Day … whatever … in Seoul: a little about the kindness of strangers

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Police officers in what Colin calls their “field-trip” grouping, watching a protest group of disabled vets across the street

Today on the way home from our conference, Mike and I stopped to watch a little drama unfold. There were several young police officers making clucking noises and beating bushes along the side of the road. A little crowd gathered with us. A mallard swooped overhead and landed in some tall grass beyond the sidewalk. One of the officers showed her a cardboard bucket, his fingers pinching the top closed. I could hear the noises from inside the bucket and hopefully the mother duck could as well.

Earlier, Colin had remarked how groups of police officers walking together in double lines on the sidewalks reminded him of first graders on field trips. I thought it was a little strange, too. Why is it that we see so many groups of what look like kids not much older than my sons, grouped together with fluorescent “police” vests, being led around as if in training, and not a lot of individual officers walking or cycling or driving around patrolling?

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catching ducklings and drawing a crowd

For whatever reason, one of these groups was available when a mother duck needed help keeping her ducklings from crossing against the light. I watched as one of the officers told interested passers-by what was going on. I couldn’t understand word-for-word, but the quacking noises and his pointing across the street made things clear.

Mike and I left without seeing a resolution to the whole situation. Were the police officers able to get the last one or two ducklings out of the shrubbery and into the bucket before they wandered out into traffic? I hope so. The kids were expecting us back at the apartment and we could no longer wait with the crowd.

I’ve been struck by the politeness of everyone here in South Korea since we arrived. We can’t so much as pause to look at a map in the subway without someone saying “excuse me, may I help?” On several occasions, people have started conversations and told us they liked to practice English. We’ve have elderly ladies move seats on the train so our family could sit together, and a restauranteur chase us halfway through a neighborhood to return a credit card Mike left in his establishment.

Early on in our trip, we had a DMZ tour scheduled with a particular company. These are opportunities that sell out and require a few days’ advance notice. I’d felt pretty lucky to get four seats on one particular tour. The company is very specific in all their promotional and confirmation materials, indicating that if we don’t show up, we’re still liable for 100% of the cost of the tour. About $260 for our family.

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momma duck

It was early in our trip and we were pretty proud of ourselves for figuring out the subway and navigating so well through Seoul on our first day. Mike and I each thought we had a plan for getting to the tour rendezvous point the next morning – about ninety minutes away – but somehow each of us miscalculated. I had figured the bus system would be as easy as the subway (a later quick internet search showed the bus doesn’t offer announcements of each stop in English, like the subway, and can be very confusing to those who don’t speak Korean). Mike had thought we’d walk to the subway. We never closed the loop on specifics. This was all our thinking the night before when we’d fallen into sleep with our half-baked plans, overcome by jet lag. When we woke up the next day, an hour later than expected, it was pouring rain. We don’t deal well with rain.

We only had one of our Idaho umbrellas with us.

An Idaho umbrella, for those of you who live in wetter states and don’t know, is a device broken half to shit, that no one ever remembers to throw in the actual garbage, because by the time anyone realizes it’s broken, it’s actually stopped raining in Idaho. So then it’s tossed back in the closet until a thousand years pass and it’s needed again.

I’ve just misspelled umbrella about half a dozen times in this dang blog, which just goes to show you we don’t even teach how to spell umbrella in this state, it rains so infrequently.

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I love how women here walk arm in arm. It’s not uncommon to see men walking with arms over each other’s shoulders, although it is awkward to try to take a picture of that … from what I’ve heard.

So we had our Idaho umbrella and four people in the pouring rain, trying to hail a cab. The first guy pulls up and says “heck no, I don’t go all the way into Seoul, but get in out of the rain and I’ll find someone who does.”

I don’t know if that’s what he said, but he gestured until we got in, and then drove around the block to the next cab, got out and talked to her about taking us to Seoul and then we switched cabs. It cost us about $3 bucks, but probably saved our marriage.

We gave the next dricer the name of the place we were supposed to meet our tour and she took off.

The traffic was terrible, and the rain relentless. It became apparent pretty early on we were not going to make our rendezvous point and then be out a couple hundred bucks. I called our tour company representative, who, mercifully, could speak English.

“Where are you?” Um, we were stopped on the freeway somewhere in Southeast Asia. In the rain. That’s the kind of accuracy I was capable of at that point.

“Let me talk to your driver.”

I did so, and the two had an animated conversation for a while. Then our driver veered off the freeway for a course that wouldn’t be so bumper-to-bumper, but turned out to be not much better.

There was another conversation, and then the driver gave Mike the phone. The tour company representative told Mike they had arranged an alternative meeting point.

Tipping isn’t something that is done here, but the person on the phone recommended to Mike that we give our driver an extra 5,000 won (about $4) for her trouble.

The driver pulled over at a bus enclosure and sat and waited with us for our bus. In the rain. She gave us gum.

And yes, we gave her a good tip.

We come from a place where people are known for being nice, but I have to say, it’s not waiting-in-the-rain-with-dumb-foreigners-who-don’t-know-how-to-manage-their-commute kind of nice.

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