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20 Hours in Incheon

After six hours on a train to Chicago, a five-hour night at a Day’s Inn, and sixteen hours shooting through the air in a pressurized tube with wings, I arrived sweaty, sore, baggy-eyed and bedraggled at the Incheon International Airport. They stamped my passport, scanned my fingers, snapped my picture and cruelly showed me the result.


Artist approximation

Incheon is not an airport; it is an indoor mall with space to wheel your luggage. What looks like colored blocks on the airport map are really sleek and shining storefronts, polished floors, and an artificial Korean village overlooking the shopping center. When I walked into the arrival lobby, a soprano was singing opera on a stage next to the escalators. An elderly woman waiting for the toilet smiled at me and said (in English): “Welcome to Korea.” All right, I thought. This isn't so bad

Then I realized I was alone in a foreign country’s airport with no phone and no way to say so in the local language.

No big deal. I just needed to call my hotel and request a shuttle. There was a payphone in the middle of the lobby, and I had some change from customs.

As it turns out, Korean payphones don’t use change. 

Another elderly woman approached me and asked: “Can I help you?” I’m pretty sure it was the only phrase she knew in English. She pulled out her phone card and slid it into a slot at the bottom of the machine, sort of like where you’d stick your debit card in an ATM. The payphone took the charge for the call directly off of her card as she dialed the number. Then she pointed to a booth next to the entrance, where people could buy phone cards.

It should be noted that the lobby was also populated with taxi drivers set to lure travelers into their cars for spiked fees. Unlike a lot of the locals, they speak very fluent English. My guess is that they probably get a lot of customers because of this. (Yours truly thought she, too, might just go for the more convenient option—until she asked the price.)

One call card later, I returned to the payphone and, following the card instructions (no swiping), dialed the hotel’s number. No response. According to the electronic operator, the number didn’t exist. I was sure I’d copied it down right from the website, but punching in a second time still offered no answer.

Cue the third ahjumma. She and her coworker, both wearing lime green Incheon International Airport vests, were standing nearby and chatting with each other. I’m pretty sure neither of us understood any specific word that the other said, but when I pointed to the phone number that I’d copied down, the woman could figure out the correct number for the hotel by talking to her coworker. 

She took me to the phone and tried to dial the hotel's number following the (English-language) instructions on the back of my card. After a glance, she gave me my card, pulled out her own, swiped it, and dialed the hotel for me, handing over the receiver only after the hotel clerk had picked up. I don't speak much Korean, but I knew enough to say: “Thank you very much!”

I stayed at the Hotel Parkwood, in a quiet neighborhood on the edge of a small island away from the airport. I never saw any part of the actual city of Incheon, but since I was basically waiting until an appropriate hour to collapse into bed, that was fine by me. For a stretch of the legs, I wandered around the neighborhood and found a sliver of beach, warm and shining in the late afternoon light:


The following morning I went back to the airport. All the new EPIK teachers were meeting their province's coordinators at 11:00, and I wanted to eat breakfast in this palatial airport. I picked the most Korean-looking place I could find and ordered a bowl of bibimbap; I’d been craving vegetables.


The above is meant to be mixed together, but that's less photogenic.

With some free time before we were expected to meet the people from EPIK, I wandered a bit more. Other features of the Incheon International Airport include:

-       At least two Paris Baguette shops, which sell baked goods that look both delicious and especially-sweet

-       A jjimjilbang spa and sauna, where travelers can spend the night for about 20,000 Won

-       A Korean history museum

-       Convenience stores that sell everything from milk to packaged pig intestine:


Most of the other new EPIK participants were at the airport well before the arranged meeting time. At about 10:15, the EPIK representatives split us into groups according to our assigned provinces. At 11:00 my group took attendance and we piled onto our bus for the Gangwon Province. Since we weren’t going to have our official orientation with EPIK before we arrived at our schools, our province director, Albert, stood at the front of the bus and shared the most necessary information with us as the bus tore off, headed westward.

Albert had brought contracts for us to sign, went over the details of certain passages, and handed out a survival guide with basic information about the different cities and towns in Gangwon, lesson plans, classroom management, and life in Korea (phrases and numbers, applying for an alien residence card, transportation). As he spoke, the landscape flew by the bus window. I glanced out at the enormous uniform apartment complexes and the ever-steepening mountains into which we were driving.

Soon we pulled into Chuncheon, Gangwon Province’s capital, and it was time to receive the slip of paper for which we’d waited all summer. I read my placement like I was peeling off a band-aid.

Maureen Vance –– High School –– Donghae, Gangwon, South Korea


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