John told me with his broken English that I was handsome. Well thank you, John. I like your sense of humor. Either you have drunk too much of this spa water we are wading on or you just have very poor taste. In any case, you are starting to annoy me, and the maintenance guy is looking at us.
I arrived in Seoul without any kind of reservations. That has been my modus operandi since I started traveling last year. Why reserve when you can just walk-in and bank on luck, right? Wrong, at least in Seoul. Let me warn you as early as now that if you are planning a trip to South Korea especially during the summer months of July and August, do yourself a favor and reserve accommodations prior to your arrival. If not, then you could always try a Jjimjilbang.
Sorry, Jilijim-what? 침질방 (Jjimjilbang). Now say that fast ten times without pausing. That is the Korean term for a bath house with facilities such as thermal pools, fomentation rooms, PC Bang, eatery, massage areas, and common dormitories for men and women; in the case of Silloam they also have one for snorers. For Koreans, these are places where one can relax and enjoy a bath. For foreigners, these are cheap accommodation alternatives. Silloam, for example, charges 12,000 won for a stay from 8 PM to 10 AM the next day. That is around 500 Philippine pesos for 14 hours of stay with access to all their facilities including the sleeping area. You could probably get a crappy hostel dorm room for the same price, albeit with a filthy bathroom.
Of course it comes with disadvantages. If you are planning to take a tour around the city during daytime, where would you leave your bag? In a locker in one of the Metro Stations of course! Haha, good luck with that. The first thing I did not like about Silloam actually had nothing to do with Silloam. My laptop and phone batteries were drained and I needed to charge them. I had no adaptor. Neither did any of the Silloam staff. That is not their fault. It is not a hotel after all. It is a bath house. Another one was the problem with the WiFi, which was not exclusive to Silloam. I also was not able to figure out how to tap the WiFi in the trains and public areas. They bring you to the webpage of T-Mobile or Olleh and ask for a username and password in order to use the service.
Aside from those, I had no more qualms about Silloam. I could have stayed there for the whole week I was in Seoul but I just desperately needed some alone time and some privacy in a small guest house room that I could have for myself. The sleeping area at Silloam was comfortable enough to guarantee a good night sleep for the three nights I spent there. Even though people came and went, they actually did so quietly. The room was dimly lit and just cool enough. The only distraction I had was the occasional snorer in denial.
John was a 32-year old Korean guy who joined me in one of the thermal pools and initiated a conversation. I would not have been weirded out by his behavior had we been in another place. Perhaps, he was just an über friendly local curious about a foreigner invading their bath house. The thing was, we were butt naked and chatting in a pool. And he would not stop insisting on scrubbing my back with his towel. He tried to communicate with his broken English. I tried to reply with my broken Korean. The language barrier could actually be your friend or foe in this kind of situation, depending on how you utilize it.
Nudity was the norm in that place, at least in the men’s locker room. It is probably the same case with the women. They would just strip in front of you like it was as natural as passing gas or snapping your finger after picking your nose to get rid of the evidence. We Filipinos come from a pseudo-conservative society. We are a bunch of hypocrites like that. Some degree of culture shock was expected, especially if you are not that comfortable with your own skin, in a literal sense. However, being naked was the norm, as mentioned. You would never see anyone in the bathing area wearing anything. If you decide to wear swimming trunks or briefs you would definitely stick out like a sore thumb and eventually draw more attention to yourself. So I thought, what the heck. I stripped.
I stripped in front of Korean teenagers in the nude who were not even unfazed by the presence of a naked foreigner among them. I stripped in front of the two old men manning the cashier who, for some reason, kept on talking to me in Japanese. I stripped in front of middle-aged men whose beer bellies made them appear as though they were well in their third trimester of pregnancy. I stripped, my friends. I stripped. And I have never felt so free.
It was a liberating feeling indeed. I have had my fair share of unsuccessful stories about joining the gym bandwagon back in Manila. Back then, parading myself with just my underwear in the locker area already felt so vulgar. That is why I always went in and out of the showers with a large towel wrapped around my waist. The chosen few who felt comfortable in their birthday suits were already considered thick-faced, in particular those who had no right to such exhibitionism. Hey, if you got it flaunt it. If what you have got though is too much fat or too little, better just hide it. See. I judge. You judge. In that bath house, however, they just did not care. It is part of their culture and I am glad to have had experienced it. It did help boost my self-esteem somehow. And then John.
He kept on asking me the same questions.
You know no person in Korea. You in Korea. Why?
I’m on vacation, I replied.
You know no person in Korea. You go to Korea. You like Korea? Why?
I am learning Korean. I think the language is nice.
No. So, you come to Korea. You alone. Why? He repeated.
Uhm, I like the place... I like the weather! I answered.
Weather here bad. Philippines good, he said.
Point taken. You see, John, I am running out of answers because you have been interrogating me with the same question for around ten minutes now. Why not answer your questions for me? It was getting hotter in the pool, which was set at 38 degrees so I told him I would transfer to the cold pool next to it. As expected, he joined me. Anyway, that pool was effin’ cold. What the F. Is it not that when you transfer from hot to cold water there should at least be a few minutes of warmth before you freeze to death? It was immediate in that pool, so I just sat by the steps. John also did, after swimming to the other side and back.
He kept on pestering me with the same question before trying others seemingly lifted directly from a slam book. He asked me what kind of food I liked. I said I like sweet food. He told me he would buy me sweet food the next day. Wow, John, how sweet. I can buy my own food. You want me to slap you with my dollars? The amusing thing was that he already made plans for us for the next day. He told me he would bring me to Itaewon and Insadong so we could practice my Korean. Okay. It was getting cold so I told him I was going to the sauna. He also went.
Now it was really hot in that sauna but you just could not help but enjoy the wonders it does to your skin. I kept on feeling my face and it was just so smooth and soft to touch. Perhaps this is the secret to their blemish free complexion. If they frequent those bath houses that much it must be doing a lot of amazing stuff for their skin. It was in the sauna where John told me that his best friend was Filipino who moved to Canada. Okay, the plot thickens.
John went out for a while, perhaps not used to the heat. Haha, got you. You might be able to endure that extremely cold pool, but there is no beating a Pacific Islander in enduring this heat. I tried scrubbing my limbs with the pile of salt provided in the sauna. I do not know if that achieves anything but I just had to try. Okay fine, I am amused. Go laugh. I have not really been to a sauna before. Anyway, when John went out I gathered all the Korean I could and asked the other guy in there, 그는 gay 사람이에요? I did not know if he understood me or if what I said actually made any sense. He just grinned for a split second before totally ignoring me as if I was not there.
John must be psychic because when he joined me again in the common shower area he started to tell me repeatedly that he was not gay and that he liked girls, after which he started to scrub my back with his towel and shampoo my hair. I was not born yesterday, John. What really is your motive? Anyway, he looked at my locker number via my locker bracelet. He also asked for my complete name. I think I told him I was Segismundo Punongbayan or something. It does not matter since he really had a hard time pronouncing non-Korean words. I was already trying to shoo him away because the back scrubbing was totally uncalled for. What, you applying to be my nanny or something? He moved under the next shower head. I went on showering until he left for the towel room. He said he would wait for me. Eek. There is a reason why I travel alone and suddenly I have excess baggage following me around.
I lingered by the 38 degree pool again after showering. I could see John peeking from the outside, looking for someone, obviously me. When he did find me I told him point blank, 먼저 가. Luckily, he did, although he said he would be waiting for me so we could sleep upstairs. And so the thinking marathon began. What does he want from me? I was not sure anymore if he was actually hitting on me, or was going to hit me with something on the head and take my dollars. Ulterior motives. Or is this just a case of misunderstanding? Had he approached me in a different place with clothes on I would not have minded having a chat. Who am I to reject potential friends anyway, right? I, the loner.
If he was indeed hitting on me then wow, this is actually the first time in my 25 years of existence that someone actually did! NYAHAHAHA! This is too funny. And it really had to come from someone of the same sex, huh. Beggars cannot be choosers? LOL. And I am actually saying this with conviction as if I looked like Brad Pitt. Or Brod Pete. Whatever, spelling has not really been my best linguistic skill. Anyway, I find it really amusing, although it might have been a different case if the place was not as public and without an inherent sense of community. In there I just felt safe because somehow I knew that if something untoward happened, someone would certainly rush to my aid.
I still could not dismiss the thought that he had another motive. I have been victimized way too many times in this lifetime for being gullible and I had to learn how to outwit people the hard way, lest I end up the one being outsmarted again. I have had enough of that. I actually gave my mobile phone to a snatcher when I was a college freshman, and he did not have to threaten me with anything, just some sales talk. The police said it was hypnosis, but to me it all became clear by then.
People would take advantage of you whenever they can. It is up to you to be clever enough to play along and reverse the situation, or avoid it altogether. And that is why I really find it hard to trust people. After all, we are all just a bunch of rational individuals looking out for our own interests regardless if it sometimes involves having to outmaneuver or disillusion someone else if it actually contributed to the fulfillment of our plans. John might be Korean, but he is also human. Like you. Like me.
He was already fully-clothed waiting by the lockers when I came up from the bath area. True enough to his promise, we went up together. He was actually planning to sleep in the common areas on the third floor where there were mats with unconscious people striking eccentric poses while asleep as if they were in the comforts of their own homes. I told him I would be taking a nap at the sleeping area upstairs. He joined me. I took the lower portion of a corner bunk bed. He took the lower portion of the bunk bed next to it. The beds were separated with a wooden wall just tall enough for you not to see the person on the other side. I just slept, and was awakened occasionally by John murmuring on his phone, perhaps planning with his group on how to kidnap me for ransom, or simply talking to his mother. Who knows.
I woke up earlier than I should. Instead of sleeping again, I decided to take advantage of the head start. John was still murmuring on his phone. Anyway, I managed to slip out of bed without him noticing. Good. At least I would not have to push him off a window or drown him in one of the thermal pools just to get rid of him. I immediately took a bath and took off right after that. No sign of John anywhere. All good.
Somehow I feel guilty. I am always on the negative side of things when I meet someone for the first time. You cannot blame me though, I have given a lot of people the benefit of the doubt and most have ended up disappointing me. Again, maybe John was just a curious friendly local (too friendly for his own good), or a sub boss of a local Mafia gang. The important thing is that I did not end up on the losing side once again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I have been fooled a lot of times already that I am just so sick of the shame falling on me.
Some people long for community. I find inner peace in solitude. So there.