We're taxiing out to the runway. I'm at the window over the rear of the wing, so I can only see the ground below by leaning forward and staring backward, which is more challenging when the flaps are down.
We take off. Little kids squeal at the rush down the pavement and sharp angle into the sky. The one in front of me peers out the window at the back edge of her seat, her small face and big eyes rapt. One brown eye peeks at me curiously. Below, it almost looks like China, the landscape is so urbanized, but there are trees everywhere. The air thickens to milky white, and there is only a vague impression of the earth beneath. The ground disappears, the clouds thin to pale grey blue above. Turbulence keeps our seatbelts fastened. Announcements are broadcast first in Korean, then English. The female flight attendants are wearing gravity-defying neckerchiefs which soar upward at a jaunty angle. I had wondered if the Korean Air commercials (which oddly feature a blond haired, blue eyed beauty) were accurate in their depiction of neckwear, and not only are they correct, the ladies have aerodynamic hair ribbons.
The flight to Jeju was uneventful, though trying to find a locker beforehand for the luggage I didn’t want to haul from Seoul to the south and back again proved heart-rate increasing (the automated locker in the metro station that I initially selected, and paid for, was only good for 24 hours, or for month-long rental, nothing in between, and I was only rescued at the last minute from losing my goods and missing my flight by Bess’s discovery of the human-managed airport checkroom, for which I could pre-pay for the three days I would be out of town). I whisked through security (nothing like the painful process at American airports these days—about the level of checks that were in place stateside back in the 1990s) and walked immediately onto the plane. All the passengers were so efficiently seated that we were in flight within minutes.
The gentleman seated next to me was rather excited, which inspired me to type pungent remarks into my notepad, but I ultimately ignored him and dozed off, and the next thing I knew we were descending over the ocean towards the green volcanic island. Bess and Portia had flown separately from me—we were all on flights five minutes apart—and we quickly reunited in the airport waiting area, which was absolutely packed with people, of whom we were basically the only ones of European descent (which at least made it fairly easy to find each other in the crowd). Our T-cards worked here, too, so we got on a bus and began trying to find our way across the island. We got off too quickly, and then hauled our suitcases for blocks before getting on another bus, which we also got off when things began to look unfamiliar. We were all hungry, and Bess had an idea of going to a Mexican restaurant she had liked when she lived nearby, but she couldn’t remember the name of it. It was starting to drizzle.
And then this tall thin blond American guy wearing a torn Camp Pendleton tshirt came running up the hill, and despite the others’ reluctance, I waylaid him. He was very friendly—he’d taught with EPIK, then returned as a contract English teacher—and told us that we’d washed up in Old Jeju City (which explained why the buildings looked down at heel), and he even knew the name of the Mexican restaurant we wanted in New Jeju City and the location of a major department store just half a block from it. We thanked him, hailed a taxi, and were whisked off to the restaurant. Their burritos and their margaritas were quite good. Then, as dark fell, we dragged our luggage another couple of blocks (avoiding a couple of guys who insinuated we were Russians, i.e. prostitutes—isn’t that a horrible ethnic association?! Incidentally, we were dressed in normal casual clothes, and all rumpled from traveling) and got on the right bus to Seogwipo, the town on the other side of the island where Portia is living and teaching. So different from riding across Jamaica at a similar time thirty years ago! The Korean bus was modern, quiet, and comfortable, the highways were straight, freshly paved and clearly marked, and most of the famous citrus trees were enclosed in greenhouses. It was like a cross between Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach, with resort hotels and tourist traps (at the airport, there was a huge rack of trifold brochures, all but one or two in Korean, advertizing the local sights, which included a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum and a sex-themed sculpture garden called Love Land). But the whistling of the wind and the weight of the humidity felt quite similar to my adolescent Caribbean experience.
Portia’s apartment had just enough room for the three of us to lie down alongside our suitcases.
Bess suffered a mild episode of claustrophobia, and so we girls walked around in the rain to investigate various public lodging places, discovering in the process that many were the legendary “love motels” to which couples go for trysts. One which seemed less salaciously inclined than its neighbors refused to rent us a room, as the proprietress seemed to think that we were a trio of lesbians. The proper hotels were far too expensive for our shoestring budgets, and after a break at a superb coffee shop, we ended up back at Portia’s tiny flat, where Bess chortled diabolically as she beat the other two of us into the bathroom. The apartment and its bathroom were a study in the efficient use of space, like being in the cabin of a boat. The small shower stall tucked next to the toilet incorporated the sink—you had to make sure the knob was properly set or you’d end up deluging your hair instead of wetting your hands. In the main room, a wheeled table for two slid into the wall, which was lined with cabinets and into which was installed both a kitchenette and a miniature washing machine. The only piece of furniture was a small settee, which folded out into an ersatz single bed. There was a large flat screen TV mounted on the wall, though, and the floor to ceiling window at the opposite end looked out onto a tight columnar courtyard lined with hundreds of identical little dwellings.
We took a quick run out to the grocery store across the street, where Portia introduced us to the cashiers she had befriended. In the cold prepared food case at the grocers, there was only kimchi: at least 15 different kinds of it. But they had a great selection of everything else, from cereal to soju. I purchased six small glass bottles of alcohol as souvenirs for my coworkers.
Saturday we went to see the sea. Despite Jeju being far more peopled with foreign tourists than Seoul, the public transportation system is less outsider-friendly than the capital, because you have to tell the bus drivers where you are going in order for them to assess how much you owe for the ride. And this communication is, of course, conducted in Korean. I was glad that the other two girls had taken charge of navigation. We rode to a stop about a kilometer from the seashore and walked down several country lanes before we reached the rocky coast. There was a causeway leading out to a pile of volcanic stone on which a communications tower sat a little ways off shore, where the waves were rolling.
I decided to cross the semi-submerged causeway so that I could get close-up photos of the silvery sea, which was frothy from a passing typhoon closing in on Taiwan. While I was taking off my socks and shoes, a very cheerful dog tried to convince me that I really didn’t need the pastries I had packed in my bag, but I didn’t succumb to its canine wooing.
The ancient volcano eruption had splattered stones and natural curves of asphalt out into the ocean, and I climbed carefully, avoiding sharp edges and dangerous trash (rusty steel food cans and the like) that had accumulated in the shallows. It was lovely, though, with the cool water rushing around my ankles and the storm billowing in the sky overhead.
On the shore itself, on the ocean side of the two-lane frontage road, large tarp-covered mounds sat spaced about a hundred meters apart. The tarps were secured with pieces of porous black rock, and I wondered what was under them until a septuagenarian lady came down and parked her bike, lifting the corner of one tarp to reveal an enormous pile of seaweed. She then climbed down to the water’s edge to gather more. The green-brown ribbons of seaweed smelled salty and organic—I figured that she and other local people must gather it and sell it, as Koreans eat an enormous quantity of the stuff in everything from kimbap to soup. There was also a ton of seaweed wind-strewn over the bike path by the frontage road, but it may not have been usable, given that it had landed on the pavement.
After coffee at a shop on the seashore, we girls caught another bus to the town at the base of Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak Crater). Portia was sidelined by grievous stomach issues by that point, and it was spitting rain and chilly. Bess and I bought ponchos at a shop and set off up the mountain. The views were stunning, despite the dismal weather, and the climb was a cardiovascular workout in the best way, with hundreds of stairs leading skyward. The wind whipped around us as we got higher and higher, and I was repeatedly grateful for the fact that my hat was secured by a chin strap. Some sweet Chinese tourist girls took our picture at a plateau and then again at the crater’s rim. The tiered observation platform at the top was well built, but did not cater to the clumsy or to those afraid of heights. The major problem I had with it was that there were no trash receptacles, and so in the gap between the descending stairs and the platform, a large number of visitors had tossed their empty plastic water bottles.
Back down the mountain but still in the park area, we quickly detoured to catch a glimpse of the old “mermaids” (haenyeo) of Jeju, a group of grandmotherly ladies in black diving gear who draw their livelihood from the sea. There was a thick rime of garbage at the waterline all around the cove. Bess told me that the Koreans blame the trash on foreigners. Be that as it may (I doubt that non-natives go down country roads to dump toddler toys, and leave broken fishing buoys and Korean snack packages on rocks away from the resort areas….one of my travel mates saw Korean fishermen tossing garbage overboard), I think a place that relies so firmly on tourism based on its internationally-recognized natural beauty ought to have a significant number of people employed to collect such trash. Like the “one broken window” theory, I think people are more inclined to litter when they see litter being tolerated. If the place were kept pristine, and signs to the effect of “Keep Jeju Island Beautiful” were posted in multiple languages alongside an abundance of waste bins, I don’t think they’d have this problem.
We reconnected with a much improved Portia, I bought Grandmommy a liter of local honey, and we went in search of seafood. At a restaurant where schools of silvery fish and small depressed drab octopi were swimming in outside tanks, waiting to be eaten, we sat down and shared two servings of fried fish and side dishes (including seaweed soup). I didn’t eat a fish eye, even though it is considered a delicacy. We waddled out to the bus stop to join a couple of German tourists, and went back to Seogwipo, hoping to see a waterfall. We found roadside one, and then wandered through the fairytale garden of a midcentury white brick hotel trying to find a cut-through to another (the KAL hotel gardens were an elegant relic of another era, with a lawn that ran down to the cliffs, and an old hidden greenhouse lost among trees that looked to my Western eyes like Martian vegetation, or something from a tropical version of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe). We eventually found our way to the other waterfall, but the sun had set by that point, and we ended up ducking through a dark corridor of tropical bushes like vigilantes. I was most concerned that we would run into spiderwebs. The only spiders I saw in Korea were giant yellow-spotted black things, and though they may be the very souls of hospitality, I didn’t want to interact with one personally. After our damp and slightly muddy return from the waterfall, we ate galbi at a barbecue restaurant, cutting and grilling our meat at the table and making wraps of the hot pieces with lettuce leaves and condiments.
Early Sunday morning we took a taxi to a famous swimming hole—I wore my swimsuit underneath my church dress, but the waves were too fierce to get in the water. We climbed out on the cliffs and watched the intensely blue surf crash and boil against the rocks like the water in a giant hot tub. We photographed butterflies, and I bought some chocolate orange candy made on the island as well as some cactus-chocolate. After quickly freshening up at home, we got a taxi to church, where the English-language service was preached by the director of the school where Portia works. Then we all went out to lunch with everyone who’d been at the service, including a girl who is studying to be an industrial designer, her younger brother, who is majoring in culinary arts, and their friend, a Korean naval officer in his early twenties. We ate at a hillside café designed by a famous local sculptor—whose work I recognized from an installation I had admired outside an office building in Seoul. The young naval officer asked extremely good questions—clearly a bright fellow, and I wished we had longer to talk.
We girls then went to an inland waterfall, its lagoon landscaped into a verdant tropical paradise and endowed with a legend of a noble dragon. Portia got free admission, because she’s a local resident. I think that’s a great perk, and so good of the local government to extend it to foreigners who are semi-permanently in the area. Bess had told me that, like in Ireland, there was a Giant’s Causeway on Jeju, and I had wanted to see it, but because of our tight schedule, I didn’t think it would be possible. Quick thinking on Bess’s part and fast driving on the part of an obliging taxi driver, however, made my wish come true—we were able to spend half an hour in the associated park on the cliffs, admiring the neat hexagonal and pentagonal columns of cooled lava descending into the sea, smoothed by thousands of years of seawater cascading down their angles. An irritable middle-aged man shooed us out of the park at sundown, and then curmudgeonly waited for me to exit the restroom (which didn’t do much to salve my aching stomach), but once in the parking lot we realized we were too far from the main road to hail a taxi. So we found a little path through a field to the international convention center parking lot, and then walked from thence uphill until we came to a Chinese restaurant, where we ate huge bowls of seafood-studded brown sauced noodles, and drank Coke. We got a bus back to Seogwipo with no trouble, and watched a couple of Kdramas before bedtime.
Bess and I had to leave early Monday morning to get the express bus across the island to the airport. We arrived hours early for our flight, and after checking in our luggage we had a great meal of hot stone bibimbap at a terminal restaurant. It’s considered rude to blow one’s nose in public in Korea, but I had no choice midway through my lunch. I ate too fast, burped, and seaweed soup ran out both nostrils, trailing green tendrils down my upper lip.
The giant duty-free store at the airport was mind-bogglingly upscale: Dior, Hermes, Longchamps, Guerlain, Coach, Elizabeth Arden …thousands of beautiful things far too expensive for me to even dream about. One powder compact was $153. A purse was priced for $600. And people were shopping like mad.
Waiting in the gate, I saw two little lapdogs being entombed in sarcophagi—the male airline employee was so determined that they wouldn’t get out from their crates that he wrapped an entire roll of logoed tape around each plastic carrier, covering all but a few holes. I would have panicked, worrying they wouldn’t have enough space to breathe. The security people didn’t care about my carrying of several bottles of soju on the plane, in glass bottles.
I’d made another reservation at the hostel where I was supposed to have spent the night before my DMZ visit, as I wanted to stay in Seoul Monday so I could do a little more independent sightseeing and get to the airport easily. Bess accompanied me with my luggage to the hostel, and we had a valedictory snack (she had coffee, I indulged in yet another smoothie) before she turned for home. I went to the nearby Korean War Memorial. Examples of military equipment (mostly US) manufactured since the 1940s were on display, as well as the usual dramatic figural monuments commemorating a conflict that hasn’t officially ended. Evidence of the uneasy truce was comprised by a full-scale replica of a South Korean Navy boat—complete with bullet-holes—which the North Koreans had riddled with artillery fire during a fairly recent exchange (multiple ROK sailors had died). Inside the building’s colonnade were lists of the names of every person who had perished during the UN-associated hot war more than 65 years ago—the long names of tens of thousands of Americans were listed by state (near the far fewer names of people from other countries) in a hall across from the three-syllable block names of tens of thousands more South Koreans. It was a solemn place, but also a wonderful space for bike riding, as demonstrated by a little Asian-American boy peddling briskly while shouting back to his dad--"Dad! Come on!." Life continues.
There was a painting that interested me at the antiques gallery above the coffee shop where Bess and I had stopped before. Clearly 19th century, it was dated “95” and signed “L Castelanelli.” It looked like an impressionistic study for a larger composition—one of those Gilded Age romantic pictures of languid women in drapery sitting next to a marble balustrade overlooking a surreally blue sea. The femme figure was accompanied by what could have been a nude adolescent cherub with dark wings. There was a bush of pastel flowers on the left of the picture, which was set in a gilded frame. After my war memorial tour and some thought, I went back to the shop and asked about it. A nice guy managing the loft—which was mostly stocked with midcentury teacups and bad canvases of polyester flowers—told me it was on consignment from a friend who had apparently purchased it from an antique shop in Incheon (I knew right away that it was out of my price range when he mentioned that), He phoned said friend and told me that the asking price was 250,000 KRW. So, not the last minute coup for which I had hoped!
I did two laps around the block and then went back to the hostel to prepare for bed. I’d gotten used to washing up in confined spaces—the hostel also had the shower nozzle mounted above the bathroom sink, which means everything gets dampish by the end of a shower, no matter how careful you are to huddle under the warm spray and not splash. Portia’s bathroom had had a little curtain, so the toilet wasn’t soaked, but the hostel didn't, so I had to wipe down the toilet seat after I finished bathing, so I wouldn’t get my bum wet when I woke up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Happily, the air conditioning worked, but the mattress felt like it was made of cardboard, and I couldn’t sleep more than a couple of hours. When I did, I had a terrible and vivid dream.
I had no trouble on the metro Tuesday morning getting to Incheon, where the terminal duty free shops were even more impressive than those in Jeju. There were only a handful of Caucasians at the airport, and I used some of my remaining cash to purchase another smoothie while I waited for my plane and silently reflected that my features are not sought after by Asian society, which values large eyes and narrow, slender cheeks and jaws. Instead, I have small eyes and a heavy, wide jaw. And a wide backside, if the vacation pictures on my phone were any evidence. It was little short of a miracle, also, that I hadn’t gotten sick on the trip, given how many people had been sniffing and sneezing! But it had been a great adventure, and felt as if it were over in the blink of an eye.
Detroit was an embarrassment after the cleanliness and efficiency of Incheon. True, the INS officers were nice (which they weren’t in Atlanta last year), but the airport itself was so poorly run. They took forever to unload the luggage, and when it finally arrived, it emerged on three separate carousels, leaving everyone thoroughly confused. My second bag, which presumably had boarded the plane with its partner, didn’t emerge for half an hour, on another carousel. Then the secondary security lines, crowded with my fellow dumpy, frumpy Americans, moved slowly, and I made it to my connecting flight to Atlanta just minutes before boarding. It would have been possible, were I a gilt-edged passenger in my frequent flyer program, to have caught an earlier flight home from Atlanta, given my layover there was more than 2 hours, but plebes like me are charged $50 for such ticket changes, so I stayed put and attempted to scratch surreptitiously (by that point, it had been 24 hours since I had showered, and not only did my scalp itch, my left calf was sporting a big new bug bite). But the flight from Atlanta to Augusta did leave on time, and lasted only half an hour, and my mother was waiting at the baggage claim. It felt so good to have a hot shower, a thorough toothbrushing, and then be able crawl into my freshly-made bed! I really didn’t want to go back to work the next day…