Chronicling the events of September 13-14, 2009
4.25 AM – Sitting in my dark and empty apartment. Turn off laptop. Shove it and the charger into my carry-on. My pockets contain my passport, iPod, wallet and 3,000,000 won in cash.
4.26 AM – Load my huge backpack onto my back, and sit on the bed listening quietly. The building is silent. Adrenaline starting to flow.
4.29 AM – Take a deep breath.
4.30 AM – Open door, lock behind me, leave key on ground.
4.31 AM – Walk right past boss/neighbour’s front door. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. If she steps outside right now it will be the most painfully awkward freeze in human history.
4.32 AM – Emerge from stairwell at bottom of building, and quickly head down sidestreet. I have now left the Red Zone: my apartment, the corridors, the stairwells and the immediate exterior of the building, all places where I could conceivably bump into the six or seven people who could blow the lid right off this thing.
4.33 AM – Heading down the sidestreet to the canal, it occurs to me that I severely understimated the Red Zone. I am walking down a street full of bars and restaurants, all of them still full of people and open to the street. What if my boss is in one of them? Or her family, or friends? Jesus fucking Christ I can’t believe I’m doing this.
4.35 AM – Reach canal.
4.40 AM – Still walking down canal, but much further from my building now. Okay. Passed the first hurdle.
4.55 AM – Arrive at Jeungsan subway station, which is still closed up for the night. Plop bags on floor and sit down for a while. Hope I don’t get mugged.
5.10 AM – The roller doors are pulled up, and I am granted entry into the subway station along with several early morning aj-folk.
5.11 AM – An insistent ajumma tries to help me recharge my T-money card. I guess with the bacpack I look like a tourist. Despite reassuring her that I’m fine, she calls for the subway attendents. I KNOW HOW TO DO IT OLD WOMAN STOP DRAWING ATTENTION TO ME.
5.13 AM – Take a seat at the far end of the subway platform. Sit there quelling panic.
5.21 AM – An ajossi wearing a shiny silver suit and holding a briefcase is slowly shuffling up and down the platform. Where is he going? Work? At 5.00 AM on a Sunday? This is the country I am escaping.
5.45 AM – First train of the day arrives, and I scamper onboard.
5.50 AM – Subway stations I will never see again slide past: Susaek, World Cup Stadium, Mapo-gu Office.
6.15 AM – Several transfers having come and gone, I am now sitting down on the purple line and nodding off. Nearly everyone in the car is. Slap myself to stay alert.
6.25 AM – Gimpo Airport station. Drink shitty vending machine coffee before boarding the AREX Express.
6.34 AM – The Arex emerges from her tunnel into daylight. When I entered the metro system it was still completely dark – now the sun is rising over the green hilltops to the east. Concrete apartment blocks and rice paddies shrouded in mist slide past as the train powers on towards the islands of the West Sea.
7.01 AM – The AREX Express arrives at Incheon International Airport, a vast complex that is fresh and clean and new… everything Korea is not. Koreans believe in the power of first impressions. Or just impressions, actually.
7.05 AM – Push my bulky, backpacked form through a convenience store to refund the 5000 won left on my T-money card. This may seem petty when done by a man with the equivalent of $3000 AUD stuffed in his pockets. Duly noted.
7.09 AM – Take the travelator across to the main terminal.
7.10 AM – Begin lugging my tired, nervous ass up and down the three kilometre width of the terminal looking for the Cathay Pacific desk, carrying 22 kilos on my back.
7.22 AM – Success! A Chinese desk clerk informs me that check-in is not until 12.15, a five hour wait. Hoo boy.
7.45 AM – I have now been without sleep for nearly 24 hours. Caffeine is a neccesity.
7.51 AM – Cafe Pascucci located.
7.55 AM – Jesus Christ, why is all the coffee in this country so fucking awful?
7.58 AM – Incheon’s wifi is also awful.
8.10 AM – For some time now I’ve been having severe stomach cramps; it has become clear that this is not merely stress, but an urgent message from my nether regions. Shouldn’t have had Lotteria for dinner.
8.11 AM – Urgently begin looking for somewhere to keep my backpack, which will be quite cosy in a toilet cubicle.
8.21 AM – Locate a locker room and shell out 7000 for storage.
8.25 AM – Locate bathroom.
8.26 AM – Ahhhhhhhh, yeah.
9.00 AM – Have breakfast at Paris Baguette’s. A woman who resembles a Midwestern stripper is eating lunch with her blonde, mullet-haired son. If that kid’s name isn’t Tyler I will eat my hat.
9.08 AM – Why can’t I find a bar? What kind of fucking airport doesn’t have a bar?
9.17 AM – Fuck it, Bennigan’s will do.
9.18 AM – Order a draft beer and sit down. Just as the bartender starts walking towards my table with it, my iPod shuffles onto “Shining Star” by Earth Wind & Fire. Maurice White wails out “Yeaaah!” just as I take my first grateful gulp.
9.34 AM – Too goddamn fidgety and nervous to sit still. Drain the last of the beer and start wandering the airport again.
9.49 AM – Settle down in the viewing lounge next to Bennigan’s, watching sky blue Korean Air planes taxi and take off.
10.03 AM – Fucking awful hip-hop blaring out of the speakers drives me a’wandering again.
10.35 AM – Shuffle from couch to couch and chair to chair all over the airport. Sitting still for too long makes me nervous. Well, more nervous. I passed the first hurdle, which was getting out of the neighbourhood. Now I face the second: clearing customs. Time drags, its natural passage held back by the claws of worry and fear. Oddly enough it reminds me of scuba diving, of the low-key anxiety, the barely suppressed terror I always felt whenever I was breathing underwater. So I wander, and sit for a while, and wander again. It’s so fucking hot. Or is that my imagination?
11.23 AM – I must have passed the same pair of patrolling security officers five times by now. And these are the intimidating ones, the paramilitary dudes with black uniforms and Ray-Bans. I’m a sweating, nervous wreck with bags under my eyes and a bloodstream full of alchol, caffeine and several litres of adrenaline. Not for the first time, I realise that I probably look like an uncommonly well-dressed drug mule.
12.07 PM – GODDAMNIT DEPARTURE BOARD DISPLAY MY FLIGHT ALREADY I CAN’T STAND THIS ANYMORE
12.15 PM – Ok, check-in open for business.
12.17 PM – Pick up backpack from storage.
12.25 PM – Display passport at counter and receive two Cathay Pacific boarding passes: Seoul – Hong Kong, Hong Kong – Perth.
12.26 PM – Stare at the customs gate with swelling panic. I have been warned that, passing through customs, I may be detained and interrogated by officials who are well aware of what I am doing. It is not a crime and they have no legal right to arrest me or make me miss my flight. I still don’t relish the idea.
11.28 PM – Come to think of it, while the soundtrack to Waltz With Bashir fits my mood right now, it isn’t really calming my nerves. Turn off iPod.
12.30 PM – Okay. Time to run the gauntlet.
12.32 PM – Push bags and laptop through X-ray machine. Pray that the tightly rolled wad of cash in my jeans pocket isn’t too obvious.
12.33 PM – Wanded, and given the all-clear.
12.34 PM – Permit myself fifteen seconds to briefly scan the immigration lines and find the friendliest-looking customs officer. Settle on the single female.
12.36 PM – Have conversation with customs officer:
“You have alien card?”
“You come back?”
“You leave… but visa not finished?”
“Okay. I keep card then.”
“Thank you, have a nice day.”
12.37 PM – Holy shit. Did that actually just happen? Am I really free?
12.38 PM – I have never been this relieved in my life. The knot in my stomach untwists, and the pressing weight on my shoulders is lifted. Am I really free? I can’t afford to get careless. Not until I am off Korean soil will I let myself smile.
1.00 PM – Locate boarding gate. The plane is being prepped outside, a spectacular machine gleaming in the sunlight. The Cathay Pacific flight attendents seem like the most beautiful women in the world to me.
1.01 PM – Flight doesn’t leave for some time yet, so I set off to find lunch.
1.06 PM – A convenient food court with a number of different restaurants. As one final act of contempt, I order Japanese.
1.12 PM – My udon noodles and fish arrive… with a side of kimchi. Oh, Korea. One last ditch effort to win me back using the same failed ploys? I do not hate you, Korea – I pity you.
1.40 PM – After finishing lunch, I duck into a toilet stall to check that my three bundles of cash are still secure, tucked away in various pockets in my jacket and jeans.
2.05 PM – Sitting around at the boarding gate, I am approached by a friendly young man doing a tourism survey. He’s quite nice, so I’m more generous than I really should be in my answers. When I come to “Would you recommend Korea to others?” my pen trembles and I just barely manage to settle on “Not sure.”
2.55 PM – Begin boarding Cathay Pacific Flight 411, bound for Hong Kong.
3.30 PM – Takeoff. Yes. Yesssssss.
3.35 PM – Naturally I have a window seat, since I was five hours early for check-in, so I’m treated to my last glimpses of Korea from high above. It seems strangely satisfying to be leaving by plane, to look down on this place from above. I am untouchable now. I am invincible. I am in the sky.
3.38 PM – The last of the islands disappear as we climb above the cloud layer. After a few minutes, I permit myself a Michael Clayton smile.
3.40 PM – Insert iPod. Listen to “Exogenesis Part 3: Redemption” by Muse while the plane gently rolls left and right through the cloudscape, sailing towards freedom.
5.16 PM – After three hellish hours of constant nodding-off and re-awakening, the half-sleep that torments the body and soul (with a timezone change thrown in for good measure) we land at Hong Kong International Airport in heavy fog.
5.30 PM – This airport has the longest corridor I’ve ever seen. I can’t actually make out the finer details of the far end, and I’ve already been walking down it for five minutes. Fuck my legs hurt.
5.45 PM – A frustrating search for a meal in a very inefficiently designed airport. WHY IS EVERY RESTAURANT CHINESE WHY WHY WHY oh yeah
6.12 PM – Burger King for dinner. I’m burned-out on Asia.
6.55 PM – Locate boarding gate, settle down in chairs with laptop.
6.59 PM – Email Internet acquaintance who gave me advice on pulling a midnight run, having done one himself the previous month (customs detainment and all). Never heard from him after the first email, in which he wouldn’t tell me where he fled because his school was sending him death threats, but I wanted to let him know I’d made it. Somewhere between the use of codenames, the phrase “off the grid” and listening to “Extreme Ways” by Moby I feel like I’m living in a thriller movie.
7.34 PM – Watch a dry thunderstorm roll over the city. Lightning flashes down and stabs at the dark outlines of the mountains above Kowloon.
7.57 PM – Why the fuck is it so hard to find a single place selling water? No I don’t want your touristy knick-knacky airport shit, I want water. I NEED IT TO LIVE.
8.01 PM – In a chemist, of all places.
8.15 PM – Back to the gate to kill some more time.
8.35 PM – Maybe it’s the sleep deprivation, but the CNN anchors look like aliens. Their skin is stretched too tightly across their faces. Are they some kind of advance scouts for a coming invasion?
9.12 PM – My legs hurt bad. Whether I leave them on the ground or cross them or stick them on the chairs, they hurt bad.
10.55 PM – Boarding begins for Qantas Flight 68, bound for Perth.
11.25 PM – Plane begins trundling out to the furthest runway.
11.55 PM – Delayed, waiting at the end of the runway because of a tropical storm in the South China Sea. A Cathay Pacific plane crawls past, an enormous dark monster in the shadows.
12.04 AM – Finally take off, the plane rumbling down the tarmac and powering into the night sky. Hong Kong drops below us. Pulses of cloud-damped lightning flicker over the city, and in the harbour fishing boats are lit up like golden scarabs.
12.07 AM – After arguing with his wife and calling her a cow, the cunt in front of me reclines his seat all the way back into my face. I think you can judge a lot of a person’s character by how far they choose to push their seat back on a plane.
12.17 AM – I want to sleep. But I also want food and drink. Oh, God, how I want a drink.
12.44 AM – Oh come on, this is minor turbulence. Take the seatbelt sign off and serve us dinner already.
1.10 AM – Flight attendent asks me if I would like the beef or the chicken. “Whatever’s the least Asian, please.” They forget to give me a coke with my bourbon, but my psyche is so ravaged by the last 24 hours that I barely notice.
2.00 AM – Try to get some sleep, face up against the windowpane, shoes off, curled up underneath my jacket and an airline blanket. Feel half-drunk and empty.
5.00 AM – Emerge through a very thick layer of noise, dream fragments and blindness into full consciousness. Pull sleeping mask off and rub eyes. Another three hours of awful half-sleep. Not sure if they even turned the cabin lights off.
5.30 AM – Because, this being Qantas, they have to serve us both dinner and breakfast! Who cares if we only get three hours of sleep in between! What if the passengers began to starve to death, and resorted to cannibalism, the flight crew holing up in the cockpit while the rest of the plane became a bloodbath of violence and anarchy? That would make QF72 look like a joyride.
5.31 AM – I guess I am hungry though.
5.40 AM – Eat some kind of potato cake and fruit salad. Insert iPod to drown out the domestic dispute in the two seats in front of me. Bloc Party, “So Here We Are.”
6.00 AM – Daybreak over the desert. Out the window below is the rocky landscape of the Pilbara, blue in the pre-dawn light. Endless plains of rock, trees clinging to the creases of the creeks and streams. Ancient and weathered by time. As the sun rises it shifts from blue to violet to pink to red. No buildings, no sign that humans can even inhabit this place. Borne across it by the white wings and red tail of the flying kangaroo. Australia. Home.