Recently, for some strange reason I remembered a very peculiar experience that I had a few years ago when I was travelling to South Korea for a scientific conference. For the entire eleven-hour flight from Frankfurt to Seoul I did not speak to the passenger sitting next me. Yet as we were landing my seat-mate unexpectedly leaned over and spoke to me saying, “You know, we could get shot down right now. We are very close to the border with North Korea.” After seeing the worried look on my face he kindly smiled at me and reassured me that we would most likely be fine. North Korea had never done anything like that before. Thank God. With the ice broken, we continued chatting in the remaining tense minutes of our final descent into Incheon Airport.
I told him that it was my first visit to Korea and I was worried about finding my way around. My biggest concern was that I had to transfer from Incheon to Gimpo Airport to catch my connecting flight onto Jeju island. I was unsure whether I would have enough time to make the transfer, since my layover was less than four hours. As I spoke he nodded his head in understanding and then kindly offered to show me the way to Gimpo Airport. I politely declined and said that I would figure it out somehow. However, he insisted sincerely, saying, “Don’t worry. I will wait for you at the baggage claim. Then I will show you the way.” So on a whim I decided to take him up on his offer.
Little did I know what was in store for me upon arrival at immigration. After stepping up to the counter and presenting my passport to the immigration officer, who had never seen a Barbadian passport in his life, I was summarily sent for further inspection and questioning in a back room, since he was suspicious about my passport. Given that my layover time was quite tight and my Korean seatmate was waiting on me, this was obviously not good news. Initially, I feared that I might not even be admitted into South Korea, however, I soon calmed my nerves and made the most of the situation. I presented my passport to another immigration officer who then summoned two “passport experts” by phone to verify that my travel documents were real. I then took a seat and waited patiently for their arrival.
About ten minutes later two plain-clothes agents arrived on the scene to inspect my documents. They took turns examining my passport with a magnifying eyepiece looking for watermarks and God’s knows what else. However, after fifteen minutes of looking here and there they were still not fully convinced of my passport’s veracity. So rather comically they took photos of various pages in my passport with their smartphone cameras and said that they would send them to their supervisor for his final approval. For all I knew these photos could have been posted later on Facebook as the most interesting passport of the day. Fortunately, several minutes later my passport was stamped and I was finally permitted to enter South Korea.
The passport ‘fiasco’ had cost me about thirty minutes, which turned out to be fine since this was roughly the time needed for the baggage to be offloaded from the aircraft and delivered to the luggage carousel. So as I arrived at the baggage belt I was able to immediately grab my luggage and head towards the exit. As I walked out I scanned the area for my seatmate, but could not find him. I figured perhaps he had left already since I had taken so long at immigration. However, to my surprise, just before the main sliding doors, I found him patiently waiting for me.
I expected him to be annoyed at me for holding him up, however, he did not seem upset. He just said “Let’s go! We don’t have much time.” We then darted off through the maze of Incheon’s arrivals hall heading towards a grab-and-go shop where he purchased two bus tickets to Gimpo Airport. I was a bit surprised by this since I had expected him to simply point me in the right direction before heading off on his way. However, it soon became clear that his intention was to actually accompany me to Gimpo. I offered to pay for the tickets but he politely declined saying, “It is no problem for me.” As we walked towards the bus stop I quizzed him on why he was going with me all the way to Gimpo. It must surely be out of his way and would cost him a lot of time. But he again said, “It is no problem. I have time.” I found this strange since he was surely tired after the long flight and besides he must have been eager to see his family and loved ones.
The half-hour bus ride to Gimpo was uneventful. What stood out most to me was the bus itself. It was surprisingly old, with a drab, dated interior and no air conditioning. Interestingly, the exterior was the complete opposite – it was ‘pimped out‘ with a colorful paint-job and chrome rims, which made it seem completely out of place in the modern, orderly, high-tech metropolis of Seoul. In fact, it reminded me of a matatu bus I had seen in Nairobi on a previous trip to Kenya. During the bus ride my Korean acquaintance hardly said a word. He was content to let me peer out the window quietly soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of Korea rolling by.
Gimpo airport was a hot mess! When we arrived all I could see was people everywhere; literally filling up every corner of the terminal and spilling out into the street. Compared to palatial Incheon airport, Gimpo was a Motel 6. It had clearly seen better days long ago. As we strolled through the departures hall I realized that finding my way on my own might have been quite a challenge after all and I was very fortunate to have someone to guide me. We headed straight to the Air Asia check-in counter only to discover that all flights were suspended due to a passing weather system that had brought heavy rain to the Seoul area. We were told to wait and check back in a hour for an update.
At this point I figured my seatmate would head off on his way home as he had already lost a lot of time by going out of his way to help me. Yet he insisted on waiting with me, saying once again “I have time.” While we waited for new flight information he suggested that we grab lunch together at a traditional Korean restaurant in the lower level of the airport. By this time I was completely baffled by his seeming infinite patience and I was curious to know why he was going so far out of his way to help a complete stranger. In fact, at that moment it dawned on me that I still did not know his name nor did he know mine. Yet we had spent the past twelve-plus hours together!
For the conclusion, please check out Part 2.