Monday, August 04, 2003

The Heart and Seoul of Land Navigation

There are certain skills in which every soldier, regardless of Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), must be competent. Skills such as marksmanship with the M-16 or M-4 rifle, hand to hand fighting techniques, and the proper use of Brasso®. These are skills that are indispensable in a time of war. One soldier skill in particular, however, is of utmost importance ... land navigation or land nav. It is the ability to make one's way across unfamiliar terrain using only the most rudimentary tools ... a map and a compass. Knowing how to do this simple task can save a lost soldiers life.

This weekend my assistant and I escorted 22 newly assigned soldiers into Seoul, Korea for what we call Chaplain's Land Nav. The intent is to orient new soldiers to the terrain and culture so that they can find their way around the subways and alleys of this huge city. Chaplains Land Nav also serves to get them out of the barracks for a day and gives me an opportunity to interact with them in a casual setting and begin to build relationships that may one day assist them in to the Kingdom.

Our day began at the subway station near Yongsan, the Army base in Seoul, where we divided the soldiers into 6-man teams, gave them a map, explained how to utilize the subway, gave them a list of places they were required to find and sent them off on something of an urban scavenger hunt. As my team set out, I quickly assessed the situation, conferred with my compatriots, and considered that it was 11am and I had not had a cup of coffee. So bringing all my leadership talents to bear, I decided that the first order of business was to find Starbucks®. This decision would prove to be the deciding factor in the success of our day for when we arrived we did not find just any coffee shop. Instead we found five floors of java joy. Five beautiful floors dedicated to the worship of the great bean god. Five floors of caffeinated bliss. It was an awesome and delightful sight. Quickly I checked my map and discovered that regardless of where we were, I needed some Joe. Once inside our newly discovered Den of Delight I ordered a cup of black gold and waited in line to pay. When the attendant pointed to the register (she spoke very little English) I wondered if maybe my brew of ecstasy was to be served in a solid gold chalice. I had to pay 2750! Come on man, it's just a cup of coffee! As it turns out I was in Korea at the time so the price equated to about $2.50. That's a bit more reasonable, thank you.

After leaving Shangri-Liquid we headed out once again into the mean streets of Seoul. Approximately 15 million people live there and a good percentage of them sell shoes. I know this because as we made our way to our next point of interest we passed through what I like to call, "The never ending expanse of shoe sales in every conceivable style and color where they sell at least 15 million pairs of shoes none of which are very tasteful or look extremely comfortable." Finally we succeeded in passing through shoeland, worked our way through goldfishandotherdomesticaedwatercreatures land, and arrived safely at the Wholesale Toy Section of Seoul. We looked around for a while finding cool toys we claimed to be looking at for our children back home, and then headed out to stop number three ... lunch. To find lunch one must get back on the subway, stand among every resident of Seoul inside a space the size of a small family sedan, and wait until the tide of people wish to get off, where you hope to be deposited at your desired destination. Fortunately, we made it and headed to "lunch".

Lunch was to be found in an area of town called the Something Unpronounceable By the Western Tongue Market. In the SUBWTM you don't have to look very far to find something newly dead or something else wishing it was. We walked slowly around trying not to participate in our mephitic surroundings saying such intelligent things as, "Oh man, what is THAT?" and "Dude! Oh my gosh is that a pigs face?" It was in this context that we found a small place to eat. When the host saw that there were 6 of us he motioned in Korean for us to use the dining area upstairs. This nearly upset the apple cart. The window was open, the air conditioner was off, and there was a large fan ostensibly circulating the air. Actually it was pulling "fresh" air in from the market below and forcing it into the upstairs dining oven. Our waiter arrived, turned on the AC, and asked to take our order. We had no idea what the menu said so we pointed to the lovely pictures on the wall. In this we discovered that marketing is a global conspiracy with similar tactics around the world such as making pictures that look appetizing when in reality the dish portrayed bears little resemblance to any thing edible. That's not all true. My dish kind of looked like my picture and in the end was not all bad. It consisted of half a bowl of the worlds hottest rice topped with fresh cut vegetables and a raw egg that cooked immediately upon being stirred into the molten rice. Stirred together it makes a very delicious and very filling meal. A couple of my fellow travelers were not so fortunate with their picture vs. reality combinations. One of them pointed a picture labeled "meat" and actually didn't eat until we found a Burger King® several hours later. The other pointed to a picture labeled "Welsh Pancake". This would prove to be a misnomer entirely as it was nothing like a pancake and I can't imagine anyone eating it, let alone the God-fearing and peace-loving Welsh. It consisted of what we believed to be crab meat and vegetables fried into an unidentified, discolored gelatinous substance and topped with some kind of tentacles. That's right ... tentacles ... suckers and all. His immediate response was, "I don't even do sea food." Being the leader, I assured him no one I know had ever died eating that stuff, whatever it was. And with that he dove right in and spent approximately 1 hour eating everything but the tentacles (which weren't all that bad). Once we finished lunch we wandered back into the Market of Ex-Life and off to our next stop.

This time it was a modern mall with all the creature comforts. For a moment I could have sworn I was home except that everyone was short and speaking a foreign language. Also, the streets outside had to be empty because brother that place was packed. Koreans are probably one of the most gracious and friendly peoples in the world. But when you cram them all into one huge mall ... well, does "cacophony" mean anything to you? Across the street from Decibel Mall was a Buddhist temple built over 700 years ago. While not a large place, it was quite impressive. Surrounded by the noise of one of the world's largest cities, it was strangely peaceful. My assistant and I had to nearly tackle one of our guys about to step up onto a platform the Koreans were bowing in front of. Now, I'm not all that impressed with praying to stones, but I'm less impressed with getting the daylights beat out of me by angry old people for desecrating their religious sites. So with an international incident averted, we got back on the subway and headed into Yongsan. And together, as a group, with the kind of comeraderie one finds only in the military, we ate dinner at Taco Bell®.