Sunday, July 1, 2012

Crashing the Party

Between school and my first assignment in the Navy, I had a month of leave.  It started in San Angelo, Texas, and in a month, I had to report to Rota, Spain.  In the meantime, I went to visit my girlfriend in Korea.

I've always loved languages, so one of the first things I did was learn the Korean alphabet.  It is a fairly simple alphabet with some slight irregularity in where / how the letters are placed in relation to each other.  It isn't enough to learn the alphabet if you want to, say, read the newspaper, as the newspaper uses a core of kanji characters, but for reading signs, etc, it was more than enough.

My girlfriend was a Korean linguist in the Navy, stationed at Pyongtek.  During the day, while she worked, I would wander the streets of Pyongtek, enjoying the culture and exploring.  It was during this time that I feel in love with yaki mandu, a fried dumpling with meat filling.  There was a remarkable woman, who fried them up fresh, filled with octopus, right off the street and they have long been the epitome of what I remember from Korean food.

During the nights, we would often go out to the bars, where my girlfriend drank soju and yogurt, a drink I never learned to stomach.  I was also not fond of the smell of someone the morning after drinking soju as you sweat it from the pores.  The smell of soju is a pervasive part of the Korean experience.  I had noticed a strange odor around town, but I did not identify it until I went into the shop of a woman who did not drink. In the fresh air, free from the scent, I finally realized what it was that I had been smelling all along.

After I had been in Korea for a week, we took a trip to a Korean resort hotel in Kyungju.  We spent several hours on the train while I honed my skills at turning what I heard on the intercom into the names of the stops of the train.  Vendors traveled up and down the isles with carts selling various snack foods, including smoked and dried cuttlefish, another taste I did not manage to acquire in my short time in Korea.

We had reservations for a room on the nicest floor of the hotel.  We had only planned to stay one night, a good thing as the rate for these rooms was $600 per night.  We checked in and went up to our room.  As I read the literature in the room, I realized we were not on the floor we had a reservation for.  Wondering why, I decided we should go up and visit that floor.

As the elevator doors opened, a crowd of armed men confronted us.  I don't know how many there were.  The sight of unholstered automatic pistols pointed in our direction served quite well to focus the attention and we promptly closed the door of the elevator and went back down.

The hotel had several restaurants on the ground floor and we had picked one to go to.  Upon arriving at the restaurant, we found the entire restaurant had been reserved.  It seemed like someone was thwarting every plan we made.  We went to another of the available restaurants.

We were enjoying our stay in a romantic location and I decided to book another night.  Because of the second night, I got the normal rate for the room we were in, which was about half what the room we should have been given was.

The next day, I was reading the local newspaper and learned that the North Korean Prime Minister was staying in our hotel.  That is the closest I've ever been to a diplomat of what can certainly be argued is an enemy nation.

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