The fridge is getting a little barren. You’ve used the last of the eggs, the bread has gone stale, and you’re not sure what that stuff is growing on the cucumbers, but it’s probably not edible. Time to go to the store! You feel adventurous and decide to head for E-Mart. It’s on the other side of town, but it has better selection and generally lower prices.
You step out of your apartment into a nice, cool, January day. You feel fresh and invigorated. You walk down to the corner to hail a cab. In almost no time at all, a sleek black four door screeches to a halt in front of you. You climb in.
The interior is comfortable and well maintained. You give the driver a once over and see a respectable looking, middle aged Korean man. He’s wearing a sweater vest over a dress shirt and tie. It is painfully obvious that he puts a great deal of effort into appearing professional and well groomed. You think he looks like a mild mannered CPA or tax attorney. He smiles politely at you.
You say, “E-Mart-uh ga juseyo.” (loosely, Take me to E-Mart, please)
The driver will repeat whatever you said back to you, because your accent is atrocious. When he’s sure he understands, he pops the car into gear and you are off to the races.
Your knuckles go white as you hold on for dear life. The cab roars out onto one of the main motorways and accelerates hard at what looks like an impenetrable traffic snarl. The driver slaloms into the right turn lane, dodging around the line of trucks and cars, then swerves across three lanes of traffic into the far left lane. He blows through a red light and car horns ripple into action behind you. The cab veers into a turn, tires squealing, and roars down a claustrophobic alley that looks barely wide enough for a bicycle. You instinctively lean away from the brick wall flying by inches outside your window.
A pedestrian appears, an old man carrying his groceries. The driver swerves and barely avoids clipping him with the side mirror. You glance back and see the old man still walking slowly, utterly unfazed by the metallic death that just roared by.
The driver’s expression never wavers from a calm, professional disinterest. Just to spice things up, he reaches out a hand and flips on a tiny TV mounted on the dash. A Korean soap opera starts playing, and you realize with horror that your driver is a fan.
The cab explodes out of the alley and onto a main street. A cop is suddenly behind you, lights blaring. But then you remember that all cops in Korea drive with their lights going at all times. The cab deftly cuts off a bus and accelerates maniacally around another corner. The cop continues blithely down the street, abandoning you to your fate.
The driver stands on the brakes and the vehicle rocks to a stop. You see the sign for E-Mart outside your window. Stunned, it takes you a moment to remember what comes next. The driver waits patiently as you collect yourself. You dig into your pocket and produce a few crumpled, sweaty bills. The fare is about $3.00. You stagger out, resist the impulse to kiss the ground, and try to remember why you came all this way in the first place.
Funky stuff on the cucumbers. Right. Need groceries.
An hour later, you are laden with bags. You step outside and feel a sinking dread. A line of cabs sit at the taxi stand, motors purring, exhaust fogging the air.
They’re waiting for you.
Its about this time that you give thanks that even the other side of town is walking distance from your apartment.
PS: No, riding a cab in Korea is not as dangerous as I make it sound. It is cheap, and the cab drivers are very professional. That being said, the general philosophy of driving in Korea is 'the best offense is a good offense.' Aggressive driving is standard, and cab drivers are more exuberant than most.