Korea’s Atomic Bombs

You’d think I’d know how to travel, having logged over 100’000 flight miles in the last two years each, but after this last flight I feel like I need to go back to basic training.  It started out ok, with me checking one suitcase (containing 7 kilograms of laptop and 4 kilograms of clothing) and getting the baggage slip on the 29 kilograms of microscope, which I took to the customs official to get the Carnet ATA stamped before checking.  But as I walked through the security check (without a beep) and overheard something about “couteau Suisse” I knew I’d forgotten to transfer my toolkit out of my computer backpack and into a suitcase.  I ended up having to transfer my laptop and other necessities into my garment bag and checking my backpack with the toolkit.  (I could have tossed the Swiss army knife, but I wasn’t going to toss the tweezers, which apparently are also dangerous weapons.)  Oh well, worse could happen, I figured – at least now I wasn’t carrying as much. 

Well, worse did happen.  I came to Korea and declared my Carnet ATA suitcase as such; I should have realized that the response of “Oh, Carnet” was to mean a longer wait as the official meticulously went through the forms and tried to figure out what “gemäss Vollmacht” meant.  It was 6:00 am when I arrived and after 6:15 when he was done.  I was happy he at least didn’t ask to open the suitcase and just trusted me on that one. 

I pushed my cart out into the public area, got cash from an ATM, and purchased a ticket for a limousine bus to my hotel.  One of the bus company employees told me where to stand in line.  The next one came, looked at my ticket, and told me to go inside and get a drink because the next bus wouldn’t come until 6:55; I’d just missed the 6:20 bus by four minutes.  A half-hour wait was the last thing I wanted, so I returned the bus ticket and got a cab, which cost seven times as much but at least left immediately. 

At the hotel I opened my bags and took out my travel documents.  My passport was missing, and I realized immediately that it had stayed at customs.  I’d nearly left it there at Japanese customs before, because both they and the Koreans take the passport, put it on their desk with the Carnet papers, and then get so absorbed by the Carnet that they forget to return the passport.  The clerk called the airport for me and gave them my cell phone number, then checked me in with the information I had.  I know my passport number by heart, so I could fill it in the registration form. 

About half an hour later, I got a call on my cell phone.  “Hello,” I said.  “Hello,” said she.  “Hello,” I said.  “Hello, this is Incheon Aipott Lostandpound,” said she.  “Yes,” I said.  “Hello,” said she.  “Yes,” I said – and the iteration continued until she decided to give up.  Why she couldn’t hear me, I did not ever figure out, because after a second try with the same results she called from a different number and it worked.  They’d found my passport and I could pick it up the following day.  I asked if they couldn’t mail it, and they said they could, but I would have to pay for it to the tune of 7’000 Won.  While that sounds exorbitant, it’s only about 6 Swiss francs, so considering that picking it up would mean an hour’s drive each way at the cost of at least four times that I had them send it.  We’ll see if it arrives… 

At 9:00 my partner picked me up.  I’m in Korea to train our partner in the use of our microscopes before they exhibit at the Nano Korea conference next week, which I can’t attend myself.  Teaching the use of microscopes on only a few hours of restless sleep went reasonably well.  Celebrating their recent first sale Korean style – that’s where the “atomic bombs” come in, shots of soju dropped into half-full beer glasses.  Not drinking is impolite in Korea, and after a first one-shot “oltugeja” we ran through most of the individual permutations of drinking to our business and family members.  Someone had the brilliant idea of ordering kaoliang as well, but fortunately I could do my duty with just one shot of the 50%-brew.  Still, by the end of the meal I was full not just from a barrage of “atomic bombs” but also all the food and jasmine tea I downed in an effort to try to minimize the effects of that barrage.  I was driven to the nearby hotel by someone who’d only had a glass or two and immediately conked out. 

Ten hours later, I’m up, and we’ll see what the day brings.  Thirst, for one…

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