Tuesday, August 28, 2012
The journey goes south
We all piled into the rickety old train packed with Korean travelers heading to different destinations along the Seoul - Pusan express line. Families with little kids, farmers, workers, old grandmas going to visit relatives in the countryside, stared at us and laughed as they saw the bunch of American girls with their blond leader heave their heavy backpacks onto the over head racks and settle in for a five hour long ride.
It was spring and the breeze was just right, as our opened windows let us watch the cityscape and then the countryside fly by. It was easy to forget that once we arrived at our destination we had no idea what we would find or where we would eat or sleep. We were on a high school camping adventure and we were going to have fun. We had packed sandwiches and drinks for the trip and Coach Gustafson would surely know exactly what to do when we got there. She was the grown up, we were the kids. That's the way it was supposed to work.
Hours had gone by, and it was my turn to sit by the window and stare out at the passing rice fields. I wasn't enjoying school that year, I wasn't happy about myself, I didn't like my teachers, I had a feeling that my friends weren't really my friends, and I always lived in a constant state of feeling guilty for not being good enough. I never knew why I felt that, but it had become my identity. I was the girl who wasn't good enough. So this trip that let me just gaze out and feel the breeze on my face with my elbow resting on the window's edge for hours in silence, was a perfect escape from the awkward unhappiness of my soul.
And then without a moment's thought, the heavy glass train window framed with steel, came crashing down on my arm. The window was heavy, and my friends screamed and rushed to pull it upwards. They couldn't budge it. Some Korean men ran to my rescue and with some struggle lifted it from my arm. The place on my bicep where it had fallen was pinched down to the bone from top to bottom, as if all the muscle and tissue had been pushed to either side of the injury. My arm was free, but the shape of my arm looked as if it was in an invisible vice grip. It was painful, but I was in shock and just grateful that it hadn't broken. Coach gave me some ice from her cooler to keep it from swelling, but in an hour's time it had swollen quite large. "Great," I thought, "Not only is everyone going to be mad at me because I have a crummy tent, I'll be an invalid for the rest of the trip."
But there was no turning back. We were just an hour or so away from Pusan Station.
It was late afternoon when we all piled out of the train, tired, grumpy and in the mood for a bath and a soft sofa to watch our favorite TV shows before our moms called us to dinner. But home was hundreds of miles away. We still had to find the temple, hike through the grounds, find a campsite, pitch tents, make our first meal and figure out how we'd be able to brush our teeth and tidy up before we climbed into our sleeping bags. And then there was... the tent.
We asked around and found a local bus to take us to the temple. It was packed. When we got there, we found out why. It was a Buddhist holiday and the whole area was covered with people celebrating with picnics and lanterns and music and lots and lots of noise. Coach Gustafson, the avid camper from Minnesota, was not amused.
The base of the Buddhist temple was in a valley surrounded by many rolling hills. To get away from all the people, we'd have to hike uphill with our full backpacks, as the sun was quickly going down and our bodies were ready to give up for the day. So we shouldered our burdens and started hiking up and up the windy dirt paths, having to move to the sides as happy singing Buddhists - many of whom were drunk - would be coming down the mountains and passing us with lots of exclamations of "Hello how are you!" Seeing American girls hiking up their mountains was such a surprise and a great chance to practice the little English they were taught in school, that we were bombarded with friendly greetings and curious stares the whole way.
We finally got to the end of one path, only to find many more nighttime picnics going on with lanterns and much singing and dancing. The Korean Buddhists looked like they were just getting warmed up for the night.
Miss Gustafson was a good coach, but she was a young woman in her early 20's who was feeling the weight of her responsibility pretty heavily. She was in charge of all us girls, but she had to depend on us to translate and navigate for her. This was not Minnesota - not at all! Her frustration caused us - me in particular - to feel really insecure. If she didn't know what was going on, we were sunk.
Eventually a temple guard must have found out about the strange foreign girls wandering around, and he came to find out what we were doing. Camping? Here? Well, as far as he was concerned, we were a liability. Having daughters of foreigners exposed to any kind of danger on their property could become a serious problem for their reputation. He insisted that we pitch our tents right where we were standing and not move a step further. He wanted us to be where he felt we would be safe. It was not at all a pleasant place to be, but we were all tired and it was pitch black in the countryside. The only light we had was of the distant lanterns of the partiers and our little flashlights. Coach found a small flat spot on a nearby hill and guided us there to spend our first night.
The moon came out and it was time to unpack our tents. Sandy, Alice, Rachel and Naomi and the rest pulled out their dad's tents and started setting them up. It was the moment of truth. I pulled out my little orange pup-tent with no floor and bright yellow nylon ropes and did my very best to make it look respectable. I rammed the tent poles into the ground, stretched out the cheap nylon fabric, pulled and yanked my ropes as tight and straight as I could and hammered my plastic pegs into place. But no matter how much I stretched, hammered or pulled, my little orange pup-tent sagged and tipped to the side like a sad cartoon.
Everyone was too busy with their own stuff, that no one noticed me. That is until Coach Gustafson turned around and saw me struggling, just as the moon shone bright through the clouds and asked in a loud, coach-like voice.
"You call that a tent, Sansom!!? You said you were getting a good quality army tent - what happened?"
And then all eyes were on my disgrace. I wanted to die. But who wants to die in the middle of nowhere surrounded by partying Buddhists? No, I'd have to just grit my teeth and go through the shame. I told everyone the story about the friend who wasn't allowed to take the tent he had set aside for me off the army base, so I was stuck with buying the only thing that resembled a tent that I could find. I might as well have just brought a sheet and thrown it over a ladder to sleep under. But Coach was already mad about everything, and all the other girls had claimed the nicer tents they wanted to sleep in. I would be alone in my orange envelope - so I thought.
Nancy, one of the sweetest, kindest-hearted girls I ever knew looked over at me and said, "That's okay Evelyn, I'll share your tent with you. It looks just fine to me! I think orange is a great color!" That was the most thoughtful, unselfish gesture that anyone had ever shown me in my young life. So Nancy and I unrolled our sleeping bags and crawled as carefully and gingerly as possible into position, just hoping and praying that our tent wouldn't collapse on top of us during the night. I prayed, and wished that I would wake up at home and this would all be a bad dream.