260. That Time I Was Stranded in South Korea

The summer of 2010 was an interesting one. In the first place, I worked as a blacksmith, a job that required intense physical labor and complicated mathematics: my worst archenemies. I also spent a month in South Korea teaching English and choking down fermented cabbage.

My month in South Korea was awesome. My brother and sister-in-law, who lived in the country at the time, gave me a place to stay and showed me the best of South Korea: the mountains, the beaches, the parks and the city streets.

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Korea’s mountains are breathtaking.

Visiting South Korea was an amazing experience, though much more awkward than my sojourns in other countries. I spoke enough Spanish to get around Ecuador and Uruguay. Besides, gringos were a pretty common sight in those countries. South Korea was different. I spoke only a couple of words of Korean, and there were hardly any foreigners. I felt helpless and out of place. Fortunately, I loved Korean food and used chopsticks, which were very small steps toward adapting to Korean society.

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I had a hard time fitting in.

As mention my fondness for Korean food, I must point out one outstanding exception. Kimchi is horrible. For those who are wondering, kimchi is possibly the worst invention of humankind, surpassing even nuclear weapons and paranormal romance novels in its sheer awfulness. I once described kimchi as “a pungent dish consisting of cabbage soaked in some strong liquid (I suspected sulfuric acid) and fermented until its alcohol level equaled that of vodka.”

As my time in South Korea drew to an end, my older brother put me and my luggage on a bus bound for an airport—please don’t ask which, because I don’t remember. What I recall is a growing sense of panic as I realized I didn’t know when I was supposed to get off the bus.

Thus, surrounded by signs in Korean and strangers who spoke Korean and not a single word of dear old English, I disembarked from the bus at what I fervently prayed was the right stop. It looked like an airport. I hoped it was. If it wasn’t, I was stranded without money or a phone somewhere in South Korea.

It was the right stop after all, but my troubles had only begun.

The airport was huge. Huge. I’ve seen quite a number of airports in my time, and this was easily the largest. The lobby was a maze of lights and desks and unreadable signs—and people, of course. South Korea is nearly always crowded. By some miracle, I found the right line to the right desk and showed the right papers to the right person. My larger luggage was whisked away. I received my boarding pass and was pointed toward the terminal, from which home was just two flights and a bus ride away.

One man, however, stood between me and the shining Promised Land of the terminal and my return home: an apologetic little gentlemen in his twenties or thirties, who weighed my carry-on and told me it was too heavy. I could not pass.

I was stranded in South Korea.

My first order of business was to lighten my carry-on by throwing away whatever I didn’t need. My socks, ragged and full of holes, were the first things to go.

The gentleman weighed my carry-on again. Still too heavy.

Kneeling awkwardly on the floor and ignoring the puzzled looks of passersby, I inventoried the contents of my carry-on. They were mostly things I considered too precious to risk transporting in my larger luggage. In other words… there was nothing more I could spare.

Unless… I could leave that behind. Disposing of it would be awkward, but doable. I would simply have to be very, very careful about it.

When I was sure no one was looking, I slipped into a bathroom and threw away a two-kilo bag of yierba mate.

Yes, yierba mate looks kind of like marijuana. Yes, I’m surprised I didn’t get caught and questioned and possibly detained for smuggling drugs. Yes, it hurt to throw away an almost-full bag of tea. Believe me, it hurt.

The little gentleman weighed my carry-on for the third time. It was still a few pounds too heavy, but he decided to let me pass. I did, thanking God and trying not to look any more like a drug runner than I could help.

Thus did I leave South Korea, thankful not to have gotten lost, remained stranded or been arrested.

Indeed, the summer of 2010 was an interesting one!

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