(Note: It’ll take me awhile to finish writing about Korea. I’m starting with the end of my trip and will go backwards. Please stay tuned…)
The night before my 7am flight, I had bought a bottle of Nebbiolo to commemorate our last night in Seoul…except, Yvette ended up passing out after packing, and her mom and I were left to drink the majority of the bottle over several episodes of 내게 거짓말을 해봐 (K-drama, Lie To Me). I inadvertently ended up staying up until 3am due to the aforementioned activities and debated on whether or not it was worth sleeping the 2 hours. My statistical analysis (based on years of experience with pulling all-nighters) led me to the conclusion that I’d feel worse sleeping. Next time, I shall incorporate the age factor into that analysis.
Day 1: Udo (우도)
Yvette flew back to New York, and I went to Jeju-do by myself. Running on two hours of sleep (one on the plane, one on the bus ride to my hotel), I decided to spend the first day on my own, biking around Udo. I didn’t realize just how large of an island Jeju-do was until the 1.5 hr cab ride from my hotel to the ferry port (going from the southwestern to the northeastern end).
Throughout the 10-15 min ferry ride, I stood outside, leaning against the railing, like a dog anxiously sticking its head out of a car window with its mouth wide open and tongue dangling in the wind. Well, maybe not the tongue dangling, and not the mouth wide open, for fear I’d choke on some unsuspecting (though protein-rich) flies.
Upon exit from the ferry, I saw a shop renting out bicycles, ATV’s, scooters and golf carts. I went for the bicycle at ₩ 5,000 – 7,000 for three hours, and set out on a liberating (and eventually crotch-unfriendly) journey along the entire circumference of the island.
I rode along one side of the island and, instead of continuing along the edge to the other side, I somehow ended up going midland. I knew something was off when I saw nothing but farmland and cows and lost sight of anything oceanic. Figuring I had two hours left to use my bicycle, I took my leisurely time and found my way back to the waters. I then realized that I missed half of the island and, after much debate, decided to turn around and trace my way along the edge I missed. Cycling my legs to death (and turning the experience crotch-unfriendly), I made my way around most of the island, inclusive of the path I started off on, basically made full use of my time limit and had time to spare to catch the ferry back. This is what I call a fortuitous event.
When you think of white sand beaches and aquamarine waters, most people would associate that with an island in the Caribbean or, somewhere exotic like Tenerife or Fiji. Never would a person associate that with an island in South Korea. (But now you should!)
The waters are frequented by haenyo (해녀), women divers who search the deep for abalone, sea urchins, etc. with nothing but very basic diving gear. The income derived from their findings help finance their children’s education, as well as sustain a decent standard of living. Most of these haenyo are over the age of fifty. It really reminds you of the great divide between classes of people, the six or seven figure bonuses given to figureheads and the few dollars earned from back-breaking or life-threatening labor. Humbling, no?
Day 2 & 3: [enter in private tour guide]
Jeju-do is split into two main areas – Jeju-si (제주시) and Seogwipo-si (서귀포시).
Traveling by yourself within a country where most people do not speak English (and where your knowledge of the domestic language has diminished to half over the years) is doable but, also nerve-wracking. For Jeju, I debated between joining a large tour group or, booking a private tour guide. After reading good reviews on TripAdvisor, I decided on the latter. Tour groups can be convenient but, they tend to visit places that are a waste of time and rush you with time limits. The private tour guide claimed he had decent English and that sold me. (I will refer to the private tour guide as PTG and not use his actual name…to protect my privacy. Yes, “my” not his.)
So, PTG picked me up from my hotel and on our way to the first site, Sanbangsan (산방산), we asked about each other’s basic personal information (age, where you’re from, etc.) He turns out to be a year younger than me and is a native of Jeju. He is also the praise band leader of his church choir, and proceeded to sing in every car ride (he is a great singer, by the way). Great. Next…
Me: “So, you must’ve visited these places so many times, huh? How many times have you been to Sanbangsan?”
PTG: – silence –
Me: “Um, so, of all the people you’ve given tours to, have you ever met anyone really strange?”
PTG: – silence –
I looked over, and I just saw him nodding his head repeatedly, expressionless. Not so fluent in English, are we now? That pretty much shot down 98% of my conversation topics. And so, most of the tour involved awkward silences. Why!
Sanbangsan is breathtaking, even in the drizzle. “Sanbang” literally means “mountain room,” or a cave. Above, you will see a statue of Buddha inside a cave, Sanbanggulsa Grotto, from which you can see a view of Yong Meori (용머리) Coast in the shape of a dragon’s head.
While en route to the next site, PTG’s phone rings. I hear him mention that he’s in the middle of giving someone a tour, an American girl traveling by herself. And then he says…
PTG: “얌전한 사람이야. 아주, 아주, 아주 얌전한…”
Translated: “She is a gentle, reserved, quiet person. Very, very, very gentle and quiet…”
Apparently, when I told him I could read Korean, spell decently in Korean but, can understand maybe half and speak even less, he understood that as “I do not know Korean at all.” I even told him I went to Korean school when I was younger, but just forgot bit by bit over the years. And, come on…gentle? reserved? quiet?? I was only quiet because I couldn’t really talk about anything. Sheesh.
Moving on…we were walking by this horse who, upon hearing us pass by, turned its head to look at us. I lifted my camera to take a photo but then the horse neighed annoyingly, as if to say “Bitch, why you be takin’ my photo?” It then turned back its head abruptly to avoid the camera and grunted. When the horse heard us start to leave, it turned its head again to look at us. I turned around to glance at the horse, and I caught a vibe from its eye/facial expression – “Yea, that’s right, bitch. Try takin’ a photo again…”
Believe me, I’m not making this up. Even PTG was like, “Wow, dirty look…” As you can see above, I managed to take a photo of everything but the horse’s face.
The green tea (녹차) was so good at O’sulloc (오설록), a tea museum and farm run by Amore Pacific. I just had a big lunch full of BBQ pork and couldn’t stomach any dessert. In retrospect, I should’ve just sucked it in (both the situation and the stomach) and tried the green tea ice cream anyway. Sigh.
After seeing hills lined with green tea vegetation at Boseong, the rows of greenery at O’sulloc seemed plain. Plain, also in the sense that it was really a flat land.
It then started to pour like Morton salt and we had to scratch any plans that involved hiking or, just walking around outside. Here begins the part where the tour started to feel like a date…
PTG: “So…what do you look for in a guy?”
Me: “I love funny guys.”
PTG: “Oh!” (and this was said in a very Korean manner, like 오!)
He seemed delighted…because he thinks he’s a funny guy.
PTG: “How about tall guys?”
Me: “Yea, I like tall guys.”
I sensed disappointment. Why? Well, he was my height.
Me: “…so, what do you look for in a girl?”
PTG: “I like quiet girls.”
So, instead of going to see a spectacular volcanic crater, we went to 이상한 나라의 앨리스. That’s right. A fun house with tricky mirrors, called Alice in Wonderland. It was one of those places where you think you’re walking down a hallway, but end up walking into a mirror. A great place to be if you’re a kid…or on a date. And yea, that is batman on the right.
PTG kept asking if I wanted to take a picture. I said no. To put it into context, I’m not one of those girls who takes a photo in front of every structure, plant or angle of the shoreline.
Next stop: 무인 까페, which translates into “unmanned cafe.” The owner supposedly lives in Seoul, and the cafe is void of waiters, waitresses and any kind of manager. It runs on an honor system: you serve yourself as much tea, coffee and juice as your heart desires, as long as you clean up after yourself and wash your own dishes. There was even a stage with amps and mikes for anyone who wanted to perform. Apparently, if you felt the need to pay, you could leave whatever amount you wanted. How cool is that? My only complaint – whoever makes the coffee makes it so light, it was pretty much hot water with a tint of brown.
And then, the inevitable question I hoped he wouldn’t ask, “Do you have facebook?” He tried searching for me on his iPhone after which I remembered…I made myself unsearchable. He then pulled up a Safari browser and told me to sign in. Bam, we are now facebook friends. I subsequently blocked him from seeing my photos and blog website address so that I may talk about him behind his back. I just hope I blocked it in time. If not, then hello there PTG 😛
In between the seemingly romantic but completely awkward silences, I was entertained by the neighboring table. You see the white stool in the bottom left corner of the photo? The little boy picked it up, lifted it horizontally against his pelvis, and shouted “내 고추다!”
Somehow, I think you can understand what he was saying without looking up the translation.
Finally, the rain stopped long enough to visit Cheonjeyeon Falls (천제연폭포). More sightseeing, and less date-feeling. Ignore the fact that Jeju is known to be a honeymoon island, and every site had families and hand-holding couples.
On more than one occasion, I had someone ask where my boyfriend was and then, why I had come alone. Does the world revolve around being in a relationship?
In the car earlier, PTG’s best friend called and was put on speakerphone. The best friend’s boss wanted him to prepare a last minute speech on dating, to help develop his speech skills. On speakerphone, he recited his speech while PTG critiqued him. I laughed at some parts.
PTG: “Oh, you can understand? I think you know more Korean than you say…”
Hey buddy, I never mislead you.
If anyone decides to go to Jeju, I highly recommend The Seaes Hotel in Jungmun (중문). It’s not your typical hotel, where everything is in one building or connected buildings. This hotel looks like a folk village, and each person has their own “traditional house.” I was pleasantly upgraded from a deluxe to a suite, complete with a private hot tub.
Despite the rain, I decided to make use of that hot tub. Soaking in a hot bath while cold, heavy droplets thump upon your head felt like a form of catharsis. A frog even decided to visit, though the steam from the water warned it to chill out on the steps instead. Give it a top hat and cane, and maybe it would’ve burst out into ragtime.
It started to thunderstorm.
After several episodes of lightning, I thought maybe I should decrease my conductivity and go inside. I went back in and took a shower…and it felt so amazing. I don’t know how to explain it. The last time I felt this way about a shower was at the Westin in Rotterdam. Maybe it’s the showerhead, the aromatic soaps, or just the long day of traveling around. Who knows. It was just amazing.
With a few Asahi’s from the mini bar, I fell asleep catching up on all the old episodes of 내게 거짓말을 해봐 (Lie To Me), courtesy of Qook TV.
Knowing I’d be hiking for 2-3 hours up Hallasan, I made sure to eat a full breakfast of abalone porridge (전복죽).
But first, a scenic stop at Oedolgae (외돌개), which at other angles can look very…erotic.
The beginning of the hike up Hallasan (한라산) was deceiving. Not too many inclines, and nicely set out pathways. Little did I know that it would transition into a steep, rocky, muddy stairmaster. There also must’ve been a malfunction with God’s weather remote, as it switched from sunny to cloudy to sunny to cloudy, and so on.
I love hiking but, I think my mental endurance is on a slow decline as I grow older. A few times, during the hike, I wondered how I survived the Inca Trail in Peru. Perhaps I am just overanalyzing the situation, and that in itself runs down my mental endurance. Regardless, I survived…
and it was totally worth it.
Midway to Witseoreum (윗세오름), I looked over past the edge to see if I can get a view of the mountain ranges and craters. At first, it was nothing but clouds. Five minutes later, the wind helped make way for sunshine.
The mix of wind and clouds created a cooling mist, as if God turned on a giant spray fan. You know, like the ones they sell at amusement parks, except hand-sized. When finally reaching flatter ground, there seemed to be a battle between the sun and clouds. At one point, it felt like the sunlight was being pushed down, compressed to the bottom half of the surrounding environment, while the clouds overtook the upper half, resulting in a weird glow. I couldn’t capture it in a photo.
Relief (though Witseoreum is just a halfway point up the entire mountain). For lunch, we ate 육개장 bowl noodles, 주먹밥 (rice balls with a kimchi filling, covered in seaweed), and Choco Pie (초코파이) for dessert. According to PTG, bowl noodles will never taste this good. I don’t know if I agree, but I at least felt that way about the Choco Pie.
Last stop for Jeju: Sangumburi Crater (산굼부리)
On the way back to the hotel, a mother duck crossed a road with three or four ducklings following behind. At the sight of our car, one duckling became frightened and didn’t cross. PTG excitedly braked, turned off the engine and waited for the duckling to make its appearance. He then left the car to search through the grass, frightening it even more, and I got annoyed. Eventually, the duckling made a dash for it and PTG caught it in his hands, debating whether he should bring it home or not as a pet. As he held the trembling prisoner in his fist, I caught two small ants crawling around in his hood.
I tried to persuade him to let it go. First, he casually mentioned, “Do you know that we eat this?” Second, in one of our very few substantial conversations, he admitted that if he ever had a pet, it would probably die because he isn’t home often enough to care for it. Third, we were parked in the middle of the road and a truck barely made it through, yelling “Get your car out of the road!”
He finally let it go. (Be free, chick-a-dee!)
Back at the hotel, PTG walked me to my room (which I insisted he didn’t have to) and then walked into the room to check out the space. I don’t know what he was expecting. Keep in mind: this guy is a praise band leader, spent the previous night practicing at church, and was going back to church after he dropped me off at the hotel that night. Did he want to release his inner horndog and get a quickie? Well, too bad. You may see movies where a city girl falls madly in love with a country bumpkin and, while it can actually happen, this guy was way too bumpkiny for me.
So, instead, he gave me a hug and insisted we take a photo together on his iPhone. He kept repeating that I’ll meet a great guy, and that he’ll pray that it happens. Um, thank you? He seemed concerned with what I’ll eat for dinner, and how I’ll get to the airport the next morning. Dude, I made it this far, haven’t I?
Even though the next day involved an early morning flight to Seoul Gimpo, a bus ride from Gimpo to Incheon, and then seven hours of waiting until my flight to JFK, I felt ready to go back home. That feeling quickly changed when I went back to work the day after.