Traffic…and ‘Different’ Vehicles…

This was a typical street anywhere. There was always a lot of vehicular traffic. There wasn’t a slew of bicycles everywhere like we used to be told that the Chinese all mostly had in the 1980’s. It was very modern in Korea in the late 90’s and many people had nice cars even though there wasn’t much room to park them anywhere. The blue-coloured buses are new, as this is a modern picture, but in the middle in the front, I see a man on a motorcycle or scooter with goods piled behind him, which was a common sight back then.

I wanted to describe some of the peculiarities I noticed about cars, trucks, buses and traffic in general while I was in Seoul. Above, I wrote that many people owned cars even though there was a lack of space for parking, but another issue was pollution. Koreans told me when I was there in 1997 that emissions from cars were a big concern to them. I saw many residents wearing white masks because of the air quality. It was unusual to see scenery without a haze in the way. An interesting thing was that SuIl told me the Seoul government had rules in place where certain people had to leave their cars at home on certain days. They had to carpool to get to and from work or take the bus or the subway on these restricted days. I believe the drivers’ license plate numbers were used as criteria to tell them whether they could drive that day or not.

One Korean man told me that their gasoline was ‘dirtier’ than it was in North America and they used a lot of diesel as well, which created extra air pollution. They had to buy all of their gas from the Middle East, and it wasn’t as refined as it should be, he said. In 1997, their gasoline cost over twice what it did in Canada. I can remember looking at the price of gas when SuIl would stop to get gas, and in Canada the gas was under 55 cents per liter, but a litre cost over $1.20 in Seoul. I couldn’t imagine paying so much. On top of the high cost of gas, a lot of their time was spent just running their cars’ engines, sitting in big traffic jams, so Koreans would spend even more for gas because of long idling times. For me, many things were more affordable in Korea like public transportation, most foods, entertainment, liquor, cigarettes, taxis and admission to events and attractions. There was no tipping and no sales tax. However, clothing, real estate, apartment rentals, secondary education and gasoline were more expensive in Korea than in Canada.

I got a drive clear across the whole South of Seoul many times with Sail(Su Il) to my institute after the LG class in the fall of 1997. He lived in the Gangnam District beside my SongPa District and he had to drive back to his neighborhood after dropping me at ‘home’. We started out in the Southwest in Garibong, where the class was at 6pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I can remember sitting in huge traffic jams on these drives. The traffic in this picture is not even in a ‘jam’ and can still move. The drive could take between an hour and a half and 3 hours. Sail didn’t mind.

A lot of the time, probably over a million people were on the streets in their cars returning home from work while Sail and I were going home in the evening. It was their “supper rush”, even though it could have been as late as 8 at night. I had never imagined anything like the number of cars and buses that were always stuck in many places, waiting to move ahead. Everyone was used to it and many times they beeped their horns. In Atlantic Canada where I was from, if you beeped the horn, it was because you were telling another driver they had done something wrong and you were usually angry. It took me a long while to realise that no one was angry. No one had done something wrong. It simply seemed to be customary to beep the horn to let another driver know you were there and needed your turn to merge. Sometimes the horns seemed to be saying “okay” or “thanks” and not just “I’m here” or “I’m moving now”. There were such a lot of beeping car horns constantly in the traffic jams! I watched these interactions but never mentioned what was going on with the car horns, as Sail and I always had a lot to talk about.

Once I was in Seoul for over a month, I dared to venture into a Korean bakery. After I had tried a few things, I found I loved to get one of these “vegetable pockets”. They weren’t like any Canadian food. There were specific, small items sold in their bakeries back then and like everything else in Korea, most of them weren’t very sweet. In contrast, Canada’s bakeries all had sweet pastries for sale and loaves of European bread, of course. There was no European-style bread over there at all and there was no pastry.

Sail was always very generous, as all of the Korean people were. One time he stopped at a bakery during one of our drives across Seoul and bought me one of the vegetable pockets pictured above. I used to know what they were called in Korean. A Korean pop music station was always on the car radio and all of the city lights were lit up everywhere when we were travelling.

I saw these little Daewoo “Labo” trucks everywhere. They were different from utility trucks and vans in Canada and they were always this blue colour back then too. Maybe you can tell these trucks weren’t very large?

When I lived in Korea, I never saw one older car. Like the buildings must all look new nowadays, the cars and trucks must look new, or actually be new, too. And many types of vehicles were more compact than they were in Canada or the US. I knew that in England they had mini cars, like Austin Minis, because they didn’t have huge spaces in Europe. It was the same thing over there in Korea. Even buses were sometimes smaller and mini-vans were made smaller than the ones we had in Canada. There were no full-ton trucks or half-ton trucks like I saw everywhere back home.

Here is a “mini mini-van”. One of my students had one and took my husband and I to Seongnam to a noodle restaurant in it in January of 1998. He’s the one who told me what it was.
There were sometimes “mini” buses like this. Of course there were many normal, big buses too.

The “mini” buses like the one pictured above were sometimes used by English institutes that had children to transport. One time I had to go to a certain area, and I got off the subway and I remember a Korean person saying I had to take a minibus from the subway stop to get to my destination. Oh yes, it’s right there, yes. To a Korean person it wasn’t a big deal, but it was a big deal for me. It was so cramped and the almost non-existent isle between the seats was so narrow and the seats themselves were so small…I had trouble fitting and sitting. And of course, besides the cramped conditions I had to find out what to pay and dig out the correct change in the confusion. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to get out at the end that time. I did get out at the end, but these situations even at the best of times were always embarassing and sometimes frightening. And I always had an audience. The Korean people constantly stared at me in public anyway, since I was always the only foreigner in the whole area, so I thought everybody noticed how large I was also and I thought they were all watching and thinking about how I was too big to fit. And they did frown upon people who were built big. And they did notice everything. Canadian people are generally built bigger than Korean people, and I could never hope to fit into clothing or footwear over there. So some vehicles were not made to accomodate someone like me either.

Taxis. This spot looks like Itaewon, where most foreigners live and visit, to me.

There were two types of taxis in Seoul back then. Many were sedans that were usually silver like the one above in the front but they didn’t have writing on them. These were the regular or cheaper taxis. Any taxis in Korea were so affordable I could never get over it. We paid a fortune to take a taxi anywhere in my hometown in Canada. When I first took taxis in Seoul, it was with a ‘secretary’ from my institute. I had to be escorted to an interview sometimes to see if I was suitable for the prospective class. What I found intimidating was that the taxi drivers were so rushed and not friendly at all in any way…I was shocked when a driver got angry and aggressively told the Korean secretary to hurry and had absolutely no patience. This way of doing things made it difficult and stressful for me to take a taxi.

The taxi drivers hardly made any money at all, as I could go very far for under 2 dollars at the time. Too bad they couldn’t have charged more money and not have been so rushed and rude about getting going. Of course, many taxi drivers in Canada charge much more and are still rude anyway. But at that time in Korea, if gas was over $1.20 per liter and they only got $1.50 for a fare to go quite far, I couldn’t understand how these drivers could make any money.

The Korean Exchange Building (zigzag-like building on the right) was there back then, but the areas shown are more built up here than they were in 1997. This is actually between my neighbourhood and Sail’s neighbourhood in Southeastern Seoul. I lived on the left at the back near the mountains.

On the whole, taxi drivers in Seoul were very serious and professional. When I had to go twice a week to Incheon city limits to teach the head of a semi-conductor plant, I was supposed to take a taxi after getting off the subway if I was running really late. I did not like to have to do this, but my schedule never did allow for enough travel time in this case. The right bus did not always come in time and was unreliable. My destination was too far away from the subway station to walk. Unfortunately, I had been overscheduled and it was my boss and/or secretaries who were being inconsiderate and pushy by expecting me to go so far away and arrive in time after teaching an early class beforehand at my institute. I should have caused a fuss but I let it go.

I was not an assertive person at all in any way so it was difficult for me to have to hail a taxi, especially in a very foreign country. It was not my way to easily just flag down a taxi. For my whole life up until then, a person would “call a taxi” by dialing the telephone and ordering a taxi by telling the dispatcher what the pick-up address was. On the days I hailed a taxi in Korea, after the taxi stopped for me, I had to tell the driver in Korean where to drive! I had to use the terms “straight”, “right” and “left” and say them in Korean as we were driving along the busy streets. When I got to the plant, I had to say “here”. The driver being dead-serious and in a huge rush made it even more stressful. And I was still always late for this important class after all that! The words I had to say were “chikchin”, “wenchuk” and “orenchuk”. And “yogi” meant “here”.

I wrote above that there were two types of taxis around Seoul back then. The other foreign teachers told me, “Don’t take the black taxis….they’re expensive…” I thought they must be an atrocious price. After a few months I learned that these black sedans were only a few dollars more than the regular ones, so they were still very affordable, and they weren’t expensive after all. Maybe the drivers didn’t get angry and holler at their customers, since they made a few extra dollars for a fare….

By jcorvec123gmailcom

I have a deep passion for Korea and love reminiscing about my time spent there in the late 1990s.

4 comments

  1. You’re right about Itaewon! I wouldn’t have guessed it, but when you mentioned it I realized it’s the main intersection there. A quick Naver Maps street view search shows it was almost identical in 2010, with The Coffee Bean still there. These days, the 2nd floor is still a café, and the top floor is still a massage place in the 2020 street view ~

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    1. My husband and I stayed right there at the Hamilton Hotel one night in Oct 1999. There was no such thing as The Coffee Bean and I didn’t like Itaewon and preferred all other areas of Seoul over it. Funny how I recognised that spot 22 years later… I am glad you are still looking at my writings…

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  2. It is funny to remember that I had a friend from England who went from being a nurse to an ESL teacher. She lived in the country and drove! I was so impressed as the traffic was incredibly hectic.

    Liked by 1 person

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