This weekend, I went to Busan for the first time.
Busan is the second largest city in Korea, and its location on the south coast makes it a top holiday destination – which means that it kind of feels like you’re on your summer holidays even if you’ve just come down for the weekend.
Irish Friend One was celebrating his birthday, and invited us to come along to Busan with him for some quality beach time. I didn’t realise how much I’d missed the sea until I arrived! I’ve never been very far from the sea, with plenty of happy childhood memories in the Northern Irish seaside towns like Portrush and Ballycastle, lots of drives to the coast with friends when I got older, and more recently living right by the sea in Tallinn. In Korea, I stupidly picked a city right in the centre of the country, meaning that it’s at between an hour and a half and three hours by train to the sea in any direction. Poor planning, that was.
Busan is really lovely. It has a very relaxed, mellow feel about it, which was, during our stay, enhanced by the beautiful weather. We went to Haeundae (apparently regarded as one of the finest beaches in the world) and had a gorgeously lazy weekend eating far too much good food, building sandcastles, swimming in the sea, going for walks along the shore, and (in my case) getting hopelessly sunburnt. Perfect!
It didn’t get off to a promising start, mind you, thanks to what I am starting to describe as Group Ignorance. When you go anywhere on your own in Korea, you make detailed plans including written directions, maps, bus numbers, train times, prices and opening hours, and even key phrases in Korean that might help you out if you get stuck. You don’t take any chances, because you know how easily misunderstandings occur here between locals and foreigners, and how difficult it can be to get the information you need once you’re out there without your computer. You are organised. And you double check everything – more than double check.
Take something simple, like catching a bus. When performing this once-simple procedure, you will check the timetable, the arrivals screen at the bus stop, your own notes, and the name and number on the bus. You will ask the driver if this bus goes to your intended destination as you get on. You will count the stops as they pass and anxiously and painstakingly read all the Korean information that scrolls past on the screen each time. Before you get off, you will check with a nearby ajumma that this is in fact your stop.
No matter what you’re doing alone, you’ll be this cautious about it, because you’ve learned from experience that if you are not, there will be consequences – and they’ll probably cost you money, your pride, a lot of stress, and a great deal of lateness.
But when you’re in a group, it seems that everyone relaxes quite considerably. I’m not entirely sure why, my two current theories being (a) that everyone thinks someone else knows what they’re doing, and (b) that no one minds things going horribly wrong as long as they’ve got company. I suspect there might be a bit of both at work here, but (a) is more likely to be the main reason. And generally speaking, there tends to be someone in most groups who does actually assume responsibility, who has a bit of wit about them and is paying attention to what’s going on, and who takes on the role of leader.
Unfortunately, my current group of friends displays a distinct lack of such a person.
As a result of this, we all just kind of meander along cheerfully, chatting and looking around us, all in the happy belief that Someone Else has a plan and Someone Else is in charge. Of course, no one has and no one is, and so we end up on a bus going the wrong way because everyone assumed someone else checked it was correct, or sitting on the train floor because everyone assumed someone else checked that tickets home would still be available, or at a closed venue because everyone assumed someone else had enquired about opening hours.
That’s exactly how we ended up taking an hour long taxi ride to the beach, which we knew to be only a five minute (maximum) journey away. You’d think that someone would have said something after ten minutes, or even fifteen. Turns out that as we’d piled excitedly into the taxi, eager to get to the beach, someone had badly mispronounced the name of our destination to the driver, assuming that someone else had already said where we were going, or that at the very least someone would correct him if they heard him make a mistake. Everyone else assumed that the speaker must know where we were going, and therefore left him to it. And so the taxi driver, in his innocence, proceeded to drive us to some district on the other side of the city that sounded vaguely like “Haeundae”, but not quite.
And we just sat there and let him! The confusion only began to surface and then grow after around twenty minutes, and after some failed attempts at communication using the English-Korean dictionaries in our phones, a Korean friend had to be called and the phone handed to the bewildered taxi driver, who then had to drive our subdued and decidedly poorer group the whole way back to where he’d picked us up. He dropped us off on the beach, which was – obviously – only one street away from where we’d been standing. We could have walked there in a couple of minutes. Instead, we drove around the city for an hour getting increasingly confused and stressed, and then paid 25,000 won for the experience.
I’d love to say “live and learn” by way of a conclusion, but it wouldn’t be true…
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