The light from the waning gibbous moon kept darkness at bay in the early hours of the morning as three people finished loading a van with thirty-pound bags. They hurried into the vehicle and as quietly as possible drove away from the house in rural Mississippi, glad of the empty road.
No, this is not the beginning of a Faulkner short story. It is the start of my journey to Korea as a teacher of English as a foreign language, and to some extent, my exploration of the rest of the world. We left at three in the morning to make it to the Memphis airport by five; my flight for Chicago (ORD) left a few minutes after six. For the road, I grabbed an orange juice, highly aware of my need for Vitamin C and waited to get my coffee at the Starbucks past airport security.
Thus, my morning began the way I prefer it to: with a good, strong cup of bold roast and the early morning news. We boarded on time and arrived flawlessly at ORD by eight, by which point my stomach had fervently reminded me that I had yet to eat. I found a lovely little pastry café (or at least the airport version of it) called Brioche Doree and gave in to my weakness for pain au chocolat.
I exchanged my US Dollars for Korean Won and made my way to the gate where I met two other teachers: one an inexperienced American like myself and the other a Canadian with a fondness for travel who was a seasoned veteran of teaching English in Korea (though she was still under thirty!).
As we boarded, I was happy to find that even the economy seats were spacious in Asiana's Boeing 777-200ER. We were crossing the US-Canada border when drinks were served. Unaccustomed to anything other than sodas, tea, coffee or water as a complimentary drink, I took advantage of a glass of red wine. Soon after, our first meal was served in square dishes reminiscent of a bento box. Rather than the usual steak and potatoes, I opted for the more intriguing bibimbap with kimchi and fruit, followed by a coffee. Excluding the Korean restaurants, I had visited in the States, this was my first taste of Korean. Never had airplane food tasted so delicious.
Unable to sleep I found myself watching GI Joe: Retaliation and Beautiful Creatures (the latter of which, though still a teen movie, was not nearly as bad as I had anticipated). Though many people were resting, those of us who were awake enjoyed a nice ham and cheddar sandwich on European style bread. I also glanced at a travel map that tracked our progress and direction as we flew. I was intrigued to notice that not only was flying northwest then southwest over the arctic Alaska and Russia, the quickest way, it also kept land underneath us, so that if we were to crash, we would not find ourselves stranded in the Pacific. (It also explained why flying from DFW took three hours longer than flying out of ORD.) As we crossed through southern Russia our second meal was served, and again I chose the less germane dish and enjoyed octopus with rice (along with the several other sides to add to the rice) instead of the chicken and rice. Sometime along the way, Monday 26th August turned into Tuesday 27th August, though the sun never left us.
Though the flight was fourteen hours, it only felt so long periodically. I had brought plenty for which to entertain myself, but pulled out none of it out. If anything, I probably felt anxious, though it still seemed like just another plane trip to me, rather than the first step in my life abroad. The last few hours were the worst because we seemed to take forever to get to our destination, which seemed so close on the map. As we flew west circumventing North Korea, I told myself that it was because we had a sharp turn inward as we had to land on the west side of the country, my idle mind wondered if it wasn't also a precaution.
Our flight landed in Incheon Airport right on time and using my mad calculus skills to find the quickest line through customs (ok, so it was more of my lunch-line observation skills; I have no calculus skills), I soon had an immigration stamp on my passport and was ready to find a luggage trolley. Thankfully, the trolley was free and I heaved two of my checked bags onto it along with my carry-ons. My third checked bag—my 75L Osprey pack, I threw onto my back. I was rolling my way to my new life.
The Director of the school met me in the arrivals lobby with a sign bearing my name. I'm not quite sure what it is about those signs, but it was my first and it made me feel like a VIP. We loaded up his car and soon I was off to see my new place of employment. I was shown all of the classrooms and teachers, all of which were very nice. Then, we drove up the hill to my new apartment, which I am to share with the teacher who I am to replace until she leaves Monday afternoon. I was happily surprised at the studio apartment that is about the size of a college dorm-room. It came complete with kitchen (refrigerator, microwave, stove, and toaster all included), washer, bathroom, bed, desk, television (with cable) and vanity/bookcase.
I didn't want to be up all night so I only lay down rather than take a full nap. It was hot and stuffy though the windows were open. So I took a shower and got ready for that night. As a welcome, the other foreign teachers were taking me out to dinner. We ended up at a traditional Chinese restaurant where we ate at a low table while sitting on the floor with our shoes off. I should probably note here that it is customary in Korean to take your shoes off before entering someone's house; I am not sure of the application of this to fancy restaurants as I haven't been to any, but in the everyday take-out places and cafes, it is commonplace to keep your shoes on. My apartment has a small cabinet by the door in which to keep your shoes.
After dinner, a few of the female teachers took me to Daiso, which is best compared to the American dollar stores, though it seems nicer to me. They go there for stickers and prizes for the kids who do well on their work. I was also shown GS25, which I have heard compared to a 7Eleven. They did some shopping while I looked around. When we got back I tried to move my suitcases out of the way as much as possible so that we could both get around as easily as possible. My temporary roommate gave me some more tips and then, thankfully, it was time for bed.
P.S.: By the way, yes, I did get the title of this blog "Citizen of the World" from 'Casablanca'.