Cops and no robbers.

It’s 3:30am when I check the time. My ears strain, doubting themselves. No, it’s not a dream; there is definitely a low rumbling disturbing the silent farm outside.

Which means someone is driving down our driveway at 3:30 in the morning.
The dogs, somewhere in the depths of the garden, finally hear the car, too. Their barking, gradually becoming hysterical, is amplified in the still night.

My heart races as harsh, bright lights break through the curtains and bounce off the dark walls of my bedroom. There is not a single reason anyone should be at our gate at this hour.

I unglue my stiffened body from bed and tiptoe to the window. Lifting the curtain a fraction, I squint through the window. The sky flashes blue-silver before I hear a second low rumbling – this time the distant beginnings of thunder. The lightning illuminates a white Isuzu, standing still and staring at me from behind the gate, its lights turned off.

I see him, peering through the gate in my direction, while pressing his cell phone to his ear.
And then suddenly I don’t see him at all; the outside lights flicker out and everything goes black.
My heart stops. My eyes fight against the darkness, but it’s no use, I cannot see anything.

My body refuses to move; unlike my mind, unable to stop itself from jumping to terrifying conclusions about what is going on while the outside light is absent. My breathing is heavy as are my legs, but I force them to turn and rush to the master bedroom where my parents lie fast asleep and ignorant.
I prod my snoring father.
“Dad. DAD. Wake up, there is a van parked outside the house.”
My mother stirs. My father utters something incomprehensible.
“Hmmphhrghgg?” is all he can manage.
“A van. Parked outside,” I whisper urgently.
He fumbles with his alarm clock. “Now?!

We make our way to the front door and peer through. The outside lights are back. And the van is still there.
My father unlocks the door and steps out into the chilled air. Something in his hand glints in the moonlight.
I steal a glance at my mother. “Please be careful,” she croaks. Her eyes are wide.
My father walks toward the gate hesitantly, his gun hanging at his side. He stops twenty metres before the gate.

“Hello? Who are you?” he shouts out.
No response.
“Hello?” he calls again.
Nothing. No one gets off the van; it remains silent and dark, and too dark to see through the windows.
Fear caresses a long spindly finger up my spine. “Dad, come back inside.”
“Call the police,” my mother adds.

We lock up again. While my mother rushes to the phone, my father and I keep our eyes fixed on the van, watching for any movement from within.
My mother joins us again, phone in hand. “Can you believe they are not answering their phones?!” she shrieks in disbelief. My father takes the phone and dials again.
“It’s ringing…yes, hello. I want to report an intruder on our property. A white Isuzu has parked on our driveway. No one is getting off the van. Please can you send someone to our house to check it out…what? Oh no…yes…yes…I see…”
He rattles off directions and his cell phone number, and puts the receiver down.
He lets out a sigh. “They told us to wait, there’s been a break-in close by, once they’re done there, they’ll come here.”
“So they only have one police vehicle?!” my mother asks incredulously.

I check the time: 4:00am. Like three gargoyles in the night, we continue watching the van.
After a few minutes, my mother leaves us and comes back equipped with a pair of binoculars. And we resume our watch, my mother now with the binoculars pressed hard to her eyes, as if the view would be clearer the harder she pressed it to herself.
“Too damn dark; can’t see a thing,” she says, setting aside the useless binoculars.
Despite it being too dark, we can tell there is still no movement from the van.
Why is he just sitting in there and watching us for over an hour? Why does he refuse to get off? What is he doing? Who was he phoning?
The phone rings, making me jump. My father picks it up on the second ring. I check the clock again: it’s been 52 minutes since we phoned the police.
“They’re done with the break-in and are on their way.”
“Good thing this isn’t an emergency…” my mother retorts.

There is still no sign of the police at 5:27am, but the phone rings again.
“Nononono,” comes my father’s voice, now tinged with impatience. “Keep driving! Go past the boulder! Past the boulder!”
The dogs hear the low rumbling of tyres on the gravel before us. It’s 5:45am when, finally, bright blue lights flicker against the inky sky. But our hopes die as quickly as they rise. My father’s face slowly crumples in confusion as the realisation dawns on his face that the police are making a U-turn before driving off into the dark distance again.
“Wha- ” He bolts to the phone and wrenches the receiver off the hook once again.
“Nononono, stop, stop, STOP!” he cries. “You were at the right place! Turn back, turn BACK!”
Before I can stop myself, a half derisive, half nervous laugh slips out as I reflect on the latest turn of events. I realise I haven’t checked on the mysterious van in a long time, but by now my fear is as lost as the policemen.

At 5:55am, for the third time that morning, we hear a low rumbling over the driveway.
“At last,” my father exclaims as he unlocks the door.
There they are again: the splotchy blue lights of the police van, which finally turns into our driveway. The front lights of their vehicle bounce on the rough gravel ahead and shine into the back of the white van, illuminating its interior and finally allowing us a glimpse of any silhouettes inside. There is a sharp intake of breath from the three of us.

The van is empty.

The police van comes to a halt beside the white Isuzu. Both doors fly open, letting out two zigzagging torch lights. One of the dark figures shines their torch into the driver’s side and peers in. And then he starts yelling and tapping at the window.
“Ay, Numzan!” (Ay, Mister!)
Someone is inside.
A second dark figure stands close by as the other taps harder on the window, harder and harder until eventually the tapping evolves into banging and the yelling evolves into bellowing.
My father, much braver now, walks up to the gate to watch the show.
The door of the Isuzu opens. And out stumbles the same man who was on his cell phone earlier. He can barely stand and his mutterings are incomprehensible.
“WENZANI?!” (What are you doing?!) shouts one of the policemen.
“Hmrgharghmahsh,” comes the nonsensical reply.
“Hayi…,” sighs the fed up policeman.

A bang makes me jump and starts the dogs again as one of the officers heaves the backdoor of the police vehicle open. What follows is a pandemonium of yanking and stumbling and clamouring, until finally they haul the unbudging stranger into the back of the van. My father trots back to us, eager to fill us in on what he’s witnessed.

“He’s absolutely drunk…,” he announces. “…no idea what’s going on…passed out in the van the whole time.”

The police van revs angrily before it reverses out drunkenly, somehow misses the entire driveway, zigzags through the outside lawn and off into the purple-tinged dawn. A few seconds later the white Isuzu follows, driven by the other police officer. Now, with the lifting darkness, I can see the back of the van is smashed, no doubt a souvenir of the stranger’s drunken shenanigans. I’m sure he’ll enjoy waking up to that in a few hours…

For a few seconds the three of us merely stand there and stare blankly, but eventually we turn around and walk back to the house, silently digesting the past three hours.
My eyelids feel heavy as I head back to my bedroom in an attempt to resume my sleep. After scanning the garden one more time, I slip under the covers and drift into an uneasy sleep, interrupted by dreams of angry handcuffed lions and blinding, blue lights.


It’s 10:00am when I wake up again. The birds are their usual chatty selves and the sun baths the garden in yellow warmth. I groggily make my way to the kitchen and find my parents breakfasting and chatting quietly. We exchange tired smiles as a way of greeting.
Just then I hear light footsteps from within the passage, progressively growing heavier as my sister approaches. She slept through the entire debacle.

Rubbing her eyes, she looks at all of us, beams ignorantly and says, “man, I had a great sleep!”


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Sani Pass-ed a lot of wind.

unnamedMy breath fogged in front of me as I followed my parents through the throngs of people. The aroma of bacon and eggs sizzling on a nearby braaistand* wafted through the crisp air like an ocean current, pulling me towards it.
But I couldn’t eat; it was far too early and my stomach was still asleep, and anyway, I didn’t want to risk needing the toilet somewhere on the mountain. I risked a cup of coffee though; my insides needed thawing. I followed my father to the coffee stand, who was unknowingly prodding passers-by with his long, wooden walking stick tucked horizontally under his arm.
Every nerve in my dormant body seemed to be jerked awake by the R5 coffee and I instantly felt more ready to tackle the Sani Pass hike.

“…remember this isn’t a competition…” trailed the organiser’s voice from somewhere behind me, where a circle of people gathered to listen to the dos and don’ts, “…you have the whole day…”

A small butterfly fluttered somewhere in the depths of my stomach. I’m not the fittest of people; I do a lot of walking, but most of it is to the fridge. And my knees make funny clicking sounds when I walk. I really didn’t want to be one of those people who gave up and jumped into one of the waiting bakkies* carrying injured soldiers to the top…

“Ready, set, GO!” shouted the organiser finally.

An excited ripple of chatter broke out as the colourful exodus of hiking gear, matching takkies* and beanies, bulging backpacks, reflective sunglasses, walking sticks ad hovering 4x4s crawled like a giant millipede up the dusty path.
A kid who looked literally twenty years my junior marched past me. Well, if she can do it there’s hope for me…

At 8am the passing postcard surroundings were still untouched by the low sun, leaving the bristly shrubs and omnipresent mountains darkened and crystallised.
There were parts of the ground that seemed to never be touched by the sun, whether it shied away in the low sky or stood boasting at its zenith. A small waterfall, which once curtained from a rocky ledge, stood frozen mid-cascade. It looked as if a bride perched somewhere unseen at the top of the ledge and threw her silky train down the slopes to our feet. I, by now, was accustomed to seeing water-turned-to-ice during the below-freezing Korean winters, but my parents, who were only accustomed to seeing water-turned-to-ice in a freezer, started to make a scene.

“OH MY WORD!” exclaimed my mother. “It’s FROZEN, it’s actually FROZEN. HAVE YOU EVER SEEN SUCH A THING IN YOUR LIFE?!”
My father’s eyes bulged in agreement as he prodded gingerly at the hardened waterfall with his walking stick, as if it were a dead snake and he was making sure it was dead.
“I mean it’s a WATERFALL, but it’s FROZEN. Absolutely MIND BOGGLING,” she continued to gush.
People started to stare as they passed us.

I left the two of them to their marvelling and wandered on ahead. The slightest chill gnawed at my exposed neck. I pulled my jacket closer and focused on revelling in the now lifting sun, which poured over the rippled, green hills like golden syrup.
Just ahead of me a white bakkie waited for surrendering hikers. A lady stood at the back of the double cab handing out biltong* and naartjies*. I gladly accepted a stick of biltong while I waited for my parents to catch up.
It was like someone flicked a switch and turned the wind on. The slight chill that gnawed at my neck earlier suddenly evolved into a snapping hiss at my ears. I pulled my beanie lower over my head and continued up. My parents trailed a few steps behind, my mother nagging my father for the fifth time to check that their passports were in the bag (“…if we get to Lesotho and you’ve forgotten the passports, I’ll kill you!”)

The higher we climbed, the more fierce the wind grew, like it was protecting something at the top and tried to push us away from whatever it was protecting .
Angry sand launched heavy blows at our three bodies, now as sturdy as three twigs in the billowing gust. The sand blew into every crevice on our faces and stayed there. My lips soon looked like they were made out of earth as the grime buried itself in my sticky lip balm. And my nose gushed like that frozen waterfall once did.
My beanie jerked threateningly; I re-pinned it onto my head with my palm and kept my hand there until that episode of wind blew over.

A moment of calm. But that’s all it was – a moment. Squinting our eyes, we bowed our heads and pushed ourselves against the wall of wind. Now, whether we were trained or hiking for the first time didn’t matter; our pace was reduced to one step forward and two steps back, making it seemingly impossible to pass through Sani Pass.
I managed to reach another bend in the winding road and slowly turned to my left to take in the vista across the cliff face. I lifted my sunglasses so the view wasn’t tinted; the sun, now mounted high in the bluest sky, highlighted velvety, green pleats in the mount –

The hungry wind ripped my unsuspecting beanie off my head. In what can only be classified as a stupid move, I ran after it back down the path. My accelerated pace and downward direction provided the wind with fuel; it roared behind my back and shoved me perilously close to the edge. I slammed my heels as hard as I could into the ground, centimetres away from the cliff edge and involuntarily flung my arms out at my sides. I could hear my mother’s shriek somewhere ahead of me, “leave it, LEAVE THE BEANIE!”
My feet found their footing and I watched with deep sadness as my beanie soared down the bushy slopes and into the rocky depths of the mountain.
My sunglasses joined my beanie.

“Noooo,” I moaned. This time I didn’t attempt to save them, but my mother still barked, “LEAVE IT!” just in case I did.
Inch by inch I turned, and as soon as the wind died, I bolted to the opposite side, away from the cliff edge, to safety.
Up another bend and at last we saw it, that wondrous green signboard:

Sani Pass Gate
Border Post 300m

According to the sign, we were so close, but we were still moving one step forward every thirty seconds.
“Arghhhghgh,” came my father’s muffled shout. His hands shot to his shiny, bald head, but it was too late – his beanie joined mine.
“LEAVE IT,” shouted the broken record that was my mother.
We pushed. And the wind pushed back. Sometimes we stood still, arms out for balance, heels lodged into the ground. When it died down, we pushed again. But the wind just pushed back.
Next to us, a lady kitted out in green and grey, with white hair pulled back in what was once probably a neat ponytail, marched determinedly against the gust. Her fists were clenched as was her face and she stared fixedly through squinted eyes at the signboard ahead.

And then suddenly the wind claimed her. As if she were made of paper, it flicked her over with a hard thud onto her back. She didn’t move, or couldn’t move, just like her unmoving eyes which looked unseeingly up at the sky.
My father, who was closest, hobbled over to her and tried to bend to help her up. He tottered dangerously, and for a moment I thought he was going to blow over too, but he steadied himself and slowly extended his hand to her.

“Leave me,” she said, a bit too dramatically. Her voice was frail. “I think I need to rest here for a while.”
We obviously didn’t leave her; we waited with her until the air was calm enough and then with all the might he could muster, my father heaved her back onto her feet.

As we edged closer to the openness of the top, the wind grew impossibly angrier, but our hunched bodies staggered on. It took us about fifteen minutes to finish the last few metres, but we saw it at last:

Welcome to the Kingdom of Lesotho

A small, decrepit building stood close by. Something was hand-written untidily in fading black paint across the peeling wall. A few of the letters were missing. It read:


We made it.

There was another building on the border between South Africa and Lesotho. Smoke puffed out the chimney.
This meant fire. This meant warmth. This meant food. We moved as fast as we could towards the building and read the sign:

Highest Pub in Africa
2874 meters

“Excellent,” said my father. His eyes were bloodshot.
“I need a drink.”



*braaistand = BBQ stand
*bakkie = van
*takkies = trainers/running shoes
*biltong = kind of like jerky, but way more delicious
*naartjie = citrus family, kind of like a mandarin

Categories: south africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ten cats and three blind men.


“Teachaaa, Christmas you solo?”

Two things:

1. Korean people for some reason use the term ‘solo’ when referring to being single.

2. This was the most frequently asked question by my students in the month leading up to Christmas, their eyes widening with a mixture of horror and sympathy when I nodded – in Korea having a girlfriend or boyfriend is essential, but having a girlfriend or boyfriend on Christmas Day is essential with a capital ESS.

“Teachaaa, to be solo on Christmas is HELL,” was the most common Christmas greeting I received when my students entered the classroom.


I mulled over my students’ words as I walked the streets on Christmas Day, hand-in-hand with my non-existent boyfriend.

I raised my head in the face of the icy air slicing at my cheeks to check whether I was at the right place. A sign above me which read “Beautiful Cats” in Korean told me I was: a cat cafe – a coffee shop in which cats of various colours, patterns and sizes strutted and smirked while you sipped on your coffee and stroked them. I hate cats, but I figured since I was alone it was fitting to be surrounded by cats.

The themed cafe was packed with people. Before I entered, I braced myself for the doubly-hard stares: not only a foreigner, but she was solo too.

Inside the heavily-heated coffee shop, I headed straight for the counter to order my coffee – buying at least one coffee was your admission fee into any of these themed cafes, whether it was a cat, dog, sheep, tarot card or one of the many other themed cafes found in Korea.

While I waited for my usual café-mocha-with-no-whipped-cream, I took in the coffee shop: All around me cats pounced on tables, jumped off chairs, uninterestedly snacked from their food bowls and chased one another on wooden ledges randomly attached to the walls.

There was a fake tree planted to my right with wooden boards attached to the branches. One greyish cat with black stripes perched majestically atop one of the boards, staring out unblinkingly through its jewel eyes over the coffee shop, as if it owned the land. On a board to the left of this cat, a brown-grey cat lay fast asleep; it wore the faintest smile, as if it were dreaming of bathing in a tub of warm milk while feasting on liquorice mice.

Here and there the tree was wrapped over and over in fine, cream-coloured rope, providing perfect scratchy surfaces for the cats, but making it look more like it was bandaged from the injuries sustained by their clawing of the tree’s body.

I collected my coffee, purchased a small packet of cat nibbles and turned to search for a table  when the assistant grabbed my hand.

“Rule.” She giggled at her attempt to speak English.
“Oh, okay, what are the rules?” This was beginning to sound like a board game.

1. Do not let the cats drink your coffee (why would I do that?!)


2. Make sure you feed the cats with an open palm instead of pinching the food with two fingers, if you want your fingers to see the next day (should have gone to a dog cafe).

I resumed my search for an open table, but there were none, so I made my way to a wooden platform on the floor where the fake tree was planted. There were people already seated on the platform, some who also didn’t have a table, others who didn’t want a table and just wanted to mingle with the cats.

I removed my shoes before I stepped on the platform, a Korean custom which has become second nature to me, slotted them in the neat row of boots, Crocs, heels and sandals already beside the platform, and sat down.

There was a fluffy, white cat crouching not far from me. It looked like a crouching cloud; I definitely wanted to play with that one. I called it using my sweetest tone of voice. It blinked and walked off.

I turned instead to a plump, brown cat relaxing close to the fake tree. It yawned, displaying its miniature, white daggers, licked its snout and looked at me sleepily. I hesitantly reached out for its head. Its black ears fell back suddenly beneath its fur before it bolted.

I temporarily gave up trying to play with the cats and looked around at the other customers who seemed to be getting along with the animals happily. Couples were taking selfies with the cats, their limbs splayed (the cats’) from being squeezed awkwardly for the perfect selfie.

One girl sipped at her coffee quietly while in her lap two cats napped, embracing each other. She looked like she was trying to sit as still as possible to avoid disturbing their sleep. Not too far from her, another girl gripped a pink and green stick-toy which she shook violently in front of a grey cat, egging it to play. The cat’s eyes followed the toy in sharp, precise movements, its tail drawing pictures in the air, while its paw swiped at the toy with increasing aggression every time it missed.

Just then a customer yelped behind me. I whipped my head around to see her waving her hand frantically at my forgotten coffee, as if she was swatting away flies. But instead of flies, she was swatting away a ginger cat, who was helping itself to my coffee. I hurriedly shooed the cat away and checked to see if the cat police were eyeballing me since I had broken one of the rules, but no one apart from the lady behind me was paying attention. The cat merely stared at me and continued to lick the remnants of the café mocha from its snout. I looked down at my coffee. It was newly garnished with five, fine cat hairs.

I grabbed the coffee to take it back to the counter away from the cats’ reach, but just as I was about to stand, a confused storm of scurrying, scraping and hissing broke out somewhere above me before something heavy crashed on my head. I rubbed my pulsing neck and looked up: two cats were playing Catch on the wooden ledges attached to the wall and both lost control as well as their footing, but which one was responsible for my aching neck, I wasn’t sure. I noticed that most of the customers were staring at me.

“Gwenchanayo,” (I’m okay!) I said, laughing awkwardly, and they giggled and returned to their coffees.

Just then I spotted the same cloud-like cat not too far from me. I’ve got you now. I gently reached out for the top of its head.

It took a swipe at my face. Which animal does not want to be stroked?!

I was left with no choice – I pulled the cat nibbles out of my pocket. The sound of the crinkling packet did it. Like Korean girls to a mirror, the cats swarmed from near and far, their eyes locked on the packet gripped in my hand. I suddenly grew nervous as about ten cats crept closer and closer to me, their tails slicing the air in slow motion.

I opened the little packet. The stench stinging my nostrils and staining my fingers told me that it was a chunk of fish. I chose the cat closest to me and the most patient-looking, and lowered my hand to its mouth, careful to position my palm facing upwards at its mouth. While it ate gently off my hand, I stroked its furry head. Finally! 

I felt a slight tug at the packet of fish in my hand, which because of my crouching, was close to the ground. The ginger cat was trying its luck. One of its whiskers still had a droplet of coffee hanging from it. I opened the packet and handed it some fish, which it lapped up greedily. It looked at the packet longingly.

“Sorry, buddy,” I said as I handed out the rest of the fish to the other queuing cats literally licking their lips.

When the cats realised the snacks came to an end, they retreated to their napping spots and forgot about me once again.

That was enough cats for me for the day (for the year). After giving my hands a thorough scrub in the bathroom, I pulled on my winter layers once again and walked out.

My leg got smacked by a metal rod, sending a pulsing pain through my body for the second time that day. It was a blind man who was trying to find his way, presumably into the same building. He mumbled something frantically in Korean before walking straight into the door. I took his arm and attempted to pull him in the right direction. And that’s when I noticed a second blind man holding on to the first blind man, and the second blind man was held by a third blind man. All three were brandishing metal rods and muttering over one another.

It was a lot more difficult than I expected to direct them into the building; the three men somehow formed a sort of circle, and soon I found myself stuck in the centre. What followed was a rush of confused shouting and bashing of rods (mostly on my legs), until I pushed through the men, grabbed the nearest arm and pulled hard through the open door. They were in. I didn’t know if that was where they were intending on going, but they were in. 

I watched as they proceeded into the building, ensuring there were no further hiccoughs, and took a moment to take in what just happened.

I felt as if I had just run a marathon. Exhausted, I headed home, my students’ words replaying in my head as I walked:

“Solo on Christmas is hell…”

Maybe they’re right.

Categories: South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The coldest night.

My clumsy luggage slowed my movements. A stitch gnawed at my side as I hauled and trudged up stair after stair. If anyone in the silent building was sleeping, then they weren’t anymore.

My luggage was just half the problem; my polar-neck, three jerseys, jacket and coat, scarf and three pairs of leggings under my pants slowed me down even further.

I saw my breath cloud in front of my face as I huffed and puffed past the third floor landing. My apartment was on the next floor, the fifth floor – technically the fourth floor, but since the number 4 is considered unlucky to many Koreans, it’s simply erased from existence in many buildings and lifts.

Four more stairs…three…huff…two…puff…one…

And finally, there it was – room 501. I pushed in my new passcode and swung the door open to see my new, naked apartment. I couldn’t tell if it was colder inside or outside in the echoing hallway.

I abandoned my luggage and looked around: the apartment wasn’t completely empty, but almost. There was no bed; instead two thin duvets were folded and placed where a bed should have stood, there were no cupboards, no microwave, no kettle, not even a mirror. I shuffled over to the heating system. The screen said the inside temperature was ten degrees. This is actually normal for this time of the year in Korea, but the unfortunate thing about returning to South Africa for six months is you acclimatise. Now, I was back in Korea, at the tail end of February, the coldest month here (and the hottest month in South Africa), and my body was in shock as if it was experiencing Korean winter for the very first time. 

My frozen finger jabbed at the power button of the heating. Nothing happened.

It worked when my co-teacher showed me how to use it earlier, so maybe I didn’t push the button hard enough. I pushed it again. Not a beep, not a flicker of lights, nothing. I jabbed at it in a frenzied panic, but of course, nothing happened. Did I forget to do something? Some other important main switch I needed to press? I cast my mind back to when she was showing me around the apartment and telling me important details; details about the washing machine, TV, stove, even the previous tenant:

Co-teacher: It was a little difficult to convince the landlord to let you stay in this building.

Me: Why?!

Co-teacher: The last tenant didn’t clean at all. When the landlord cleaned out the apartment, he said it looked like he had never swept, dusted or washed the floors ever.

Me: Ah, was this a foreigner?

Co-teacher: Yes, he was Indian.


If she told me anything special about the heating system, I couldn’t remember it, and with no phone yet, contacting her was out.

I needed to act fast. It was 5pm and two thin duvets and no heating were not going to help me when the temperature dropped in the evening. I needed a heater.

I wrapped myself up again and exited. I walked to the nearest Top Mart, which was thankfully about 50 steps away from the building. I bowed my head away from the cold as I walked, but the air still sliced at my face. My fingers and toes were numb under the double pair of gloves and socks, so when I entered the heavily heated Top Mart a minute later, it felt like angels were blowing their sweet breath on my face.

I walked straight to the electronics aisle. My eyes zipped back and forth, but I couldn’t spot any heaters. I grew panicky. I spotted a Top Mart lady shelving some products just down the aisle, humming happily as she went along. I stopped her mid-hum.

“Excuse me, do you have any heaters?” I asked in Korean. Please don’t say ‘eobseo-yo’…


My heart fell. How can they not have heaters at this time of the year?!

I exited Top Mart and hailed a taxi.

“Home Plus, please,” I told the taxi driver. Home Plus is the Korean Pick ’n Pay, and they would definitely stock heaters and electric blankets.

When the taxi stopped right outside Home Plus, I jumped out and hurried inside. I weaved my way through the throngs of people, past a Dunkin Donuts…Baskin Robbins…make up shops…clothing shops…shoe
shops…more shoes…more clothes…a hot dog place…an escalator. I jumped on. 
It was one of those escalators with no stairs – perfect for big trollies of groceries – this must lead to Home Plus.

I rushed past the man standing at the entrance of Home Plus, bowing to every single customer entering, and searched for the electronics aisle.

Kettles, microwaves, gas stoves, blenders, televisions, radios, washing machines – everything except heaters.

“Can I help you?” came a voice from behind me.


“Yes, I’m looking for a heater?”

“Ah, I’m afraid we don’t stock them anymore because the weather is getting warmer”.


“In fact, you will not find many stores selling heaters or electric blankets because winter is ending.” She checked her watch and continued, “maybe you would’ve found a heater in the Samsung or LG store, but they will be closed now.”

I settled for picking out the warmest-looking blanket (which was still quite thin), paid and hoped for the best.


It was 10pm when I got back home. I checked the temperature gauge on the screen of the dormant heating system: five degrees.

I was meeting my co-teacher early the following day; I needed to sleep.

I tried in vain to construct the most comfortable bed I could with my new blanket and the two other flimsy duvets probably left behind by the last tenant.

I then unzipped my luggage, shoved my hair dryer aside and raided the bag for every warm item it contained. I added another pair of leggings to my legs. I added another two pairs of socks to my feet. I had brought two pairs of pyjamas with me. I put on both. I put my coat back on. I kept my double pair of gloves on and lastly, pulled my beanie over my head.

And what was that…peeping through the remnants of clothing…?

A hot pack.

I yanked it out with furious excitement. For a few seconds I merely stared at it, clutched in my hands, like I had just discovered a bar of gold hidden among my clothes. I cursed loudly; I could have bought ten hot packs at Home Plus and filled my makeshift bed with them, if I had only thought of it. I groaned and chucked the single hot pack on the ‘bed’. And then I switched off the light.

But it was as if I was sleeping with no bedding and I had all the windows open. The cold crawled through my covers and layers of clothing, and gnawed at my body. My teeth chattered. Every now and then I felt a draught creep in from somewhere, sending a jolt down my spine. I pulled the covers right over my entire body so that I was completely hidden and curled myself into the tightest ball. I blew on my gloved fingers and I rubbed my feet together, but nothing helped. The only relief I felt came from that little hot pack, which I moved to different parts of my body every few minutes. But hot packs run out of heat.

I checked the time on my laptop: 2:30am. I had been tossing and turning for almost five hours. The hot pack had long turned cold and I was now just thinking of home. It was about 7:30pm back in South Africa. My family were probably watching the weather and complaining about how hot it was going to be the following day.

How hot it was going to be…

And then it came to me.

The hair dryer!

I jumped out of bed as if I had been stung by a wasp and grabbed the hair dryer from where I had shoved it aside earlier when I emptied my suitcase. I plugged it in and switched it on.

It took a few moments for my body to feel it, but when that layer of numbness was thawed, it was like I was sat in front of a roaring fire.

I placed the hair dryer under the duvet and kept it on for the remainder of the night.


When I woke up, it was 8:23am and the hair dryer was still going, though it sounded a little more strained than it did a few hours ago. I thanked it silently and switched it off.


I saw my co-teacher smiling at me through the windscreen of her car as she pulled into the parking lot of my apartment  building.

“SAM, hi!” She closed her car door. “So, how was the first night in your new apartment?”

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The elusive temple.

There’s this saying, probably coined by some ignorant ESL teacher many moons ago in Korea, and it goes like this: “If you’ve seen one temple in Korea, you’ve seen them all.”

That foreigner probably never visited Pohang though. Because there’s this temple which doesn’t even slightly resemble the other temples in Korea. Even its nickname suggests it’s a little…different.

When I googled it, I noticed immediately why it’s known as the Dragon Temple – quite simply, it looks like a dragon. I didn’t know how to get there, but I did know one thing: I HAD TO SEE IT.

I handed my phone to my co-teacher, who was born and raised in Pohang.

She studied the temple’s homepage, her face screwed in confusion. “You’re teaching me about my own hometown; I’ve never seen this temple before!”

“You’ve never seen this temple before?!” I asked incredulously, even though she just told me she hadn’t. But I couldn’t believe she hadn’t even heard of it.

She shook her head. “Dae-won-sa,” she said slowly. “Dae-won-sa…that doesn’t even mean ‘Dragon Temple’.”

My curiosity about the temple peaked. “What does ‘Daewon’ mean then?” (I knew ‘sa’ meant ‘temple’.)

“I’m not too sure, actually…” 

She handed my phone to my other co-teacher and asked her if she’d heard of the temple.

My other co-teacher’s eyes bulged. “Wow, where is that temple?!”


The next day I headed to the bus terminal. I was going to find this elusive temple. I headed straight for the tiny room in front of the entrance to the terminal. The Tourist Information Lady would obviously know how to get to the temple and she would be able to tell me what ‘Daewon’ translated to since her English was pretty good.

I knocked on the window. It slid open to reveal a smiling, middle-aged woman, but a different one to the usual smiling, middle-aged woman. Please speak English, New Tourist Information Lady…

“Hello. Can I help you?”


“Hi!” I gave her my phone. “Have you heard of this temple in Pohang?”

She studied every inch of the screen curiously before saying, “no, I don’t know this place.”

My heart fell. Not even the Tourist Information Lady knew this temple existed.

“…but according to this website you should take Bus 500 or 510,” she continued. I actually knew this piece of information already from my earlier research on the temple, but ‘take Bus 500 or 510’ was where the internet stopped being helpful.

She handed my phone back to me. “I think you need to go to Chilpo Beach; the temple may be near there. Take either of those buses and get off after about 50 minutes.”

A lead!

“Great, thanks!” I threw my phone into my bag and bolted for the bus stop across the street.

I hopped on the first of the two buses to arrive – 510 – excited and ready to finally see the Dragon Temple. I double-checked the route printed above the exiting door, my mind easing when I read ‘Chilpo’.

10 minutes…20 minutes…30 minutes…bringing my book was a good decision…40 minutes…still trees and open road…50 minutes…where’s the beach…55 minutes…the bus stopped.

“Last stop!” the bus driver shouted in Korean. I looked around and saw that I was the only passenger.

The bus driver eyed me suspiciously as I walked down the aisle towards him. I saw his eyes bulge slightly behind his dark sunglasses as he realised a foreigner was about to speak to him. With the little Korean I had, I told him my problem.

He looked at me completely alarmed, but whether that was because he was concerned I was lost, or whether it was because I spoke Korean, I will never know. He then shook his head violently and spoke far too fast, but I managed to grasp the gist of it:

  1. Bus 510 has two routes.

2. I took the wrong route.

3. I should really have taken Bus 500 heading for Chilpo Beach and transferred at HeungHaeSomethingSomething, the transfer station for Chilpo.

Another lead!

I thanked him about seven times, got off the bus and waited for the next bus back to the terminal. And as I waited it hit me.


I cursed myself for not thinking of it before. It was the magical number in Korea which rescued me countless times when I needed the answer to anything transport-related, whether it was the bus, train, subway times or even directions to anywhere in Korea, and it ranked in my Top 5 list of Things I Love About Korea. But for some reason I never thought about it.

Yes, the 1330 Lady would help me. I dialled the number.

“Hi, how can I help you?”

“Hi, yes, I’m looking for Daewonsa or the Dragon Temple, in Pohang?”


Oh god, not you too, 1330 Lady…

“Can you spell that for me?”


I spelt it out twice.

“Actually, I’ve never heard of this temple before. Let me research it and I’ll phone you back with directions.”

I watched the same trees and open road roll past me for the second time that day, this time from the window of Bus 500, when my phone rang.

“Hello, I’m sorry to make you wait, but I had to make a few phone calls to find out where this temple is. Finally, I have found this information: when you take Bus 500, transfer at HeungHaeHwanSeung Centre and then take one of these special buses heading for Chilpo…”

She read out a number of bus times. “But be careful because these special buses are different; they don’t have bus numbers like normal buses in Korea, so you should just be ready at the station at the departure time and then read the destination on the bus window. Can you read Korean?”

I told her I could, thanked her profusely and hung up.

Another lead!

After about 50 minutes I disembarked at HeungHaeHwanSeung Centre: a tiny cubicle of a room lined with a wooden bench on which a few people were sat. I was the only person there under the age of 70.

I checked the TV displaying the number of minutes to the coming buses, but realised I was wasting my time since the bus I needed was a special bus. I checked the time on my phone: 12:09. I had six minutes until the next special bus arrived.

I used the five minutes to take in my surroundings: HeungHae was a one-horse town, yet buzzing with activity. It seemed to be dominated by old Koreans who sat on their haunches under umbrellas and shouted out to passers-by to buy their seaweed, tomatoes and anchovies. The stifling heat combined with the ever-present puddles of water on the pavements, combined with the blend of fishy smells emanating from the crawling market place was overwhelming and forced me to retreat into the tiny transfer station.

I checked the time. It was 12:18. Something was wrong; Korean buses are incredibly punctual and I never let the bus stop out of my sight; there was no way I could have missed the bus.

I found a poster, showing the same bus times the 1330 Lady gave me, stuck on the window of the cubicle. I decided to ask one of the old Korean people sitting on the bench about the bus times. She pointed at the poster, smiled, shook her head and lastly pointed to somewhere in the sky. I pretended to understand exactly what she meant, thanked her and went back to being clueless.

That was my last straw. This temple was far too elusive and I was far too tired. I was just about to cross to the other side of the road to catch the next bus home when Bus 510 pulled up at the bus stop. I took it as a sign and decided to give the temple one last go. In Korean I asked the bus driver if he knew Daewonsa.

He nodded.

My heart felt like it wanted to burst through my chest. This was the first person I had come across who had heard of the Dragon Temple.

I scrambled on the bus to the seat right behind the driver, I didn’t even bother asking whether the temple was part of his route, but he didn’t say anything, so I didn’t either.

The bus travelled along a windy road for what felt like an hour, until finally I spotted the beach. We were close!

And then the bus driver shook his head.

Please no.

He gestured for my phone. I googled Daewonsa once again and handed the phone to him. I couldn’t read his face as he studied the screen. He handed the phone back to me and on we drove. More grassy hills rolled past, until finally a glint of blue on the left caught my eye.

The bus driver saw it too. “Daewonsa,” he said, pointing towards the bits of blue.

I could have been looking at a chest of gold and diamonds, I was so overwhelmed with joy.

There, resting on the distant hills, was the snaking dragon.

He stopped at a low bridge. I thanked him multiple times and watched as the bus bustled off. Suddenly I felt very alone. To my right were the remnants of a beach and to my left stood a brown signpost that read ‘Daewonsa’.

Compared to the activity of HeungHae, Chilpo seemed asleep. The grass whistled and swayed lazily in the breeze. Five ducks played and quacked happily in a river on my left, while the soft murmurings of the water accompanied me to the temple.

And there it was. The elusive Dragon Temple, unlike any temple I had seen in Korea. The temple started at the dragon’s magnificent head; its mouth wide open waiting for you to enter. Lines of bright pink lanterns hung from the roof of the mouth and disappeared all the way into the darkness of its throat. Its blue, scaly body snaked all the way up the hill on which it rested. The actual temple extended throughout the inside of its body: I followed the bright pink lanterns along the dark, long, winding tunnel, which housed hundreds of golden Buddha statues and an assortment of other dust-speckled temple trinkets, right until the tip of its tail where a tiny prayer room, so tiny that even I had to crouch, waited.

I realised I was the only person in the vast temple (probably because no one else knew it existed), and suddenly the gentle quiet became a throttling blanket of silence. Something moved. A spider scuttled across the dragon’s stomach. And that was my cue to scuttle to the exit.

I took in every inch of the resting dragon, from its horned head to its intricately-painted clawed feet before heading back to the bus stop. Across the low bridge where the remnants of the beach barely flowed, I noticed a fishing rod perched against the bridge, the handle on the ground held in place by two bricks, while the line floated somewhere in the water. The owner of the rod was nowhere to be seen.

I waited for about 15 minutes, but the bus did not arrive. There was a tiny shop directly opposite the spot where the fishing rod waited patiently. I decided to ask the shop owner if I was standing at the correct bus stop to head back to HeungHae. But I didn’t need to because at that moment I heard a jingling sound coming from the fishing rod. A tiny bell was attached at the end of the rod and the start of the line. It started to jingle a little more when the owner ran out the tiny shop and grabbed the fishing rod, a look of delight on her face. She reeled her catch in, a sliver of silver in the sunlight, flapping furiously this way and that as it fought for its life. I left her alone to enjoy her moment with her fish. Maybe the bus would come soon, anyway.

But after standing in the relentless sun for about half and hour, I came to the conclusion that the bus wasn’t coming. And I had not seen a single taxi go by either.

Forty-five minutes later and I was wet with perspiration, starving and desperate to go home. For one crazy moment I thought of hitch-hiking, but just then, at last, after almost an hour of waiting, I spotted a taxi.

I almost cried with joy when I saw it wasn’t taken and hailed it immediately.

“Where are you going?” the driver asked me in Korean.

I couldn’t remember the exact name of the transfer station. HeungHaeSomethingSomething. I hated myself. I tried to google it, but no luck.

I apologised to him and told him to give me a minute, while I searched frantically for the name of the transfer station.

“Where do you live?” he asked me.


“Me too.” He said this in English.

He looked at me through the rear-view mirror and said, “I…drive…you…Pohang?”

“No,” I said immediately. He wanted to drive me all the way home to Pohang, which was about an hour away and probably a steep fee.

“Anniyo, anniyo! (No, no!)” he said quickly, shaking his head. “Don…no,” he continued. He formed an ’X’ with his hands.

‘Don’ is Korean for money. He was trying to tell me I didn’t have to pay him.

I looked at him incredulously and shook my head. “Wait, what?!”

But he just smiled and said, “gwenchanayo.” (Don’t worry about it.)

And then he said this in his broken English: “today…weather…very good, so I happy. Today…my rest day, not…taxi today. I drive you…home, no don.” His finger moved towards the taxi metre and he switched it off.

This taxi ride home would have cost me about 30 000Won/R300, but instead it cost me 0Won/R0.

I touched his shoulder and said to his reflection in the rear-view mirror, “thank you, kamsamnida.”

I fell back on the seat ashamed, grateful, exhausted, elated, starving and relieved. I noticed his reflection smiling gently back at me.

I closed my eyes. I was finally on my way home.

Categories: South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The not-so-good day.

Holiday time, finally – well, sort of. It was only 3pm; I was an hour and a half away from official freedom, but I could not bear to stay in my office a second longer. Time seemed to be going backwards; once I even checked to see if my clock stopped.

I packed up my bag, locked up and strutted confidently to the school’s exit. As I turned down the passage, I noticed my co-teacher’s office light was still on, immediately turning my strut into a tip-toe past her door. I cursed myself for choosing that day to wear my squeakiest shoes and tip-toed on. I don’t know why, but I stopped at her door to listen for any sign of movement behind it.


My heart stopped. Not only is my message alert tone set on the highest volume, but it is also set on the ‘duck’ tone.

I bolted.

I didn’t need my phone to tell me it was 37 degrees outside. The heat felt like a physical force weighing me down into the ground. I felt its dense heaviness on every part of my body, slowing my movements and blurring my thoughts. Still, the heat wasn’t stopping me. I was off to treat myself to a three-day getaway in Busan.

I booked a cute guesthouse, but I hadn’t paid for it yet. I searched for the nearest bank and spotted a NongHyup bank just down the road from the subway exit where I stood.

The aircon in NH felt like God’s breath on my sticky body. I took my place in the queue, behind two old men. The one who was busy at the ATM had his head centimetres away from the screen and moved incredibly slowly; he seemingly scanned every option thoroughly before he chose one and when he made his decision, a crooked finger painstakingly moved towards his preferred option on the screen, which he had to prod twice because the first time wasn’t hard enough.

I kept my eyes on him as he finally shuffled off. He moved to a corner where he silently struggled with his stubborn wallet. Once his money was safely stowed away, he glanced sheepishly over his shoulder towards where we were queued. I quickly dropped my gaze and pretended I was looking at the floor the entire time. But from the corner of my eye I noticed he shot another guilty look in our direction. This time I didn’t bother pretending to look elsewhere. His slow hands moved down to his brown pleather belt, which he loosened. He then jiggled around a bit so his khaki pants dropped to his knobbly knees.

He looked around again and glared at me, his forehead crinkling amid his frown, as if I was the one exposing my white underpants in the middle of a bank. He then re-tucked his shirt into his pants, which seemed to be the ultimate purpose of pulling down his pants, and fastened his belt once again. As a finishing touch he licked his fingers to smooth down his eight strands of hair before finally heading out into the merciless sunlight, leaving me to wonder whether he saw the bathroom at the entrance of the bank.

I finally had money to pay for my room. I handed it over at reception and dragged myself upstairs to unpack my bags before heading out again. I was the last to arrive in the four-sleeper bedroom; clothes were already hanging in the shared closet and backpacks marked their owners’ beds. I ambled over to the untouched remaining bed and packed away my bag’s contents. Lastly, I took my navy toothbrush to the bathroom and left it in the toothbrush holder mounted beside the large bathroom mirror. 

It was time for me to check out the famous Jagalchi Fish Market. Anyone who knows me, knows I hate anything sea-related – from any kind of seafood to the actual beach itself – I can’t stand any of it for reasons unknown even to myself. Which is probably why I still hadn’t visited this pretty well-known market even though I was almost hitting the four-year mark in Korea. But the Jagalchi Fish Market was just one of those things that had to be done, so I pulled myself together and headed off.

I entered the subway and made a beeline for the closest empty seat. At the next stop only one person embarked. He looked like he was trying too hard to look young. Underneath his faded denim waistcoat he wore no shirt, revealing a smooth, hairless chest. His legs looked like they were suffocating in the black skin-tight pants he had on and his shoes had the slightest heels. He had earphones plugged in his ears. I couldn’t see his eyes because they were shut tight, just like his hands were shut tight into fists. He punched the air to the beat of his music and whatever he was listening to had him in a sort of trance; he was alone in his own world with only his music to accompany him, the rest of us on the subway were non-existent to him. He was singing along too, but so loudly that every passenger had their eyes fixed on him. I was getting fidgety in my seat – he was edging closer and closer to me in his trance-like state and the last thing I wanted was to attract his attention.

Then he started dancing, but his dance moves were more like karate moves – jagged and choppy. His hand caught one woman’s shoulder mid-dance. Her head whipped around in alarm and she immediately removed herself, not just from that particular spot, but from the entire car. He didn’t even glance at her as she moved into the adjacent car – his eyes were still shut. People were trying their best to move as far from him as possible, but this was proving to be difficult and inconvenient on the chock-a-block subway. The woman seated next to me shook her head and turned to look at nothing in particular at a spot just above her eye level. 

The next stop arrived. The doors opened. The dancing man stopped, opened his eyes, glanced at his watch and walked calmly out the doors. Everyone who ebbed away moments ago from that area taken up by the dancing man flowed back to the now empty space, giving the impression of the subway breathing out a sigh of relief.

When my shoes squelched on the ground, I knew I was in the vicinity of Jagalchi Fish Market. In fact, it was not possible to not be able to find it because all you had to do was follow the pungent stench of sea. My nose took me to a never-ending line of colourful umbrellas, each of which sheltered crouched ajummas or ajusshis. Some shouted out adverts for the sea creatures they sold, some threw out excess water from large round buckets onto the street, some carefully laid out octopuses to dry, and some carefully deboned fish. One ajusshi had all his fish stacked in a pile. The tail-fins of all the fish in the neatly-stacked pile were tied together with a bit of red string. With one swift move using his index finger and thumb, the old man pulled out the entire back bone in one piece and then flipped the fish over, like how you would flip the pages of a book, to debone the next one.

My single pair of eyes was simply not enough for the fish market: there were fish the size of my pinky finger and fish the size of rugby balls, there were so many different kinds of seaweed and what looked like different kinds of sponges too. There were octopuses the size of beach balls and squid the size of golf balls. Reddish white octopuses, not as big as beach balls, lay in lines on tables, their octopus juice dripping rhythmically from their tentacles to the floor. Everywhere I looked dried fish hung from makeshift wire lines like drying laundry. The biggest crabs I had ever seen watched passers by from a rectangular glass tank – watching being the only activity possible for the crabs because the tanks were filled to capacity with them, making it impossible for them to move an inch to their left or right. The smell of the hanging fish mixed with the smell of the dripping octopus juice mixed with the smell of cooking squid somewhere in the distance was exacerbated by the stifling heat and by the people packed like sardines under the umbrellas, and it was all too much for me.

I turned around and headed back to the guesthouse.

It was late when I returned to the guesthouse. It was a bizarre day and my feet were in all kinds of pain. I headed straight to the bathroom to wash up. But my toothbrush wasn’t there. I checked again – maybe someone was kind enough to put it away in the bathroom cabinet or something, but the cabinet was empty. I checked everywhere, even between the shampoo bottles, I checked my bag again, I checked my bed, I checked the other bathrooms in the guesthouse, but there was no sign of my toothbrush.

In my confused and tired state I made my way back down to the kitchen for a glass of water. My roommates were seated in the lounge adjoined to the kitchen, chatting about the day’s events. I passed the kitchen bin and reached for a glass on the sink. Something in the bin caught my eye. Something navy.

My toothbrush.

For whatever reason, or for no reason at all, someone had thrown it away in the bin. And it was too late to save it because it already had food remnants splattered all over it.

With a broken heart I walked over to my roommates and spoke to them for the first time.

“Hey guys, shot in the dark, but what are the chances one of you  has a spare toothbrush?”

“Well, I just bought a toothbrush, actually, and it was a 1+1 special,” piped the one girl. “You can have the extra one if you want.”

And she pulled out a brand new green toothbrush from her bag, handed it to me and said, “today must be your lucky day.”

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Wait, WHAT?!

Yip, that's strawberry-flavoured cheese you're looking at.

Yip, that’s strawberry-flavoured cheese you’re looking at.

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Wait, WHAT?!

If you've lived in or visited Korea, I don't need to tell you about their sometimes ridiculous fashion. Korea is a big fan of using English on their clothing. Usually they just put random words together which don't make sense at all. Or they use swear words -they love that. But sometimes they use random brand names, like this one, for example. Korea, leave Johnson's for bottles, please and thank you.

If you’ve lived in or visited Korea, I don’t need to tell you about their sometimes ridiculous fashion. Korea is a big fan of using English on their clothing. Usually they just put random words together which don’t make sense at all. Or they use swear words – they love that. But sometimes they use random brand names, like this one, for example. Korea, leave Johnson’s for bottles, please and thank you.

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Wait, WHAT?!

I can't even count the number of times I've seen a hospital patient outside the hospital, going for an afternoon stroll around the neighbourhood or taking a trip to the shop to buy a pack of cigarettes. Some even are wheeling around in their wheel chairs while dragging their drips with them. Only in Korea.

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen a hospital patient outside the hospital, going for an afternoon stroll around the neighbourhood or taking a trip to the shop to buy a pack of cigarettes. Some even are wheeling around in their wheel chairs while dragging their drips with them.
Only in Korea.

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Wait, WHAT?!


For those who don’t know, Baskin-Robbins is an ice cream shop, much like our Mozart. If you look carefully, you’ll see the flavour written in English while the Korean is above. So the bottom flavour in this photo is called “Loves Me” while the Korean above translates to exactly that. But the flavour above is called “Puss in Boots”. They’ve had this flavour for a long time now, but yesterday was the first time I looked at the Korean translation properly. Turns out “Puss in Boots” translates to “Mother is an Alien”. WHAT.

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