I decide to go up into the mountains. I pack my bag. Grappling hook? Check. Ice pick? Check. Lonely Planet phrasebook for bartering with previously undiscovered tribe of mountain-dwelling Korean Pokemon? Check. Ziploc bag containing four bansai bananas and one diagonally sliced peanut butter (no jelly) sandwich? Check.
Walk down the street, past the pig intestine restaurant, past "Fanta Land," whatever the hell that is. Walk past the crappy Korean burger joint, the Paris Baguette, past about sixteen English language schools - one is called "Oops!"; I don't know why anyone would go through all the trouble of founding a language school only to call it "Oops!" - and down to the end of my street. Stand there for five minutes waiting for the light to change. Seven in the morning. Little tyke on roller blades next to me starts singing "miguk, miguk, miguk!" and stomping his blades on the sidewalk. Do Korean children ever sleep? Stay up way past midnight, up stomping around in their rollerblades by seven ...
Light changes and I cross. Two guys in dress shirts and ties stand dumbstruck as I walk by in my shorts that don't fit, my shirt that doesn't fit, my scraggily fledgling beard that doesn't fit. On top of it all, I'm white. I give them the chin pop. I imagine that there are English subtitles underneath the guy on the right. "You don't see that every day!" he says, except it's in Korean, so I have to read the subtitles - they are bright yellow - and assume that he's talking about me, like everyone else I pass on the street.
I walk up two blocks, over two blocks, I walk down two blocks, down two more blocks, pensively walking now, down two more blocks - maybe I've gone the wrong way? - but I swear this is where - but the mountain's right ... how could I miss a mountain? - maybe I'll just take this gravel path up the hill here, it should get me - um, dude, this is definitely a farm - did that farmer just say something? better turn back - up two blocks, up two more blocks, two more blocks up - gas station, soju bar, seafood joint, Buddhist temple, gas station, pile of garbage - ah! there it is! - nature trail, up around some mucky brown pond frosted with lichen and mossy stuff, into the forest and ostensibly, to the top of the mountain.
Two hours have elapsed since I left The Daeguba System. Is this a good name for my apartment? Let me know.
Two hours have elapsed and I have found the mountain trail. The trail is only two blocks from your apartment, if you are not a jackass. I am already tired. My legs ache. My stomach eyes the peanut butter sandwich in my satchel. But no. I must conserve, I must conserve energy and foodstuffs, especially foodstuffs. It will take me months, years, perhaps the better part of an afternoon to reach the summit - I see myself, first as a set of frost-blackened fingers appearing suddenly from below, gripping the rock like some sort of spider; I grip, lose my grip, grip again, pull myself up with my teeth, heave my body onto the summit, lay there like a pile of rubber, retarded from lack of oxygen, technically dead, but still strong enough to rise to my feet, to do some pelvic-thrust-oriented dance on the peak, to lob a pine cone grenade-style dropping 21,392 feet down to the earth below, to scream something triumphant and insulting, something like "Eat shit, people down there!" That moment will come. But first thing's first: where does a guy find a shirpa around here?
The ascent is slow, tedious, annoyingly character-building. My foot comes down on something crunchy. I glance down and see a skull, a skull with nerd glasses and a shitty haircut straight out of 1986. This is a circa 2006 Korean skull. Male. Also, it occurs to me that I really have to piss, but there are too many Real Live Koreans nearby for me to piss anywhere but in my pants. I'm not sure what the Korean stance on public urination is, but I suspect pissing on a mountain is punishable by death or by some sort of ironic pee-related torture, possibly resulting in death. I hold it in.
Wait a minute! What are all these Koreans doing up here? Why, that fellow's got a bum leg and ... and ... and she's like 83 years old ... and that one's fresh out of the womb and he's toddling right up the ... they're all passing me by! Here I am, doing my little happy dance up the slope with a bladder like a pumpkin, a beard of sweat spreading down my t-shirt, and I can't keep up. Koreans from all walks of life - some of them can't walk, others are barely alive - are leaving me in the dust. Say, is that Kim Jong-Il?
My ascent up the hill ... er, mountain! It's totally a mountain! ... is facilitated by a miraculous natural staircase, complete with smoothed, splinter-free wooden handrails, stairs of a cement-like consistency, and occasional cabanas for smoke/tomato-eating breaks. Some might view such natural complexity as evidence towards an intelligent designer, or at least an indication that the untamed mountain I had planned on climbing is in fact little more than a glorified bluff with a hiking trail meticulously kept tidy by the Daegu Jaycees. But that is foolish. Korea does not have Jaycees.
The walk ... hike ... climb? ... grows steadily steeper. We're talking incline level 3 on your treadmill, with resistance set at "medium". The staircase crumbles under my feet, is dodgy, is covered in little jagged rocks and sometimes acorns. Scuffing my Pumas becomes a very real possibility. I consider turning back. But I dig deep and summon the courage to go on, the tenacity to keep pushing upwards, upwards t - what the fuck? I'm at the top already? What the - and who are these people, lounging around in this cabana overlooking the city, these old women chatting in their pink jogging suits, these men with visible fillings playing with their iPods? Who are these people? Reinhold Messners, they are not.
I plant my Nebraskan flag and go sit down in the cabana. The man with visible fillings playing with his iPod stops playing with his iPod for a second to greet me and ask me a question. (He's speaking Korean. I'm in Korea, remember?) I stare at his fillings and nod slowly. He laughs, revealing more fillings, and says something else. I point to myself and say, "Sonsaengnim." Teacher. Me teacher. Booga booga. He nods. "Hanguk aju chal mothaeyo." I don't speak Korean well ... yet! But just you wait! He nods. The old woman next to me offers me a tomato. I take the tomato. I hate tomatoes, but I take a big wet bite out of it anyway, like an apple, hoping that this is the Tomato of Korean Fluency. But it tastes just like a shitty tomato. I want to vomit all over. The Koreans forget I'm there and resume staring out over Daegu, like a little cartoon city down below, its colors washed out so that it looks like it's on a TV screen, like it's printed on a giant tarp, two-dimensional, flat. It's nice, I guess.
I've still got to piss. I get up, tell the Koreans goodbye, and shuffle back down the mountain. When I'm far enough away, I disappear into the brush, lower my pants, and pee. Oh, yes. The pee rains down. I jiggle, zip, button. Then I throw that fucking tomato as far as I possibly can, into the woods. Swishhhhhhhhh, thok!
On the next episode of Daegu Days: Professor Kisu Talks Glibly About Cultural Differences.