Communication Breakdown

20 Dec

The car was bigger than I expected.  A Kia Pride, the hatchback version.  It actually had a rear seat, amazingly, that a grown man could sit in with relative comfort, even if only for a short time.  Better than the Daewoo Matiz or Kia Morning we had originally reserved: I’ve seen Jazzy scooters with more crash protection.  Still, when your face is at bumper height for a tractor trailer, the Pride’s little 1.5-liter engine doesn’t inspire too much confidence in your ability to escape impending vehicular doom.

The pride of Kia.

Still, the Pride served our purposes fine.  It handled the Gyeongbu Expressway well, even in the driving rain, and was remarkably fuel efficient.  I calculated the turbodiesel engine as getting somewhere in the realm of 39 miles a gallon, a combination of highway and city driving.  Acceleration was sharp and sudden once you depressed the pedal past a certain point.  No cruise control, unfortunately, which would have helped immensely with the plethora of speed cameras on Highway 1.  Still, certainly more enjoyable than driving a big Kia Carnival.

The Gyeongbu Expressway was socked in with rain and fog.  We saw signs for cities but even the giant apartment buildings, stretching off to the distance like a crop of steel and concrete, were invisible.  Just lots and lots of rice fields and wooded mountains, with old farm buildings here and there, with white walls stained with dirt and old-style traditional tile roofs.  Kia Bongo trucks were parked here and there on narrow one-way roads that divided the rice fields, while the farmers went mucking out in the sopping-wet, harvested fields.

When we got to Gyeongju our little excursion took an unexpected turn.  Chris was at the wheel, maneuvering through the streets.  I was on the lookout for a hotel or yeogwan for the night.  As we turned down a narrow one-way street, really no more than an alley, a man tapped on our window.  He said something to Chris, who told me, “He says we’ve got a flat tire.”  The Korean word for puncture sounds like “pong-kuh,” which registered in Chris’ mind enough to make him take a look at the tire.  We pulled over into a side alley and got out to assess the damage.  The right rear tire was indeed flat.  How long it had been down was unclear.  It hadn’t blow out, though, which was a good thing.  We were parked in front of a yeogwan, which has basic rooms where you can spend the night sleeping on a heated floor.  The old man stood under his umbrella and gestured for us to get the car out of the alley way.  So we pulled over into his parking lot.  He stood there watching us as we examined the tire.

I found a shim of metal, perhaps aluminum, that was sticking out of the tire, air hissing from the hole.  Where had we run over it?  On some side street?  Whatever the case, it wasn’t usable in its current state.  We decided to see if we could change the tire.  Thankfully, the Hertz rental office kept the spare in decent order, although judging by the employees there, I doubt any of them had ever examined it before.  The spare had certainly never been used.  Chris had never changed a tire, so it was up to me to get us mobile again.

“You always said you like it when things go wrong when you travel.  You just got your wish,” said Chris.

I was eating it up, I must admit.  I try to prevent the worst from happening but, for some reason, when it does, I get kind of excited.  So I got out the jack and its requisite parts.  We couldn’t figure out where to put it, though.  I couldn’t get the jack to work underneath the car, on the frame next to the wheel, but I did manage to jack the car up plenty high by fitting the notch in the middle onto what, in retrospect, was some sort of towing bar in the rear.  The last tire I changed (and only in practice at that) was on my old 1986 Mercury Grand Marquis.  The Beast’s jack had fit into a notch on the solid steel bumper and my mind for one reason or another concluded that was the logical place on the Kia as well.  We later discovered that, amongst the Arabic instructions on the jack, there was a a diagram indicating that we were to place it in front of the wheel, on the right outer side of the car.  Oh well.  Our way worked all right.  Chris stood over me with an umbrella as I tried to keep the poorly-fitting jack pieces from coming undone.  Little by little, the jack eased the car upward until the rim was no longer squashing the tire.  I then attacked the flat, trying to look like a pro.

The only issue was that the lug nuts wouldn’t come off.  I don’t know what mechanic last touched the wheel but he’d got those lug nuts on there so tight they wouldn’t budge even a millimeter.  Chris does karate and is stronger than I, but even he couldn’t loosen it.  With his last hard pull, he even managed to knock the little car off of the jack stand.  Great.

The old man was back now, watching us like a very judgmental hawk.

“There’s no way we’re getting that off,” I said.  “We need to find a mechanic to help us take it off.”

“Yeah, but what about our insurance on the car?  We might void it if we try to fix things ourselves.  Hertz might have to send someone,” Chris said.

That was true.  I had no idea of knowing if that was the case, though.  The rental agreement was completely written in hangeul.  So we had to give our boss, Jae-mo, who helped us rent the car, a call.  But we still needed to explain to the old man what the deal was.  He wasn’t happy that we were blocking his already-cramped parking lot.  Chris raised our friend Jihyun on the phone and she, like a saint, translated our predicament to him.  Surprisingly, he wasn’t mad.  We could keep the car there as long as we wanted . . . so long as we were staying at his little hotel.  Fine, we could work with that, we decided.  It ended up being ridiculously cheap, about 25,000 won per night.  We got the car into a parking space, thankfully without destroying the tire by riding on the rim.

But Jae-mo was out of touch.  We waited and waited.  No reply to either calls or text messages.  We ate samgyeopsal (fatty bacon barbecue) at a local restaurant, a little family run affair.  Soju and beer washed away our concerns with the car.  Still no word from Jae-mo.  We’d have to fix it in the morning.

We set out into the clear and cold of the next day determined to find a tire shop.  The tire wasn’t severely damaged, just one tiny slit; if we could patch it properly and the patch held, Hertz would never know the difference.  We found one gas station but, despite the cars parked outside the garage doors, they apparently didn’t fix tires.  The man inside the office pointed us up the road.  After about a half kilometer walk, we found a tire store, right at the corner where we’d turned the night before.

I delivered my rehearsed line: “Tah-i-oh eh pong-kuh nassayo.”  Language classes don’t typically give you vocabulary for dealing with vehicular predicaments, so I was thankful I’d found my lost phrasebook in my backpack.  The fellow who greeted us was all smiles and bows and seemed to understand, but he brought over his partner, another young guy.  He knew a few words of English but not much.  I tried to explain again and point out the location of the car.  I even whipped out the business card of the hotel.  There was confusion as to why we needed help though.  He understood “puncture” or “pong-kuh,” and seemed to reply with something to the effect of “Put the spare on.”  Well, yes, of course.  But how could we explain lug nuts and that they were too tight?  Neither guy seemed to understand.  Finally, Chris got down next to another customer’s car and pantomimed the difficulty of getting the nuts off.  They seemed to get it then.  They conversed and one got in his car for some reason.  The first bows-and-smiles fellow brought us some instant coffee from the push-button machine in the office.  We were all grinning about the situation.  They found it kind of amusing, actually.  I’m sure they were thinking, “How did this foreigners get a car and why are they in Gyeongju in December?”

The second fellow pulled his own car up next to the office door and said something quickly.  I only picked out “han myeong,” and realized that he probably saying one of us should ride with him to work on the Kia.  So I hopped in his sweet ride and we took off roaring through the streets of Gyeongju.  And by roaring, I mean more in a sonic way than in reference to sheer speed.  His car had fancy rims, an airfoil, and a loud, rattly ‘glass-pack muffler that seemed about to bounce off.  Fancy racing-style seats and instrument display rounded out the interior.  Brown-Eyed Girl’s latest single, “Sign,” was blaring from his audio system.  I knew some of the words of the song and he thought it hilarious that I could sing along with it.  As he took off quickly into traffic, whipping a u-turn in the middle of the street, I realized that some things are the same everywhere.  Whether it’s America or Korea, young guys at service stations in small towns will always pimp out their cars with ridiculous accessories.

His method for fixing the spare I would have never thought of, mainly because of the probability of mucking the whole thing up.  To get the lug nuts off, he put the wrench on, then braced himself on the roof and jumped on the wrench.  Sure enough, that did the trick.  He apparently didn’t worry about whether that could mess up the wheel.  Thankfully for my rental agreement with Hertz, it didn’t.  Soon the spare was on and I followed him up and down one way streets through Gyeongju, barreling down the middle of roads and dodging delivery scooters, back to the tire store.  They quickly patched the tire and even put all of the jack equipment back in the proper cases.  We insisted on paying them for their efforts but they refused.  Free tire change, it said on the sign.  We insisted twice but they wouldn’t accept.  Even after they’d used their own gas to drive to our car.  It was true hospitality, both of the rural and Korean variety.  Never have I ever met any people who are so enthusiastic when it comes to service.  They never get tipped in this country, but they (at least seem to) enjoy serving you all the same.

So if you ever happen to have a flat in Gyeongju, check out the tire center (I believe it’s Hankook) on the way into town from the museum.  It’s about a block or two before the railway station.  They are great guys, really and truly.  And even though Chris and I couldn’t have a conversation with them, all of us managed to express ourselves.  Language is a barrier indeed.  But sometimes, when you realize it’s pointless to try and climb that wall, laughs, smiles, and charades will get you a lot further.

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