Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Mid-Speed Train

Carlos and I were on a train bound for Seoul to meet a friend of mine visiting from America. A man lost his wallet in Daejeon, and according to the porter who was standing over us, he was sitting in our seats. The porter smiled and adjusted his shoulders in the too large suit; he looked like a wrinkle child wearing his father’s tailored pilot uniform. The neck protruded at an angle like a vulture and the cap sat awkwardly on his egg shaped, balding skull.

                The first time he came in the car his eyes came straight to us. Carlos sat up like a pitbull noticing a stranger at the fence of his yard. “If he asks us for our tickets…” he growled glaring at the bent, square shouldered wire man as he passed. The electronic card machine in his hand looked too large and hard for him to carry, but he soldered on through the slow moving car. I’d told Carlos for months if you want to see South Korea’s countryside you need to take the mid-speed train, the Saemeul. The KTX shoots across the country through gun-barrels of gray, dimpled metal that slice through mountains and blur the nation as if it were spinning by while you were on an acid trip. On the Saemeul everything floats passed like a moving pastoral landscape of beetle-shell metal hoods in the junkyard and cornrows of crops braided into the earth like dew covered green hairs. The man stopping the second time and leaning forward to ask for our tickets caused Carlos to miss a hillside memorial site glittering with a marble headstone.

                “See, this is fucking bullshit, he’s not asking…” Carlos growled. I pulled out my wallet and Carlos grumbled and did the same. We handed the small man our tickets. He had appeared for a third time in the car and after looking from side to side had come straight to us. He looked at the tickets and then began chewing some words in Korean. He had spoken the word, “Tickets,” like a square gumball that was cutting up his mouth. But the Korean was a finely minced meat that slid in out of his papyrus, ancient lips.

                “Chee ank…” it was all ch blends and ks to me as he waved his wallet around and pointed at our seats. I looked out in front of me at the large amount of leg room, and I pulled out my passport wondering if he thought that we hadn’t only snuck onto the train but somehow we had snuck into the country. He waved his head no and shuffled off.

                “This is fucking bullshit, man. This is that racist shit,” Carlos said rising in his seat and twisting backwards. The porter returned with a young woman in a glittering white dress and riding boots, she looked like a really expensive hooker or a really easy date.

                “He wants to know where you got on?” she asked looking bored and annoyed as if she had been talking to her boyfriend and playing video games at the same time.

                “Daejeon, he looked at our tickets,” I said. Carlos balled his fist and sat like a half stick of dynamite waiting to be lit.

                She shot a few sentences at the porter who smiled and chewed a few back.

                “He says someone lost their wallet in Daejeon, have you seen a wallet?” she asked.

                “We’ve been here an hour and I didn’t see anything,” I said. We twisted and looked around the floor in our seats and finally shrugged.

                “Okay,” she said. They both left and Carlos slid back into his seat.

                “Didn’t ask anyone else on the train,” he said.

                “True, but it’s usually foreigners that sneak on these trains and then pretend to not understand any Korean to get a free ride,” I said. The porter bowed at the doorway, and I watched a small town pass by the window. The scenery is what makes the Saemeul so wonderful, and with the extra forty-five minutes the porters have to find new ways to entertain themselves, and come up with new ways to catch lazy foreigners.

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