Asia, South Korea

Morning Commute to Geum Seong

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TWICE A WEEK I TAKE an infrequent bus to the outskirts of Jecheon to a little neighborhood called Geum Seong. Sometimes I leave early enough to buy fruit or yogurt for breakfast from my corner grocery where the bus scoops me up in a cloud of diesel fumes. Today, the grocer scans my water bottle with his eyes fixed on the World Cup highlights on his smartphone screen. When I step outside the woman who is always there at the same time motions for me to stand next to her in the shade before picking overlooked bits of sleep from the corners of my eyes. She takes the water bottle from my hand and tucks it into my backpack’s side pocket.

On the bus, the cooler air dries the sweat that has gathered in pools around my neck. The young girls on board wear the same uniform and sport the same shoulder-length and banged haircut required by their school. Standing army boys in berets and boots dangle their arms from bus handles between middle school boys that could be their younger brothers. Older women with parasols tucked gently away congregate in the back and pass a newspaper around.

The bus bounces and sputters through narrow streets crowded with uniformed students as we pass the girls’ middle school in Yongdu-Dong where a surge of girls depart us.The stop indicator is a singsong melody that has the timbre of a child’s toy.

We turn right at the big intersection that joins the chandelier shop and the train station, and head towards the river where the bed and overgrown banks have been prepared for the oncoming monsoon season. After the river we roll into a tunnel that curves left under a thoroughfare and up to greet the city dump where the orange Akita dog sits watch on a chain. A restaurant decorated with colorful lanterns sits daintily across from a Hyundai oilbank. We wind through Jecheon like a large fish in a crowded stream before it shoots us out into the countryside sea.

The country road is lined with trees that have green butterfly wings for leaves. Geum Seong-Dong sits nestled in a small valley between several hillsides, thick with trees, caressed by cloud shadows.

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When I step from bus to curb the hot wet air wraps around me. The sharp manure smell overpowers in waves. Cicadas sing rhythmically beneath hen clucks and the coo of mourning doves. Frogs croon in the rising heat. I wander by the brick fence and the fragrant lime tree and the red berry trees that smell like August blackberries in Washington before greeting the men at the car shop on the corner across the street.

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Two little boys pass me on the sidewalk brushing against the white wildflowers that reach from the planted field just to the right. It’s full in several shades of green. Corn stalks shoot high with sprays of yellow gold spilling from the top.  Squash plants rest at their feet and a rice paddy behind, and still further on, the silver gate of Geum Seong Elementary.

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Hanging from the front gate is the banner with the yellow Sewol  ribbon: “하나의 작은 움직임이큰 기적을…”  “one small step, big miracle…” Beyond the gate students cluster in circles jumping rope. A traditional Korean children’s song blasts from the loudspeaker outside. Turned away from the school and towards the mountains there sits in a distant foreground the long isosceles steeple of the neighborhood church. The topography behind it stretches a blanket of deep green upwards until it finally touches the sky.

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