I was finally finished with a heavy week in Busan, South Korea. Done. Finito. I was beaten-down, ridiculously sore, and half-drunk on Cass beer and Soju. But I'd somehow managed to navigate the sprawling Korean subway system and made it to the Busan bus terminal, without so much as ten minutes to spare.
I was on my bus, a 10:15 p.m. bound for Incheon Airport in Seoul. My one, essential bag tucked away in the storage area underneath the bus. I figured I'd try to catch up on some sleep on the nearly eight-hour ride through the night, before catching my flight to Phuket, Thailand.
I looked at my iPhone. 10:13 p.m. Headed out in no time. Ah, yes. Finally, some peace after a week's worth of booze-laden sunrises across that fine, coastal city, enjoyed with an eclectic mix of cohorts: my English-teaching, world-wandering little sister, Madison; Matt, the rabid Englishman; and a band of Korean comrades -- Amy-eunji, Annette, Kandy, FiFi and Hye-rin, among others.
I gently closed my eyes to slip into some memories before blackness. With a little luck, maybe a weird, foreign dream later on.
A gentle prodding at my ribs roused me from meditation. The old bus driver was signaling he wanted something. I tried to throw him a warm, Carolina smile, but my road-weariness only tolerated a deranged smirk.
With a meek smile, he murmured, "Tick-ett."
Oh, of course, I thought. "Absolutely. Here you are," I said, shoving the confirmation page that Amy had printed out earlier into his hands, and waving him off. "You can have it. It's yours."
I heard the paper rustling as he read it, and then he poked at me again. I cocked one eye open sinisterly, to let him know I was on the verge of a sleep-deprivation freak-out. Still smiling, he shook his head.
"No, no. Uh, uh..." He asked for something from the passenger across the aisle. "You, tick-ett," he said, gesturing toward a little green ticket, peppered with Korean letters. "Need. Tick-ett." A ticket, I did not have.
I felt the first pangs of fear begin to seep in. Those bolts and jolts that clench your heart a bit, jerk your eyes open a little wider and take your breathing up a notch. I can never tell adrenaline from an extreme freak-out.
The Indian woman next to me nodded and gave the driver hers, as if to confirm my new situation: I will not be riding this bus without one of these little green tickets. All I had was an online confirmation.
Ok. Ok. I blinked wearily. Let's all stay calm here. All I've got to do is get a ticket. No big deal. It's 10:14 p.m. No problem.
I charged down the aisle and rocketed off the bus. Blowing through the terminal, I dug into the monstrous stairs leading up to the ticket counters with both hands and feet, scaling them like Daniel Day-Lewis clearing rocky cliffs in Last of the Mohicans.
Colliding with the ticket counter, I thrust my confirmation print-off toward the young Korean girl slathered in make-up. She looked like she was in one of those prison visitation booths.
"Hey, sorry. I need a ticket for the 10:15 p.m., I thought this confirmation would do the trick, but apparently, well, it's not," I said with a laugh. "So, if I could get that ticket..." She replied with a blank stare. A fine time for no English.
Charades it is.
"Ah, -- TICKET, TEN-FIFTEEN," I said monotonously, giving her all ten fingers, then three, one-handed five-fingered flashes. She looks at her computer, then at her clock. 10:15 p.m. on the dot. And then signals an "X" with her index fingers and shakes her head.
"No, no. It's OK. He waits," I said pointing down the stairs and tapping an imaginary wristwatch. She just looks befuddled, and says: "Ah, cancel?"
I point at her as I back away from the counter, and for some reason push against an imaginary wall. "I'll be right back," I tell her as she stares. There's no way she could comprehend what was happening. And there was no one around the terminal this late to explain it in Korean.
I plunge down those God-forsaken stairs two at a time, then power through the gate all the way to the bus, which is now easing out of the station. That's when the dire nature of this situation kicked in -- my bag is on that bus. My life, as I know it at this moment, is on that bus.
"DON'T YOU DARE!" I bellow in my best John Wayne voice, aiming my entire right arm square at that bus door. The driver stops and I hear the hiss of air brakes. I start waving my arms maniacally, as I jog forward toward the door. "SHE... says OK!" I say, jabbing my index finger upstairs toward the ticket booths, and then giving two thumbs up, way up.
"NO TICKET?! IS OK!" I say, fully extending my arms like an umpire signaling a base runner safe, then returning to the trusty, two thumbs-up again. I give him the big Southern grin, again.
Did he buy it? Did he remotely comprehend?
"No," he winced painfully. "Need. Tick-ett."
Shit, I thought, my stomach digging deeper into my spine. The whole bus began to groan with a mix of sympathy and impatience. One woman yelled: "He need more time!" then followed up with something in Korean.
I emphatically signaled the driver with two hands; two index fingers jutting intensely toward him, then toward the ground. "You. Stay here. You. Do NOT go."
I tore off the bus, again. Up the Daniel Day-Lewis stairwell, this time my legs burning a bit in the thighs. I'd taken those steps one too many times and far too quickly in the past few minutes.
By this point, the Korean girl with the makeup was bug-eyed and genuinely fearful when she saw me barreling toward her booth, again. She could tell I was a desperate man and that something was going to happen, one way or the other.
Stress sweat was beginning to trickle from my forehead, my eyes were getting wilder, and my breathing more labored as I skidded to a stop just before the glass. At this point, I unleashed a barrage of high-stakes charades and screamed:
"HE!" (Arms and fingers thrusting violently downstairs, then jerking an air-steering wheel like a stockcar racer) "IS WAITING" (Slapping a non-existent wristwatch, and impatiently stomping my foot into ground) "FOR ME!" (I jam two thumbs into my chest repeatedly and painfully). "I'VE GOT TO GET ON THAT BUS!"
I stood there, eyes darting and chest heaving. I'd made my move. What was hers?
She'd had enough. She took mercy on the weird American seconds from mental collapse at a bus station in Busan. A guy that had lost his grip and was slipping very quickly.
Or maybe she didn't understand at all. Maybe she was just worried of what I was capable of if I missed that bus. I don't know.
But she yanked a little green ticket from the machine, and slapped it into that little metal tray below the oval prison-microphone without hesitation. And then took two big steps back from the glass.
I gave her a bow, then kissed my hand, slapped the glass and bolted down those stairs once again. Thank God. I had the ticket, but did my charades showcase go on one act too long?
Scrambling down the stairs, I could see the bus parking space was empty. I charged through the gate once again outside, out onto the lot. I felt like a rabid dog. Or the Wolf Man.
I saw a security guy out of the corner of my eye, and heard him jabbering about something but, at this point, all I could see was the gleaming red bus.
And I could see the old driver smiling -- one foot on the gas and one hand on the door handle. He was leaning over as far as he could, beckoning me to jump onto the moving bus and yelling in Korean. I got the gist of it.
I made a break across the lot, ignoring the security, and leapt onboard, pinning myself to the safety rail as we lurched off into the night.
I gazed down the aisle, huffing and puffing and looking across all the dazed faces of disbelief.
"TICKET!" I yelled, shoving it toward the chuckling driver and not resisting the urge to laugh.
The bus erupted with cheers, applause and laughter, and an overwhelming sense of relief. I air-pummeled an imaginary punching bag, Joe Frazier-style, as the bus rumbled onto the freeway.