Bikes, Babies, Buses, Bands, Buddah

Yes it has been a month of B since I last wrote.

Our baby girl is definitely sprouting a tooth or two now and getting ever closer to walking.  The day that she reached ten months old coincided with the 2556th birthday of Buddha which is celebrated here as a national holiday.  That morning we discovered via the rhythmic pulse of wood-blocks that there is a Buddhist temple a few minutes down the road from us.  It was a warm, sunny day and it seemed fitting that we take Medina along to see the colour, smell the incense, hear the sounds and meet the smiling faces.  It was time well spent as the photograph might help demonstrate.

The band has had a couple of good gigs and after last weekend’s we have unfortunately bid farewell to a couple of singers as their project has concluded and is back to The States for them.  An other singer and our drummer may soon be moving on too; such is the way of things in expat bands.

A couple of weeks ago I had a crack at the Korean test for a motorbike license.  Habitual readers may recall my posting after the occasion of gaining a Korean car driving license.  With Korea and the UK having a reciprocal agreement on such matters it was a straightforward case of completing a form, passing a rudimentary eye test and walking out with a permit to use the roads.

No such agreement exists with regard to motorbikes and in many ways I can see why.  The test station that I attended with a few like-minded colleagues one lunchtime had extensive networks of simulated road available that would put most if not all British test facilities to shame but not one yard of it was for motorcycle use.

After walking past several acres of perfectly surfaced and painted junctions, bends, inclines and kerbs with perfect signage we came to the little corner for would-be bikers at the far end of the plot.  Two bikes stood ready with engines idling while thirty or forty hopefuls gathered with forms and existing licenses in hand to take the test.

The task before us was simple to describe.  A course with four obstacles:

First a stretch of track two feet wide where you go straight for ten feet, take a right-angle bend to the right and proceed an other ten feet, take a right-angle bend to the left and then exit after ten feet.

Second a left-right S-bend again on a piece of track about two feet wide, total length about thirty feet.

Third a dead straight piece of track about thirty feet long but about only about a foot wide.

Fourth and finally a chicane through four sets of traffic cones.

All four obstacles have to be negotiated in under three minutes.  If you touch an edge on one of the first three obstacles more than once or knock a cone down on the chicane or put a foot down at any stage more than once you are disqualified.  A clean run or one small fault will be a pass.

On the sort of bike I passed my test on in Britain (small) or indeed on any bike I have bought since this would be a pretty straightforward exercise.  The real test is negotiating this course using the bikes that are provided and are the only bikes permitted.

The Hyosung Mirage is a Korean-built low capacity V-twin that wants to be a Harley Davidson custom.  It is long, it is low, it is heavy and it is as suitable for high precision low speed handling as wearing gardening gloves is for playing guitar.  Unfortunately it has been chosen as the one and only test bike.

Even though I knew in advance what the machine would be and the limitations it would present, I was not ready for the challenge.  My grand plan was to sit as far forward as possible for good balance and tickle the back brake for control as per British training.  That fell to pieces as soon as I sat on the bike and found that the rear brake pedal was nudging my shin rather than waiting near my toe as expected.  Clearly this was a bike for Henry Fonda wannabes rather than Lampkin or Rossi fans.  I failed at the first obstacle and so did all my colleagues.

Secretly I had probably resigned myself to failure.  The only prerequisites to attending the test had been completing a form, providing passport photographs alongside my existing Korean car license and paying a fee of six thousand Won (a little over three pounds Sterling at current exchange rates).  If people could turn up and gain an unrestricted permit to use all two-wheeled beasts on the nation’s roads with ease for such little outlay the country would probably awash with teenagers on litre-plus sports bikes and Harleys (arguably Korea’s two favourite types of bike) and the fatality and injury statistics would go through the roof.

That said, you can keep going back every two weeks or so at six thousand Won a throw and keep trying until you do pass.  Alternatively those with more money than patience can pay four hundred thousand Won or more to go to a private school with the same track as the government test centre and get the license there.

Your money buys a three hour session in front of a tuition video (Korean language only) plus ten hours you break into chunks and spend going round and round the track until you can virtually do it blindfold; after which the government tester comes to the school and you take the test on the same track with the same bike.  If you don’t pass first time you can try again the next day – day after day if need be – until you do: no extra charge.

A couple of my colleagues signed up for such a school within days of failing the first test.  They reportedly had the track beaten in two hours and after ten passed the test with no difficulties.

There is clearly a reason why no reciprocal agreement exists between the UK and Korea for exchange of motorcycle licenses; just as there is no doubt a reason why motorcycles are not permitted on the motorway classified roads of Korea.

To end on a brighter note, today there was one of those moments that can give the spirits a lift.  I took a bus yesterday afternoon and did not have the correct change for the 1150 Won fare so I place a 5000 Won note in the collection box.  The driver’s change machine did not have sufficient coins and neither could the note be retrieved from the box but I was happy to leave it at that.

Over the following ten minutes the driver asked me for bank details (showing him my cash card did not suffice) and then asked for my ‘phone number (easier to provide and proven satisfactory).  This he wrote down somewhere and then wrote 3850 on a small receipt with an office ‘phone number and handed it to me.  Words and gestures suggested a refund of some sort might be available.  All of this spread across a mile or so of driving in moderate traffic.

This morning I confirmed with a colleague that I would be able to call the number on the receipt and the bus company would transfer the change of 5000 Won to my bank account.  Before I could get round to doing so, my ‘phone rang a few hours later.  I passed the caller to a Korean-speaking colleague and it transpired that it was the bus company calling to ask for my bank details.  Within moments all was completed.

Somehow I don’t imagine the driver of my local double decker in England will be offering a similar service any time soon.  Hats off to Ulsan Buses.