Don't Count Your Luck

Trip Start Jul 29, 2006
Trip End Sep 03, 2006

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Friday, August 4, 2006

It was in Seoul Station that I felt something was wrong. The side pocket of my cargo pants was lighter than it should have been, and sure enough, the most important document I own was gone.

Leigh and Mel were heading to the station to see if they couldn't get a late night train home to Pohang, several hundred kilometres southeast. I'd come to give them a hand and keep them company if they were stuck in the city. It took only a moment though for me to become the subject of intense concern. Several rabid searches of my backpack yielded nothing.

They say the golden rule is "don't panic", and I resisted the urge to run up and down the empty terminal screaming bloody murder. Then again, I could smile at the irony of losing my passport after spending much of the day congratulating myself on my own good fortune.

There was nothing Leigh and Mel could do, and so they wished me luck and left for another station to try theirs. It was off to the police station for me, only the second time I've ever walked into one. The railway cops sent me across the street to the area's main police station, where I was turned away because the place was closed for the night. Directed back across the street to a small police box, I wasn't feeling particularly hopeful, and the repercussions of my lost papers were starting to dawn on me.

It can take weeks or even months to get a new passport in a foreign country, not to mention the loss of the entry visa that grants my stay in Korea (and the full page Chinese visa, a thing of beauty depicting the Great Wall, the Communist Part crest and a whole lot of sentimental value). Not to mention that my Australian work visa is an electronic one tied to my passport. I'd have to go to the Australian Embassy as well as the Canadian. A lot of hassle for a simple and stupid mistake.

At the police box I found a female cop who spoke English, though her language skills faltered as she became more flustered. We don't handle missing passports; she explained finally, you'll have to make a report at the main station across the street. Great.

From Seoul Station it was a short cab ride to Itaewon, the expat neighbourhood where my friend and former coworker, Keith, runs a bar called Queen. The name says it all really, and I'd heard the place was open at all hours any day of the week. It was getting on to 1:30 on a Wednesday morning and I was rolling the dice but also badly in need of a drink and a familiar face.

Sure enough Queen was not only open but also relatively busy, and I saddled up to the bar and told Keith what had happened. I got no sympathy from him though, a hardened traveler who's seen just about everything. Besides, he said, when he lost his passport he had a new one issued in a day.

I was feeling more hopeful after my second beer, around the time when Leigh called and told me they'd missed their last train. Come on over, I tell them, delighted at the idea of introducing the straight-laced couple to their first gay bar.

Things were looking up, if only because I had company and a beer. And on the face of it things weren't too bad after all. The Korean travel agent issued us passport covers that had their contact info embossed on the back. And there was no doubt I had the passport when I left the airport in Seoul.

I also had the ticket stub of the shuttle bus company that brought us downtown from the airport. I resolved to stay the night at a sauna in Itaewon and then walk the block or two down the street to the travel agent and bring them in on the drama. When Leigh and Mel called I met them on the main drag, and walking them up to Queen, past the working girls and trannies on Hooker Hill, I'd almost forgotten the whole business. The trip to Beijing may have been over, but the story simply hadn't ended yet.

And as in Beijing it was a great pleasure to have Leigh and Mel's company, and they thoroughly enjoyed themselves as well. It was going on 4:30 when Keith finally kicked us out, and I said goodbye to the couple as they headed off to the station to catch the first train, and I went to have a surprisingly comfortable sleep on the floor of a Korean-style sauna house.

In the morning the travel agent tracked down my passport after one phone call. It had slipped out on the shuttle bus and was waiting at the airport. For $15 the company couriered my passport to the travel agent within an hour.

There are times when I truly appreciate being in a country like Korea, where crimes like theft are relatively rare. In another country this story might not have had such a happy conclusion. I held my passport safe and tight in my hand and, more cautiously perhaps, continued to count my luck.
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