Yikes!

Today got off to a rather panic-inducing start.

There I was, enjoying my day off by having a nice lie-in. I was fast asleep when, at 10am, the sound of air raid sirens filled the air. Not just in the distance or from some military building like during the now-familiar monthly practice drills, but right there in my building, in all the neighbouring buildings, everywhere. It was deafening. They wailed dismally and urgently, shattering the silence into millions of tiny fragments as they continued to howl.

As an alarm clock, I must say air raid sirens are extremely effective, as it normally takes me at least an hour and three cups of coffee to become as fully wide-awake and alert as I did in the space of 0.01 seconds this morning.

I was jolted out of my pleasant slumber as if someone had thrown a bucket of crushed ice over me. I am decidedly unimpressed by my survival skills in a time of panic, as I didn’t – couldn’t -even move. I jumped into heart-stopping awakeness, and then just lay there, terrified, wondering if Korea was being blown to smithereens and North Korean soldiers were about to blast my door down and pump bullets into my frozen body.

I mean, what are you meant to do? Get up, get dressed, run outside in a panic and into the path of gunfire? Go out into the hallway in your pyjamas (or, in my case in this heat, simply a t-shirt) in the hope of being rescued and taken to a secret basement shelter by the old woman from upstairs? I went for secret option three, namely remain frozen to the spot, on the bed, clutching Eeyore and praying that death would be quick and painless. I don’t think I could’ve moved even if I had an emergency plan, I was so petrified.

It turns out that I should’ve paid a little more attention to why we were getting a day off today, as a quick Google search (when the sirens had stopped and my heart had restarted) showed me that it was Memorial Day, honouring those who lost their lives while fighting in the Korean War. The sirens were sounded at 10am in memory of the soldiers. I don’t know what I was doing this time last year, because I’m pretty sure I would’ve remembered that experience if I’d been home. The feeling will be imprinted on my memory for the rest of my life, believe me!

Of course, things in general in Korea are rather more fast-paced than in my quiet little town in Northern Ireland.

At home, I’ve had to stop my car on the way to my granny’s house to wait for a flock of sheep to lazily cross the road. Here, you’re more likely to have to stop suddenly because another car has suddenly appeared out of nowhere and started hurtling towards you. You could not pay me enough money to make me drive here, I swear. It’s difficult enough being a pedestrian, as I was reminded when Terri and I went for a wander through our neighbourhood this evening in search of somewhere new to eat. Motorbikes simply career along the crowded footpath as if they’re on an open highway, and it’s a case of either jumping out of their way or, well, dying. I think people who listen to music on their iPods while walking along the streets are extremely brave and/or out of their minds. I would’ve been run over long ago thanks to not hearing the motorbike coming up behind me.

The streets off the main roads are chaos. I absolutely love them, and one of my favourite things to do in Korea is just wander through those streets – particularly in the evening, when people are out and about after work to go for dinner, drinks, entertainment, shopping. I describe my neighbourhood as small and quiet, and it is when compared with downtown, but it’s like a big city compared to areas back home. There is really no such thing as a quiet little back street. You can’t walk for long without finding crowds of people, shops blaring music, numerous carts and stalls and tents selling snacks and meals and drinks, flashing neon lights, and car drivers playing chicken everywhere you look. The absence of footpaths on most of these streets turns a simple stroll into an extreme sport – surely no skydiving or bungee-jumping experience could compare to the moment when you realise you’re caught between two drivers coming from opposite directions, neither one prepared to back down and reverse to let the other past in the narrow, chaotic street?

This happened to us tonight, and we were just regaining our composure when suddenly a woman with a mad, vacant expression on her face drove her car straight for us. I mean, she veered from her straight course, aimed the car right at us as we walked at the side of the road, and hit the accelerator. We screamed and almost crashed into a table of drinks at a street restaurant in our panic to get out of the way – it was the second time that day that I’d genuinely thought someone was purposely trying to kill me. Turns out that there was another chicken situation going on with a driver approaching from behind us. We hadn’t seen him, but she had, and was apparently veering out of his way at the last second. I suppose running over a couple of pedestrians is an act of self-preservation when faced with a madman driving towards you at full pelt.

And then, calming ourselves down yet again, we emerged from the side road on to the main road, and missed being plowed down by a speeding motorbike on the footpath by about half an inch. We actually did have to stop for a minute at that point, to take deep breaths and wait for our hearts to slow down enough to stop thudding loudly in our ears.

So much for a relaxing day off. :)

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