In Cheju City

Cheju-do, South Korea. 1997.

Down a small side street off the main drag coming up from the ferry terminal was a row of cheap motels (여인숙). I picked out one at random and opened the front door. There was a bell on it that dinged loudly to announce my entry. I had come up with a strategy for easing the motel owner’s experience when trying to accommodate the foreign traveler. As soon as the bell dinged and I could hear someone inside rustling about I would yell out loud in Korean: “Hello? Do you have any rooms”? Invariably the answer would be that they did have a room, so I would yell out and ask how much per night. They would usually respond with a fair price. I would get all of this done before they had a chance to see that I was from way out of town and get all freaked out that they didn’t speak English. It worked great on this occasion too, and soon I had a room at the end of the hall on the second floor of a fine establishment.

The small room had only a TV and some blankets and a floor pad. There was a pillow filled with rice or corn or something. The bathroom was down the hall and halfway down the stairs to the first floor. Standard 여인숙 stuff. The owner was a short, jolly fellow who took extra pains to make sure I was comfy, that I had a bottle of water (probably recycled, and not in the way one might think), and that I knew how to work the hot water in the bathroom. Very nice and friendly. I decided this would make a great home base for a few days as I poked around lovely Cheju Island.
Cheju City from a hill east-ish of city center A cool shot with the KAL Hotel in the far background
After a couple days of wandering around Cheju City--the capitol of beautiful Cheju Island--I returned to my cheap motel room for the evening. I was greeted at the door by the owner who invited me into his room for dinner with the family. He had treated me to two meals already, one free nights of lodging, and even chauffeured me on a near-death drive to Dragon Head Rock. Or, Horse Head Rock as I like to call it…
He also told me not to worry about money, but to stay as long as I needed, use his motel as a home base and travel around the island and return each night. I tentatively agreed. Anyway, this night, the motel owner really opened up. He told me he was a writer, showed me notebooks full of his hand-written work, and read me parts of a story he wrote about when he was with the U.N. forces in Viet Nam and about the wound he brought home with him. He said he had had many favorable experiences with the U.S. soldiers while there and he hoped we could become close friends. We finished dinner and I went up to my room to watch a little KMTV before I fell asleep.

About 11 p.m. that night, there was a knock on my room door. I rousted myself up and opened the door to find the motel owner with two Cheju City policemen. They wore suits and were quite terse with me demanding to know my name. They were holding the registration form from the motel, the one I had thought it would be funny to put a fake name and passport number on. Name: Tony Opda. Turns out they did not find that as humorous as I. To compound my initial mistake of phonying the motel registration form, I told them I left my Passport in a locker box in the train station in Seoul. Not funny. They demanded to see any form of ID, my boat and train ticket stubs, my birthday; they grilled me. They wanted to see some proof that I had come down from Seoul, and had not snuck onto their island in some other clandestine fashion. I passed their exams, but I still got a lecture about the danger of spies, especially on this island. They reminded me of the recent news about the North Korean dictator’s ex-son-in-law who had defected to the South, had plastic surgery to change his face and was still shot in the head by a spy just days before. I thanked them and said goodnight.

Early the next morning I slipped out the front door while holding the bell so no one would wake up. I felt like a fugitive as I ran down the street in the still dark of morning. I didn't stop running until I was at the public market where I went deep into its bowels to a 호떡 stand where I burned my fingers and tongue on the melted brown sugar filling goodness.

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