Saturday, September 4: This is a story of a girl who, entranced by various articles and books about a “silver sand beach” on the south coast of Korea, determines to get there, come hell or high water or interminable bus rides. This poor bedazzled (befuddled?) girl has been dreaming about this place since she first read a previously mentioned article put out by the Official Site of Korea Tourism: “Twelve Beaches Worth Visiting in the Summer.” She even went so far as to find verification of this article in her trusty Moon Handbook which sang the praises of this beach: “Sangju Beach is one of the finest beaches along the southern coast of Korea.” It goes on to say: “This two-kilometer-long crescent of silky sand nestles into a small cove protected by rocky promontories at each cusp and a diminutive island at its opening.”
Many of her friends thought this girl to be crazy, enamored as she was with the idea of this place. But, female Don Quixote that she is, she would not let go her fantasy. Weekend after weekend through the summer of 2010, as her plans were foiled by rain and forecasts of rain and imminent clouds and other untimely inconveniences, she kept that dream in her heart until happy skies were forecast.
The girl embarks on this odyssey one Saturday morning in early September. A day forecast to be sunny and 90 degrees. She leaves her tiny dust-filled apartment at 6:20 am. She walks 5 blocks to metro, takes the metro to Dongdaegu, where she then takes a bus to Masan, where she takes a bus to Namhae, where she takes a bus to Sangju Beach. All told, this journey takes her 7 hours for what should be a 3-hour drive in a car.
Her plan is to spend the last weekend of summer lounging on this mythical beach, sleeping and swimming and reading a book she’s brought along, The Black Book by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. She’s already much of the way through this book, and though it’s a deep and dense book, not really your typical light beach read, she is into it enough now that it will keep her from being bored or lonely in her journey.
On the bus, she waits with the anticipation of a child to catch a glimpse of, and drive across (oh, unbelief), the Namhae suspension bridge over the Noryangjin Strait between the mainland and the island of Namhae. She is surprisingly unimpressed by this bridge that is supposed to be Korea’s version of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. But crosses over it she does until she’s on Namhae-do, land of mountain bulges, highly cultivated farmland and ocean waters.
After being tossed off the bus at a spot where no beach of any sort is visible, she schleps along with her bag into the speck of a town, looking for a hotel, and finds a Korean-style room for 30,000 won.
Korean-style means no bed, no furniture, and in this case, no sink. Only a red plastic washtub for a “sink”, a bunch of quilts for a bed, a nice TV with all Korean-language stations, and a small refrigerator that is not cold. The hotel proprietor also generously gives her two small hand towels, the norm in Korea. Koreans apparently don’t believe in or have never been introduced to large bath towels.
After dropping her bag and changing into her bathing suit, she ventures out to her treasured destination. On the road, she is accosted by two older Korean men, one of whom rolls down the window of his car and, spewing food out of his mouth that clings stubbornly to his cheek, asks where she is from. She says America, and he asks where she is going and then motions for her to get into the back seat which is piled high with stuff as if he’s a homeless person who lives in his car. She waves him off and says, I’m going to the beach! And turns on her heel and walks away.
The season is over at this beach; it’s sparsely populated but quite lovely. The girl is a little mystified as she is unable to find any “silver” sand. She realizes, much too late, that she has been duped. But, determined to enjoy this place she has fought so hard for, she settles in on a Korean aluminum foil-type mat, applies her sunscreen in a sad attempt to save her already sun-damaged skin, and lies down to nap.
After getting thoroughly bored with the napping, she gets up and goes for a swim after struggling through tangles of seaweed at the shoreline. The water is refreshing and kids are squealing and people are walking around with hats and long sleeves and umbrellas over their heads. She floats, she swims, she lingers. She goes back to her mat and pulls out her book.
She is in the midst of The Black Book; a dense novel about a Turkish man whose detective novel-reading wife left him. The book has layers and layers of stories about Istanbul, a blending of ancient history and contemporary (1980s) life. There is a famous newspaper columnist, Celal, whose columns make up every other chapter of the book. Galip suspects his wife may have run off with this columnist, who is actually related to both him and his wife (!). Galip slowly starts to take on Celal’s identity. It’s a difficult book, but this girl, our heroine, our wanna-be Don Quixote, has just been to Turkey and fell in love with it and the book takes her back.
Funny, she thinks, how various books have become intertwined with places or times in her life. For instance, at one point in this girl’s life, she went on her honeymoon to Islamorada, one of the Florida Keys, with her first husband. She spent the entire honeymoon reading The Thorn Birds; while reading this book, it became evident to her that she would never find in her marriage the passionate love that was so palpable (yet doomed) between Ralph De Briccassart and Meggie Cleary. Ah, the destructive power of books, as her first marriage fell apart seven years later in a fizzle of non-passion.
This book, The Black Book, fills her mind here at Sangju Beach with questions about her own identity, questions that can only be answered by stories in her own life. It gets her mind working, probing about in too many dark alleys & dusty corners. She begins to think about her physical identity. For one thing, how can she really see herself? She can never see herself, not really. She can look in a mirror, but the instant she finds herself in a mirror, she immediately puts on her best face; she corrects her slouch, she smiles to bring her hangdog face to life. So is she really the person she sees in the mirror, this 2-dimensional person with the fake smile and upright posture? Or is she the uncorrected slouchy version of herself who goes about her daily routines looking neither happy nor sad, neither here nor there? She can see herself in a camera, but once she knows she’s in front of a camera, she immediately smiles, or puts on her best face, showcases her best angle. In front of the camera, she becomes a star, someone who steps out of her own under-dazzling skin. Heaven forbid the photo turns out badly, showing her at an unflattering angle or with an ugly expression. She always deletes these pictures, which no human eye will ever see. Of course she is fooling only herself, as everyone else in her world sees her all the time in these unflattering poses.
Upon thinking these thoughts, she attempts to take some pictures of herself by setting the 10-second self-timer. But, in this blazing sun, the 10-second-timer lets in too much light and the picture turns out to be a burst of whiteness with an albino person it in. She tries a couple of times with the same result and finally gives up, resorting to taking a picture of her feet beside her sand-covered flip-flops.
She goes back to reading her book. A shadow of a person falls over her mat and when she glances up, she sees a stick-thin white guy with a reddish-blond beard and mustache and a bandana around his head. He is standing right beside her mat gazing out at the water. He stands there for quite a long time without looking at her. When he turns around for just an instant, she smiles at him, but he doesn’t smile. With absolutely no expression, he turns around and walks away on the beach, disappearing like an erased pencil mark on the horizon.
Weird. She’s taken aback and thinks more about her physical self, this self that she can never really see. The only other way she can see herself, she thinks, is in other people’s eyes. So, she wonders, what did he see? Did he see just an older woman, which is what our “girl” heroine really is, despite the fact that she still thinks of herself as simply a “girl?” Did he immediately discount her because she is older, as many people do? Or did he find her horribly scary and unattractive? She wonders if she terrified him, although he didn’t look frightened. Or maybe he didn’t see her at all, just looked right through her as if she were invisible. She is baffled. Especially as there are so few Westerners in this part of the world she would think that when they find one another, they should at least smile, if nothing else.
While reading her book, which probes questions of identity quite extensively, she thinks about how difficult it is to truly be herself. Who is she anyway? Is she the person who, when she is in the company of her best friend Rosie or her crazy friend Lisa, becomes a suddenly hilarious person? She and these friends play off each other and she is brought to life as a comedian. To these people, her identity is crazy and fun. Or is she the person who, in other people’s company, becomes quiet and boring? Is she the person who in yet different people’s company, becomes defensive and irritable? How can she really even be herself when herself varies with each person she encounters? Sometimes she likes herself a lot, enjoys her own company, but other times, she hates who she is. Which one is she? The one she loves or the one she hates?
In the book, she reads about a Crown Prince who, in an effort to truly become himself, decides that too many books have filled his head with other people’s ideas. He is dismayed to realize that the thoughts in his head are really these writers’ thoughts and not his own. So he burns all of his books and goes for years without reading. These writers’ thoughts continue to permeate his being. It takes him a long time, a strong effort, to remove the thoughts from his mind. He is never really able to get rid of them. And when at times he feels he can clear his head of these thoughts, he realizes he has no thoughts of his own.
The Crown Prince even shuns women because when he finds one he likes, thoughts of her take over his mind. So, he deserts his wife and children and goes to live alone in a hunting lodge for 22 years. All in a quest to “be himself.”
So, this girl wonders, after reading and reading hundreds of pages all weekend long, on the bus, on the beach, in her bedless room, and on the bus again, after being totally engrossed in this book and Orhan Pamuk’s thoughts, if she is losing her own identity and becoming Orhan Pamuk himself. Who is she, this girl who fancies herself a Passionate Nomad, a Don Quixote? It is all terribly confusing.
After all this contemplating, the girl leaves the beach and showers in her little hotel room. She is unable to wash her hair, because after hauling along her hair dryer on every single trip she’s ever taken — only to find a hair dryer provided by the hotel — she didn’t bring her hair dryer this time. This hotel doesn’t have one. Oh well, she’s on a beach vacation; what the heck if she’s dirty? This can be her identity this weekend, a dirty, ruminating, well-read vagabond.
After showering, she takes a nap in the hotel, reads some more, and then goes in search of a restaurant because, snap, she forgot to eat anything all day. She walks to the west part of the beach where she finds one restaurant with funny-shaped fish in tanks. She’s told any meal with the fresh fish will cost her 30,000 won!! She leaves to wander to the east side of town, where she veers left into a narrow alley and finds a restaurant that has a picture of a delicious-looking dish on the window. She asks how much and they tell her 6,500 won. The restaurant is a cozy mom-and-pop place painted in aqua and a baseball game is on TV and it’s cool because the “air-con” is on and she is sitting right in front of it.
She settles in for the meal along with a giant-sized Hite beer. The whole thing, egg drop soup, shrimp with noodles, rice & black bean sauce, and the beer are 9,000 won.
Before dinner and before her nap, an Egyptian friend she recently met from Seoul, an Egyptian with a 6-letter name, calls her to see how she is. Later at night, after going to sleep at 9:00 (sad!), her phone rings again at 11:00. Not having her glasses on, she picks it up. When she hears his foreign accent, she thinks it is her Egyptian friend again because the caller ID looks like a short 6-letter word. He asks if he woke her up. She says, yes, but it’s okay, she’s happy to hear from him, how is he doing? It takes her a while before she realizes she is talking to someone else, an Indian guy with a 6-letter name who originally contacted her through couchsurfing.com. The girl is so befuddled and amused by this confusion about identity, especially after reading The Black Book and reflecting endlessly all day about this issue.
Sunday, September 5: The next morning, she lounges in bed a long while, reading and reading. She thinks that being engrossed in a good book is one of the most enjoyable things in life.
Then she heads out for a walk; since she doesn’t like Korean breakfasts, she buys a pastry in plastic wrap, an orange juice and a can of cold coffee at a convenience mart. She sits on a bench under the pine trees and eats her breakfast. Then she decides to wander to the top of the hill at the east of the beach and take some photos.
She goes back to her room, puts back on her bathing suit, checks out of the hotel, and goes back to the beach to lounge. It is more overcast today. There she basks in the clouds and thinks that this beach sounds like beaches everywhere: the steady rhythm of soft waves, laughter, children’s voices and their squeals of delight, the whir of cicadas, the muffled roar of the cars on the road. When she closes her eyes she thinks of all the beaches she’s been in her life from Hilton Head in South Carolina to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, to Virginia Beach, to the beach on Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, to the beach in Phuket, Thailand and to the Paradise Island beach in the Bahamas. She thinks she could be anywhere and for a moment she is a little convinced she is back at her long-lost home in America.
After a while, she is beached out, so she tries to use one of the public showers. She can’t believe that the showers are padlocked, closed for the season. Whereas in America this would be Labor Day weekend, the last-hurrah beach weekend of the year, it is already past beach season in Korea. So she rinses off her sandy feet in the sink and heads back out to the town to catch the 1:50 bus back to Namhae. She’s a block or so away from the main road at 1:20 and she sees the bus; realizing she’s been misinformed once again about the bus times, she waves frantically at the bus. Normally bus drivers in Korea will totally ignore anyone trying to flag them down, but this time, the bus driver sees her and pulls over and waits patiently till she is aboard. Ah, kindness.
Despite this excellent stroke of luck at catching this bus in the middle of nowhere, the trip home takes even longer than the trip there. Because of a huge traffic jam between Namhae and Masan, this leg of the trip, which was 2 hours coming down, becomes 3 1/2 hours going back. So, all told, the entire trip back to Daegu takes 8 hours. She arrives home at 9:20, totally exhausted yet wound up because on the entire bus ride home she was so obsessed by finishing her book that she didn’t “take a rest.”
So, what is the upshot? About identity, our heroine doesn’t know the answer. She only believes that her own identity is still in flux, constantly evolving, ever-changing. It is a composite of all the books she has ever read, all the interactions she has ever had, all the people she has ever loved and hated, all the places she has ever been, all the hobbies she has ever pursued, all the aches and pains and heartbreak she has ever felt, all the happiness and sadness and anger…. as well as that blob of gray matter that is in her rather large head. Plus. Many more things known and unknown, things remembered and forgotten, things experienced and only dreamed about. Who is she? She wonders if she will ever really know.
For the intrepid traveler’s reading pleasure, here is the article about 12 beaches worth visiting.
This girl does not recommend making this beach a destination as it’s too much of a trek for too little. The town isn’t much and the beach is just a beach, like any other. But, if one wants to get there from Daegu, here’s what you do:
1. Go to Dongdaegu to the bus station directly across from the subway stop, immediately to the left of the Senior Center. Buy a ticket to Masan for 8,000 won. The trip to Masan is about 1 hour 40 minutes.
2. In Masan, you must take a taxi to the Express Bus Terminal (about 2,700 won) and buy a ticket to Namhae for 8,400 won. This took less than 2 hours on the way down and 3 1/2 hours on the way home Sunday.
3. In Namhae, take the bus to Sangju Beach for 2,400 won. This takes 30 minutes.