It has very recently been brought to my attention that my blog sucks. Well, not so much in those words, but a very dear friend said to me, “I follow your blog, but when you told me you had one, I was expecting it to be tales of your drunken shenanigans as a world-traveling scoundrel… but it’s always this weird spiritual stuff with a heavy-handed political bent. Frankly, there’s too much of that in the world. Bring on the drunk tales!” So for him…
It is true I have traveled… much more than most I grew up with, but much less than those among whom I travel. I have been to every state in my homeland except Hawaii, and 25 countries so far, of which I have lived in two, not counting my homeland. And I used to be a heavy drinker, and, when available, I did partake in mind-altering substances. I stick to the organics (cannabis, mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca) but am also a fan of the synthetic chemical concoction known as LSD. I do think the Hand of God was upon chemist Albert Hoffman when he stumbled upon that divine mixture.
But due to most global laws, I encounter booze much, much more frequently. And that’s a shame, really.
As for living in countries rather than just visiting them, I cannot recommend this enough. Get into the system. It is truly enlightening, especially if you are an American who grew up believing that yours was “the greatest country in the world.” As for visiting, the rules are this: Airports do NOT count, you actually have to get out there and mingle, and you must piss on the soil to really consider it as occupied, even if only temporarily. I realize this is easier for men than women, but I am delighted to have been in the company of many women who take this as writ, and will squat for rights without hesitation. Good on ya, Ladies!
Alright, so what story shall I tell first? Well, my home is, if you have not surmised by now, the United States of America. But that land has gone dark for me — for most of us — since my departure back in 2007. As this is not meant to be political, I will just go to my second home, South Korea, for my first story.
I first set foot on South Korean soil in April of 2007. I flew out of Pittsburgh in an unseasonable blizzard on Easter weekend with a bad sinus infection. Near the end of the long pan-Pacific flight, I sneezed something horrid onto the sleeve of my coat. Knowing now how fearful the Korean people are of outside infections, I am amazed my plane was allowed to land.
When I arrived, I was relieved at how easily I was able to maneuver through the airport at Incheon and collect my baggage. This was my first international trip (because for Americans, Canada doesn’t really count), and I was nervous. But there I was, walking through customs without so much as a nod with the Newbie Standard: Two big cases and a backpack. Outside, I was greeted by a Korean gent holding a sign with my name misspelled. He did not speak a word of English. He took my backpack and one of my roller bags and led me out into the parking lot. It was 3:00 a.m. KST. We arrive at an unmarked van, I try to politely help him load my crap in the back, and then I climb in behind the driver’s seat. And we drive.
After about two hours, I start seeing razor wire, guard towers, big, spiky barrels waiting by the side of the road, and I think, “Oh, shit! I’ve been kidnapped! He’s taking me to NORTH Korea!” I am jet-lagged. He speaks no English.
However, I eventually see the big words ENGLISH VILLAGE spelled out like the famous Hollywood sign overlooking the hills of Paju. Right on the border, right by the DMZ (hence the razor wire and guard towers), but still in USA-loving South Korea. So why did they send a guy that spoke no English at all to pick me up at the airport? The advice I was given within the next 3 hours summed it up best, and it is advice I still carry with me and offer to any newbies (and even the old hats who forget): Leave your logic at the airport. This is Confucius territory. So much in Korea will appear to the Westerner as totally illogical. And yet… here it is. And with a logic all of its own. If you wonder what it is, I think it is best expressed in the driving/parking mentality. I still have no fucking idea what’s going on there. But they have a system where they leave their cell phone numbers posted prominently in their car windows in case they’ve parked you in (which they seem to love to do) or if they’ve just stopped and abandoned their car in the middle of an intersection (which also happens). Now you might wonder, “What did they do before cell phones?” and the answer is… leave your logic at the airport.
I acclimated to Korea very quickly because living at English Village, I was in a Western bubble of very cool people from the U.S.A., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. And everyone got along swimmingly because it was US against the Administration. And still the admin was very cool. During the day, we did our jobs, and at night, we had the run of the park we worked in. I won’t go into detail, just Google “Paju English Village” to get an idea. It was a sort of edutainment amusement park. There were two programs: The One-Day Program (edu-tainers who performed for people who brought their children in just to pretend they were visiting a foreign country) and the One-Week Program (middle-school students whose schools dumped them on us for a week of intensive task-based English education), of which I was part. I worked in the drama department.
I think I adapted well to life at The Village (henceforth known as “EV”) because I love psychedelics and all of the absurdity that comes with them. In the drama department, it was our weekly task to teach the children the 3 Rules of the Theater: 1) Speak Loudly! 2) Face the Audience! and 3) Show Emotion! By the end of the week, we had them in full-on costumes (mostly Disney-inspired) performing a script in English that they had written (with some heavy coaching). Since we taught the same class every Monday through Friday, the teachers broke up the monotony by doing bad celebrity impressions to teach the classes and entertain ourselves. As Sylvester Stallone, “Yo, kids! What’s my name?! What’s the first rule of Drama School?!”
I fell in love with the absurdity of the place immediately. Like Disney Land, they even had costumed characters. I don’t know what their names were, but there was a big purple hippo, a green cat, a blue dog, and a pink rabbit. I remember walking out of class one day, leaving a group of 13-year-old Korean students dressed as characters from Cinderella, walking across campus as “Last Christmas” by George Michael blasted on the park-wide PA system, and high-fiving a big, purple hippo. What’s YOUR job like?
As you can imagine, on the weekends, we needed to get away from the insanity. And the only place to go was Seoul. Specifically, Itaewon. Itaewon, back in the day, was pure liquid insanity for us wagooks (foreigners).
Now, the groundwork is set. Let me tell you my first choice of a drunken shenanigan. Because this is Korea, and drinking is a BIG part of Korean culture (Korean culture says that you must see a person drunk to really know who they are), there was a pub, the Double Decker, on the EV campus. When we weren’t scheduled to work, the admin encouraged us to drink there and chat with the Day Program visitors. But when we wanted to be away from work, we grabbed a taxi into Daewha Station and caught a bus into Seoul (this was before Paju had a subway stop, which it does today).
In Seoul, the center for illicit wagook activity is, and always has been, Itaewon. Itaewon was very close to the U.S. military base. In recent years, the U.S. military has been pulling back to the new-and-improved Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, but in recent years past, Itaewon was their stomping grounds. On any given weekend, we non-military types could expect to be stopped by MPs asking us for ID. We never had to give it to them because we are teachers, not military, but it was still nice to be asked. We always loved hanging out with the U.S. military. Good folks. I will tell you other stories… later.
Itaewon, being the center for U.S. military, is also known for a famous landmark: Hooker Hill. One of my favorite bars, back in the day, was located at the top of Hooker Hill, and to get to it, one had to run the gauntlet of scantily-clad young women popping out of doors like trapdoor spiders, looking to ensnare the drunk and the horny. On that same hill, about halfway up/down, still stands to this day Olde Towne Tavern, the shadiest of shady late-night bars, the Mos Eisley of South Korea.
This was my Itaewon. Before the clean times. Before the gentrification.
Hooker Hill is still there, but a shadow of its former self. My favorite Itaewon bar, Ol’ Stompers, the one that was located at the top of the Hill, has long since closed, its owner, a former cop from New York City, having been deported… or so the legend goes. But back in the day…
A few of my closest friends at EV and I used to follow the gang and go into Hongdae to listen to live local bands, but sometimes the Urge took us… the Urge to get a little adventurous, and yes, maybe a little dirty… and we wound up in Itaewon. Oh, sure, as we planned our evening events, we would say, “But whatever happens, let’s stay the fuck out of Itaewon!” And we’d all agree, hop the bus, the train, whatever… but then 2:00 a.m. would roll around, and someone would say, “Hey…”
So there we were in Itaewon. In Olde Towne Tavern. As the sun came up, we would realize, well, these shenanigans have gone on long enough. We need to head to the subway. So, we’d eventually make our way out onto the porch where the smokers stood, bid our fond farewells, and eventually, one of us would step off the boards and onto the hard concrete of the small parking lot and the others would follow, and that weak momentum would be enough to get us rolling down the hill.
One of my compatriots from back in the day was a fan of the hookers. He would never admit it, but he loved the idea of payment for a service and no shame, just sex like in the porn movies he had apparently grown up watching. And he seldom made it down the hill. As we shuffled down, I usually led as my legs tend to be longer, and in that state I don’t so much walk as just let gravity take me. The working girls would still be popping out of their doors at dawn like trapdoor spiders, wearing naught but lingerie and showing a lot of flesh, beckoning any lagging drunk and horny sir into their rooms.
As I stumbled forth, I would inevitably hear my friend declare in a soundly perfunctory tone, “Unhand me, guttersnipe!” And I would turn, somehow expecting him to be fending off the grabby hands of some lady-o’-the-morn, but instead I would just see him, stolen cocktail glass in hand, cigarette dangling loosely from his lips, as he himself opened the door to a prostitute’s lair and disappeared, unmolested, inside. You see, his protestation was merely so that he could later claim he was dragged in against his will.
Sometimes, I would follow him in and drink with the other ladies as he got his kicks. My OCD prevented me from partaking, but hey — hookers are good company, even if just buying them drinks gets expensive. They tell good stories. Usually, though, I would just find my own way down the hill and into the subway station, and, God willing, I would wake up before riding the subway on a loop for three goddamn hours. I snore, and the other passengers do not appreciate it.
Wow, that’s a long way to go for such a short story. But the fun is in the journey, eh?
What do you think? I have many other seedy stories to tell. Even seedier. For example, if you walk up to the top of Hooker Hill to where Ol’ Stompers used to be, make a right, and go down the next street, why, that over there is called Homo Hill, and it’s where the Lady-Boys hang out. Did you know that, on a slow night, the Lady-Boys will take up a bar on Hooker Hill and see if they can trick the drunker patrons into something of which they might never wish to speak? It happens. And I have heard men admit that it has happened to them. My favorite ending to the story so far was from a British friend of mine, and it went like this:
“Oh, SHIT! What did you do?”
“Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. I was already in, so I finished.”
Sometimes, OCD is a blessing.
In his defense:
You can see how mistakes could be made, especially when you’ve been drinking whiskey for 8 hours.
On the same note…
Well, I guess that’s it for now. So what do you think? Want to hear more drunken shenanigans? I have tales from around the world, so if you like to travel or just read about someone who does and is an idiot, then this might be a fun ride.