Jeju is Korea’s island paradise. Known for its temperate climates and beautiful scenery it’s a favorite get away for Korean newlyweds and couples looking for a romantic getaway, or as the tourist brochure aptly puts it…
”With your lover! In a dreamy world! Create an unforgettable Memory!”
I wasn’t there with my lover, but we did find ourselves in a dreamy world, and some unforgettable memories were made involving a motorcycle, an empty gas tank, a pig farmer, some cannibal spiders, a fight, and a penis fish.
On our first day in Jeju, I had a huge fight with Julian somewhere around km 13 on our Olle hike that I was sure was going to put a prompt end to our friendship and the trip. I’d been feeling stressed ever since arriving and having some weird exchanges with our B&B lady. It isn’t really fair for me to expect an American to understand some of the subtle game play that goes on in Korean society but it irked me to no end when he suggested we change places. Believe me…when a Korean mother arranges a place for you, and especially when it involves someone within that scary ahjuma network of her college grads, there is no way in hell you can try and go off on your own. You keep your mouth shut; you smile politely, and be a good little Korean girl. No late nights, no drinking, lots of smiling and talking about 4 pitches above your normal speaking voice. It’s not a game I play very well. So…I picked a fight. Words were exchanged. The last kilometers of what should have been sheer beauty were barely noticed.
Luckily for me, Julian’s a lot more levelheaded and forgiving and accepted my mea culpa later. To be honest, I’d been battling with myself for quite a while and it was hard to accept feeling so “lost” here. Being illiterate in Korean has been a major issue for me. I’m so used to being self-sufficient that being that dependent on someone else for something as simple as reading a menu has been a complete mind fuck. To also have my American friend speak better Korean than me was bringing up serious feelings of inadequacy that all contributed to my little melt down. I think I had romantically imagined my trip as my own little “Joy Luck Club” experience. I’d step off the plane; the musical soundtrack would swell dramatically as the screen dissolved into a little montage of my perfect Korean adventures. Well, I should know by now, nothing is ever “perfect”… as the Rolling Stones aptly put it- “You can’t always get what you want…you get what you need!”
So it was determined…we had the need for speed. The next day we rented a motorcycle and spent the next few days zipping around the island. Now, I consider myself to be a big risk taker, not too many things scare me, but the thought of riding on the back of what I considered to be an organ donor maker was bringing up some interesting thoughts of mortality and my vanity was weighing the pros and cons of death or total bodily disfigurement from road rash. I’d been such a bitch to Julian the day before though, that I knew I had to squelch my fears and just hop on and pray.
We went to Mr. Lee’s Bike shop (no, not my dad, or my brother, or related to Bruce Lee..), got a sassy little Hyosung and we were off…
I nearly peed my pants the first time a produce truck nearly beaned us, but the Hyosung was agile, the horn effective, Julian’s maneuvering always seemed to avoid disaster so I learned to just sit back and enjoy the ride (which included a fair amount of closing my eyes whenever death seemed imminent.)
We found a great restaurant overlooking the ocean and stopped for an amazing lunch of one of Jeju’s specialties. Heuk Dwaeji (literally means “dirt pig”) is a special pig that only grows on the island.
Black pigs that are fed a special diet, they’re prized for their meat which is chewier and more flavorful than regular pork. We ended up talking to the owner of the restaurant, a Korean bag manufacturer and exporter, now turned…pig farmer (can I just say he’s my hero!!) As his wife proudly told us, they own 2,200 pigs. That’s a lot of pork!
We had a pleasant time picking the brain of this successful entrepreneur and he gave us some good tips of places to visit on the island. After our coffees were finished, he got up to leave. Time to feed the pigs! I really admired their establishment. It seemed a perfect marriage between business and sustainability. Most of the food was grown locally on the island and you could taste the goodness in every dish. The wife and waitresses all seemed to enjoy their work, sitting at a back table picking through bean sprouts and peeling garlic for the busy dinner rush. I was glad to know that everything was handmade with no shortcuts. A place to go back to the next time I’m on Jeju.
Next on the list was a visit to the OSulloc tea farms, another island specialty. I was getting the hang of riding the motorcycle, and have to say- is anything better than that symbiotic feeling when you become one with the road and the bike? It’s like a Zen meditation and roller coaster ride all at once. It was good to be reminded that I shouldn’t give in to my fears and plunge into unknown waters. Still, I didn’t mind that the bike maxed out at 115km/hr. I want some serious leather duds if I’m going to get on anything faster!
Now while Mr. Lee’s English website was easily navigated, his speech was not. It was a definite lost in translation moment between-“fill the gas tank” and “the gas tank is full” that led to us running out of gas somewhere along a tiny country road on the way to OSulloc. If you want an interesting observation on human behavior, try hitching a ride on Jeju Island.
It was decided that we would have better luck if I were the one with the thumb up, but let me tell you…Korean tourists are a tough crowd. The first problem was that it wasn’t a well-frequented road. The second was that none of the fuckers would stop. When I finally succeeded in hailing down an SUV here’s how the conversation went.
Me: “Hi, We’re out of gas.”
Me: “Umm, We’re out of gas”
Me: “Do you know where a gas station is?”
Them: (final responding after deciding I was not an ax murderer or carjacker?) “Oh…there isn’t anything nearby”
Me: “Do you know how far away it is?”
Me: “Can we walk there?”
Them: “Not really, it’s too far”
Me: “Ummm….” (looking pathetic and silently saying: please offer us a ride, please offer us a ride, please offer us a ride)
Blank stare, uncomfortable silence.
Them: “Ok, bye”
Rolling up of window and driving away.
Me: FUCCCCCKKKKK YOUUU!!!! (expressed silently although with eloquent shake of the fist skyward)
More cars either sped by, or slowed down to see me point to the bike, say “out of gas” and then violently shake their head and say…no can help, no can help. One man did stop, but said..”I use LPG gas” then drove away. (there are 2 different kinds of petrol used here for cars). I contemplated hiking up my pants and showing some leg, but while that tactic may work in California, I doubted it was going to give me any points in Jeju. A local farm boy was having a great old time zipping by on his bike and giving me amused stares. This was the most exciting thing that happened on this road since the Mt Hallasan exploded! (Hallasan last exploded on 1002). When Julian told him we ran out of gas, he gave a wise little nod of his head and said “uuuuh..geudeuk geu-na…” (translation: oh, so that happened, did it.…pretty cheeky for a little kid to speak that way to adults!)
I was silently cursing out my fellow Koreans for being selfish, fearful bastards when I succeeded in waving down a pick up truck with a farmer and his wife. He gave us the same story everyone else did…the only gas station was kilometers away. I seriously wanted to cry. After giving me a long look, he got back in the truck and sped away…10 minutes later he arrived with a gas can. While topping us off he apologized, of all things, because there wasn’t that much gas left. We were just grateful for any help at all! He then refused to take money from us for his time and help, wished us luck and drove away, not only replenishing our fuel supply, but also restoring my faith in humanity. (Although, why is it almost always those who have the least that give the most? We would have gladly given him money for his help and kindness, and of all the nice cars that had driven by that afternoon…he probably could have used it the most. Not to mention, he was probably also the busiest, being a working farmer, rather than a tourist there just for enjoyment!)
So once again we were off…until we ran out of gas…again! The amount the farmer had given us still left us 6 kilometers away from the closest gas station. Luckily this time we sputtered out on a major road just a few feet away from a small business. The man working there invited us in, gave us some juice and sent his associate off to the gas station with an empty gas tank. I guess Julian and I had some serious good karma points stored up. The man seemed genuinely glad that we had taken the time to visit Jeju. I’m guessing it’s not a big stopover for tourists from Europe or America, so the fact that someone came all the way from Germany was a source of island pride. His associate came back and filled us up to the brim. No chance of running out of gas this time! They also refused any type of remuneration, and I was again thankful for the generosity of strangers, and determined to return the favor the next time I see someone in need of help.
Tea farms visited, and with a setting sun, we headed back to Seogwipo, the city we were staying at, for a dinner of fresh hwe, which is the Korean version of sashimi.
I gamely tried all raw versions from the sea clam to what we nicknamed the penis fish. (seriously, this poor creature alive looks kinda like the real thing…cut up, it still keeps its reflexes and kept squirming around on the plate!) We found the perfect way to eat the poor bastard, soak liberally in soy/wasabi sauce, pop it into your mouth and chew…the first person to reach for their soju glass to wash down the chewy mass has to finish off the rest of the bottle. (I lost…what can I say, it was kind of gross).
I think Julian and I were genuinely having fun for the first time since I arrived. Something broke loose after my breakdown. This tiny hard ball resentment I had been holding onto ever since the first generalized statement that had come out of his mouth “Koreans are so….” It’s hard for me to understand why I took everything he said about Koreans so personally. To be honest, half the things he commented about were things I secretly thought myself. I guess it’s that whole love-hate thing of identifying with your culture. Love the food, hate the societal pressures, norms, rules, regulations that keep most Koreans in a tiny box of conformity, love the hospitality and kindness I was shown by random strangers, hate the societal pressures, norms, rules, regulations that keep most Koreans in a tiny box of conformity …
I had to think long and hard about my own generalizations. The times I am with expat friends in Berlin and we make jokes about the Auslanderbehörde or other parts of daily German life that drive us nuts. I realized I probably sounded the same, but as most of my friends would attest, I really do love living in Berlin. It was probably the same for him. If certain parts of Korean life drive me nuts, I can only imagine what it must be like trying to adjust to it as a westerner with no clue at all. He has some serious cajones to keep living here.
Our last day in Jeju, we hopped on a ferry, Hyosung and all, to visit another tiny island that sits off the coast of Jeju. A tiny island that is easily traversable by bicycle, Udo mainly consists of small garlic and onion farms, a few beautiful beaches and a thriving moped rental business.
It was nice to have a lazy afternoon beachside before making the long haul back to Jeju-si to drop off the motorcycle. Lunch and dinner were some simple summertime dishes. Cold nengmyun noodles at a small diner on Udo, and Suhlung Tang soup enjoyed al fresco at an eatery somewhere on the road back to Mr. Lee’s. We hopped on an early flight back to Seoul the next morning.