Thursday, October 14: It all starts Thursday night, with my 11th visit to a urologist for a persistent infection that I’ve had since late August. This infection has attached itself to me with a vengeance and won’t let go. I’ve seen this doctor variously for nightly injections, 3-day medicine rounds, check-ups and then more visits. I’ve never in my life had an infection this persistent.
the entrance to seorak-san national park
For the first time, my Korean friend Kim accompanies me to see Dr. Ahn, who is finally able to speak to me in more than one-word sentences, since Kim can translate. He tells me this: The infection is not going away because of stress. You need to drink plenty of cranberry juice (which by the way is next-to-impossible to find in Korea), eat a tomato a day, drink a cup of water every two hours, take a break from drinking coffee and alcohol, and above all: “take a rest.” I tell him I am planning a trip to Seorak-san this weekend. He advises me against it. I get very agitated and tell him the only thing that keeps me sane and gives me any happiness in Korea is traveling. I tell him, I will rest in Seorak-san, take a hike, breathe fresh air, be outdoors in the crisp fall air. He says, okay, but please, take it easy.
Friday, October 15: I take his advice to mean I should call in sick on Friday. I sleep in, relax, and most of all, take a break from my 5 classes at Chojeon and my two-hour nightly commute home from that school (Chojeon is frankly the cause of most of my stress). Friday evening I get on the bus from Daegu to Sokcho, a town right outside of the national park. Sokcho and Seorak-san are in the far northeast of Korea, almost up to North Korea. I actually find the bus rides relaxing here; I put the seat back, read, sleep. As long as there are no fights on board, I’m generally pretty stress-free on these express or inter-city buses. The bus ride is 5 hours long. When I get there, I find a hotel, the Miamore in Sokcho, drop my bag, and walk to the E-Mart-ah, several blocks away, for a late dinner.
another lovely korean hotel room at the miamore in sokcho
I am gorging myself on fried chicken at a Popeye’s when this crazy looking white dude with a goatee and one of those knit caps with a bill on the front walks by with his wife and gives me a huge grin and a friendly hello. His wife goes off to buy the groceries while he eats bibimbap at a nearby table. When he sits down, he immediately starts chatting, about anything and everything. He asks me all about myself, what brings me to Korea, where do I live here, where do I teach. He is so easy-going I didn’t mind telling him anything he asks. He introduces himself as Justin, his wife is Bonnie. He’s a screenwriter and she teaches teachers how to teach English. It’s a good job and she gets lots of vacation time and good money.
He says, I see you don’t color your hair. I think it’s great! It’s stunning; it really is. Most Koreans dye their hair till they die, and it looks horrible!
Wow! I’m bowled over since all I get in Korea is people giving me dirty looks and advising me to dye my hair. We discuss how especially on the men, it’s so ugly and makes them look so unattractive, especially as they age. We are in total agreement on this subject.
following the crowds into seorak-san
I tell him about being separated for 3 1/2 years, about my children. He tells me his mother has been married three times and she picks the same kinds of losers every time. He says she believes marriage is THE ticket to happiness. I tell him I’m on a different kind of journey. At first I was hoping to find love, but now I have accepted that I will be alone here. I tell him I try to travel somewhere every weekend and traveling is my passion. And I mostly do it alone. Right now I don’t want to be tied down in a relationship, unless that person shares my enthusiasm, as well as the financial wherewithal, for travel. I tell him I’m an anomaly here, coming to Korea at my age. He is so supportive and enthusiastic that I am doing this, that I start to feel quite good about it myself! He says he wishes his mother would spend time getting to know herself instead of diving into one relationship after another.
We talk about writing, since he’s a screenwriter, and I tell him I’ve written the first draft of a 480-page novel. I say no one has ever seen it; it’s just sitting on my computer waiting for me to revise and cut. He encouraged me to send it out because then I can get other people to help me work on the revision. I know he’s right, but I feel like it needs some major work before anyone else sees it.
a temple in Seorak-san
We talk a lot, and after a while Bonnie joins us. She tells me with my Master’s degree, I should be working at a university. She says I could get a job easily. She is very talkative as well. Justin loves her so much, I can tell. He says she is the greatest because she has her dreams and her goals, and she is a strong individual. He is the same. That’s the only way to have a relationship.
I agree with him on this. I have spent 25 years of my adult life being married and when I’m married, I tend to give up too much of myself. I felt the need to be separated to find myself. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason, because there’s truth to it. I have never learned how to truly be alone. I have always had someone there to catch me when I fall, someone to love me, but I don’t know how to be alone, truly alone, to feel secure in it and to revel in it. I want to learn to do this. And, in my time here in Korea, I am learning this lesson above all. How to be alone. How to be confident in being alone, how to enjoy my own company, how to take one day at a time. It’s extremely difficult at times because it’s something I’ve never had to deal with, not in gargantuan doses such as this.
In the book I just finished reading, The Surrendered, by Korean author Chang-rae Lee, the characters go through unimaginable traumas before, during and after the Korean War. One of the characters, Sylvie, witnessed the slaughter of her parents in Manchuria in 1934. At one point while working as a missionary in a Korean orphanage after the war, she describes the loneliness she feels when her husband leaves her to go on a trip: “He had not gone a kilometer and she felt the loneliness already. Her body wasn’t frantic anymore but now felt instead like a forlorn hive, every chamber of her desiccated and empty. As if she were made of a thousand tiny tombs. Of course it was having been left now to her own devices that was most disturbing….”
the crowds eating at the park
I love this description; it brings back memories of how I often felt being married, when my husband would leave for work and all I had ahead of me were long hours of loneliness and drudgery with my infant and toddler boys, 21 months apart in age. I would often have panic attacks and feel so estranged and lost on these mornings, with the whole days stretching like ominous caverns before me. The feeling I have here in Korea is similar, but it’s not when my husband leaves me in the morning. It’s a constant. Yet. I finally came to a kind of acceptance of this just last week. I even wrote in my calendar: I AM ALONE HERE. GET USED TO IT. There is something good about accepting this fact and just letting go. It takes away some of the panic I often feel about this. I WILL learn to be alone. I WILL.
Justin talks my ear off quite some time and then asks me what I will do when I leave here. My plan is to leave Korea after my contract ends on February 28 and meet my friend Jayne in India for 2-3 weeks. Justin tells me he and Bonnie lived in India for a year before coming to Korea, and it was the most transforming experience of his life.
After India, I will go back to Virginia and hang out with my boys for at least 6 months. In the meantime I hope to have a job set up either in Turkey or the Middle East. That is my dream. I have never wavered in wanting to work in a Muslim culture and I don’t see this dream vanishing until I’ve actually done it.
I leave this super-friendly couple and head back to my motel, where I finish reading the only book I brought on this trip, A Cup of Light by Nicole Mones. I go to sleep a little worried that without my book I will get incredibly lonely and bored, especially on Saturday night after hiking. But, what can I do? I only brought the one book, and it is done. I will learn to deal with it.
me & buddha
Saturday, October 16: Saturday morning, I eat some yogurt I bought at the E-Mart-ah and head out to catch Bus 7-1 on the main road. I hate Korean breakfasts, so it’s always a problem eating on my travels. Actually, I don’t even know where one would find a Korean breakfast. The 7-1 bus goes south all along the beach highway in Sokcho. Sokcho is a harbor town of 90,000 and is Korea’s northernmost city. It actually is quite a notch above most other Korean cities; I could say it is actually a little NON-ugly. It still has the normal Korean city qualities: garish rectangular signs in primary colors with the squarish Hangul letters, grimy soot- or dust-covered storefront windows, the rare English sign, mobile phone stores on every corner, concrete high-rise apartment complexes in beige or taupe, schools with their playgrounds of fine gravel or dirt, Family Marts, soju & hof places, 7-11s, hair salons for all the perming and dyeing that goes on, shops with not a single enticing product or just plain ugly clothing, coffee shops and jijimbangs. But Sokcho is a little cleaner than most, a little more spread out, designed a little more tastefully. I don’t mind it at all; it isn’t so bad.
prayer tiles offered to the buddha
When I get on the bus, there is not a single seat available. I must stand and hold on to the rubber handle hanging from the ceiling. It’s packed with Koreans and all their hiking paraphernalia: colorful hiking outfits, walking sticks, expensive hiking boots, backpacks, cameras. It isn’t that far distance-wise, but when we turn inland onto the two-lane road heading to Seorak-san, we come to a dead standstill in a huge traffic jam heading into the park. We sit for probably a half-hour or more in this can of silkworms. Finally, we get to the entrance of the park, where the parking lot is overflowing. The place is buzzing with people. Commercial establishments line the entrance: restaurants and gift shops of all types. Outdoor cafes. People making corn on a stick and selling it.
corn on a stick for sale!
I must take my medicine with food, so I grab the only palatable looking thing there, a piece of corn, and sit down to eat and take my meds. The corn is cold and rubbery, as always. I don’t know how they manage to do this to a piece of corn. Granted it’s not just Korea; I found this same rubbery corn on a stick in Turkey as well. Despite its chewiness, I eat it, as I must. Then I head into the park with the hordes.
eating rubbery corn on a stick for lunch
I come to a huge new seated bronze Buddha statue to Shinheung-sa (“Divine Undertaking Temple”), the main temple of Seorak-san and a district temple for the Jogye Buddhist sect. The Buddha sits on a huge stone lotus bud; a bronze mandala sits behind its head. In front stand two large bronze lanterns and an incense burner. The Buddha was built as a prayer for the unification of the country. It’s pretty darn cool.
the new bronze buddha with the mandala
I am in search of some waterfalls I read about, so I sit and study the map. I decide to go up the cable car to the mountaintop first. They tell me at first the next ticket they have is for 4:20. It is 12:40. I almost walk away, but the ticket girl says, are you alone? I say yes. OK, then, you can have a 1:15 ticket. I guess there is some benefit to being alone!
the view from the cable car
The view going up in the cable car is amazing. When I get to the top, I hike further up the mountain to the bare rock peak.
a bit of fall color at the top of the mountain
This peak is literally swarming with people. The wind is blowing like there’s no yesterday, today or tomorrow. The view is stunning. I can see the main ridge-line of the mountain, Ulsan-bawi across the valley to the north, and the Buddha statue in the valley below. Looking south, I can see the silhouette of face looking at the sky, formed by the edges of a distant ridge. A Korean flag is mounted on the very top of the rocky peak.
the view hiking up from the cable car to the peak
at the bare rock peak at the top of the mountain ~ with the hordes of people
one view from the top
another view from the mountain top
I take some pictures and of course, since I’m traveling alone, I can’t easily get a picture of myself. I look around for some Korean who might be open, but usually Koreans try never to meet a foreigner’s eye; they are so afraid we will speak to them and they’ll have to speak in English. So, instead I put my little Canon on a big rock, set the 10-second timer and take a picture. The wind is blowing so hard that I feel like it might knock me over.
the picture right before the one that broke my camera 😦
I should have stopped at that one picture, but no, I try for another. That’s when my little camera meets its demise. I set the timer, and start to sit down, but think (ah flash of brilliance!) I’ll put the strap of the camera under my heavy bag, so the wind won’t blow it off the rock. Bad plan, for as I sit on the rock for the photo, a huge gust knocks my bag off the rock, the bag that was supposed to be the anchor; the camera goes right along with it. The lens is smashed totally, the glass broken. I look through the viewfinder and all I see is the black silhouette of the shutter. Ruined:-(
the picture that killed my camera
I am so bummed. This camera has been all over the world with me. I bought it before I went to Mexico in 2007. Then it traveled with me to Egypt for a month, then to Singapore & Thailand, all over Korea, to Turkey and to China. It’s dead now, and I feel like I’ve lost my main fellow traveler and companion. I truly am ALONE.
By now my knees are really sore just from the little hiking I have done, and I really am tired. I think I really am quite sick, truly. I guess that’s why the doctor didn’t want me to travel. But I am so hard-headed; I have come all this way, by golly, and I am going to find at least one of the waterfalls even if it kills me. I’m disheartened though; even when I find it, I won’t be able to take a picture. Suddenly, a flash of inspiration! I can use my phone to take pictures. I have no idea how to transfer a photo from my phone to my computer, but there must be a way. I’ll figure it out!
The guidebook says the hike to Biryong (“Flying Dragon”) Waterfall is 4o minutes one way. At first it’s pretty easy, because much of it is along the river and thus flat. But as the path turns away from the river, it starts to climb, over rocks and numerous staircases and little wooden bridges crossing back and forth over the river. It’s shady and cool and the water is rushing over the rocks, the sound soothing and peaceful. I love to hike along rivers that flow off a mountain. Water gushes over the rocks into little emerald pools, too many of them to count along the way. It’s so pretty and peaceful, and not as crowded as the other parts of the park. I love it truly.
along the walk to biryong waterfall
Biryong Waterfall is a 130-foot-long ribbon of water that slides down a rock face into an emerald pool. It’s very idyllic here; the large number of people sitting on the rocks around the pool are blissfully quiet and just enjoying the serene spot. I sit here for quite a long time just enjoying being in the presence of nature at its finest. One Korean couple has set up a tripod with a camera and they have been taking photos of themselves together all along this hike. Now, they are in the center, capturing themselves and this moment on their fancy camera. I snap a picture with my cell phone.
Biryong Waterfall and its emerald pool
I dread getting up because my legs are killing me and now my LEFT knee feels like somehow it’s been twisted. I don’t even remember anything happening to it. So I now have to walk down all these steps and rocks with TWO bad knees! I don’t know what is wrong with me. I feel like I’m falling apart! What is happening? I am also incredibly tired. I walk the long walk back and am about to keel over at any time. I finally make it back, get on the 7-1 bus where this time I’m able to secure a seat, thank goodness!
While I am riding, I call my trusty Daegu Tourist Information people and ask them about the bus timetable for my trip back to Daegu tomorrow, Sunday. After some checking, she informs me that the only buses back are 7-hour-long rides; she warns me not to take the 7:50 bus because it’s 9 hours long! I am bewildered by this information. I ask how can this be? The ride up here was 5 hours from Bukbu, how can the ride back be 7-9 hours? She says there is no bus to Bukbu going back, only to Dongdaegu. I find this hard to believe and I tell her I don’t feel this information is correct. She assures me it is. Now this idea stresses me out. This again is why the doctor didn’t want me to travel. The unexpected nuisances and problems you encounter along a journey can sometimes be highly stress-inducing!
Overall, the ride back into town is much faster, and I’m back at the Miamore in no time. At the hotel, I lie down for a little bit and wonder how my legs can be hurting me so much. I must really be out of shape. I am NOT going to accept the fact of getting older and slower, I’m just NOT! I refuse to succumb to age or to sickness or fatigue. I make myself get up and find a restaurant that serves seafood. There I have a beer (despite doctor’s orders!) and a huge kind of crab, maybe like an Alaskan king crab? The regular roots and kimchi and other strange veggies and squid (ick!) accompany the meal, all of which I leave untouched. There IS a really good soup though. One thing I almost always like in Korea are the soups.
Back at the hotel, I grab a free movie from the lobby, 13 Going on 30, with Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo. Such a girlie chick flick. But I have no book and there isn’t much of a selection, so I watch. That is, after I take a long hot soak in the bathtub; ah such a rarity in Korea, a bathtub in a bathroom!
Sunday, October 17: I am so exhausted, I sleep well and sleep in. I take a leisurely trip to the inter-city bus terminal where I find, sure enough, that there IS in fact another 5-hour bus back to the Bukbu bus terminal in Daegu at 11:05. It turns out in fact the bus is only 4 1/2 hours. I can’t help but call the Daegu Tourist information to inform them they had given me wrong information. On the bus, I sleep a bit and read my Korea guidebook, thinking of next weekend’s trip to Geoje-Do. I get home at a reasonable hour.
It’s amazing how people come into your life when you most need them. A lot of my friends from high school know Chetan Payne. She and I have been talking a lot on Facebook over the last year, but especially in the last couple of months. She is always positive and encouraging and such a good listener and supporter. I would love to be like her, really. She goes out and buys an Asia calling card and she arranges to call me on Sunday night. It is such a treat when I get her call. It actually is the first time we’ve spoken in well over 30 years. She is an ex-pat American living in Italy; she met her Italian husband when she was in the wine business in Florida and has lived in Italy many years now. She and I have connected lately because she feels a kinship with me in my own journey and life here in Korea. Although she wasn’t in my class in high school, she knew my two little sisters and was in the same sorority I was in, Sigma Phi Lambda (SPL). I love her outlook on life, her non-judgmental and supportive attitude. She’s such a great person; she’s loving, spiritual, easy-going, and open-minded. I feel so blessed that she feels a connection with me, of all people, as screwed up as I am! Anyway, she calls and we have an amazing talk. We commiserate about living in a foreign country and how foreigners just don’t “get” Americans. She has many of the same challenges in Italy that I have here. But, by gosh, I keep thinking, SHE’S IN ITALY! It’s so different. Italy is beautiful, has great food, a beautiful language, everything should be wonderful. But there, she deals with the same cultural clashes that I deal with here; and she has spent a great part of her life doing this. I’ve only been here 8 months; she’s done it for decades!
Anyway, she says something very wise to me. She says, You are right now in just the place you’re supposed to be. It’s difficult, but God (or did she say God?) has given you all the tools you need to make it through. Either she says God, or I read God, but possibly she is referring to some more undefinable higher power. She says maybe now is the time for you to read a lot, write your blogs, travel. You have what you need to make it through.
I know in my heart that what she says is right. I feel like I’m here for a reason. I don’t know exactly what it is. I think the reason has to do with learning something valuable about myself. How to be alone, how to be independent, how to find my own lost soul. How to find happiness within.
I’m here for more practical reasons as well : To write, to read, to meditate, to learn Arabic, to finish my TEFL, to get the credentials to move to the place my heart is calling me.
It seems that when you’re on a journey, everything along the road seems to be a sign for what you’re supposed to be learning. This weekend, it started with the trip to the doctor followed by the conversation with Justin and Bonnie in E-Mart, enjoying nature, losing my camera, and then talking to Chetan. Everything this week has offered a clue to the challenge of being alone. Being alone without feeling that constant of heart-wrenching loneliness.
Thursday, October 21: The culmination clue comes on Thursday night, when my friend Kim and I go, on the final night of its showing at Lotte Cinema in Daegu, to see Eat Pray Love. The movie isn’t great, but it reminds me of what I learned when I read the book, which I loved. The author, Elizabeth Gilbert, writes about her quest to learn to love herself, to know herself, to find balance in her life. To do this, she travels 4 months to Italy, where she learns about pleasure, enjoying life, doing the things she loves without worrying about pleasing a man, or anyone for that matter. She spends 4 months in an ashram in India, where she learns to meditate, to go within and stare her pain and heartbreak in the eye, to come to grips with who she is. And finally, to Indonesia, where she spends 4 months learning about love, family, friends, being in a community. Most of all, I think she learns about how to love herself, so she can be whole enough to offer herself to others. How to live without that urgent and desperate need for a man, or for anyone. In the end, she finds love by happenstance, but she has become strong enough that she doesn’t have to give up herself and her own needs to be with him.
This is what I am seeking. I am no longer feeling a desperate urge to find love. Or even friends, for that matter. I am seeking to learn to be alone. Back in the U.S., I have 4 good friends that I’ve had since high school. We will always be friends until the day we die. We have known each other for a long time; we accept each other and care for each other. I also have a group of more current friends who add incredible depth to my life. They are easy-going, non-judgmental; they make me laugh. They don’t judge me if my religious beliefs are not the same as theirs, or if I am sometimes crazy and maybe too adventurous. If I struggle with things, they listen without offering unsolicited advice. These are my friends; unfortunately for me, they are all in the U.S. Here, I have not been so fortunate. This I am learning to accept. I am alone here. And I will revel in that…. 🙂
a monk chanting along the path…. an outward sign of my inner journey?
For anyone interested in going to Sokcho and Seorak-san National Park from Daegu, here’s what you do:
1) Take a taxi to Bukbu Bus Terminal. Daegu Tourist Information tells me I should take metro to Duryu and then take a taxi, but my friend Kim doesn’t feel that’s correct. She advises me to take the same 250 bus that I take from Seongju; it goes directly to the Bukbu Terminal. Anyway, I take a taxi, about 7,500 won. I do actually see the 250 bus departing from Bukbu as I arrive, so I know Kim’s information is correct. I don’t know the cost of the 250 bus from one point in Daegu to another. All I know is the fare from Seongju is 3,300 won. It’s probably cheaper within Daegu itself.
2) The bus times to Sokcho are: 8:00, 11:00, 14:30, 18:00 and 22:00. The ride is 5 hours and costs 24,100 won.
3) From Sokcho, where there are plenty of motels, you can take the 7-1 bus to Seorak-san for 1,000 won. If you don’t want to stay in Sokcho, there are plenty of motels nearer to Seorak-san as well.
4) Coming back home from Sokcho, go to the inter-city bus terminal and take the bus back to Bukdaegu (the Bukbu terminal where you originated). The times are: 7:20, 11:05, 14:30 and 18:10. The ride back is only 4 1/2 hours and costs 24, 100 won.
This number for Daegu Tourist Information has proved invaluable to me on my travels. Even though their information is not always correct, they try hard and there is always someone there who speaks English. The number is: 053-1330.