GUARDS TWIRLED and stomped beneath a sea of brightly-colored flags. One raised a conch shell horn to his hand and blew, the low, velvety tone striking steady and sure. A guard standing beneath an archway struck a drum, which was twice as tall as he was. Its deep bass-voice rang out across the square, up the tri-path walkway, and pushed through the mouth of the first Gate. Tourists delightedly snapped photos and surreptitiously sidled in front of one another. Every few hours, Gyeongbok Gung Palace hosted a changing of the guard, to simulate how it was back in the dynasty days.
Our English-speaking tour group entered the interweaving courtyards. A group of girls from the Philippines had showed up wearing hanboks, the ceremonial Korean dress, and our guide was thrilled. So were the other tourists. They kept snapping photos of them.
A dark face peered down at me from above. Little ebony statues, the Buddha foremost, a monkey behind, and a dragon at the far back, perched upon a roof curved like a crescent moon. These miniature guardians were the equivalent of benevolent gargoyles, warding off evil spirits. They watched as the tourists chose which path on the stone walkway to carry them. There were three paths. The King walked the raised center route. Flanking him on either side were two thinner paths; one was for the military guard, and the other for the civil guard. Our guide told me that before the war, the civil guard was the most distinguished position to earn. Then the wars broke out, and the military path became the superior.
My mind distracted easily, I found myself wandering off from the group to ease through threadbare passages that led to the Crown Prince's quarters, the Princess's sleeping chamber, and an old well I mistook for a sun dial. The insides of these chambers were cold and barren, a few chairs or a lacquered painting half-heartily sat up. The original palace was destroyed during the Japanese invasions and colonial rule in the later century, but great care has been given to restore the largest palace in all of Seoul to its former splendor. A seven-clawed golden dragon watched enigmatically from the throne hall ceiling. Five claws represent a king, but seven claws designate the Emperor. Engraved in stone outside was the everlasting phoenix, the ruby-red bird that represents the queen.
"Phoenix! Like in Harry Potter!" our guide gushed, hoping to elicit a smile. As far as tourist groups go, she had quite a stern-faced crowd.
Golden-leafed trees flanked the gateways, as vigilant as any guard. Their garland-bright boughs ushered us to the banquet hall upon a koi pond. The waters were murky; the koi stone-hued. Our guide gestured to the pillar-decked house upon the lake. "That's where the parties happen," she said with a wink.
Tucked away in the back were the concubine quarters, the dwellings that swallowed the women those women whole and never let them out again. No concubines were allowed to leave the palace. They never came to the King's chamber; he always visited them.
I snapped away pictures contentedly, overcome by fall's beauty. The gardens grew in a wild tangle, in which jackdaws twittered and a stooped tree offered plump persimmons, like a faded grandmother who still never fails to delight a child with sweets. The crown of autumn circled a tiny shrine islanded on a lake, the trees a fierce halo of fire. And off in the distance, Bukhan San reared above the palace like a ghost in the mist, the original throne.
Little did my friend and I know, we were part of the show. Several boys approached, asking to take pictures with the "Americans." Three girls actually pursued us, determined to snap a photo of the foreigners in their natural state. They seemed convinced that their efforts to photograph us were unnoticed; one girl actually kept a running pace with us: sprinting to get ahead, and then toddling backward in her high heels to try and take a shot with us in it. Keeping with the game of pretending not to notice, we ducked our heads away each time. At last, we quickened our stride, leaving the protesting clack-clack of the high heels behind.
Escape from Costco
Costco's not as old as Gyeongbok Gung Palace, but it's just as vast. The elevator let us off on a basement level floor, and we stood rubbing our hands gleefully as we surveyed the aisles decked to the ceiling with food. Sweet, familiar, home food. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Blocks of orange cheddar cheese. Half-gallons of milk. Okay, I missed my dairy.
I can go through the juice and milk cartons from my grocery store within two days. That was the first thing to stock up on. After that came boxes of cereal, (my co-teachers hate the stuff) salad dressing, soy sauce, and Hunt's diced tomatoes. We noticed how full our cart was getting, but there was still just one more aisle to go through. And then another. Finally, we pulled our stash of treasure through the checkout line, and realized the problem.
Stretched out from the elevator, like a line of people waiting to cross the Red Sea, was the exit line. Noisy families, whining babies, shopping carts wedged wheel-to-wheel-- Yep, an army of customers was waiting for one small, dinky elevator to carry them and their goods back up to the parking level. The elevator took one or two carts at a time.
"We can just take the stairs," I told my friend, flexing my non-existent arm muscles. There were free boxes for customers to pack their food into, so we selected the sturdiest-looking ones and filled them to the brim. At the very top of mine was the large can of Hunt's diced tomatoes. Right away, I knew me and Hunt were gonna have problems.
Our noses in the air, we strutted around the line of people and headed for the stairs: me clutching my box in white-knuckled hands; my friend with her box balanced on her head. Hunt rolled against my chest.
The one flight of stairs killed me. When I saw the long hallway stretching to the exit, I felt ready to cry. Beyond that lay the quarter of a mile back to the subway station. The subway station meant more stairs. The subways were often very crowded, and sitting wasn't an option.
Two men spotted the damsels in distress and carried our burdens over to a shopping cart. My friend and I looked at each other. Then we were pushing the shopping cart out of the exit and into the parking lot. When we got to the street, we just kept going. The shopping cart rattled and bumped over the choppy sidewalk. The path began to grow narrower. Threads of people were beginning to stare at the foreigners bull-dozing their way through the crowd with a Costco shopping cart. I began to fear we'd taken it as far as we could.
Then out of the gloom blazed my familiar 88 bus, my favored one to go to work, to get me back home.
"Let's just wait at the bus stop," I suggested. We dumped the shopping cart in a bike rack.
The people on the bus stared in amusement at the red-faced girls heaving up the steps with their two big boxes. I slumped into the first seat, next to an extremely talkative man. He poked at my boxes and the two full bags of bagels.
"No, one is for her," I tried explaining, pointing toward my friend. The man continued to jabber on. He patted the box, jabbered, shook his head. I nodded and agreed with whatever he said. "Yeah. Yeah. It sucks not having a car."
Disembarking from the bus proved to be the greatest challenge of the night. When you stand up on a bus, you're not surfing a smooth wave. The floor rocks and lurches beneath your feet like a spatter of miniature earthquakes. Next to that, I somehow had to reach into my pocket and retrieve my bus pass. One swipe on, one swipe off. I balanced the box against a pole and made a grab for my pocket, as there seemed to be no jostles ahead. I barely made it. The Hunt's tomato slices had bent one of the box's walls out of shape.
The bus flew to a stop as if testing breaks in midflight. I swung about, barely keeping my balance against the pole. Swipe. There. Bus card done. The box wall was slowly crumbling, and the food was the water piled up behind the dam, eager to give way. I lumbered down the steps, and then--that damned Hunt's tomato slices--tipped off the edge like the pebble that precedes an avalanche.
The man in front of me whirled around with an alarmed horror in his eyes, a slow-motion, "NOOOOOO!" As the food went lurching toward his head, he caught that Hunt's tomato slices and balanced the box edge. My food was saved.
"Kamsa hamnida!" I thanked him. He chuckled nervously, handing the box back. The last thing I needed was to be the waygook who clobbered an innocent man from behind. People gapped at us from all around. You could really hear them thinking, "Those crazy foreigners. The things they come up with. Boxes on theirs heads. And that girl. Hobbling under all that weight. She'll sprain something." Indeed, even as the bus pulled away, faces were still crammed against the window, not wanting to miss one second of the foreigners toddling away into the night.
Alone at the bus stop, we'd only gone a few paces before we set down our boxes. My apartment was still a few blocks away. We set down our boxes, and laughed and laughed.
Disclaimer: The above is presented as opinion, not fact.
Disclaimer: The above is presented as opinion, not fact.