Tuesday, October 9, 2012


the gang

It began with the seven of us, huddled in the rain at the campus taxi hub. The only other girl to RSVP had dropped at the last minute, on account of coursework, and so it was myself and six guys, representing Germany, Sweden, Norway, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and good ole ‘Murica. And so, we got into the taxi, initiating the routine of myself telling the first taxi where to go, then getting into the second taxi with the remainder of the bunch, and having the exact same conversation in Korean as I have with every other taxi driver. It usually goes something like this:
Katherine: Take us to ------, please.
Taxi Driver: -------?
Katherine: Yes, ---------.
Taxi Driver: Ah, yes, ---------.
[30 seconds to a minute elapses]
Taxi Driver: You speak Korean well.
Katherine: Oh, thank you, I studied it for a year in the United States.
Taxi Driver: Oh, you're an American? Are they American as well? (pointing to back seat)
Katherine: No, they're from Norway/Germany/etc. We're exchange students at KAIST.
Taxi Driver: Ahhhh, exchange students.
Katherine: Yes, and we're going to ----------.
Taxi Driver: Yes, ----------. It's very pretty.
Katherine: Oh, really? That's good.
[conversation proceeds with discussion of the weather and surroundings, or silence]
 However, this taxi ride to Seodaejeon Train Station occurred during rainy rush hour trafic on a Friday evening, and consequently took about four times as much time than it would take normally. Needless to say, it resulted in the taxi driver cussing at traffic, swatting things with a newspaper, and taking really sketchy and poorly paved side roads in order to get to our destination.

When we finally reached the station, we purchased our tickets for the cheapest train to Mokpo, and the guys ordered the most revolting burgers I have ever seen, as I watched in disgust and sipped my lemonade, passing time until we had to board our train.

waiting at the platform. my posture is sucky.

If you weren't aware, Korea has an excellent public transportation system. Trains and buses enable the populus to travel in style to anywhere they desire. Our train to Mokpo, a southwestern port town, was equipped with noraebang (karaoke), video game systems, a fully-stocked concession cart, and likely other things I neglected to investigate.

Prior to leaving for the trip, I had heard of brilliant lit archways that decorated Mokpo. Upon arrival, I was rather disappointed--as it was fairly late in the evening, the Mokpo that greeted us as we exited the train station was a desolate ghost town, void of any traces of life, stores closed, and brilliant lights of legend shut off. In fact, the only activity we found in the city was two blocks of night life, somewhat near the jjimjilbang (Korean spa) where we slept for the night, also in proximity of the location at which I left my camera in a taxi cab, lost forever to the clutches of South Korea.

I'll cover the jjimjilbang and its glory later this week, but I should note that the guys were not fully aware of what exactly a jjimjilbang is when I said that we were going to stay there overnight. For 8,000 won (<$7.50 USD), we were given a set of uniform clothing (to be used only in co-ed areas), and allowed overnight access to saunas, hot springs, showers, and a hard wood floor on which to sleep. I'm a big fan of being naked, and am not opposed to sleeping on the floor, but I can't say that the guys were as excited about the prospects as I was. My only lament: that I didn't have an alarm clock, and was forced to constantly check the clock throughout the night in paranoia, so as not to wake up later than 6:30am for the next day's activities.

The following morning, our first task was to acquire ferry tickets to an unchosen island. Initially, we had intended to go to Jindo, an island with a reputation for its breed of dogs. However, the internet lied to me, and I was deceived into thinking it was accessible by fairy ferry, when in fact it is only accessible via a man-made bridge (or by the "Moses Miracle", at which the tide recedes and creates a land bridge during late spring). But, the spontaneous youths that we are, we decided to board the first ferry off the mainland and found ourselves taking a high-speed boat with a cabin resembling that of an airplane to Docho island.

couldn't resist including this--such a wonderful picture. little girl looking out the window at the ferry terminal.

really super fancy ferry

Docho Island (도초도) is connected by a man-made bridge to the larger Bigeum Island (비금도), comprising two of the one-thousand-and-four known islands in the Shinan (시난) island group, also referred to as the Angel Islands, as the word for "one-thousand-and-four" and "angel" (천사) are the same. Together, the two islands have three recreational beaches, a national park, numerous mountains, a good number of jangseung (장승) and a thriving salt industry.

We were very fortunate in that the first person we encountered on the islands was an English-speaker and curator of island history and folk art at the Shinan Cultural Center, Secretary General Kim Gyung Wan. He flagged down a mini-van taxi, and gave the taxi driver an itinerary of a tour of the two islands. And so, the seven of us crammed into the van for the strangest, most wonderful taxi ride of my life.

just using my communication skills. saw a noticeable improvement in my language skills after this trip.

The taxi driver first wrote down a paragraph of text that I presumed to be the itinerary in poor handwriting (which I spent the day unsuccessfully attempting to translate) on an oxford notebook I thought to bring, and then took us on a tour of Bigeum island. Bigeum has two beaches, the first of which is referred to as "Heart Beach", because of it's shape. The entire time we were in its proximity, the taxi driver kept raising his eyebrows and motioning for me to kiss any of the six guys sitting in the middle and back seats, a proposition I politely declined (this wasn't the first, nor was it the last time a taxi driver attempted to matchmake me).

heart beach, picture taken by the taxi driver

On the second beach of Bigeum island, the driver fearlessy floored the pedal down the length of the beach, less than eight feet from the water. The feeling was surreal. We were a little confused, as he started to do donuts in the sand, only to stop the van, and get out. Pressing our faces to the window, we watched as the taxi driver bent over, and picked up a two-foot-long dead fish that had been washed ashore, and attempted to shove it into a closed umbrella. One of the guys in our group caught on to what the taxi driver was trying to achieve, and handed him the plastic bag he was using to protect his camera bag from the weather, and the taxi driver dropped the fish into it, the tail still exposed. And then, he put the fish next to me. The taxi driver picked up a dead fish off the beach, and sat it next to me. In the taxi. That, itself, is extremely strange, however, the feeling of "what the **** is going on?" (I get that feeling a lot here) was heightened by the fact that I have an irrational fear of fish. And a fish rode in the taxi next to me, all the way back to Docho, where we were dropped off for lunch, as the taxi driver left us to presumably sell or prepare the fish.

couldn't make this up if I tried

We ate a very traditional family-style Korean lunch at a small in-home restaurant on Docho, called Jinmi Shikdang (진미식당). It was the best meal I had in Korea up until that point--the rice had a slight lavender tint, the kimchi absolutely blew the kimchi of the cafeteria away, and the various side dishes were amazingly delicious.

all sorts of delicious

After leaving us to our lunch, and taking care of the fish, our faithful taxi driver returned to us for a tour of Docho island, whose attractions primarily consist of jangseung. Jangseung are shamanistic statues, usually made of either wood or stone, intended to protect a village from spiritual intruders. Think: the Korean equivalent to gargoyles. Or spiritual scarecrows. They typically have humorously "frightening" expressions, and protuding teeth. Very fun to imitate.

At the second jangseung on the island, the taxi driver had us get out to take pictures, and then he left us. The jangseung was in the middle of the field, which was next to a rural road, with little actual civilization in visible sight. And so, we occupied our time by taking pictures, infringing on the jangseung's personal space, and wondering if the taxi driver was actually going to come back (spoiler: he did).

wooden jangseung and alternative energy

stone jangseung

Another Jangseung later, our driver took us to the national park on the southern coast of Docho, where he directed us to a beachside pension, at which the seven of us stayed the night for about $91 USD. Pensions are a little hard to describe--they're sort of like time shares. Ours had two rooms, a kitchen, a television, adequate bedding, porno lighting, and no furniture whatsoever. Once again, I have no opposition to crashing on wooden floors.

Once we dropped off our things and freshened up a bit, we immediately made for the beach. The water was a bit on the colder side, but it wasn't too bad--we didn't stay in for very long. The sand was much more interesting--it was so fine and densely-packed that if you lay on the ground with your ear on the sand, you could hear the footsteps of someone twenty feet away, or the finger taps of someone ten feet away--we had a bit of fun with that one. After a short time of being on the beach, the seven of us found ourselves passed out on the sand, asleep for hours. This was an excellent idea at the time, however, as pale as I am, several weeks later, I'm still marked with the repercussions of my poor decision-making.

a beautiful place to crash

After we had finally regained consciousness, we individually attempted to wash off the sand in the sad excuse for a shower in the pension, and then headed down the road to a small outdoor seafood restaurant. As we walked toward our dinner, we looked out to the sea, and noticed the tide had drastically receded--so much that boats which were previously anchored in water were now completely dry. We had an excellent dinner, during which I forced myself to swallow fish, and was immensely thankful for an ample amount of non-seafood kimchi. Over the course of the dinner, a drunk old man I presume to be the owner continuously sexually harassed me and made suggestive remarks toward me, marking the first time I was not thankful in this country that I have a moderate knowledge of the Korean language. But, this is what happens when you're the only girl travelling with a group of guys--you get singled out a bit.

Frustrated that he couldn't completely convey his drunken remarks to us, as a result of the language barrier, the old man went next door to fetch an elderly innkeeper who had taught English in Egypt and Argentina, and now occupied his time as a farmer and an active biker. We scheduled an appointment to hike the surrounding mountains with our new English-speaking friend, and then watched the sun set on the beach, lighting the coast with a neon glow. I have seen very few things in my life more beautiful than that sunset--no picture does it justice. It was the kind of beauty where everything just stops, and nothing else matters. A good way to end the night.

my torment

stunning picture, but nowhere near the majesty of seing it live

And end the night, it did. By 8:30pm, five of the guys were asleep (even sleeping through my mocking their old lady sleeping habits), and the other pair of us ended up crashing a little after 11:00pm, after an hour or two of introspective chatting.

The next morning, we took a hike up the mountains that surrounded the beach, with the former English teacher. I should note that while it was very beautiful, we don't really have mountains in Houston, so I was slightly wiped out by the end of it. I'm a little bit of a wimp when it comes to the outdoors. I'm getting better, though.

we don't have this in houston

me after the hike--not staged at all

The taxi driver greeted us slightly after 7:30am, and took us to the island port, where we bought a conveniences store breakfast and our tickets, and boarded a slightly more sketchy ferry than the one we took to the island. Instead of chairs or benches, the ferry had two empty rooms, resembling a yoga studio, where in normal Korean style, we were obligated to remove our shoes. I have no complaints as to the seating situation of the ferry, as (once again), I do not mind sleeping on the floor. Actually, I don't remember too much about that ferry ride, as I spent most of it unconscious from the excitement of the weekend.

that's me, curled up near the upper right corner

And so, after we arrived back in Mokpo, we boarded the KTX train to Daejeon, equipped with stories, sunburns, and stronger friendships.

(Yes, I know that was a super cheesy conclusion... I couldn't come up with anything better.)

***Major photocreds to Tormod Haugene and David Kalwar***

1 comment:

  1. This was like an adventure! It makes me want to come to Korea so bad!