At the beginning of November, during a cold, blustery week that signaled the death of a two-week autumn and the birth of a five-month winter, an old friend from high school, Glen, came to Seoul for a visit. Nobody I know ever comes to Korea because:
1. The flight costs the price of a used car.
2. If people are going to go to Asia, they want to at least be able to take a photo along the Great Wall for their efforts.
3. People get confused and think I’m in the other Korea; you know, the one where Dennis Rodman hangs out on the Dear Leader’s yacht, while everyone else gets imprisoned if they watch K-dramas or talk to Christians.
So, this was a Big Deal. I was determined to be the best tour guide of all time. I sent out terrifyingly long e-mails detailing all the activities we could do, the food we could try, the events we could attend. And I researched and planned and Lonely Planet-ed and Wikipedia-ed for weeks in advance. Yes, this was going to be Glen’s best trip ever.
It was probably his worst trip ever. Mostly because I was THE WORST tour guide of all time.
So, in order to use my knowledge and experience to help others in need, here are some tips for being the worst tour guide of all time:
(Note: Tips will be helpful if you hate the person visiting you, you want to create a new reality travel show where you terrorize unsuspecting visitors with your bad hosting skills and capture it on secret cameras, or if you want desperately for nobody to visit you. Ever.)
1. Be late for everything – literally EVERYTHING
It’s 5:55 pm, and we are rushing to get to a B-boy show. We’ve just gotten off a shuttle bus from the airport, where Glen landed less than three hours ago, and I have no idea where we are or where the theatre is. Awesome.
I am making Glen run, which I’m sure he loves, especially right after a plane ride and while carrying a 20-kilogram backpack. We have five minutes to find the theatre, pick up our tickets, and get to our seats.
I really have to go to the bathroom, and the optimist in me is telling me I can hold it for another two hours. But the realist in me knows that I drank four cups of coffee and that I will probably have to be hospitalized for a bladder infection within ten minutes.
I run off, leaving my friend in a random subway station in a foreign country while I look for a bathroom.
Three minutes later, I’m back and ready to go. We run outside, and I re-check the map.
We run some more, but there’s no theatre in sight. An elderly gentleman jumps directly into our path.
“Hello! Where are you from?”
“Canada! Do you know where the Kyunghyang Art Hill is??”
“No. Welcome to Korea!”
We back-track and discover we passed it a while ago. Upon entry, I realize that this isn’t just the theatre for the B-boy show, but also the theatre for every other musical in Korea.
“Shouldn’t we get tickets first?” Glen asks, perplexed, as I charge up the stairs.
“No! I already have them reserved!”
We get to the doors of the auditorium, and I am almost ready to hug the woman standing at the entrance.
“Hello! Welcome. Can I see your tickets please?”
“I have them reserved under ‘Christine.’”
“Yes, but you still need to pick them up from the box office.”
Of course I do.
“OK, wait here!” I drop my bag at Glen’s feet and race back down the stairs.
My glasses are fogging up with the heat, and I can’t see more than five feet ahead of me. Box offices are everywhere – JUMP, Fanta Sticks, Hero – where the hell is B-Boy??? This ridiculous theatre, this outlet mall for musicals…
After a few more moments of frantically turning in circles, a salesperson from the JUMP counter takes pity on me and directs me to the correct box office.
I’m embarrassed to tell her I can’t actually see where she’s pointing due to my fogged-up lenses, so I walk in what I believe to be a straight line, hoping to eventually end up in the right place.
I accidentally walk outside, approach two more wrong box office counters, but finally make it to the right one.
I race back up the stairs, first going up the wrong set, and meet Glen and the perpetually smiling ticket taker at the auditorium’s entrance.
“What took you so long??” Glen asks me.
“Mwhaweogshwgzfhsdl,” I say.
I am the worst.
2. Don’t bother checking the times / days that major tourist attractions are open
On Glen’s first full day in the city, we head to Insadong, a neighbourhood famous for its souvenir shop-lined pedestrian walkway, small independently-owned art galleries showcasing local artists, and over-priced tea houses. After perusing the wares in some of the tourist shops, I take him to what I expect will be the highlight of his visit: Changdeokgung Palace. An enormous facility, one of the “Five Grand Palaces” of Korea, and set in a lush and serene park, Changdeokgung Palace is… closed. Right. Most tourist attractions – museums, palaces, art galleries – are closed on Mondays. Someone who had just arrived could not have been expected to know this anymore than someone who has lived in Korea for four years, right…?
Glen takes a few half-hearted photos of the palace’s roof from outside, which was almost as exciting as actually going in. Except not at all.
3. Be completely incapable of eating the dishes you introduce to your guest
We’re sitting on the polished, hardwood floor of Sanchon, a Korean vegan restaurant serving traditional Buddhist temple cuisine that is so good it’s been raved about in the New York Times. I am trying not to laugh as I watch Glen, 6’2”, who has not yet been indoctrinated in the art of Korean floor-sitting, struggle to fold his legs in a position that will allow him to both be close enough to the table to actually consume the food in front of us and be comfortable. It is an impossible feat, and although I am equally as uncomfortable and have been dropping vegetables on my legs for the last ten minutes, it’s funnier if I hide the forsaken veggies in my lap and instead exchange furtive, knowing glances with our waitress. This guy… this tourist.
“Here,” I push a bowl of kim chi, fermented cabbage coated in gochujang (red pepper paste), towards my friend.
“Have some kim chi.”
Glen obediently takes about half of the proffered kim chi and passes the bowl to me.
“You can have all of it,” I insist, pushing it back towards him.
“No, it’s okay. We can share it.”
“No, really. You can have all of it. I can’t eat it.”
“You can’t eat it?”
“I just can’t. It’s too spicy.”
Glen takes a few cautious bites of the radioactive-red vegetable in front of him. After chewing thoughtfully, he swallows the portion, and looks at me.
“It’s not that spicy… it’s really not.” He pushes the bowl back at me. “Are you sure you don’t want some?”
This is the same thing people have said to me for my entire four years in Korea, and the result of me accepting the offer is always an uncomfortable burning sensation that tells me my throat will soon be on fire, my nose will clog up, and my body will release adrenaline in preparation for an assault by red pepper.
Yes, I’m THE ONE, the one Koreans are talking about when they say to an ex-pat, “Oh, you can eat spicy food? I’m surprised! I thought most foreigners couldn’t eat anything spicy.”
Yep. I’m that foreigner.
I bestow the kim chi bowl to Glen, who has been in Korea for one day, and who eats all of it without so much as a whimper.
More to come soon…