It hit me. Strong, invasive.
A blend of stale tobacco, sweet smelling perfume and something else. Garlic perhaps.
Eyes closed, I took a lung full. A single female in an ocean of male species.
The ding of the elevator roused me, I waded through and out the doors.
Here I am in South Korea, as far away from the North as possible, thanks for asking. Flashback a couple of months ago, upon my arrival, I had fallen asleep in the car en route my apartment after more than 24 hours of travel. I woke up suddenly and it was pitch black, took me a while to realize that we were in a tunnel. Underground. In fact it was one tunnel after another, each one longer than the last. As if that wasn’t enough, we went into one that wasn’t just underground, it was under water as well. I swallowed nervously as a feeling of claustrophobia threatened to engulf me.
“Guy, these people build ships the size of the Titanic for a living, na small tunnel dem no fit build? Relax.” My alter ego Soleil whispered in my ear.
We snaked our way up winding roads to the point where the mountains and the clouds kissed. My fear of heights disappeared as I took in the stunning views of the valleys and plains hundreds of feet below. We arrived at our apartment, a 14-storey marble building right in the centre of town. I watched as the driver drove the car into what appeared to be a parking slot for a single vehicle on the ground floor. He alighted, pushed a button on the wall, and the huge metal doors closed up. I looked through the peephole in utter amazement as the car was lifted by a metal plate which inched its way up until it disappeared out of sight. That was when I noticed the other cars stacked on both sides of the wall, from the ground to the topmost level of the building like peas in a pod.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, my brain had attuned to waking when I should have been sleeping and I had been inducted into the Korean way of life after weeks of eating Kimchi and an assortment of sea food, Korea by night was left to be discovered. The streets were usually packed till the early hours of the morning even on week days. It was not a strange sight to find men straight out of the office, still in their grey uniforms moving from one bar to another. I always wondered how they managed to stay awake at work the next day.
This particular evening was windy, a result of the ripple effect of Typhoon Hato which was sweeping through nearby China. Our party of about two dozen guys and only three girls – Naija gehs scarce like banga rice here – passed by several restaurants. The curtains parted enough for us to see groups of family units sitting cross-legged on the floor, taking turns to dip their spoons into steaming bowls of fish soup. Bright neon lights announced the assortment of businesses from Foreigners clubs to transgender bars. The former were a popular sight, I counted a number of them during my regular evening walks. One of my Naija friends had ventured into one, the bouncers had promptly kung-fu-d his black ass out. Not all foreigners were welcome it seemed.
We arrived at our destination, a nondescript bar-cum-restaurant, one of hundreds. It was a large room, tables and chairs were arranged in a horse shoe, creating a space in the middle which served as a dance floor. We made our way past a couple of dancers to the corner of the room. We were the only blacks there, in fact I came across only a handful of coloured people my entire stay. As it was their custom to treat everyone with respect, we were treated no differently. They were a friendly and curious people, I got used to women and children approaching me simply to touch my hair. The waiters wasted no time setting our table with large bowls of prawns and pork cutlets which they proceeded to roast over an open fire right in front of us. We spent the next couple of hours washing our sumptuous meal down with ice cold Soju.
There she was, petite, skinny with long black hair. She must have been no older than 16 years old I deduced from the near flatness of her chest although I may have been wrong. Dressed in an all black attire which contrasted sharply with her pale skin, she reminded me of a vampire. Her arms were wrapped around an older grey-haired man with a large pouch. He in turn had one hand around her waist and the other right on her flat behind. They both swayed suggestively on the dance floor, oblivious to everything and everyone around them. She turned and looked in our direction, she had the most innocent almond shaped eyes I ever saw. I shook my head in disbelief. Life hard sotay oyinbo sef dey hustle.
The music changed after a while from Pop to Latino as more and more people arrived. A small group of Korean girls laughed loudly as they left their seats to the dance floor. One of them in a yellow flowing skirt, lifted up the hem of the garment and dug her heels in like a professional Spanish dancer, briefly reminding me of a bull coming face to face to a skilled matador. She was a beautiful dancer. Without any warning she reached down and in one swift move yanked off her skirt. My jaws fell open like a Yoruba man who had just been slapped. Everyone craned their necks to catch a glimpse of what was on display. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on what side of the fence you are on, she was naked from the waist down save for a pair of very short shorts.
A couple of hours later we joined the group of night crawlers making their way home like fishermen after a night at sea. Except that we had no fish. A small party of Korean men wobbled slowly behind us, still in their gray uniforms singing in high pitched voices, arms wrapped around each other for support. One of them pulled away just in time to direct the avalanche of semi-digested food from his mouth to the sidewalk. The others cheered him on as he spilled his guts all over his shoes.
How then could a people so gay and merry have such a high rate of suicide, the second highest in the world. My friend`s grandfather took his own life because he didn’t want to be a burden to his children anymore. I asked my friend who shares same last name with half of the country`s population how she felt about this, she shrugged her shoulders and looked out the window.
But, I came to admire their strong work ethic and meticulousness in getting the job done. I imagine myself living in a society such as this in which both sexes have equal rights. Where one could spend up to two years in prison for infidelity. Well, that law was revoked in 2015. Damn!