi, and the driver argued with the shopkeeper for a minute, again in Korean that I didn’t understand, but clearly the taxi driver was saying that getting to the bus station on time was impossible. Finally, the shopkeeper just said “go! go!” (in Korean, of course). We were off. The taxi driver immediately pulled off onto a one-lane (and I mean one lane) farm road, cruising at 70 miles per hour on a road intended for 20 mph traffic. I knew then, weather we made it or not, I’d be tipping this guy. Tipping, by the way, is basically unheard of and even refused here, even amongst cabbies and bartenders.
I thought we were in good shape, until we left the farm road and hit city traffic. Fortunately, this driver’s moves had moves. He would turn on his hazards and drive in the shoulder, he changed lanes 4 or 5 times in a single block to get around busses, and, for a finale, made a daring but perfectly executed left turn on a red light through oncoming traffic. Ordinarily, I would fear for my life in such a situation, but this was 20 minutes into the ride, and by this time I had total faith in his driving ability. We got to the bus station at 5:04. I even had time for a smoke before the four hour (in theory) bus ride. As the bus left Gwangju Terminal, my faith in the Dynamic Sparkle had been renewed, in no small part because of two total strangers that didn’t speak a word of English between them, who went out of their way to help a random foreign idiot that speaks far too little Korean.