Did I take the red pill or the blue pill? I can’t remember. Am I capable of dodging the bullets, or is my exhausted body about to be flushed into the sewer system of the Matrix with all the other discards?
I check in at the Asiana counter at 8 p.m for international check-in, three hours before a flight as recommended. I hand over my passport to the airline passenger service assistant. The job title has too many words, and assistant is a misleading label as if they work for me instead of the airlines. The yellow fluorescent safety vest guy behind the counter pulls my 43-pound luggage over to the baggage belt. He must be called the airline passenger service assistant assistant, but I will leave his label as “the guy in the yellow fluorescent safety vest” for this story.
The airline passenger service assistant says, “Sir, you need a Visa.”
“I show her my Visa to Vietnam.”
“Are you entering Korea when you arrive?”
“Yes, I have four days there.”
“Sir, you need a Visa.”
The agent has fired the first shot—the bullet whistles toward the head of my would-be trip in that matrixy vortex way. She writes down the address of the K-ETA website to apply for a visa and tells me the counter closes at ten. The guy in the yellow fluorescent safety vest retrieves my 43-pound luggage and returns it to me. I have two hours to figure it out.
I find the website and fill out the form. I get stuck because it won’t upload my selfie picture. I violated the 80kb file size restriction. I find an app to resize it, but when I get it to the correct size, the App wants to charge me to download a pdf. I don’t think K-ETA will take a pdf, and I don’t want to pay. I use the photo editor to shrink my picture to the correct size and upload it. Now it doesn’t like the dimensions. The dimensions have to be 700 x 700. Back to the photo editor to f**k around the dimensions. By the time I get that all squared away, it is 8:20, an hour and forty minutes left.
Next, K-ETA wants the zip code of the place I’m staying when I arrive in Korea. I find the address of the hotel on the reservation. A number at the end of the string looks like a zip code in a 3-3 format. K-ETA responds with “Enter 5 Digit Zipcode.”
I try googling for a zip code for the place. Nothing found. No clue. I try random five-digit numbers. “Enter 5 Digit Zipcode.” Apparently, the App is smart enough to identify legitimate Korean zip codes but not kind enough to give it to me. It’s 8:30 p.m, ninety minutes left.
It’s no time to encounter an enigma shrouded in mystery. A young Korean woman is standing nearby, waiting. I ask for her help. She takes my phone and figures out how to activate the search field. I paste in the address of the hotel. K-ETA says, “Search Results 0.” I screw around with the formatting removing punctuation that might not be necessary. “Search Results 0.”
The young lady’s boyfriend returns. I don’t know why I think boyfriend and girlfriend rather than husband and wife, maybe because they are young, not because of anything I’ve observed. The two work side-by-side, he on his Korean language phone and her on mine, while I peer over their shoulders. They finally get the search results field to populate with about 50 choices. The guy finds the hotel address on his Seoul map with the correct zip code, and K-ETA is satisfied. I thank them profusely.
The airline passenger service assistant walks over to assist the couple with their problem. She recognizes me and asks if I have applied for the VISA. I ask her how long it takes to process. She says about two hours. By the time I pay for the VISA, it is 8:50. Only seventy minutes left.
Now all I have to do is fume at K-ETA for being so problematic, plot out all the scenarios of finding a nearby hotel or going home, and pray for South Korean efficiency. At 9:10, I receive an email notification that the application is under review. Only fifty minutes left.
In the Matrix, my knees buckle, and my shoulder twists in agonizingly slow motion to avoid the bullet. Am I quick enough to evade the agent’s shot? It’s a Sunday night in Korea. Is that to my advantage because of a light workload or not because there isn’t any imagined bureaucrat processing my form some six-thousand miles away? Later, Max would tell me that the first time (of two) he moved his trip back was because he hadn’t applied for a Visa. On my last visit before the pandemic, I remember getting a Visa as I entered the country, not before. Experience has worked against me.
At 9:40, with just twenty minutes left, the application status changes to approved. The first bullet whizzes by my ear just out of range. I thank Korean efficiency and head to the now passenger-free check-in counter.
The flight is mostly an exercise in discomfort, even with the empty middle seat. I try to watch The Matrix Resurrections, the latest incarnation of the Matrix. The hum of engine noises so muffle the sound in the headset, I imagine them filming the movie on the wing of the flying jet. The only subtitles are in Korean and Chinese. So I half-watch a Korean film with English subtitles set in the Joseon period about an educated Korean man that gets exiled to an island where he has to deal with an uneducated fisherman.
The second bullet leaves the gun near the end of the flight, but I don’t know it yet. I have to fill out a yellow health form asking if I have Covid or have had it. I perjure myself under the penalty of the law by declaring no, but having just overcome Covid two weeks ago, the last thing I want is them singling me out for possible Covid. I have five days in Korea and didn’t give myself two extra days for a seven-day quarantine.
When we finally arrive and after face-shielded greeters in full-length medical gowns take my form, I discover that all visitors have to take a PCR test before leaving the airport. I had just read that PCR tests detect Covid for weeks and even months after you’ve had it. The second bullet ripples toward the center of my trip’s forehead. I f**ked up again, and I’m going to jail. I interpreted the “you don’t have to have a negative PCR test before departure to enter the country” to mean you don’t have to take the PCR test. I never read the fine print, maybe because it was in Korean.
I am standing at the testing station at 5 in the Inchon morning with, at best, two hours of disturbed in-flight sleep, contemplating the seven-day quarantine. I am mentally rearranging the trip, wondering if I can catch up to the rest on the second leg of my journey in Vietnam, and canceling my flight to Jeju. As a medical assistant jabs a white swap deep into my nose from behind an acrylic shield with rubber gloves like she is handling plutonium, I contemplate my impending prison sentence.
The test results won’t be available until eleven in the morning. So I take the train, get lost in the subway (as did Google maps), and argue with the hotel clerk, asking why she wants to charge me three hundred dollars a night when my booking says less than a hundred.
On the upside, I must thank a few people who helped me at the subway station. Lugging around a 43-pound suitcase, referred to as the beast, and probably looking every bit like a deranged homeless person with bloodshot eyes and wild hair, they still took the time to answer a question or look something up on their cell phones. In particular, I thank the guy that walked me to the number nine train at the Dongjak station.
At the Seoul station, google tells me to get on the 421, which I think is a bus but might refer to a stop on line four. A woman tells me to get on the number nine train, but the map shows the number four with a transfer to the number nine. I think she means that, but her two-word “number nine” explanation was missing a lot of information.
A train pulls up with the number nine printed on the door, so I get in. As we approach the Dongjak station, an electronic sign inside flashes its message that a transfer to the number nine is possible at the next station, so that is when I asked for help in the form of confirmation. The man, as mentioned above, confirms that this is the number four, and I have to transfer to the nine. I have no idea what the number 9 painted outside the car of the train was for. At Dongjak station, he walks me to the platform to catch the actual number 9 train. He tells me the express train would be too full to get on with the beast, but I try anyway. (I wish I had a picture of that, me standing at the open door with the beast contemplating how to squeeze in while the closing train doors nearly clip the noses of the people stuffed into the completely packed car.) The local stop train comes by shortly after. At the hotel, the clerk asks for my PCR test and makes me sign a form saying if I have Covid, I could not quarantine at this hotel. I tell her they would send me the results at eleven, which she accepts.
Korea hasn’t learned that President Biden ended the pandemic. Korea still requires PCR tests for travel and hotel stays. Everyone wears a mask, and I mean they wear a quality mask pulled over their noses, not a pulled-up shirt or a face mask only covering their chins.
At eleven, the email informs me that I tested negative—the bullet whizzes by, tickling my neck hairs. While this bullet was entirely in my head, in the Matrix, everything is entirely in your head. The fear is just as real. That is what the Matrix is.