Sunday, July 11, 2010

Train Bound for Anywhere

I love trains. And buses. And subways. For someone who gets lost when she comes out of her apartment turning right instead of left, I have become quite adept at crisscrossing the country on trains.

Seoul by itself has 9 subway lines, with a combined 291 subway stations. Add in Incheon and the other surrounding cities in the metropolitan, and you've got an impressive tribute to mankind's refusal to stay in one place. 

There is a world of movement here. Underground subways with advertisements flashing outside your window like an electronic flip-book, magnet trains that can cross the country from tip to tip in three hours, completely silent and going so smoothly that you don't realize you're moving...These are only part of it. Five to ten times a week, I find myself on buses driven by men who think they're driving compact cars on straight highways, careening around corners and honking at red lights before barreling through. Every weekend, just to get to get to church, I take a bus from Incheon to Seoul, get off, and transfer onto a subway, which levels out into a track going straight over the Han River, fog and sparkling water on both sides, and then dives back underground. 

Sometimes I take buses without ever caring where I end up. Some people find comfort in a bottle, letting alcohol send them to a place where they can watch the world spin by without having to be a part of it. I suppose I have a somewhat less destructive, but just as effective escape of my own. From a bus or a train, I can look out my window at people and shops and cars, a world going about its usual business, as I sit all alone in a seat, isolated by language barriers and a glass window.  I hop on buses going anywhere, and then when I am the last passenger on the bus, and the driver asks "Odi, odi? Where are you going?" I say, "I don't know," and get off, and wait till a bus comes along going the other direction.

Sometimes I ride a bus with a friend, just to talk for an hour or two until the bus comes to the end of its route. 

Sometimes I really do need to get somewhere, and I look carefully at the Korean words denoting stops and transfers and arrival times. It was bus and subway signs that taught me to read Korean, and they are still what I read most. 

Sometimes I am given preferential treatment because I am white--like the bus driver who shared his package of gum with me and told me about his sister in America. Or the girl in the window seat next to me who gave me her last coffee before smiling quickly and waving, and embarrassedly hurrying off the bus. Sometimes people are prejudiced against me because of my white skin and blue eyes. I get pushed, yelled at, knocked over. I sit next to Koreans, and they change to a different seat on the bus or tell me in perfect English that they are not comfortable sitting next to foreigners. Sometimes they leave the bus completely. 

I ride buses when I want to be alone, and subways when I am feeling lonely. There are as many people on a subway as you want there to be. Subways are not so much like buses. On buses, people usually do not talk to each other. Human interaction is rare. On subways, everyone talks. You can make friends if you want to. You can also be invisible if you choose. Often, on subways, beggars come through. Usually beggars here are old, and often blind, lame, or missing various limbs. Many are veterans of war who have no means to care for themselves. I have a stash of cash in my backpack I keep for the beggars on the subways or on stairs of the subway stations. 

Once, I rode the Airport rail to the Incheon Airport island, because I felt like a sunset, and the sun always sets awfully majestically when it is over ocean. And then, just this last weekend, I took a three-hour train ride across the country to the beach on the eastern sea. There is nothing like a train ride where green, foggy mountains interspersed with rice fields and tiny villages and curling rivers, pass by outside your window like a National Geographic special.

Trains make me feel like I can get anywhere. When my days are hard, and in life I feel stuck, trains give me mobility. Buses let me feel like I am moving. And even if I end up back where I started, the trip is never wasted.