It’s been one year since I moved to Korea. Since then I’ve completed my TaLK (Teach and Learn in Korea) program, gone home for a visit, and moved to Indonesia to serve in the Peace Corps. I think it’s been long enough that I can finally tell you about the night I landed in Korea. Keep in mind: I’m sorry, but also it’s fine — obviously, and you’ve heard that before and most likely will again. This is the story of the first time I got in the car with strangers in Korea. I told you you’d freak out.
I left America on July 30 and landed in Korea on July 31 ready for the program’s orientation August 1. My flight arrived at around 9 p.m. local time, and I turned my phone back on to an email from my booked hostel that I had missed the check-in time, so they could no longer accommodate me (the TaLK housing did not begin until the following day.)
I backpacked across Europe the month before and slept in at least four different airports not to mention the countless bus stations. I wasn’t too worried. I gathered all my baggage around me on a nice bench across from a TV and prepared to camp out for the night. Really, it was just a few hours until other TaLK scholars would begin to arrive at the airport, by now it was past 10 p.m.
And then people started to trickle out. Flights stopped landing, baggage was all collected, and cleaning crews were among the only people left in the airport — except for me. I’m awkward, so I tried to make it seem like I knew what I was doing, I moved to the upstairs departure area trying to make it look like I was simply early for a flight. It was dark. No one was there. I pushed the elevator button back to down and was ready to resume my previous seat when I was stopped by a security guard speaking Korean.
He eventually found someone who spoke English who explained to me that this isn’t an overnight airport, I have to leave. Again, I’m awkward, so I told them I’m just waiting on my friend to pick me up, she’s on the way, I can go outside to wait.
*SIDE NOTE* I have literally never heard of another airport that isn’t open 24-hours, so Busan, you can suck it.
I had no Korean money. It didn’t matter because there were no taxis around anywhere and nowhere to take me. I was then after midnight. I sat directly outside the airport doors trying to grab their wifi (did I mention I didn’t have an international phone plan, so my phone was useless unless attached to wifi?)
Luckily, I had joined a Facebook message of my fellow TaLK scholars arriving early. I posted a message asking if anyone was still awake and would let me crash for the night. My eyes were wide and I was starting to think of contingency plans. But how would I get anywhere?
A scholar replied! A few agonizing minutes later, a scholar replied! A beautiful, wonderful, selfless, trusting, perfect human replied. He said he had a room at the Airport Hotel and I was welcome to stay with him.
I opened Google Maps to see where that was and found out it was less than a mile. Cake. I could walk less than a mile to the hotel, even with my luggage, salvation (and a bed) was in site!
The security guards were still watching me, so I arranged my tote bag to sit upon my large suitcase and swung my hiking pack, Bertha, on my shoulders. I held my head high and put on my best I know exactly what I’m doing face, and walked as fast as I could away. Across the airport parking lot, across the empty highway and turned left, in the direction of the hotel (I had taken screenshots of the map to the hotel, I was then without wifi.)
The first thing I noticed now that it was my first real experience out in Korea was the humidity. Good Lord, I had never experienced anything like that. It was a sticky heat that was like breathing in steam, not air. I was wearing leggings and a tank top, but found myself soaked in sweat after just a few minutes. The wheel of my suitcase kept catching on stones and throwing my tote bag off the handles. I was getting frustrated, but no one was around, so I still felt safe.
Probably dumb. The bad guys don’t hang out in packs smoking cigarettes and polishing their knives, that’s only in the movies — well, and Indonesia as I’ve come to learn, but I didn’t know that at the time.
I walked the mile and came to a closed gas station. According to the map, the hotel was right on the other side. Not promising, considering there were no tall buildings around, but I walked through an alley to get to where I needed to be and found nothing. A few restaurants, a few houses, no hotel.
I did spot two men standing next to a running car though. Here is where Mom stops reading and Dad starts looking at flight prices to Indonesia to Liam Neeson me home; because, of course I walked up to them. I wasn’t supposed to, and stranger danger, but I did it. I needed the help and didn’t know what else to do.
I asked them for directions.
They didn’t speak English.
Thankfully, hotel is the same word in Hangul as it is in English, and with some pantomiming, I was able to indicate that I wanted the Airport Hotel. The men talked to each other for a while, and then mimed that they wanted me to get in the car, they would take me.
This is where (if Mom is still reading) she calls to yell at me and if I don’t answer goes to tell my little sister that she’s never allowed to leave the house again, and Dad starts building my Tay-punzel tower.
Because I got in the car. I had no choice. No internet to look for closer hotels, or directions to them. No phone to call a taxi. No money to pay for either taxi or hotel. I was hopeless. So, I got in the car.
Weirdly enough, the only time I actually felt like I was dumb/in danger is when I put my bag in the driver’s side back seat and then had to walk around to get into the passenger’s seat. All I could think about was 60 Minutes and the scams of how hired cars do that so they can drive off with your luggage — I hauled ass to open the door before that happened. It didn’t.
We drove for less than five minutes trying to speak Kon-glish as best we could with me trying to remember the route we were taking, but we soon pulled up in front of the hotel. The sparkling, shiny, Emerald City of a hotel. My sanctuary for the night. I had finally arrived.
The nice man who drove me even brought my luggage into the hotel and said something to the consierge. I told him I didn’t have Won, but asked him to accept a box of Jelly Bellies as payment (a gift from America for my future mentor teacher.) He didn’t accept them, but gave me a bow and said to enjoy my time in Korea, and then left. My Knight in Shining Toyota.
I wish I knew who he was so that I could thank him now. But you never do get to properly thank the mysterious people who save your life in different ways.
I took the elevator up to the room my new friend was staying in (did I mention that I still hadn’t met this boy who’s offered me to share his bed for the night?) I knocked on the door and this glorious British boy in a bathrobe let me in and listened to me rant about my adventure. I was dripping sweat, hadn’t slept since America the day before, and my hair was in a messy top knot, and yet this tremendous human still welcomed me into his room.
After the greatest shower of my life, I climbed into the king sized bed next to my savior, smiling to myself about how Korea was already winning, and slept a wonderful, deep sleep.
And that’s the story of how my first night in Korea, I wandered the streets with no phone and no money, hitchhiked a ride from a strange man who didn’t speak my language, and slept with a British boy I had just met.
But did you die?