Just West of the Midwest Chapter 21: Journey to Pusan, Part One

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There were absolutely oodles of places Sam and I wanted to visit throughout Southeast Asia, but as our vacation neared, we found it more and more difficult to make plans due to the fact the American Embassy continued to warn Westerners of certain hotspots of anti-American sentiment as the Gulf War continues. So, of all places, we ended up heading to Pusan, South Korea.

As usual, Sam and I began our trip (like most any excursion which requires our waking before the noon whistle blows) in extraordinarily bitchy moods.

“I hate the morning.”

“I hate life.”

“I hate everyone.”

We arrived at Hyuga Train Station with plenty of time to spare because I, Patty Paranoia, deemed it that way. I have to admit, my obsession with early arrivals all began back in my college days when, after misreading my departure time for a trip back to school, my mother and I had to make it to O’Hare Airport (45 minutes away) for a plane expected to take off in an hour. Not only did my mother’s insane serpentining through Eden’s Expressway traffic scar me for life, but the fact that after making it on board just moments before the airplane door closed, a man – all settled and snug in my appointed seat – was forced to leave the plane.

Trembling, sweaty and apologetic, I was forced to face not only his look of absolute disgust, but was certain the entire plane was wholeheartedly on his side.

I swear there was even some hissing.

Anyway, arriving at the station way ahead of time gave us ample opportunity to pick apart nearly every traveller who had the untimely luck to pass in front of us. Once on board the train and finally settled into two seats together (Our travel agent from hell had an incredible amount of difficulty coming to terms with the fact that traveling together might have actually meant a desire to be sitting on the same train as one another… I told you I’m not a morning person.), Sam and I sat back for the next four hours, watching northern Kyushu float by us covered in morning mist.

As the fog lifted, so did our grim moods.

Being Golden Week, a period which consists of nine different holidays, including the Emperor’s birthday, Constitutional Memorial Day and Greenery Day, we watched a parade of people get on and off the train on their way to and from various vacation spots, short excursions to visit family and friends, etc., and soon found ourselves being herded along with the massive crowds onto the ferry that would take us to Korea. Before long, we discovered that our reserved bunks were about as inviting as a sleepover in the center of Union Station. But they were, at least, a place to lay our heads and we figured we’d only return to them after all the fun was to be had on the boat.

Little did we know, there was absolutely no fun to be had on the boat.

Within the first few minutes on board, we also began to get a bad feeling about things. As we were setting our belongings into our bunks (which although curtained, offered little sanctuary from the chaotic passageway), an odd, little man approached us and asked if we would carry some extra bottles of whiskey into Korea for a little, old lady.

All right now… we may have been robbed multiple times in a row recently, but who was he kidding!

I wanted to tell him to “pull the other one,” but felt the translation might present even more of a problem. So, I told him we already had too much to carry. Scanning our meager amount of luggage, I thought he’d try to press his request, but after hemming and hawing and making Sam and I squirm for a few moments, he mumbled something in Korean (and I’m certain it was nothing but pleasantries) and walked away.

Sam and I looked to one another, then to our sad, tiny bunks and meager belongings, and decided the best course of action would be to check out the remainder of the boat, leaving nothing of value behind. Although we certainly hadn’t expected the QEII, neither did we expect the lack of anything that might take our mind off the next eight hours of travel to Korea.The ship’s gloomy dining room was rushing people in and out at such an alarming rate (I saw an old lady with a walker burning rubber), the idea of sitting there for any more time than was necessary to clear our plates was out of the question. Our next destination was, of course, the bar where time tends to pass very quickly for us.

Until we saw the bar. A small, unsavory room, dingy and dilapidated.

Filled with the saddest array of lecherous-looking men hunched over large cans of beer.

I looked to Sam and admitted that I felt our entering this establishment might be akin to walking into solitary confinement at a male prison wearing nothing but g-strings. However, my dear and slightly damaged friend insisted it was our only choice. She further rationalized that it wasn’t as if we hadn’t become experts in warding off unwanted advances in bars. Being two young, unaccompanied, female foreigners with abnormal capacities for alcohol has made us experts on the subject. So, we walked into the sorry-looking establishment, ordered a couple of warm beers and found an empty table in the corner, where our overinflated egos quickly ruptured as a result of not being the object of anyone’s attention.

After a walk on the deck, we returned below to our bunks, where we found a cross-eyed stranger standing there, staring at us as we approached. Even as we attempted to settle into our tiny spaces, the odd, little man continued to stand there and stare at us. Sam asked if we could help him with anything.

No response.

He just stared.

Finally having enough of this Asian Svengali, we firmly asked him to leave, offering the international “SHOO!” symbol.

He responded by holding up his passport.

As if this was the key to everything.

But still, he refused to budge.

We found the only way to rid ourselves of his creepy, death-stare was to climb into our respective bunks, close our respective curtains and fake our sudden deaths.

It was about 7:30 p.m.

Good thing the evening ended so early. The following morning we were woken at 6 a.m. by noises that would have jarred a coma patient to consciousness. Our ship’s captain (Let’s just call him Ahab, shall we?) apparently got some sadistic pleasure out of rousing everyone on board (hours before it was truly necessary) by playing – at full blast – a repertoire of music which would have made a Barry Manilow Radio Marathon seem heaven sent. The effect of the ear-piercing wake-up call was a mad rush by all passengers (excluding Sam and myself) to be first in line for the disembarkation which was to take place in TWO HOURS.

With our bunks regrettably situated only a few short feet from one of the exits to the upper deck, we found that not a minute passed without the exit door slamming shut, or a group of passengers scurrying by, bellowing to one another as if they were at opposite ends of the boat, as opposed to just a few inches away. I finally decided that it was best to rise and dress rather than put myself through any additional torture. Sam soon followed.

Now considering that even if I were to be woken by a beautiful man whispering sweet nothings into my ear, as he lay a breakfast tray with Eggs Benedict, strong coffee and a bouquet of lilacs on my lap, I would still be inclined to be a little grumpy…you can imagine my mood on this fine morning. Still, we gathered our things, washed the sleep from our faces and headed on deck where – at a safe distance – we watched passengers vie for space in line.

I tried to comfort my increasing agitation, but found my thoughts racing back to the question of why it is that we humans – we “thought-processing, highly developed” creatures  – still move in reactive herds? Turning away from the scene, which seemed only to stoke our sour morning moods, Sam and I looked for solace in the harbor scenery. Perhaps a sighting of some colorful, local marine life would raise our spirits.

All we saw were people, everywhere, guiltlessly tossing refuse into the utterly polluted waters of Pusan. I pity any aquatic life who has to call these waters home.

If things didn’t start looking up soon, I conveyed to Sam with a disheartened glance, I was going to regret my ever leaving the sanctity of my cozy, clean apartment in Shintomi. Customs and Immigration crawled along at its usual pace, while Sam and I found ourselves trying to ignore our agitations and foul moods with thoughts of hot showers and a good meal.

But not without one more irritant.As luck would have it, this came from the same little man who had approached us the day prior about carrying his “grandma’s extra whiskey.” We had noticed him standing directly behind us in line some time before and, after casually scanning our bags for possible smuggled goods stashed in our luggage while our heads were turned, decided that his proximity was mere coincidence. That is, until the man tapped Sam on the shoulder and began to ask her questions about our trip to Korea.

Even though Sam had told him that we were there for a short holiday, the odd, little man asked if we were looking for jobs. If so, he said with a licentious wink, he could introduce us to “some people.” Not liking where the conversation was headed and feeling as if we now both REALLY needed a bath, we managed to push our way further up the line, ignoring the angry stares of those we cut in front of.

So far, Korea was not proving a paradise.

Finally through customs, we made our way to the tourist desk where a stone-faced, young woman’s only assistance came in the form of tossing us a few, dusty pamphlets and a list of tourist hotels. So, we wandered into the port city of Pusan on the tip of the Korean Peninsula, with no direction and more than a little apprehension.

We exchanged some yen for won (talk about a mathematical nightmare) and decided to find the nearest diner where we could take a good look at a map of the city. It didn’t take long before a larger than life “COFFEE SHOP” sign beckoned us with the promise of the comforts of home. Inside the shop, however, home was still far, far away.

The interior looked as if Laura Ashley and Sugar Sizzle, the Star Stripper of Sioux City, had been design partners, employing a wanton use of lace and chintz, frills and absurdly feminine fandangles, intermingled with the unmistakable aura of corruption and sleaze. Yet poor ambience was not the leading factor in our deduction that this was not like any coffee shop to which either of us has ever been. Instead, it was when we were directed to a booth – nearest the exit – and noticed that Sam and I were the only females not clad in skin-tight shirts, crotch-high mini-skirts, five inch heels and enough make-up to make Elizabeth the First seem like a natural beauty. Combine this with the vicious glares we were getting from the “girls working” in this establishment, Sam and I felt it best to gulp down our scalding coffee (mouth burns be damned) and skeedaddle out of there before our seats even had a chance to get warm.

Stepping back into the daylight, I shuddered, feeling as if I had briefly been transported into the dark recesses of a man’s brain where exists a world where the woman follow a few simple rules: keep the attire slutty, the mouth closed, the brains empty, the drinks full and your legs open.

With little direction and a growing sense of doom, we headed into several nearby hotels where we were quickly rejected by surly desk clerks who claimed each hotel was full up. Even though everything about their body language and demeanor said they simply wanted to be rid of us.

We finally managed to find a room (for one night) at The Royal Pusan – oddly enough, affiliated with The Royal Bangkok where Sam and I stayed in Hong Kong. (Obviously word of our misadventures there had not traveled through the hotel chain’s grape vine, or we would have been sleeping on the docks that night.)

After dropping our bags and showering – twice – we headed out to see if the underbelly of Pusan would roll over. We spent the remainder of the day wandering through a shopping district where we hoped to find clothes – shoes especially, not available in our sizes in either Japan or Hong Kong. By day’s end, all we owned was the knowledge that even more Asian shoe salesmen were left in our wake, shocked and slack-jawed, scratching theirs heads, as they re-examined their foot-sizers.

Speaking of sales clerks… I’m not sure whether I had something in my teeth, or Sam looked particularly untrustworthy, but I noticed that from the moment we set foot in nearly every single store that day, a salesperson was right on our heels. And when I say right on our heels, I mean to say that if I had decided to try any clothes on, I would have had to have found clothes big enough to accommodate two human beings.

I’m talking close.

So, after several hours of unrelenting discouragement, we turned our energies to eating. On our way back to the hotel, we began hearing strange chants.

Growing louder and louder.

Drawing closer and closer.

The louder the chanting became, the more ominous everything came to feel.

The buildings seemed to loom closer overhead.

The clouds in the sky felt thicker.

Grayer.

The sounds of the city – except for the muffled incantations rising above everything – went silent.

We had just made it to the entrance of our hotel, when from around the corner, in the middle of one of the main streets of the district, came a hoard of university students demonstrating against what we later learned to be the death of a student in Seoul, as a result of police brutality. We watched their peaceful demonstration for a few minutes and then went to our room to change and relax before heading out again to see a movie. An hour later, as we exited the hotel, the scene had changed.

We saw two large groups of students, many sitting in the middle of the busy thoroughfare and, now, an equal number of riot police facing them. More than the solemn, powerful chants rising from the students, I found myself moved to anxious unease by the appearance of these armed warriors. For “warriors” seems the best way to describe them.The legion of young men standing before me were not only armed with a slew of intimidating weaponry, but clad from head to toe in protective gear, which uncannily resembled the ancient armor of the Samurai Warrior.

In one hand, each held a large shield.In the other, a club.

Pitch black helmets reached to their shoulders and a clear, plastic mask covered their very, very young faces.

Some stood expressionless; while other revealed an undeniable expression of superiority, a disturbing perception of power these young men wielded – both in their arms and in their minds. I couldn’t help but picture what those expressions would turn to if, or when, it came time to raise their shields and employ their clubs. Would their protective masks shield the truth?

MIGHT DOES NOT MAKE RIGHT.

Man hasn’t changed.

Only his weapons.

As we watched the various factors draw nearer to one another, our better judgement told us this was not our fight and so we quietly left the troubled scene. Hoping in our hearts that calm and reason be the victors of the day. As we moved just a few blocks from the protest, Sam and I were surprised to see how unaffected the rest of the city was. The streets were filled with people casually wandering in and out of stores, from one open market to the next, from restaurant to restaurant, bar to bar, person to person, until the unending scenes of nightlife couldn’t help but force the tense confrontation to the back of our minds.

Before heading into the theater, we roamed through a nearby market to see what interesting items the vendors might be offering.

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Photos by acfrohna

There was an abundance of delicacies from the sea, as well as from the earth. Some of which enticed my senses; while others nearly triggering a gag reflex. Roasted silk worms were certainly one of the fares which I’ll not soon forget. With the help of a lot of pantomime and a little Japanese, I was told by the very sweet and very, very, very wrinkly old lady selling the strange silky morsels, eating these Anthropoda Insecta Lepidoptera would help one become beautiful.

“Like me!” she explained pointing to her puckered, pruny face and toothless smile.

Throughout the market there was a remarkable variety of dried seafood and I’m not talking smoked salmon here folks, but squid, for example, which has been gutted, flattened, salt preserved and stacked by the hundreds, ready for anyone with the hankering. I never found out exactly how these things were eaten (I assume they’re rehydrated for cooking), yet I couldn’t help but picture someone holding one of these squids by the stiffened tentacles and sucking on it like a Slo-Poke.

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After watching the movie, “Dances with Wolves,” Sam and I headed back in the direction we thought our hotel was, but soon ended up in a seedy (let me correct that, YET ANOTHER seedy) part of Pusan. Directionless, we unwisely wandered down streets where the lights were sparse and leering men ample, desperately searching for any familiar landmark.We remained relatively calm. Even after finding ourselves making a full circle back to the theater after an hour.

We never lost hope.

And we never once let go of each other’s arms.

After another hour of wandering, we finally made it back to our hotel where we ordered a couple of beers and fell asleep before the first bottle had even been emptied.The following day, we woke to face the unpleasant task of having to find other accommodations for the remainder of our stay. We tried to talk our hotel clerk into another night, but to no avail. I made several calls that morning, but soon found every place booked and was beginning to panic that we’d be left on the streets of Pusan.

Feeling hopeless, we returned to the front desk of our hotel and pleaded our case one last time. If they couldn’t help us, we begged, could they recommend somewhere – someone – that might. Eventually, we softened up the hotel manager. (Tears really come in handy in such cases.) He made a call, gave us an address and told us to talk to Mr. Choi when we got there.

Considering everything about our trip so far, it all sounded a little odd and the possibility that we were about to be sold into slavery did cross our minds, but it was that or the streets. So, we hopped into a cab and went in search of Mr. Choi.

It soon became clear that we were moving out of the city center. The higher the cab fare rose, the more nervous energy we spent trying to convince ourselves that everything was going to be just fine. Twenty minutes later, the cab pulled into a neighborhood that looked about as uninviting as a hungry dog at a cat rally. Sam and I squeezed each other’s hands, were about to say our farewells, “It was good while it lasted.”, when… the cab pulled up to a very pleasant looking building that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Much to our great relief, the inn turned out to be quite charming and Mr. Choi, equally so.

And even though there was one futon and two of us, the room was clean, it had a shower, a bathtub (which was bigger than the futon) and it was ours for the rest of our visit. As we sat back in our new room, we both began to breath again and had a good laugh.

Thank god for friends you can always, ALWAYS manage to laugh with.

After settling in, we went for a walk around our new surroundings and were pleased to come upon the national park, T’aejongdae, almost immediately. It was undoubtedly one of the prettiest places in all of Pusan and after studying a map of the park, we learned that the road which lay before us wound its way through several hundred acres of reserved land and, every so often, offered a special stopping place where one could view the ocean, rest, have a bite to eat, or something to drink. It felt as if we had just stumbled upon Shangri-La.

Feeling altogether giddy about finding a place in Pusan that didn’t send shivers up our spines, we purchased some plastic tiaras from a local vendor and off we went in search one particular spot on the park map that we simply couldn’t pass up: “Husband Waiting Rock.”

There was a story there somewhere… and it goes something like this:

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There was a sad princess named Sam,
Who longed for one thing – for a man.
But not any ol’man would suffice,
For most men that she knew were mere mice.

He had to be strong and sincere.
He had to give gifts – mostly beer.
Fine traits she deemed run the gamut,
For Sam was a Princess, God Damn It!

For years, Sam had made this her goal,
But then time began taking its toll.
Then one day, a strange wizard – with the breath of a lizard
Said, “Your Highness, to Korea you must go!”

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So packing her bags and her crown,
The Princess made tracks from her town.
As the waves beat her boat and she prayed just to float,
Came a clue as to where she was bound.

On the map was a park, T’aejongdae,
where she knew, without doubt, was her guy.
For what better place, for a woman in her case,
Then where “Husband Waiting Rock” lies!

Her first stop was the rocks by the sea,
For she was sure it was where he would be.
With a beer, there she waited – her breath slightly bated.
“If he doesn’t come soon I shall wee!”

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Losing hope, she searched in the wood,
But her manhunt still proved no darn good.
So back down she strode, where the men were old toads
And her stomach turned as sour as her mood.

At the beach, there were men who laid claim
That the rocks they all held were the same,
But they were rocks – and no more, not the one she searched for.
Hey, the princess was no stupid dame!

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Soon the sun threatened to set
And poor Sam was filled with regret,
When the wizard appeared, grinning smugly ear to ear,
“I’m here, my dear Princess, don’t fret.”

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The wizard began to explain,
“Princess Sam, your search was in vain.
For I led you here, because I want you, Dear!”
Sam gasped, screaming, “Are you insane?”

“Are you telling me there is no rock?
And that finding a man was a crock?”
The wizard just glared, the Princess got scared
And a knee to his balls went unblocked!

Princess Sam left the wizard all bent
And off to the station she went.
With a sigh and a moan, in her cabin, all alone.
“Oh well, there are studs I can rent!”

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And she lived happily ever after.

Stay tuned for Journey to Pusan – Part Two: Student Saviors.

Author: Anne Celano Frohna

I am a writer, a mother of two girls, Eva (20) and Sophia (18) and wife to one husband, Kurt. I was mostly a professional writer and editor for 30 years for graphic arts and advertising, for publishers of newspapers, magazines, books, etc.,. Now, I have a blog where I post my creative non-fiction, short stories, a couple of illustrated children's stories and a comedy I wrote about two years I spent teaching English in rural Japan (NOT a story for a child.). I’m also working on a new blog about the wonderful, hand-crafted items I've collected over the years at beautyofthrift.com. - which will also connect to the Etsy shop I recently opened called Channeling Nonna. My husband and I both love to cook and to entertain and have welcomed friends and family to our homes for over 20 years. With our eldest off at college, we also began hosting with Airbnb, the perfect (and most natural) way for me to continue to pursue my passion of writing, while at the same time help us pay for current and future college expenses.

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