Sunday, September 7, 2008

The lights are much brighter there.

photos: me, me.

LIKE school has four offices in Daegu, each run by one of the Kims’ sons, and franchises elsewhere. Two of the Daegu locations are only a few miles apart. My apartment is a few blocks from one of the city’s main arteries, in the area called Manchon; leaving my apartment, you’d come to the main drag in five blocks, then if you followed the boulevard to the south (I think), you’d come to the Manchon LIKE school, a mile or so from my place; then, just off the main strip, a couple of miles past the Manchon office, you'd reach the LIKE school in the Samduk neighborhood, then, in another mile or so, the true downtown of Daegu.

That’s where my new friend Ray, a warm Cuban-American colleague a little older than I, took me this morning. I didn’t know how to get downtown— for that matter, I couldn’t have told you if it was one mile, or twenty, away—or which bus went anywhere, or how to buy a discount bus card. Ray showed me all that, and we spent a couple of hours knocking around downtown on a Saturday morning. I’d be ignoring you, my faithful fans—both of you—and walking around there this Saturday night, too, if I weren’t so tired.

Downtown consists of gleaming, ultramodern hotels; the computer store neighborhood, the shoe store neighborhood, the high-fashion neigborhood; the Kyobo bookstore (think Bones and Nibble, but only ten percent of the books are in English—still, it’s the only place I’ve found with any literature I can read, and they have a good selection); nightclubs and bars. The megaplex is planning Mamma Mia, some Nic Cage action movie, and six Korean films. All in all, it’s as modern and busy as any American city.

And there’s a man on the subway steps, kneeling and prostrating himself, unmoving, forehead against the stone, begging. There’s a tiny old woman, bent nearly double, scavenging cardboard on the back streets. But signs of poverty and homelessness are far less common than in large American cities.

The trip downtown concluded one of the best 24 hours ever. First, on Friday, I taught my first class in Manchon and it went terrifically. I kicked the five-paragraph-essay-comparing-and- contrasting-Jack-and-Ralph-of-Lord of the Flies’ butt. It never need be taught again; it’s been done.

Then Ray and I made friends and he asked if I’d like him to show me around downtown. He’s an expert, having been here two months; one of the other teachers showed him, and I’ll show someone else sometime—paying it forward, 5000 won at a time.

Then on the way home last night, I stopped at E-Mart and bumped into a young American guy named Tony at the top of the moving sidewalk escalator. We hit it off immediately. He teaches English at the public high school, and we’re going to get together sometime soon. I bumped into him again, an hour later, as I was continuing my walk home and he was waiting for a bus.

So I’ve been here six days and I have friends.

But you know what’s better than friends? Glorious, steaming, rich, invigorating, real coffee. I’d been lamenting the unavailability of whole-bean coffee and coffeemakers (though the town's filled with Starbuckseses and Dunkins and other chains). Anyway, after meeting Tony, I walked around in the store for a bit, and quite literally overnight, E-Mart had laid in a whole array of coffeemakers! So I grabbed the cheapest and made a beeline for the tea and coffee section, and yes!—Juan Valdez be praised—bags of coffee!

My hands trembling with the prospect of being able to drink enough coffee to, well, make my hands tremble, I grabbed a big bag o’ beans and started to tear off the top to use the grinder. A pretty young attendant hurried up and oh-so-nicely indicated that I had to let her grind them. (This is an incredibly service-oriented society.) I don’t think she’d ever ground coffee beans before, and I’m quite sure not many locals had seen it done; several of them stopped to watch.

And then I went home and slept, and then I had coffee—you have no idea how good it tasted unless you’ve been limited to a steady stream of Taster’s Choice—and went downtown. I forgot all my troubles, forgot all my cares. I’m going back.

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