Somewhere in Seoul, there is Thanksgiving turkey. Photo: Ian Muttoo, Feature Photo: Gerry

Despite all that I took away from my six months living in a traditional forest monastery on meditation, the impermanence of everything, and living in the moment, there is nothing quite like several hours in traffic to make you forget all of the Buddha’s teachings.

Whether I’m a passenger or directly behind the wheel, the presence of other cars has the ability to drive (no pun intended) me into a homicidal rage. Now couple that with a lack of water on the bus and a building appetite for turkey, and you have some idea how I spent the first half of my Thanksgiving Day.

It started out with a simple enough plan: find turkey in South Korea. I’m always looking for turkey in Asia, as the task usually gives me something to strive for. Online stores can provide sandwich meat, but to find that true, fresh-out-the-oven turkey quality? Not the easiest thing in the world.

For one, there are no live turkeys in Korea. Secondly, there are few ovens. Nevertheless, for one dedicated to the search, it is possible to track down this elusive bird for Thanksgiving dinner. A Couchsurfing forum provided me with the answer: a cooking school in north Seoul on Saturday, November 27th, just a four-hour trip by bus from my quiet little mountain town.

There was a second issue affecting my quest: South Korea came under attack. North Korea launched an attack on Yeonpyeong Island.

The country is not holding its breath, waiting for the next missile to hit.

The emails came flooding in from friends and family, asking if I was alright. I live on the east coast, hundreds of kilometers away from the attack. Even if I had been in downtown Seoul, I doubt I would have been seriously affected. I have to admit I feel the same urge to reach out to those I know in other countries when disaster strikes, but I think a better response than “Are you ok???” would be “So, what have you heard that I haven’t?”

Life is going on as usual here. Yes, there is talk of escalation on both sides of the DMZ, but until full-fledged war breaks out, there will always be talk. Why? Because North Korea is run by a two-year-old who likes to throw his toys from time to time. Yes, we see you. Time to put your stuffed bunny back in the box.

Little has been affected in South Korea other than in Yeonpyeong, of course. The mail is still being delivered. Buses are still running. Planes are flying out. Restaurants are serving food. The country is not holding its breath, waiting for the next missile to hit.

Turkey. It all comes back to turkey. Kim Jong-il is one, and I want to eat some.

So what happened on my Thanksgiving Day?

Korean bus, Photo: Turner Wright

I start the day at 5:45 a.m. with a healthy seven-kilometer run and stretching. This will provide the excuse I need to stuff myself. By 7:45 a.m., I catch the bus for Seoul and fall asleep on schedule.

I often hear travelers tossing around the expression,”It’s not the destination; it’s the journey.” Given that I spent more time in transit than I did at my destination, I’d say there’s truth in that. I should have known life wouldn’t obey the clock. The few hours I’m awake I see everything covered in a layer of pure snow. The bus is still moving at top speed. A note to those who have never taken public transportation in Korea: when buses are on schedule, the drivers are typically reasonable people. Make them a few minutes late, however, and you’ll see maneuvers comparable to those in Beijing or motorcycle taxis in Thailand… or perhaps F-16s.

At this point, I’m a little concerned about the roads up ahead, but I decide to play mental games with the time: “OK, even if we’re delayed by an hour, I can make it to dinner…” When the bus finally does come to a complete stop – as, I later learned, from an accident near Wonju – I make a decision to keep my cool, and just let the hunger build. After all, I need to get a bit of an appetite for an all-you-can-eat dinner; what’s the harm in skipping lunch?

“OK, even if we’re delayed two hours, I can make it to dinner.”

“OK, even if we’re delayed three hours, I can make it to dinner… a little late.”

“Four hours?? Are you kidding me?? Move this bus, NOW! NOW! NOW! I WANT MY TURKEY!”

I think of myself as pretty flexible when it comes to travel plans, but the thought of a feast waiting for me at the end of a long bus ride across the country was just too tempting to allow anything to interfere.

The whole time, I’m texting my Couchsurfing friend in Seoul to see if there’ll be anything left if or when I do arrive. Even if I were to arrive at the bus terminal within a few hours, I’d still have to navigate the subway system for an hour or so. All that planning, all that anticipation for pumpkin pie, it’s starting to come crashing down. I think of myself as pretty flexible when it comes to travel plans, but the thought of a feast waiting for me at the end of a long bus ride across the country was just too tempting to allow anything to interfere. People are stepping out of their vehicles. A gaggle of girls from a Chinese tour bus is building a snowman, unknowingly using powder from where a Korean man just did his business. I keep repeating to myself, “It’s a traffic jam, there’s nothing you can do.”

Eight hours after departing Bugu, I arrive in Dongseoul Bus Terminal. Positioning myself at the front of the bus, I fly out as soon as the doors are open, searching frantically for the nearest subway access. Did I mention this is my first time in the big city? Ride Line 1… change to Line 3… buy a ticket here… which train, right or left? My turkey is waiting!

I’ve run marathons. I’ve had calorie cravings beyond those some human beings can imagine, but I still find my stomach pushed to the limit of tolerance at the thought of not indulging in sweet potatoes, stuffing, and succulent white meat. The next opportunity might not present itself until Christmas. And waiting four weeks in the land of the morning calm? Not going to happen, least of all with me in a calm mood.

Despite all my talk of inner rage, I relax once I realize it is at least theoretically possible to make it to dinner. Although I arrive on the third floor of the cooking school sweaty, tired, and with my leg muscles in knots, I keep a smile on my face and an easygoing attitude.

The author gets his turkey at last.

Four lovely ladies greet me, just as surprised I made it to the table as I am. Although I’ve had Thanksgiving Dinner away from my family, this is the first time I shared it with fellow Couchsurfers. All and all, it was one of the best decisions I made. All the guests save one, were American, but we were quite the hodgepodge of ethnic backgrounds: a Russian Jew, a Polish Catholic, and me, whatever I am… what am I these days?

The only thing that really concerns me at this point, however, is the delights scattered across plates on a red tablecloth. Pumpkin pie, stuffing, turkey, mashed potatoes – all you can eat for 30,000 Won (about $30), and all you can talk about travel for free.

The evening continues with cheap Korean beer at a variety of bars in north Seoul and wraps up with drunken talks of life, love, and happiness in my host’s flat. I’m thinking “Just another holiday come and gone.” Though I regret not being home, I love how such gatherings can bring strangers together. Whereas I might have simply passed through Seoul and treated my host to a dinner in a chain restaurant, now we both hold the memory of a shared holiday with new friends.

Community Connection

Have you celebrated Thanksgiving or other holidays abroad? Share your experience in the comment section or submit a story for Matador’s Celebrating Holidays Away from Home series.

For submissions, check out Matador’s Contributor Guidelines and send your story via the online form.