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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Traffic & Food

Looking up my street, I can see Hallasan, the central mountain of Jeju Island. The top of the dormant volcano is usually shrouded in clouds, but on the occasional clear day, the snow-capped peak stands out against the sky. I live on a quiet road just off one of the main thoroughfares in this small city, where there are a handful of buildings over 6 stories, but most have only two or three floors. The streets are safe, except from traffic. One of the girls who lives in my building told me she doesn't worry about locking her door--this is her third year here, and she's not had a problem with any theft. Mailboxes aren't locked in my building, either--they just stuff in the bills and you flip up the flap and fish them out.

There are lights at larger intersections, but at smaller ones, there are no indications of who is to yield that I can tell—one crossroad between my apartment and the school hasn’t any stop signs, so drivers just go through at their own discretion. Thus far, I haven’t seen any accidents, but pedestrians have been known to be hit, I was told by a fellow teacher. On the bigger roads, there are zebra crossings at intervals apart from intersections, but cars don’t usually stop for them (although they are supposed to, according to public service announcements)—using the signal-free crosswalk is an exercise in bold caution as you try to judge the speed of onrushing traffic and your odds of being trapped in the center of the street by cars coming in the opposite direction. I usually try to wait for another pedestrian to be crossing simultaneously, as there is some safety in numbers. On the sidewalks (which are rare on side roads), you have to be cautious of motorbikes and the occasional car as well. The motorbikes drive on both the sidewalks and the roads, rushing deliveries from one side of town to the other. Since there are few parking lots, automobile drivers often just pull in where they fit, and they manage to fit into many small places where a pedestrian might otherwise take refuge from vehicular traffic. In consequence, I walk in the middle of smaller streets, keeping a sharp ear and eye out not only for cars and trucks squeezing their way along toward me, but also for those that are pulling out of the impossibly tight quarters where they’ve been parked. I don’t think I’ll be getting a scooter here--the potential for getting squished is too great.

A couple of well-dressed male Jehovah’s Witnesses showed up at my apartment the other day. I was in my nightgown, my hair uncombed, and hadn’t even washed my face. They should be too frightened to return.

Jeju has so many orange trees that they are used as decorative elements in front of public buildings…and nobody picks the oranges! I hate seeing all that beautiful fruit go to waste. And, ironically, pure orange juice is hard to find in the stores—there are multiple “juice drinks” with 50% or less orange juice in them, but pure orange juice is expensive. Also, they grow kiwis on the island, but the kiwis they sell in the grocery stores are imported from Chile. (Apparently this absurd choice to export everything that is locally grown and import what residents need is not peculiar to Jeju: friend of mine told me that when her uncle lived in California, all the juice he could find to buy was from Florida. Talk about a widespread failure to “eat local.”)

Amy took me to the city’s daily market on Thursday morning, where they had fresh vegetables I recognized, at prices that were much better than in the stores. For about 6 dollars total, I got lettuce and a monster carrot (so big and fat it could be used as a club), a bell pepper, multiple onions, and a couple of heads of broccoli. A girl can live on broccoli. The food halls (the space is roofed, and covers several streets, but is open to the elements at the entrances) included not only vegetable and fruit vendors (local oranges and softball sized apples artfully displayed in gift boxes), but also displays of varieties of fresh seaweed, shellfish, and numerous living, newly dead, and heavily-salted sea creatures. There were stacks of bright silvery eels, and tanks filled with giant fish gulping silently above recumbent schools of sand-speckled flounder, staring up from the bottom with both eyes on the one side of their heads. There were piles of pigs feet, and part of a pig’s face—the entire side jowl and ear—and displays of fat-heavy meat in an assortment of cuts. And mushrooms. And an entire stall devoted to hot red peppers—fresh and powdered. I wish I had a personal chef; while there are many things here that I would like to sample if they were prepared by someone who knew how, I have no inclination to try my own hand at the process.

I mentioned to a couple of other teachers at work that we’d gone to the food market, and they immediately told me how they used to live by it, until their building had burned, almost costing them their lives. They were housed in apartments on the third floor, directly above a dentist’s office, where the fire had started. They woke up one morning to the fire alarm blaring, and found the hall already choked with thick, black smoke. One of the girls managed to jump out her window down onto the roof of the neighboring building, while the other was overcome by the fumes (her window was blocked by flames—they showed me a photo) and collapsed in her bathroom, thinking, “I’ve come to Korea to die” (she’d just moved from Moscow a week earlier). She was found and pulled to safety by the responding firefighters. She was covered in soot and her lungs and bloodstream were filled with nasty chemicals, and she had to spend hours in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. After they told me the story we stood around for a minute or two, reverently repeating “Thank God for firefighters!”

I hate not being able to speak Korean, but I have no time right now to learn. The demands of editing have increased, I’m exhausted when I get home, and preparing for my classes still takes me about two hours every morning (thank God they have an organized curriculum, so I’m not having to produce lessons from scratch!). I try to sound out the words in the business signs I pass as I walk to and from work, but I need to sit down with the language flash cards and audio CD I bought and learn the basics, apart from “hello” and “thank you.” Not being able to buy a steamed bun on my own at a roadside stall is a handicap.

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