Spas and Spy Games

When I last left you I was vowing to be the force that turned things around here in Korea. I stopped writing because despite being a world away in a foreign land my life consists of the mundane routines similar to everyone else’s, anywhere else. And also because sometimes too much reflection is the quickest way to panicking, and that was the opposite of what I was hoping to do.

Recently all this optimism and endurance started paying off with a sudden surge of what I like to call “why I travel” moments. And those folks, will now be addressed here.

  1. Jimjilbang (This one’s for the books).

“MONEY,” she said, annunciating carefully. My cheeks flushed and I quickly turned and walked back to the lockers, clutching the small hand towel to my naked body. She follows me.

There’s something about an older Korean woman in nothing but black lacy underwear, waiting hands-on-hips for your money, to make you question your life choices.

I pull out ten thousand won.

“Two”, she gestures with her hand.

—Let me pause here and explain. I’m naked because I’m at a jimjilbang, a traditional Korean spa. She’s in black lacey underwear because that’s her uniform.

She’s a ttaemiri. And I’ve come to get scrubbed.

I did my research on Korean Spas before I came. It’s a part of the culture here and I knew I wanted to try it. The men and women have separate baths, and then there is a common room with saunas, massage chairs, napping mats and snacks (heaven? Even better: Jimjilbang). Despite being a conservative people, going to the spa on Sundays with your friends and family and hanging out naked is like, totally a thing. So I went.

I paid my 7,000 won and received a tiny towel and a soft pair of shorts and a t-shirt, light pink, to be used later for the common room. Then I mustered up my courage and went to the lockers to get into my birthday suit.

The final piece to this puzzle is that there are some special services you can pay for when you go to the spa and one of them is a scrub. And my thoughts were, “It’s all or nothing, right?”—Okay, back to my weird life:

I look up at the woman waiting for my cash and gesture to the empty wallet.

“I’m so sorry, I don’t have enough, never mind,” I say hastily, realizing this was going to be tricky to get out of. The ttaemiri is non-plussed and asks me something in Korean. “Card?” I reply, because I have no idea what she said. She takes me by the hand and marches me out to reception. Oh dear God.

Some painful negotiations ensue, ones that involved me standing around red-faced while the receptionist (fully clothed) and the scrub-master (still in uniform) argued about payment. It was all in Korean and so I could only stand there, politely wait and mull over the phrase “died of embarrassment” and wonder how they’d get my body back to the U.S.

But alas, I did not die and we finally came to some sort of understanding. She once again grabs my hand and leads me into the wonder that is jimjilbang.

A wonder, indeed. We entered into a wide room of jacuzzis with varying temperatures and scents, steam rooms, exercise pools and showers. But before I could explore, of course, I had to get what I paid for.

She brings me to a room on the side and I won’t get into details, only that it involved a couple of loofa mitts and twenty minutes of elbow grease. I was, head to toe, soft as a baby’s bottom by the end (ew I hate this phrase but really it’s the best description). I’ll be honest I closed my eyes and enjoyed every second. “THIS,” I thought, “is a damn unique experience”.

  1. The Escape Room

I’m locked in an office with the lights off. With my small flashlight I survey the room, black leather chairs rest in the corner around a small table with a chess board, the pieces splayed out in mid-game. A large desk sits in front of the darkened window, with office supplies neatly organized and a couple of coffee mugs with their last remaining dregs still at the bottom.

I scan the shelves, my light flashing over picture frames and encyclopedias until finally, I find the safe. Time to get to work.

Am I  a super stealthy spy breaking in to my boss’s office to steal important manuscripts? No, but that’s what they told us when they locked us in the room. And that’s what it felt like.

I had never heard of an Escape Room before, but damn it was fun.

We had two teams of four and we were playing against each other and the clock. The other team was locked in their own office. My team and I had one hour to break the safe and discover the code to escape the room, the police were on their way, after all.

Everyone in the group worked individually on some part and then repeatedly came together with information to solve another piece. We deciphered codes and solved puzzles, discovered secret messages in invisible ink, each clue taking us to the next.  Alex discovered some chess pieces were stuck to the board: B7, G2. Zach grabbed the encyclopedia’s with those titles and found messages inside. Amber revealed numbers on the bottom of the coffee cups, when you tilted the coffee away. We used those later to enter the code on a key safe hidden behind the curtains. We worked meticulously, adrenaline pushing us forward, occasionally high-fiving when another part was solved.  We only paused once to say “Guys, how cool is this?” and then we were back at it, racing to beat the other team.

The count down on the clock read 23:00 minutes when we entered the touch code on the door handle and it swung open. The other team hadn’t escaped yet, an uproarious celebration followed.

The staff was watching on the cameras and they were just as excited as we were , “You guys solved everything so fast! I was like, oh wow I’m not giving them any hints. You were close to the record!”

We couldn’t stop talking about how fun it was. And truly it was. Point for you, Korea.

(Actually they are everywhere. Look and see if one is nearby and take your friends or family for a different kind of night out. You won’t regret it.)

  1. Buddha’s Birthday

This post is getting absurdly long so I’ll save this story for another day. Give you something to come back for.

Gamsams for reading.



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