Part 1 of this story is here, if you missed it!
After the six of us were shuffled off the boat and through customs and immigration, we exited the port and found ourselves in an exciting, new country! More specifically, a hot and stuffy loading area where dozens of taxis were lined up. We fell in to line with the other people who had come off the boat with us and tried to act like we knew what we were doing.
“Hey, you want taxi? Where you going?” a short man in a black T-shirt suddenly appeared by us. His face was tanned and leathery and he was missing several teeth.
Now, my initial instinct when people approach me while traveling is that they want money. It’s perhaps not the best way to think of people, but having lived in Las Vegas for seven years, I’ve grown accustomed to ignoring people who approach me out of the blue. It’s still something I’m working on.
I pretended not to see the man who was clearly standing right next to our group. We all exchanged confused, wary glances with the same unspoken question: who was this guy and what did he want?
My friend Joe, a wonderfully innocent boy from rural Ohio, was the first to take the plunge.
“Hotel Phoenix,” he said with a smile. “Do you know where that is?”
The man stared at him. “Ah?”
“Hotel…Phoenix?” Joe repeated, suddenly uncertain of himself. “Phoenix Hotel?”
“Phoenix.” Joe produced the piece of paper that the travel agent had given us with the address in Korean.
The man took it and studied it briefly. He turned and rapped violently on the window of a nearby taxi. The driver rolled down the window and gave him a weary look. The two had a brief, angry-sounding conversation in Korean before the man in black turned back to us.
“He know Peenix. You go him.”
A collective wave of unease settled over the group. Was this guy really the head taxi operator?
“Er…there are six of us. Can we…”
Angry shouting and gesturing interrupted whatever Joe meant to say as the man in black motioned to the cab behind the one he had just yelled at.
“Three go him, three go him.” he said pointing to the respective taxis.
Hesitantly, we split into two groups. We approached the door to the taxi cab and peered in. The driver turned to look at us like we were crazy and, with a jerk of his thumb, motioned us to open the trunk and put our shit in.
In Japan, taxis feature automatic doors that open for you as you approach them. The drivers often leap out, dressed in their adorably professional outfits, and fall over themselves in order to load your luggage in to their trunk. If you try to do it yourself, they become visibly uncomfortable. The doors even open and close automatically for your convenience.
We were definitely not in Kansas anymore and it was refreshing. Laughing at how we were no longer pampered or special, we loaded our own bags in to the trunk and then got in the backseat of the cab.
“Annyeong haseyo!” I said cheerfully, using the minimal Korean that I had learned before the trip.
Dark eyes stared back at me in the rearview mirror, clearly unamused.
“Er….Hotel Phoenix?” My friend Melinda said sweetly. She handed him the piece of paper with the address.
The driver took the paper and scanned it quickly. “Peenix?” he grunted.
“Ne!” I said, eager to use as much Korean as I could. His eyes glared at me again in the mirror, I fell silent.
He rolled down the window and shouted to the man in the black t-shirt. They had, what sounded like, a heated argument over the apparently elusive Hotel Peenix before he threw the gear shift into first and we took off, following Olympia, Hermán and Joe’s taxi.
We exited the port, sped through a yellow light and immediately found ourselves in the city of Busan. Tall buildings rose all around us as the taxi zoomed forward and joined the congested traffic. The taxi that my friends were riding in disappeared into a sea of cars as it sped hastily through a red light. Five other cars followed behind it.
Hangul signs were everywhere with English words that seemed to be thrown in at random. I wanted to take it all in and marvel at this impressive, new city but I was too busy making leaky tire noises as our driver sped in and out of traffic.
The taxi, it seemed, only had two speeds: Stop and Breakneck. The driver would slam on the gas, propelling the car forward only to stop violently a few meters later. Behind us, our luggage tumbled back and forth like it was stuck in a spin cycle.
“Umm ummm….ummmmm” I muttered in terror as we breaknecked through a lane that a bus was merging in to. My foot thumped heavily on the floor as if I had an invisible emergency brake pedal.
The bus continued to pull in to the lane as if it didn’t care that the taxi was not stopping. It continued to merge while our driver continued to drive. It was a terrifyingly slow game of Chicken but we somehow managed to pass the bus without so much as a scratch.
Soon after, we screeched to a stop in front of a row of buildings. The driver looked at us again in the rearview mirror and pointed ahead of us to a simple looking building on the right.
“Hotel Peenix.” he grunted and then pointed to the meter. It read 5000 won.
We put our heads together quickly and tried to determine how much to give him. The entire ride only equalled about five dollars but I almost gave the man fifty. Korean money, it seemed, would take some getting used to. Whereas in Japan, I had grown accustomed to knocking off two zeros off of numbers, in Korea it seemed to be three zeros.
“Kam saham ni da!” I said once more as I exited the cab, still clinging to the hope that I could use some Korean in a real situation.
To my surprise, he smiled and muttered something back that I assumed was ‘you’re welcome’. I got out of the cab grinning like an idiot as I extracted my tumble-dried suitcase from the trunk.
Our group was reunited with each other inside the hotel. After checking in and throwing our luggage in our rooms, we headed back down to explore the city for a bit. Outside, people bustled by about their business while we stood on the stoop of the hotel. Our phones had been rendered all but useless so Fred and Hermán used the wifi to plan our next course of action.
Looking around, I saw that there was a small food cart right next to where we were standing. Excited to be in a new country with a plethora of unfamiliar foods at my fingertips, I strode over to see what the woman behind the cart was selling.
“Annyeong Haseyo!” I said cheerfully as I approached.
The woman gave me a look that was similar to that of the taxi driver and continued to talk into the phone that was pressed to her ear. In front of her were two large vats of what I imagined to be soup of some sort. I was a bit disheartened to see that there were no pictures of what she was selling.
I stared at the handwritten lines and circles of Hangul on the menu before giving up. Catching her attention, I pointed to the vat on the right and held up my index finger – the universal way to order food in a language you don’t speak.
The woman said something to me that I didn’t understand. Seeing that she was dealing with a hopeless cause, she rolled her eyes and shifted the phone to rest between her shoulder and her ear. As she continued talking into it, she took a styrofoam bowl and swiftly ladled the contents of one of the vats into it.
“Kam saham ni da!” I said as she handed me a steaming bowl of bright red soup. She paused as she handed me my change, gave the briefest of smiles and then sat back down and returned to her conversation.
I poked around the soup with a fork as I made my way back to the group. There were semi-long, thick tubes of rice cake in it along with a stray vegetable or two. It smelled great and the heat of the styrofoam bowl felt nice in my hands.
“What’s that?” Olympia asked, wrinkling her nose. “It’s practically glowing!”
“I don’t know!” I exclaimed with excitement. “It smells spicy, though!”
I stabbed a rice tube (later I would find out that these are called toppoki) and pulled it out of the neon red soup. As soon as I put it in my mouth, I knew I was in trouble. A burst of spice exploded over my tongue and [the back of my throat crackled] tickled the back of my throat. I tried to continue to chew the sticky toppoki but I began coughing before I got very far. It was almost as if it were trying to glue my mouth shut.
My friends stared at me in confusion. Tears pooling in my eyes, I gave them a thumbs up sign to assure them that I was still okay. Inside, though, I did not feel okay. The inside of my mouth was on fire and my throat was smoldering. I had only eaten a single bite. Finally, I was able to get the chewy dynamite down my throat. I opened my mouth and stuck my tongue out unattractively to air it out.
“I’m cool…” I rasped with a smile. My voice was barely audible and the tears were now running slowly down my cheeks. “…s’just kinda….spicy…”
We ventured down in to the underground shopping center that was apparently directly below us. I tried another fire stick and had a similar experience. Although I mentally braced myself, it didn’t make it any better. After everyone denied my offer of the lava soup (“It’s not that bad, I swear! It’s just kinda really spicy!”), I was left with no choice but to throw the rest of it away.
The underground mall turned out to be miles of intersecting pathways and shops. Products of all kind were on display: everything from clothing and shoes to stylish phone cases and makeup. After a while, it began to get a bit claustrophobic for everyone so we found the nearest exit and climbed the stairs.