Category: The Surrendered


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

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

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

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 Saroksan

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

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

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

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!

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

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

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 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

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

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

at the bare rock peak at the top of the mountain ~ with the hordes of people

one view from the top

one view from the top

 

another view from the mountain 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 :-(

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

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

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

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?

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.

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Saturday, October 2: Early Saturday morning, I venture out on the first leg of a quest to discover the hidden Korea, that of the former war zone. Destination: the southwest of the country, Jeollanam-do province, to see the tea plantations of Boseong and the eco-park of Suncheon Bay.  I am lugging a hardback copy of the 2010 book, The Surrendered, by Korean author Chang-Rae Lee, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University.  The book was recommended by an editor at MORE magazine, a U.S. magazine for women over 40, who interviewed me a couple of times about reinventing my life by teaching English in South Korea.  Whether this editor will actually publish an article based on these interviews is a mystery, as yet to be unraveled.

inside the seobu bus terminal in daegu

inside the seobu bus terminal in daegu

on the bus to suncheon from daegu

on the bus to suncheon from daegu

Since I have a 3-month stretch ahead with virtually no holidays, I have decided I will explore as much of Korea as I can on the yellow- and scarlet-hued autumn weekends.  Granted, my destination this time is not a war zone.  Maybe this destination never even figured prominently in the Korean war.  Maybe.  But I think as I am reading this book that there was probably not a place in Korea that was left unscathed.  I am trying to dig in deep, to see Korea in a different light, a light probably shadowed still to this day by a war that ravaged this country less than 60 years ago.

I leave my apartment at 6 a.m. to catch the 7:05 bus to Suncheon from the Seobu bus terminal.  The bus ride, which I was told would be 3 to 3 1/2 hours, is uneventful, except for the delightful surprise that it is in actuality only 2 1/2 hours!  During the ride, I am caught up in the story of June, an 11-year-old Korean girl, who in 1950 has witnessed the death of her mother and sister & the arrest of her father and older brother; on her own, she is caring for her 7-year-old twin brother and sister.  June has taken on the responsibility for transporting her siblings safely toward Busan, along with thousands of other refugees fleeing the war.  What might have otherwise been a pretty journey through “hills just turning the colors of pumpkin and hay and pomegranate” is in fact a harrowing journey; this 11-year-old girl suffers horribly and ultimately loses both of her siblings in a gruesome train accident along the way.

jacob and peter at the boseong bus terminal

jacob and peter at the boseong bus terminal

Not happy reading, granted.  But I want to see what makes Koreans tick, what in their history makes them the way they are.  So I read along, totally engrossed, until I get to Suncheon.  Surprise, we’re here already?

At the Suncheon bus terminal, I see another Westerner with red hair and I hear him buy a ticket for Boseong.  This is my destination as well.  I get on the bus, and in the front seat is a Korean man dressed in black yelling into his cell phone.  This is not so abnormal in Korea; many Koreans yell into their cell phones as a matter of course.  But it becomes quickly evident that this man is furious.  I don’t know exactly what happens, but I think possibly the bus driver comes on board and tells him to quiet down.  By this time, I am seated about 1/3 of the way back from the front of the bus.  Suddenly the yelling man begins to punch the bus driver, forcing him toward the back; he pushes the driver into a seat maybe 4 rows behind me.  The yelling man is pummeling the poor bus driver who is cowering in the seat up against the window.  This violent man then pulls off his shirt, revealing tattoos on his arm and back, and grabs the bus driver around the throat and is knocking him upside the head, so that his head is bouncing like a rubber ball against the window.

me with the ajumas at the boseong bus terminal

me with the ajumas at the boseong bus terminal

Everyone is sitting in their seats watching, floored by this spectacle.  I stand up along with a Korean girl.  I think briefly about stepping in the middle but realize this would be really stupid. I think this man is so furious he wouldn’t hesitate to hit a woman.  I am seriously afraid this guy will kill the poor bus driver.  The Korean girl and I look at each other and we both get off the bus to find help.  She speaks to some guys standing in the bus terminal (they look like employees at the terminal possibly) and I am yelling and making fighting gestures and beckoning them to follow.  The men follow us on board.  The man is still beating on the bus driver.  Both of them are yelling angrily, but the bus driver is definitely the weaker one and is basically just taking the beating.  The bus terminal men enter the fray and pull the two apart and finally, they are able to get the crazy guy off the bus.  The bus driver, clearly shaken, goes to the front and then starts to collect tickets, front to back. Surprisingly, he doesn’t look bloodied or bruised, but he’s quite obviously an emotional wreck.  He says something to me, and a Korean guy sitting nearby tells me in English that the bus driver is thanking me.

on the bus from boseong to yulpo beach (we disembark at the tea farm)

on the bus from boseong to yulpo beach (we disembark at the tea farm)

As we take off, I catch the eye of the red-head guy in the back.  We start commiserating about the fight, trying to figure out what precipitated it.  He says, “Did you see that guy’s stomach?  It had scars all over it.  He’s been in a lot of fights.”  We can’t figure out exactly what started it.  I tell him I was thinking of stepping into the middle; I thought they wouldn’t dare hit a girl.  The red-head says he was told that, as a foreigner, if there is ever any trouble to NEVER get involved because foreigners are too often blamed as instigators.

a farmer going to the Boseong 5-day market (Jacob says, "I think he is interested in you."

a farmer going to the Boseong 5-day market (Jacob says, “I think he is interested in you.”

On our one hour ride to Boseong, we talk a lot: the red-head whose name is Peter, the English-speaking Korean guy who goes by the English name of Jacob, and me.  The fight has excited us such that we have become garrulous.  Jacob is full of questions about both of us, asking Peter and me what we are doing in Korea.  Jacob himself is a Korean who has been living and working in the Philippines for 10 years.  He is 50 years old, married, and has three children: a 20-year-old daughter, and 18-year-old twins.  He is in “trade” – mainly vitamins and health foods.  He asks my age, but I say it’s a mystery.  He says he is here in Korea working and also exploring on weekends parts of the country he hasn’t seen before.  He tells me he is headed to the tea plantations for the day and I say that’s where I’m going too.

the view from the bus window

the view from the bus window

Peter, who is 27,  is from New Brunswick, Canada, and has been teaching in Korea for one month now.  He teaches in a public middle school in Boseong but not with EPIK; he says a Canadian organization has the contract for Jeollanam-do province.  He tells me that in Boseong they have a 5-day market.  Every 5 days, everyone gathers their goods together to sell or to barter.  Today is the market day.  I ask about the hotel situation in Boseong and Peter graciously says I’m welcome to stay in his apartment as he has two bedrooms.  I tell him he is really sweet, but I’m not sure where I want to stay yet and I don’t want to intrude on him as he barely knows me.  Anyway, once we arrive in Boseong, Peter takes off for his home, and Jacob and I wait for the bus to Yulpo Beach, which will drop us at the tea plantations.

At the bus terminal, Jacob motions me to sit on a bench with some ajumas for a picture.  I am happy for this as I’ve been trying to surreptitiously take pictures of ajumas but have never actually gotten one full on with their awareness and participation.  They are quite happy to smile and pose; afterward I show them each the picture and the one wearing a pink shirt holds on to my camera, as if she wants to keep it.  She tells Jacob she wants a copy of the picture.  They ask Jacob if we are husband and wife.  This is only the first of such questions thrown our way throughout the day.  Each time we laugh and say, no, we just met on the bus!

live chickens boxed for the 5-day market in Boseong

live chickens boxed for the 5-day market in Boseong

On the derelict bus, hardscrabble  Korean passengers are all carrying bags or boxes of products to take to the 5-day market: dried chili peppers, live chickens (!), rice, roots and various leafy vegetables.  They all disembark well before the tea farms.  The bus driver even makes one stop just to drop off a huge plastic bag full of red chili peppers.  I wonder if the chili peppers had to pay the bus fare.

Jacob and I get dropped at the entrance to Daehan Dawon, touted as Korea’s one and only “green tea farm” theme park.  We go into a little shop and the lady there serves us some green tea to taste.  I’m always surprised that green tea tastes more like a broth than the tea I’m accustomed to.  The lady asks Jacob’s age; he tells her 50 and she tells him he looks very young.  She asks him my age, and he explains to her that apparently it’s a very sensitive issue!  She then asks us if we are husband and wife, and we both laugh and say that we just met on the bus. We drink our tea and walk through a lovely canopy of trees toward the plantation.  This place is so lushly green, with its millions of tea plants and its cedar, cypress, yew, ginkgo, maple and camellia trees.

sampling tea at the tea shop

sampling tea at the tea shop

In 1939, a study concluded that Boseong is an ideal place to cultivate green tea.  Optimal conditions include annual rainfall of more than 60 inches (1500 mm), porous and permeable soil, cool weather with a great daily temperature range, and high humidity.  Soon after the study, tea planting started across the region.  But, during the Korean War, all the fields were ravaged.

It turns out I am right: no place in Korea was left unscathed by the war.   In 1957, the tea industry started again.  Now there are 5.8 million tea plants growing on this green tea farm.  In 2005, the plantation’s tea was certified as organic.

Jacob at the tea plantations

Jacob at the tea plantations

Jacob and I wander leisurely through the lush green carpets of tea bushes and then climb up a steep hill to a vantage point.  He says, It smells so good!  I sniff the air and I can’t smell anything. 😦 We meet a family along the way, and Jacob comments that the man is good-looking but the wife is not.  He thinks it is not a good match.  I say that maybe she is really a great person, beautiful inside.  I say that looks do not matter so much.  He hesitantly agrees.  I walk beside the wife for some of the climb and she in fact seems quite lovely and kind.  She even offers her hand to me on a particularly steep set of steps.

the tea plantations

the tea plantations

the tea plantations

the tea plantations

the tea plantations

the tea plantations

the tea plantations

the tea plantations

After walking up and down and taking multitudes of photos, we return to the bottom.  Jacob tells me his wife works as a volunteer teacher for a Christian missionary organization.  She teaches elementary school.  Apparently when their children leave home, his wife would like to return to Korea where, because of her years of teaching, she could make a lot of money.  But Jacob tells her he can provide and that God would like it best if she continued her volunteer teaching.  Both he and his wife are really concerned that their children don’t know enough about Korean culture.  Jacob also tells me he went on a trip with a church group to Turkey to follow St. Paul’s travels.  He went to many of the same places I did, but he lost his USB with all his photos on it.  Jacob also tells me that this morning he prayed to God that he would meet someone today to explore Korea with.  He says his prayer was answered because he met me.

me at the tea plantations

me at the tea plantations

I love the curves and colors

I love the curves and colors

me & tea

me & tea

me and the plush green tea....

me and the plush green tea….

sweeping view of the tea plantations

sweeping view of the tea plantations

me with the tea again

me with the tea again

a little Korean boy at the tea plantations

a little Korean boy at the tea plantations

When we get to the bottom, we decide to eat some lunch.  I have bibimbap and Jacob eats black bean sauce on noodles.  I don’t know why, but this dish keeps popping up in my face of late.  Everywhere I go, people are offering me this dish.  I’m not that crazy about it, but the Koreans seems to love it.  My friend Kim tells me it’s a Chinese dish, but it’s not really served in China.  I guess the Chinese came to Korea and created it just for Koreans!

bibimbap

bibimbap

We return to the tea shop to retrieve our bags, with the intention of taking the Yulpo Beach bus further south, where there are supposed to be even more beautiful tea plantations.  The proprietor tells us the bus will come at 2:50.  We wait until 3:30 and then decide we can’t wait any longer.  Jacob has to go to Gwangju and then to Daejeon this evening to meet some friends and I want to go back to Suncheon and find a hotel before it starts raining.  So we cross under the bridge to catch the bus back to Boseong.  In Boseong, Jacob goes on his merry way toward his friends.  I am disappointed not to see the next tea farm, but, as it turns out, I finally arrive back in Suncheon just before a downpour.  I have to find a hotel and with the help of a patient and kind-hearted lady at the Suncheon terminal tourist information, I find the BMW Motel for 30,000 won.

the BMW Motel in Suncheon

the BMW Motel in Suncheon

When I walk up to the BMW Motel, smoke is pouring out of the parking lot into the entryway.  The proprietor is using a fire extinguisher on the source of the fire; it looks like a trashcan and some bedding from one of the rooms.  He sprays it with the fire extinguisher and comes into the hotel with me to check me in.  I tell him, using gestures, that I want to see the room before paying, but he simply cannot understand and keeps sticking out his hand for my money.  While this failure to communicate is transpiring, I see the fire has flared up again, and I gesture wildly to him that the fire has revived.  He doesn’t understand any of my gestures, so I get wilder and more demented-looking in my miming: Come! Come!  Fire!!  He is utterly clueless.  Finally, he gets up from behind his little glass enclosed cage and comes out, grabbing the fire extinguisher again.  Meanwhile, I call a friend to translate for me that I want to see the room before paying.  Finally.  I see the room, it’s okay, and I pay the 30,000 won.  I leave my bag and stupidly head out into the rain and the impending darkness to go to Suncheon Bay.  I am hoping that by the time I return to the BMW the fire will be totally extinguished.  I am hoping the whole motel doesn’t burn down in my absence.

reading The Surrendered at the BMW Motel

reading The Surrendered at the BMW Motel

Little do I know that by the time I finally get to the bay, it will be totally dark and pouring down rain!  (I’m obviously not yet ready to accept the shorter days of fall!)  I don’t want to be dropped here in the middle of nowhere, but the driver gestures vehemently that I must get off.  Luckily there is a covered bus stop and a few other people, so I wait with them for a good 20 minutes to go back to Suncheon. I catch the exact same bus with the same bus driver who forced me to get off in the first place.  In Suncheon, I find a Paris Baguette, eat a shrimp and vegetable bun, buy a beer, and go to my room, where I plan to relax, read, and watch TV.

Pathetically, I fall asleep at 9:00, only to be awakened at 9:30 by a series of texts from my friend Anna, who went today to the Andong Mask Dance Festival; she and Seth and their friends had been dropped off in the pouring rain in Andong and almost missed their bus back to Daegu.  As I settle in to sleep, I get another series of texts from a flight attendant I know from Egypt Air, then a call from my Egyptian friend Mithad in Seoul, then some drunken texts from a fellow EPIK teacher who I had drunkenly texted when I was at Gaya-san Summer Camp in August.  By this time I am so wound up that I can’t sleep, so I read some more of my book.  This book is too intense to read when trying to fall asleep!  I am up till well after midnight.

Sunday, October 3: In the morning, I sleep in a bit late and immediately start reading The Surrendered.   I love waking up on a weekend morning and reading a good book.  After about an hour, I think maybe I should check out the tourist map of Suncheon I got yesterday from the TI office.  On the map, I see all kinds of things I would like to do; I regret not having studied the map the night before and made a plan to get up early to explore.  I think I would also like to see the Naganeupseong Folk Village and the Songgwangsa Temple, after I see Suncheon Bay.  After all my travels in Korea using the rural bus system, I should know by now that this is wildly optimistic.

Entrance to Suncheon Bay

Entrance to Suncheon Bay

pretty flowers at Suncheon Bay

pretty flowers at Suncheon Bay

view through a lattice

view through a lattice

more pink flowers

more pink flowers

I arrive at Suncheon Bay at 10:30 a.m. and start to explore.  The bay is a coastal wetland with a large tidal flat, reed beds and salt marshes nestled between mountains and ribboned with rivers.  Further inland are glowing chartreuse rice fields.  I walk through the grasses along the wooden walkway and see fiddler crabs in the mud and some beautiful cranes.  It’s warm but a breeze is whipping the sea grasses around.  I love these grasses against the backdrop of the mountains and the rivers.  Koreans are out in force today and as always, dressed to the hilt in their hiking clothes.  Because the sun has come out after the rain, and it is warm, many women are carrying umbrellas.

koreans walking the walkways, decked out in full hiking gear and carrying umbrellas for shade

koreans walking the walkways, decked out in full hiking gear and carrying umbrellas for shade

Suncheon Bay

Suncheon Bay

Koreans walking along the boardwalk

Koreans walking along the boardwalk

grasslands

grasslands

ornamental grasses

ornamental grasses

more grasses

more grasses

I figure I will wander along the walkways to the other side and then turn around, but when I get there, I realize there is a hike up the mountain to an observatory.  There are two paths, “the meditation road” and the “hard road.”  I choose the hard road. My Korean friend later tells me the actual translation of “the hard road” is the “road that is hard on the knees.”  I take the hard road, thinking it will certainly be steeper, and thus shorter.   However, when I come back down by the meditation path, I realize both paths are about the same distance.  One is just steeper ~ all steps!

the meditation road and the hard road

the meditation road and the hard road

It is such a lovely hike.  The leaves have not really started changing yet, just a few red exclamation points here and there.  From the observation point, the view is sweeping & fabulous and I can see some red tips to the sea grasses from above.

the view of the wetlands from above

the view of the wetlands from above

view of Suncheon Bay

view of Suncheon Bay

another view along the hike

another view along the hike

Suncheon Bay

Suncheon Bay

Suncheon Bay

Suncheon Bay

Suncheon Bay

Suncheon Bay

Suncheon Bay

Suncheon Bay

Suncheon Bay

Suncheon Bay

more of the bay

more of the bay

and more

and more

walking back down the trail

walking back down the trail

I am so happy on this day.  I have had an adventure on my trip, I have heard from good friends, and I have been hiking and exploring outdoors in nature, breathing fresh air, and getting exercise.  I love to be outdoors in the fall!

back among the grasses

back among the grasses

coming back to the wetlands from the hike

coming back to the wetlands from the hike

Three hours later, I take the bus back to Suncheon and I realize it is just too late to try to see the other sights.  I may be able to take a bus to one of them, but then I could never depend on finding a timely bus back to Suncheon.  Ah, if only I had a car!  But, part of the adventure this time is riding the buses, witnessing a bus brawl, meeting farmers and ajumas going to the 5-day market, and making new friends.  This is the way I love to travel, being alone and open to any adventure that presents itself.  This is why a trip like this is so much better than the organized tour I took to China.

pretty, pretty grasses

pretty, pretty grasses

Here I can meet the locals as well as fellow travelers, ride in buses with fighting men, boxes of live chickens, bags of chili peppers and older gentlemen who take their hats off when they are photographed.  I can meet ajumas who want to steal my camera because they are so captivated by themselves in my pictures.  I can see the real everyday Korea and know that these older people I meet along the way have experienced hardships that I hope I will never see in my lifetime.

a grounded boat

a grounded boat

I’m still only about halfway through The Surrendered; the story has veered into many directions, and follows three main characters: June, Hector and Sylvie; its locale moves from Korea to New Jersey to Manchuria.  It’s a complicated but fascinating story about the effects of war on people’s psyches.  Several parts have given excellent descriptions of the Korea I have come to know.  At one point, Hector, who has fought in the mountains of Korea, ruminates about the cold: “He knew the cold in Korea, at least in the mountains in the far north, how it seeped into you and then resided with an unrelenting grip…”  My own father, who also served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War told me before I came here that all he could remember about Korea was that it was the coldest place he’s ever been.  I arrived here in February, and it was bitter, unrelentingly cold.  That memory makes me dread my last couple of months here, especially January and February.

more swaying grasses

more swaying grasses

Hector also muses about the mountains of Korea, which are certainly ubiquitous: “The grounds of the orphanage were set on a low and wide plateau amid steeper, higher hills and mountains that ranged across much of the country.  The land was a lesson in hills, one right after the next.

The book reminds me how tenuous life can be.  There is normalcy, and then, suddenly, there is not.  War does that.  The atrocities people are capable of inflicting on one another during extreme situations like war are beyond belief.   Now, when I see the old farmers and the ajumas in Korea, I know they have seen horrors in their lives that we could never imagine.  As time goes by, the children and grandchildren, those children I teach everyday in my classroom, will forget.  I just hope the 50+ year armistice between North and South Korea holds, or is someday resolved, so that this resilient country won’t have to suffer such hardships again.

To get to the tea plantations from Daegu, here’s what you do:

1) Take the 805 bus to Seobu bus terminal.  There, get on the bus to Suncheon.  It takes ~2 1/2 hours and costs 14,500 won.

2) In Suncheon, take the bus to Boseong.  It takes about an hour and costs 5,800 won.

3) From Boseong, take the bus to Yulpo Beach (tell the driver you need to get off at the tea farm) which takes about 15 minutes and costs 1,100 won.

i adore this place :-)

i adore this place 🙂

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