This would be a Good City in which to Fall in Love

Before I write about my first night of making an actual effort to go out in Korea (a month in, I thought it was about time), I need to let everyone know I didn’t take any pictures. I’ve done a lot of stuff since I got here, but I’m leaving getting a new cellphone contract until after payslip #1. Any of the snapshots you’ve seen up here were taken on my old South African phone, which dies. Because I don’t charge it. Because it’s a brick-glorified-2-megapixel-flashless-pocket camera that does nothing else at the moment.

Anyway, it was dead last night because, for the umpteenth time, I forgot to charge the damn thing.

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You bastard.

At around 2 PM yesterday, I threw my hands up in the air, hit pause on season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and decided to make a mission to check out this guitar shop a friend of mine told me about in Seoul. The idea is that, next month, I’m going to need to get some strings up in this place (after nearly a month of not playing, my fingers feel like Michael Cera’s cheeks – soft as Justin Timberlake’s baby ass).

I live in Incheon, which is maybe 26 kms from there. So, drawing responsibly from a Family Bank ATM, picking up a plastic easter egg lego man from a vending machine down the road and hailing a cab, I missioned out to find the world. Or Seoul. Which is as big as the world, if not bigger.

Lesson the first in this trek au Korean is that taxi drivers don’t understand English at all. Which is ridiculous in that I need them to be able to speak English if I’m going to get anywhere here except for the Family Mart and that whisky bar where I’m pretty sure the waitresses are all underwear scowl models. 

I managed to get him down to Incheon bus stop eventually, where a bespectacled little dude in an actual tweed jacket helped me figure out the situation getting a ride to Seoul. After about an hour and a half in traffic and not a single street sign in English, though, let me assure you, even the twinkliest of ancient little strangers starts looking like a scheming villain who just burned you for a laugh.

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You evil bastard.

From Seoul, it was that scene in every Vegas movie where the country bumpkin arrives on the strip and he’s wandering around with his mouth hanging open, staring wide-eyed at all the buildings and the lights and the beautiful Asian people all dressed like Westerners. As the next twenty minutes pressed on, though, I realised Seoul is too big to just land up at one end of it and hit wherever you’re looking for quickly or easily.

So, it was time for the subway. Which, if you’re a South African who’s used to Cape Town’s set of maybe thirty train stops and the additional BRT route nodes as a an example of an extensive public transport system, is terrifying.

Ladies and gentlemen of the South African jury, I present to you, the Seoul subway map:

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It’s like the city planners snorted crushed up crayolas and sneezed onto a piece of map paper.

Turns out, ask enough Korean shop owners for directions to a train station and somebody’s going to know, though, so, one encounter with the first homeless person I’ve seen since I’ve been here standing next to the ticket machine, and about a half hour’s worth of jostling with people getting onto and off of trains that all looked disarmingly similar, I managed to find my ride, seconds before the doors closed.

Two connecting trains later (there’s a new experience for you), I managed to make my way to Euljiro Sam-Ga station. Which, I need to stress, was a lot more tense at times than it sounds, man. Those tunnels are long and dark and you’re mostly going on directions given to you by more little old Korean men who you’re still sure are not to be trusted. Trains take off at warp speed, and every station looks completely different to the one you just hit, it might as well be two time zones ago. Every one you get on is a little further from home, borne only on the feeling you’ve given yourself that you actually know what it was you just did to get here, so you can retrace your steps later. It was such a joke at times, man, on my own surrounded by an ant farm of scurrying commuters. A couple of times, my honest-to-god thought was “Shit, well, you’ve gotten this far – turn around, tell this story, and ain’t nobody gon’ say nothin’ about it.” It was 6 in the evening, by this stage – I didn’t even know if the shop would be open, let alone willing to put up with my pug little Westerner face barging in there, making like a real life musician.

But come on 🙂 What kind of man would I be if I gave up at this point? Arriving at Euljiro, the next mini mission in the now-computer-gameish-story-of-my-life was getting out of the station to the world above. Underground stations look a lot like the underground mall in Cape Town, if anyone from there gets the reference. Kinda dingy, with lots of flourescents and vending machines and lost-looking travelers dragging too much luggage for the trip at hand around with them. After figuring out the exit strategy for this particular station and navigating the neverending flight of stairs out of there, I broke free into the outside world.

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To find a landscape even more festooned with incomprehensible symbols and neon lights than the one I’d left behind in Seoul-central-Vegas. Still, not to be beaten at this late stage in the game (that old fighting spirit), I torqued about 8 sets of directions from the unyielding Korean populace of the area and wandered the streets until I found…

The most uninspiring music shop you’ve ever seen in your life. This building, for which I’d headed out with starry eyes and mussed hair, I found was a Marshall-licensed, two floor little building with about as wide a selection as Port Elizabeth’s MusicLand, or your city’s equivalent of a store with enough, and no more than that. Doing my due diligence, I walked both floors for a bit, ran my hands over some of the guits (admittedly, some of them were pretty cool – Koreans have a big thing for SGs rocking three sets of humbuckers apiece, something I’d previously thought only existed in Tarantino movies), but left after about fifteen minutes, underwhelmed.

“Still”, I thought, “you made it”, ignoring the fact that the sun was now setting and there wasn’t a taxi or bus anywhere in sight, and I didn’t know how to get back home in the slightest. I took a sharp left out of the shop doors and found a miraculous thing:

Nagwon Arcade is a flea market, at the very least on some Saturday nights. And it’s freaking huge.

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Hmm? Oh, yes, giant flea jokes. Very funny indeed.

There were people everywhere, left to right, ambling down an endless cobblestone corridor, buying multicoloured everything in the muggy evening heat. It was awesome, and I figured I had at least a couple minutes to wonder around before the sun went down and I desperately needed to get out of there and home somehow.

Then a kid walked past me with a pair of drumsticks. From the opposite direction to the shop I’d just come out of. Could it be that…I put it out of my head for the time being, focussing on the electricity of purchase and wide brimmed hats buzzing all around me. Dudes were selling bootlegged LPs, hair scrunchies, food of every colour, books, tshirts, vinyl prints, and ice cream marshmellow waffle sandwiches that basically looked like the colour pink got diabetes, covered itself in whipped cream and died in a Milky Lane sponsored coffin.

Restaurants had their kitchen windows open to the street, where dudes in chef’s jackets were handing people deep fried and flattened squid while they sang (they sang to them!) under a darkening sky, surrounded by paper lanterns and 8 or 9 different music sources coming from different directions.

And still, as I walked, more and more kids would pass me, coming towards me with violin cases slung over their shoulders, guitar tuners in boxes in their hands. It was eery, when you looked at it, because it seemed scripted as hell. Like the evidence was just too overt, and it was everywhere, every couple of beats. There was something else going on here.

Arriving at the end of the arcade, I turned around, all star struck and loving the energy of Nagwon, but, sadly, needing to go home. I walked briskly back through the crowd to where I’d first met disappointment at the Marshall shop and passed, on my way back, a side alley, at the end of which was something called the Nagwon Music Mall.

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We had the translation wrong the whole time. It’s not a shop – it’s a MALL!

That’s right – three stories of music stores, each, I’m supposing, specialising in one type or brand or size or colour or whatever of music instrument. I say “I’m supposing”, because, by this stage, it was closed as hell. I sat down on a concrete step across from it, bought some chicken (I’m hoping) on a stick and a Long Island Ice Tea in a bag from the two vendors directly next to me, and just looked at the thing for about twenty minutes, all the time thinking one thing:

“I am going to shop the shit out of that mall the next time I’m in town.”

After that, I found my way home just fine. Turns out you can catch a train all the way from Incheon to pretty much that exact street corner, and get a much cheaper taxi home afterwards. The ride home wasn’t too exciting, although I did get to see the Korean version of the vendors who climb onto Cape Town trains and try to sell you superglue or (one time) a doorknob. It was weird, though, seeing this dude as he climbed on, as South African vendors are always homeless and / or impaired somehow, like they’re blind and can’t make money any other way. This guy was selling toothbrushes, right, but he was also wearing a blazer, and a nice shirt, and he had a haircut and everything. Just odd, I guess.

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~ by dook on August 26, 2012.

One Response to “This would be a Good City in which to Fall in Love”

  1. “It’s like the city planners snorted crushed up crayolas and sneezed onto a piece of map paper.”

    I nearly died, dude.

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