The Law of ‘Different Returns,’ or, Get on the Bus, Gus (John)

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Last night, I took the small No. 15 bus from the main road near my school to the stop closest my apartment, near the Abientot bakery, by the 24-hour restaurant I’ve bought the cheapest kimbap from (but, to be honest, the place near my school selling them for 800 won more is better. More guts, less rice).

The country buses, which may or not be the most common way to describe them, are the smallest of the Busan bus fleet. They’re cheaper, 910 won a trip, and are the smallest–a seat on each side and some room in the middle for standees. The first time I took one, just two weeks ago, it smelled like rotten cheese. My friend and I quickly got off and hopped on the next bus a few minutes later.

Last night, the scent was considerably more neutral. A man on the other side of the aisle rested his head in his hands. At first I thought he may be old, or destitute, but his sneakers were new. He lifted his head to reveal a man younger than I expected. He must just be very tired.

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Around me were the sights of Dadaepo and then Jangnim at night. It may not be much to look at when compared to the lights and glitz of other parts of Busan, but it’s home, and the images coming through the windows of this humble bus will likely pop back into my head sometime in the future, whether or not I am still in Korea when I experience them.

When I was here three years ago, I took one bus over my 55 days–on the last day I was in Korea, I figured I’d give it a shot. Living a five-minute walk from the Deokcheon subway station, I had never had a need to take the bus. If I wasn’t taking the subway, I was getting a taxi.

I ended up getting lost. But, just as it happened last night, today I am remembering some interesting images from my last day in Busan in 2010.

Friends of mine up in Andong, who spent their first year in Busan, own a car. It makes a lot of sense where they are. There is no subway. Sure, there’s probably a more than capable bus system. But, away from a major hub, their car is their lifeline. And, it no doubt changes the way they see Korea.

I wouldn’t call it “diminishing returns,” exactly. Different returns would be more appropriate. The experience one gets from riding the subway in Busan, in South Korea is something they will not exactly experience anywhere else, including on a bus in Busan, or South Korea. Likewise, a leisurely walk to school from my apartment is far different than when I take the bus (or once I finally buy a bicycle, soon, soon, soon). For starters, it takes near a half-hour instead of five minutes. I notice street vendors, cracks in the sidewalk (or, in our case with the ongoing subway extension project underway, no sidewalk at all), buses passing by.

When I first got to Jangnim, I felt some disappointment in the chaos of the main drag, where all that construction continues. It was like I was living right in the middle of a construction zone. But, if the subway was finished when I arrived, would I take the bus as often as I have to now? Would I be able to tell as many stories about harrowing journeys to the Geojang subway stop by bus, the vehicle feeling like it could tip at the next hairpin turn? Would I realize the 1001 bus from there, plus the bus there from Jangnim, to KSU takes only 45 minutes? Would I have bothered finding out, opting to spend 75 minutes on the subway? Would I know those bus numbers even exist?

This isn’t about touting the benefits of one over another. Which is why “different returns” makes more sense. But, looking back over 2 1/2 months, I am glad to have the opportunity to have such a different return on my investment of my time in South Korea. Because, by next year, I’ll probably be more interested in checking out the shiny new Jangnim subway stop. You know, if it’s finished.

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