Having settled in there I waited for the hour when I was pretty sure JT would be teaching and I went to collect my things. I let myself in with my key and was surprised to find JT's brother sitting in the kitchen. I told him I was only there to get my stuff and I would be out of there. He gave me a look that was kinda sympathetic and kinda confused at the same time. I didn't volunteer any other information like where I was staying or when I was headed back to the States. Humping my giant backpack, I left.
Having settled in there I waited for the hour when I was pretty sure JT would be teaching and I went to collect my things. I let myself in with my key and was surprised to find JT's brother sitting in the kitchen. I told him I was only there to get my stuff and I would be out of there. He gave me a look that was kinda sympathetic and kinda confused at the same time. I didn't volunteer any other information like where I was staying or when I was headed back to the States. Humping my giant backpack, I left.
In the night, the dog ate my Nikes. When I woke up I was upset about it and remarked that the dog (개) ate my shoes. The Master quickly corrected me that the puppy (강아지) ate my shoes. Think about that.
That morning we all set out for the ferry terminal to catch a boat to Wando. Some of the crew in the car with me included (left to right) the Producer, the Professor, and the Poet.
The ferry approaches Wando.
In Wando city we ate our final meal together and went many separate ways. The Master went off to Jiri Mountain. The Poet and I needed to get up to Seoul so the Master sent us to Kwangju to catch a plane. Without any flight reservations, the Poet and I went straight to the airport. I was convinced we would never make it onto a plane that day. We waited for an hour or so until our names were called, boarded for Seoul and took off. The Poet paid for the tickets (or maybe it was the Master's money...I don't know).
We parted ways when we landed at Kimpo. I never saw the Poet again. Or the Professor. Or the Producer. Or the Potter or his wife.
The Master? More on that later...
Each fishing pole had several hooks, each hook had some kind of worm I had never seen before--kinda looked like a huge green millipede. We caught quite a few fishies that looked like bluegill but were orange in color. While the manfolk fished, the Potter's wife made rice and put the Ramen on to boil. When the first couple orange bluegill came out of the ocean, they went straight into the pot. They next few were filleted and enjoyed raw. It doesn't get much fresher than that.
Here is MeongSeok, the Potter's wife, and two others I don't remember. All are enjoying the ramen and fresh seafood over rice concoction. Oh, and soju.
*Daegeum (large transverse flute): The daegeum is one of three bamboo wind instruments of the Unified Silla period.
April 16 was spent mostly recuperating from the backyard BBQ party the night before. Many guests spent the night. Together we lounged the day away with lots of instant coffee and sitting on the floor.
April 17. The Master took me in to Seogwipo city area to meet an older Korean gentleman that he had quite some respect for. This guy ran a 귤 orchard. Immaculate, well maintained. We walked around and had a look, mostly for my benefit as neither of them directed much conversation my way. After the tour we went inside.
Our host flipped on the television to some Sumo tournament in Japan. The Master referred to the wrestlers as "그 놈들." He talked about how "those 놈s" do all those pre-bout rituals like throwing the salt and raising one leg and then squatting, and they don't even know why they do them. He said the reason for the one leg raise and squat was to get their testicles to hang down lower. I didn't follow up on that to learn why they need more dangly manspheres, but I'm sure the Master would've had the answer.
The Master and the host pulled out the Paduk board and started an extended series. I am not sure who won their epic battle because I fell asleep sitting upright in a chair. I woke up to an unfamiliar aroma. The Master was performing Moxibustion on the host's hands. He lit little incense-like nubs that had an adhesive backing and placed them strategically on the crucial spots. Somehow the Master knew all the acupoints to treat whatever ails and he would point them out and describe the treatment. He said you wanted them to get hot, but not burn. Pretty soon I had a few piles burning on my hands. When it was all over, both the host and myself had brown burn circles all over our hands and wrists.
That was a first. And a last.
We returned to the Master's house for an evening of soju and song with the remaining guests.
I wasn't able to meet up with the Master until after the fashion show. He took my hand and marched me backstage as it were, and we watched as reporters and photographers circled his wife. She held bouquets of flowers and smiled graciously--befitting her celebrity.
The Master then put me into one of the many cars that were heading back to his stone manor in the sticks. Before we pulled out he told me that JT had been calling for me; left me several messages asking for me to call him back. And so it was that the long drive from Cheju city out to the Moseulpo area was spent thinking about how my next conversation with JT might go.
I didn't think there was any way JT could know that Skylark was not with me any longer. But I was pretty sure he had spent the past few days obsessing about what she and I might be doing. I thought it might be bothering him, but I never expected it to drive him mad. So while I waited for the rest of the Master's family and guests to arrive, I called up JT in Seoul. He wasted no time ripping into me. The conversation was long and difficult, but there are two things he said that I will never forget.
First he told me he had given Skylark his heart. He kept saying that phrase: "I gave her my heart." And he blamed me for stealing her from him. That's odd for three reasons: she wasn't interested in him, I wasn't interested in her in that way, and he had only known her for about 6 weeks when he "gave her his heart." So sad.
The second thing he said that I will never forget: he said "maybe we never were friends." Maybe we never were friends? We knew each other 9 years. We roomed at college for 2 years, and spent one summer selling Kirby vacuums together. We road tripped to San Diego and Tijuana together. I went to his first wedding (in Vegas ~1992 where I won $3275 playing poker well before the poker boom). Not friends? Never were friends? Over a girl he hardly knew? Hmmmph.
That revelation really threw me. I avoided the party outside for quite some time until the Master came indoors and found me alone with my thoughts. I explained what happened. He told me to come outside and join the party. And so I did.
The party was 50 or so likeminded Korean revelers, lots of Soju, and several open fires with meat grilling all around the backyard. Despite my melancholy, the party was unsurpassed. Kind of old school, a tad third world, primal, and me as out of place as can be. Yummy meat everywhere. Models. Good times. And soon enough the singing started. The Master and several of the partiers knew I had some Korean songs in me at the ready and they pressed me into service. I resisted for a moment, then gave in. However, instead of falling back on JuJu Club, I busted out a heartfelt song in English by a band that JT and I both loved and had seen in concert together more than once. It was a kind of final tribute to a friendship that never was:
Talking fast couldn't tell me something
I would shed my skin for you
Talking fast on the edge of nothing
I would break my back for you
Don't know why, don't know why
Things vaporize and rise to the sky
I continued singing, feeling it, bringing it like I do, until I finished. At that point I realized my eyes had been closed for the whole song. I opened them to see a bunch of Koreans staring at me like I was from outer space. Awkward silence. And then came the pressure to break off some K-pop.
And so I did.
With my ticket in my hot little hand, I filed my backpack in a pay locker and headed to Nampo-dong to kill the last couple hours before ferrying to Cheju. That place had changed a lot, but still had the great energy that I originally fell in love with. Sadly, there was a triple-decker McDonalds where my favorite record store once stood. I went ahead and ate a Big Mac since I knew it would be rice 3 times a day once I got to the Master's house.
After my brief walk down a distorted memory lane, I made my way back to the ferry terminal. Quite a large crowd had grown outside the terminal, most of them were college-aged girls. It seems a field trip was happening. An all girls university was sending hundreds of their co-eds down to lovely Cheju island for a spell. And we would share the ferry.
The overnight ferry ride passed quickly as one-by-one the students offered up their kimpap to me (not a euphemism), exchanged email addresses with me, and tried out their freshest English skills on me. None of us slept a wink.
We parted on arrival and I found myself alone with all morning and most of the afternoon to pass before the fashion show was scheduled to begin. I sat by myself in a coffee shop for hours, reading my Lonely Planet guide. I shopped a bit and bought some wooden Buddha bead bracelets that I still have. I bought a postcard and mailed it home to my parents. I was a real tourist.
By late afternoon I made my way over to the big outdoor theater where the fashion show was to be held. It was a pleasant April day, and I was in my shirt sleeves. The first familiar face I saw was Kimi's. She was busy busy but stopped to talk it over. Her mom was in a frenzy dealing with models and outfits and whatnot, and The Master had not arrived yet. I went inside and greeted Kimi's mom and looked at some models wearing their persimmon-dyed 갈옷. That was downright decent.
Skylark did not take it very well when I told her that I would not be taking her with me to Cheju. She pouted, she argued, she cried. Among the many things she said was that she was afraid she would never see Cheju Island in her lifetime if she didn't go with me now. I told her she needed to get out more. She didn't need a foreigner to come over and show her around her own country like a pro bono tour guide. We spent over an hour in the subway station hashing out what to do next. What an international spectacle we must have appeared. It was not fun.
In the end I convinced her that our little excursion together was over. We left the subway station and caught a taxi to the train station. In her current emotional state, I was pretty sure she could not manage to get on a train to Seoul by herself so I went with and bought the ticket. I saw her onto the train and watched it depart.
On my own once again, I made for the ferry terminal and booked as follows:
Skylark and I headed up to check out PNU and see some of my old haunts. We stopped in Oncheonjang and walked around a bit. Secretly I must have known I would not run into anyone I knew from 10 years before, but my mind raced with the possibilities of seeing Spa Shopping Young-sook. How weird would that be? Walking around Oncheon with Skylark Young-sook and running into Spa Young-sook? No way. But the mere thought of it did funny things in my mind.
We jumped a bus up to Pusan National University main gate. Things in the area had really changed more than I had expected and I didn't recognize my surroundings. I got a little disoriented. Plus, I wanted to stay at least a block away from KHI Institute lest I should happen across Mr. Shin. That would make for an awkward reunion.
Skylark and I continued walking around for a spell, still not recognizing much. I couldn't find my favorite video bistro where I killed countless hours back in 1987. I stopped to look around and gather my bearings on several occasions. At one such moment I was blankly staring at the building in front of me. I was standing in the doorway to a stairwell that went up a few flights. Suddenly, the words written on a sign next to the entrance registered in my brain; it was KHI Institute.
I expect the feelings that came over me at that moment were not unlike those experienced by Chekov when he realized that the ship he and Captain Terrell were on was none other than the SS Botany Bay.
Nothing but three floors separated me from Mr. Shin and certain awkwardness. Wasting no time I successfully ushered us out of there (Chekov and Terrell were not so lucky) and made straightaway for the subway. If I had it to do over again, I might consider going up there to have a look around. That might've made for an interesting chapter. Secretly I had no way of knowing if Shin was still running KHI, or even alive for that matter. But the physical reaction in my gut was enough to tell me to get outta there.
Skylark and I walked silently all the way to the subway station. I remember hearing a song that sampled Madonna's "Holiday" and I thought that was weird. Inside the subway station I sat down against a wall and put my head in my hands. Skylark asked what was the matter. I spoke Korean to her then because I wanted to make sure she understood, and because I could more easily hide behind the words. I told her she could not go with me to Cheju.
Next stop: Pusan National University.
We jumped a bus from Chinhae to Pusan the next day. I wasn't sure how I would feel upon entering those environs; it had been 10 years since I set foot there. And Pusan and I had parted on uneasy terms back then.
Skylark and I secured 여관 lodgings near the bus terminal. It was raining.
She wanted to chill in the room and watch TV. The TV didn't work. I went downstairs and asked the owner to go up and see to it. Secretly I knew that would force Skylark to expose her Koreanness and speak her mother tongue to a Korean who also knew she was traveling with a whitey. Instead of returning to the room with the owner, I went out to sneak a couple Choco Pies. (I only eat the Orion brand. It used to be easier to spot because their were packaged in a blue box. But now the box is red.)
When I went back to the room, Skylark was pouting because the TV was beyond repair and the owner had taken it, promising to replace it later. I told Skylark we should go see some sights. After all, the rain had stopped and it was Pusan just outside the motel doors. How often does that happen to a person? Seriously.
Like the opening shot of a TV drama, we established our place in the city by heading up to the Pusan Tower.
After a look around up top, we decided to go down and check out 자갈치 fish market.
I spent a fitful night sharing a small motel room with Skylark. I never sleep well the first night in unfamiliar sleeping arrangements, but we awoke to a gorgeous spring morning in Chinju. After a bite of breakfast and some instant Coffee Milks from a vending machine, we checked out the fortress, looked out over the river, and toured through the museum at the fortress. I could have spent several days there without tiring of it, but I needed to keep this express tourism train rolling if I was going to make it to Cheju in time for the fashion show.
Next stop, scenic Chinhae. We were not able to time it right for the Cherry Blossoms, but coming through the tunnel and over the mountain provided a spectacular view of the oceanscape and the city of Chinhae. Lovely.
The area around the bus terminal was packed with street vendors and shoppers alike; some kind of fair or festival was afoot. After a few failed attempts at getting a room for the night, finally we found a cheap place with vacancies. Again I did all the talking and Skylark, instead of acting Japanese, simply stayed silent. Weird. I was already regretting bringing her along.
I unlocked the door and walked into the room we were assigned. As I flipped on the light switch I saw a few cockroaches scurry out of sight down the side of the bed that was snugged up against the wall. Before I even took off my backpack I went over and pulled the bed away from the wall. Countless cockroaches scattered from out of a soiled towel that had been hiding back there and serving as their colonial headquarters for what must have been months. I freaked. I lost my marbles. I yelled for the Ajumma as loud as I could and she came a running all wig afire.
I agitatedly pointed out the nasty spectacle. Skylark silently watched while I helped the Ajumma understand that I needed another room. Now. She complied. I only saw a couple cockroaches in the new room so we stayed.
That cockroached nastiness persists in my memory like a piece of popcorn shell that gets stuck between your teeth and you can't get out. Other than that unfortunate episode, I found Chinhae to be a lovely city, with its Turtle Boat Rotary, rows of Cherry trees, ocean front views, and some of the best 탕수육 I ever tasted. And that, my friends, is not a euphemism.
It was just getting dark when our bus arrived in Chinju. I knew that the area around Chinju Fortress had plenty of cheap accommodations so we grabbed a short cab over there. Skylark was traveling with 2 bags so we needed to first obtain lodging before traipsing around to get our sightsee on.
Neither of us had a ton of extra cash so we made the risky decision to share a cheap room at a cheap motel. I had no intention of hanky panky and I was pretty sure Skylark had no designs on my bones. And, as if we were not stared at enough for being a traveling international duo of American man and Korean woman, Skylark came up with a "bright" idea for our cover story when checking in to the motel.
For some reason she thought she could pass for a Japanese girl. She wanted me to speak only English to her and she would stammer English back. There were so many holes in her plan that I was dumbfounded as to where to begin shooting it down. I went along with it hoping to show how lame it was. An object lesson if you will.
We went up to the front desk of a cheap motel. It was wo-manned by two ladies one might call older, except there were probably the age that I am now, and I ain't "older." But they were clearly well aware of the primary reason that clients sought out their establishment, and they looked at us as if they knew what we were after.
I spoke to them in Korean, they looked past me and spoke to Skylark in Korean, she looked at me in a phony confused way, I spoke English to her really fast as if to sell she had strong skills, she said something basic in Korean-accented English, I spoke Korean to the two "older" ladies. Quite the ridiculous charade. I don't think anyone bought it, not for a second.
After much back and forth, we were able to get a room.
We dumped Skylark's luggage in the room and went out for some food. After food, we sightsaw. After sightseeing, we repaired to bed. I forgot a toothbrush. I went out to the front desk to ask if they had any on hand. I was directed to a vending machine at the top of the stairs. It had toothbrushes alright. It also had cigarettes and condoms. I noticed the brand name of the condoms and laughed out loud. The motel owners must have thought me the strangest of tourists as they watched my every move.
It might not be funny to anyone else but me. Maybe not even funny haha as much as funny weird. But the condom brand name was "꽃반지" (Flower Ring). That made me think of an old Korean pop song about putting on the Flower Ring you gave me (당신이준 꽃반지 끼고). Everyone knows that song. I don't know if everyone thinks of it euphemistically as I have from that moment in the lobby of a cheap motel in Chinju. I certainly don't think the young female pop star who originally sang it many years ago ever thought of it that way. That young girl who became so popular from that song that she disappeared to the States for 10 years, returned to Cheju Island, married The Master, and spent two weeks in early 1997 entertaining me by singing that song.
Think about that.
I love the city of Chinju. I have loved it since first I went there. I love how you come up over the hill before entering town and the sides of the highway are so beautifully and colorfully landscaped. I love how you cross the river and see the Chinju Fortress. I love 촉석루 too--even though it is a difficult Korean thing to pronounce. I love the spoken accent, I love the rotaries, and I love my memories of my visit there in 1987 for the 개천예술제.
I have fond memories of going ringside to watch the great 이 준희 dominate at 씨름. I was intrigued by the cow fighting. The thing that sticks most in my memory from the first time I attended that festival is the traveling snake oil salesman. There was a large group gathered around as he spoke to them excitedly through a microphone. I couldn't really understand what he was saying, but I could understand what I saw. He brought a random child up from the audience. He forced a pill down the child's throat. He talked for a few minutes while I waited for I knew not what. He grabbed a clear glass and filled it with water. He pulled the child's pants down and scooped out a white ball from the child's crease and dropped the bolus in the glass. He stirred it up and walked around to show the shocked crowd all of the little worms that the magic pill had freed from their colonic domicile.
He brought two more children up and gave them each a pill. The kids were visibly uncomfortable having just seen what happened to the other kid. After a few minutes, the salesman pulled out a long tapeworm from each young boy. He quickly laid them out on a board and smashed them dead. He walked the board around to show us all. Quite an awesome display of on-demand de-worming. I'll never forget that scene from my first 개천예술제.
All those thoughts rushed back to me as Skylark and I entered Chinju city on our direct bus from Seoul...
Skylark was hanging out with me and JT at our apartment one night. We were just talking and whatnot in bizarro "3's Company" style. I started talking about how I was going to go back to the Master's house pretty soon because they were having a Spring fashion show. I was looking forward to being one of the family again and seeing the beautiful island in warmer weather, and also seeing up close the models and good times that would be the fashion show. Skylark made mention of how she had never been to Cheju Island and would love to go someday. I, rather casually, suggested she go down with me on my next trip. You know how you invite someone expecting them to decline? With her working 2 jobs and being quite conservative, I never thought she would accept. But accept she did. On the spot. And with alacrity. JT went silent, got up, went in his room, and shut the door.
A few minutes later he came out, but instead of talking to us, he left the apartment. We heard his scooter buzz off down the street. Awkwardness. Skylark and I decided we should leave too and went to Shinjeong to a 24-hour Beer Land. We talked, drank beer, talked about Cheju, and I tried to figure out a graceful way to uninvite her. She told me she thought JT might be in love with her. Hmmm, I knew he would if he could, but I didn't think it had gotten as far as "love."
When I returned to the apartment JT was still up waiting for me. He was upset I had invited Skylark to Cheju with me. I told him I never thought she would accept and the invite was totally innocent. He told me he was convinced that if I got her down to the "Hawaii of Korea" she would let me sleep with her. Truthfully, I had no intention of doing any such thing with her--not so much because of JT, but because of her and because of my girlfriend back home in the States. But he was inconsolable.
Things were awkward between me and JT for the next few days, and finally it was time for me to depart for Cheju once again. Skylark showed up for the trip with two large bags, and dressed in stilettos and jeans--not exactly what the family Von Trapp would consider travel clothes. For some reason her outfit really annoyed me. Perhaps it was mostly because I didn't want her tagging along. Slip of the lip sinks the ship I guess...
We subwayed it to the express bus terminal. Skylark had never been on an express bus so she was uncomfortable buying tickets. I cut directly to the front of the queue, showed her a thing or two about her country, and bought us two seats on a direct bus to Kyoungnam's Chinju city.
I never saw JT again.
I could fill a couple posts here with some of the fun things JT and I did in late March and early April of 1997 (Eating Dog Soup, Propositions in Myoung-Dong, Fact Finding in a Room Salon, etc...). But secretly I know you all are just wishing I would fast forward to the part where JT and I unbecame friends. I know I haven't written yet about that fact, but some of you are probably expecting it solely based on my history of losing friends as documented here. Well, not so fast dear reader; I'm not prepared to recount that whole drama in one go.
And so it was that in late March and early April of 1997, JT and I were still continuing our 9-year friendship. We were hanging with Skylark on a regular basis. Her English was not getting much better (as far as I could tell), but JT was apparently falling hard for her. Truthfully, I can easily understand that happening to him. She was a real cutie. Educated, employed with a day job and Arbeit (아르바이트), but perhaps a bit naive (I'm not sure if I already wrote about the story she told me of getting duped out of her whole paycheck? Some guy stopped her in the street and asked her to deliver an envelope of cash up the the 3rd floor of an office building; he was on crutches and couldn't climb the stairs. She agreed, but he asked for some collateral from her in case she decided to make off with his cash. She handed over the envelope that contained her monthly salary in cash--the Korean paycheck. She never looked inside the guy's envelope. If she had looked she would have realized it was filled only with valueless paper. Up to the 3rd floor she climbed feeling good about herself, only to return down and find the crutched man long gone with her cash. Bummer dude.) But she was really cute and just as sweet.
Anyway, JT had a long history of easily falling in and out of love. I never took it that seriously. Even in college when he got dumped and sulked by himself in our shared room for 2 days and blared The Smiths tune "How Soon Is Now." It seemed too staged to be truly sad, and before too long he was moving on to another.
Besides, I was still trying to help him connect with Ji-Su. I never figured him for the capacity to fall in love with more than one fair Korean at a time. I would soon find out how wrong I was...
It took some doing, but JT and I finally got around to exploring the basement bar called "Green" near Omokkkyo Station. At one point before I arrived in Korea JT had followed a young hotty down there but was turned away at the door. Ever since he had been bugging me to take him there. And that is what I did.
Inside was pretty standard for a drinking establishment. Some tables in the center, some booths on one side, a sick Karaoke setup in the center, and some private rooms with frosted windows in the back. Semi-sexy videos played on the Karaoke screen, the clientele primarily male. We took up a booth that provided a nice view of the whole place and ordered some beers. An older hostess brought our drinks and a little dish of shelled peanuts. We could see no other working females.
After a couple lagers, I decided to get some buzz and energy up up in there. I got my Karaoke on like I do and the crowd responded. As soon as I took my seat again, 2 Korean gentlemen approached and asked permission to join us. One was a handsome, tall, slender guy who introduced himself as the owner. His mother was the primary hostess. And he owned a Japanese restaurant around the corner. In addition, he was a referee in the Korean National Basketball Association. He got it going on.
He invited us back into a private room where we could talk and enjoy some harder liquors. Four dudes in a private room with a bottle of whiskey and it didn't take long for the conversation to turn to ladies. A couple "one shot" cheers later and JT was prodding me to ask how he could get the Korean love he yearned for. That resulted in a long discussion (dissertation?) on the many flavors that were available. The Ref was very knowledgeable. In the end he mentioned that there was a place right next door that just might suit JT's more immediate needs. "One shot" again and off the four of us went.
Next door was a massage (안마) place that we walked past almost everyday on the way to Omokkyo Station. The Ref walked us in and up to the counter on the second floor. He told the girl why we were there. She picked up a phone and summoned the talent. Out from behind a curtain came 3 gals all wearing matching striped sweaters and black skirts. The Ref turned to me and simply said: "골라봐." I turned to JT and told him to choose. He chose. The Ref told me how much it was, I told JT, he pulled out all his cash and it was almost enough to cover the 145,000 Won fee (~$125 in today's money). The Ref pitched in to cover the rest.
The girl from the counter came around and took JT behind the curtain. The 3 of us that remained looked at each for a moment, then we left. Outside, I said goodbye to the Ref and his friend and went back to JT's apartment and passed out.
A couple hours later, JT returned all a twitter. I was a bit surprised he was back so soon; I thought maybe he'd put in an effort to get his money's worth. Giddy and giggly, he spared no detail. I will spare you though. Cliff's Notes: hot shower, robe, blind masseuse, striped sweater, junk scrub, double coverage, full service, out.
I never saw the Ref again.
Back in Seoul after 2 weeks at The Master's house. Our apartment was tight with all four of us there (JT's brother and new wife had returned by now). But it was only for a few days until I began substitute duties once again. I moved in just down the street to house sit and sub for a young couple who were headed to Kiwi land for a Visa jump and a honeymoon.
Teaching their classes was just more of the same; nothing spectacular to make mention of. Outside of classes, however, some notable things did happen during those 10 days.
1. I got sick. I shrivved alone in a stranger's apartment on the toilet. I had the vomits and the squirts. It was not good. I was pretty sure it was something I ate. One can never be certain but there was a sunny-side-up egg that made me nervous when I ate it. Later that day...down with the grippe. And I don't even like the flavor or consistency of a semi-cooked egg yolk in the first place. That's why I prefer the stone bowl 비빔밥 over the metal bowl variety.
Luckily, I was in Korea and a pharmacy is always as close as the nearest corner. So I heaved up on over there and presented myself in all my foul glory. I told the pharmacist I had vomiting and diarrhea. The pharmacist asked me if I ate something spicy. That's basic, first year med school learning there. But the answer can be tricky for the non-Korean. If I say I ate something spicy (because of course I had, being in Korean and all), they might treat that even though I knew that was not the problem; I've eaten stuff that would make a billy goat puke. Even if I tell the pharmacist that I eat spicy food well, they might still treat me for "foreigner with spicy food ingestionitis." And one doesn't like being a foreigner who eats spicy food well and is perceived as one who doesn't. Does one?
So I lied and said no I hadn't, but I normally eat spicy food well. Rather I think it was something rotten or uncooked that did me in. That's what I told the growing audience of pharmacists that was gathering to hear my tale of woe. That seemed to set all kinds of Hippocratic wheels in motion and before long I left with several paper packets, each filled with a variety of pills and something that looked like sawdust. Needles, I hate. Pills, I adore. So there you go.
That was one thing that happened.
2. I watched the Arizona Wildcats win the NCAA hoops championship on AFKN. That happened too.
3. JT and I met a referee from the KNBA. But that's a much longer story...
All told I spent 2 weeks at the Master's house in the Spring of 1997. I could have/would have stayed longer, but I was expected back in Seoul. Some friends of JT's (a young married couple) were fixing to do their Visa Jump/Honeymoon down to New Zealand and I had promised to cover their classes and house sit for them for 10 days.
And so it was, one morning after eating rice and an instant coffee the Master told me I was going to Seoul later that day. The Master's wife needed to go up to Seoul and I was to accompany her. It had all been arranged so I packed up my little backpack and readied for departure. I said my good-byes to the Master, Kimi, and 명룡 and piled into the Korando. 민철 drove us to the Cheju airport, paid cash for 2 tickets, and left.
Due to her celebrity, the Master's wife was frequently stared at. People randomly came up and greeted her. She was always gracious. Flight attendants were overly concerned for her comfort and travel needs. And there I sat. A grungy whitey in dirty clothes. We must have seemed an odd pair. Me in stinky jeans and a jacket that had not been washed in over a fortnight (I only had one shower during that span as well), and she in her conspicuous Jeju Brown Clothes and universally recognizable face.
When we landed in Seoul, I helped her load several boxes onto a luggage cart and we parted. I don't know where she was going or how she got there, but I beelined it to subway line #5 for Omokkkyo.
I was feeling queasy from too much Soju and not enough food and I knew I needed to get outside. I don't remember how I extricated myself from facial fondlement, but I'm sure it was not graceful. I made my way out of the party and went around behind the building where I was sure nobody could see or hear me. I retched.
I have no idea how long I was back there. I don't recall how much I puked. But when I came back around to the front, 민철 was anxiously looking for me. He worriedly asked where I was. I think I told him I had a whiz. He said we were leaving and led me to the Korando. 명룡 asked me if I was drunk and I told him I was not. In some bizarre attempt at showing them I was fine, I started running in a circle. I kept going faster and faster until I could no longer maintain any form of uprightness. I tumbled in a heap into what would have been the center of my speed circle.
The boys helped me up and piled me into the Korando. I have no clue how long we drove or which direction we went, but we pulled up in front of some place I had never been. I got out and leaked a number 1 into the parking lot and then followed the guys inside. We were greeted by a long-haired Korean fellow and a very tired-looking older woman. Apparently she was the drum teacher and he was her pupil. I am sure there was more to the relationship.
The pupil treated us to a demonstration of his drum learning while his mastress (is that a word?) looked on approvingly. It had to be getting on about 3 a.m. and I was still touch and go. I went back into the bedroom, put myself down on my back, and put a pillow over my face. The room spun, the drumbeat pounded, I longed for a real bed and a glass of water. Neither were coming my way.
After gripping for a couple hours, 민철 came and lured me back into the Korando. Just the two of us began the drive back to the Master's house (no clue about 명룡 at this point in the night). The sun was creeping up and 민철 drove right down the middle straddling the center line. I thought he must have been still drunk too but I had lost any will to do much about it.
When we pulled in to the Master's house, 민철 dropped me off and drove away. I went and found the Master sitting at the breakfast table. He took one look and told me to go to bed. And so I did.
I got up again around noon and felt good enough to eat. The Master said I looked much better; some color had returned to my face.
민철 did not return until that evening. I have no idea where he went. The Master thought maybe he went to a lady's house, or maybe to the public bath. I told him I enjoyed the public bath and he promised to take me.
민철 later asked me if I threw up. Of course I said I did not.
My second week at the Master's place started out with a bang. Some of 명룡's friends in an acting troupe were scheduled to do their final performance of the season at a theatre in Seogwipo. 명룡 got us 3 tickets and 민철 drove us over. It was the first time I had left the Master's house for any reason in over a week, so I was eager for the opportunity. (Secretly I was jonesing hard for a dang Orion Choco Pie but had no means of getting anywhere without 민철. And it seemed like he had no reason to ever leave home.)
We attended the play performance. All of the dialog was in Jeju dialect so I understood very little. It was cool and worth seeing, and the fun did not end there. 명룡 told me we were invited to the [w]rap party. We drove over to the soiree (at some big empty room somewhere) and went in. Nearly 50 people were gathered there along with the cast and crew. We sat in a huge circle around the room. I expected a round robin of song to break out, but each just stood in turn and introduced themselves. Not surprisingly I was the only non-Korean there. When it was my turn, I stood and put out by best Korean with a little flair. I told them my name and that I was "eating and living" with 명룡 over at the Master's house.
Laughter and clapping ensued. Good for me.
It was getting on towards 10 pm by the time the introductions completed and I had not had anything to eat since lunch. Rumbly in my tumbly. And the party had not even started in earnest yet.
At the back of the room I spied a stack of crates of Soju. Lots of Soju. Next to that, food. The food? 회 (raw fish slices with lettuce). That's it. Needless to say, a few slices of fish and some rabbit food wasn't going to be substantial enough for me to build a solid food base for overdrinking Soju; a recipe for disaster.
It seemed like everybody in that place came over to me one-by-one to introduce themselves and pour me a shot of Soju. Things blurred quickly and before too long I found myself seated in the middle of the room drunkenly talking to a flirtylicious actress who had given me the eyeballs back at the performance. We poured each other some Soju (not a euphemism). She asked me if she could touch my hair, then my face. I was certainly loaded as she giggled and fondled my visage like a blind person might.
I knew I had too much to drink and I started to feel ill...
Four nights already passed with the Master and I had only intended to stay one night. Every time I suggested returning to Seoul, the Master calmly suggested I stay another day. And so I did.
Every day was something new. One day a guy shows up. He is a standard Korean dude in the standard Korean suit with the same exact belt they all wear. Only this guy is from 나주. He is a likeminded fellow in speech if not in fashion. But what he does bring to the table is something of interest to the Master and his wife (the former famous pop star). He brings fabric dyed a gorgeous shade of blue using the Indigo plant. He does it all right there in 나주. He pitches his wares to the Master and the Master is cordial but non-committal. They agree to put the business conversation aside and have some rice and Soju.
The hour grows late and the Master prevails upon the Indigo man to spend the night. He agrees. Kimi preps a sleep space for him. All in a day's work.
Another day brings a History professor from a University in 광주. He and the Master are old friends. Rice, Soju, yada yada yada and the professor spends a couple nights. Another day and 멍석 shows up. He, too, is a traditionally minded fellow who wears the Cheju Brown Clothes (갈옷) and a dapper hat. He is down from Seoul where he is the proprietor of a traditional tea house that bears his name in Insa-dong.
These fascinating characters all flit in and out of the scene around me in a seemingly random order. The common threads are their threads (clothes), the traditional mindset, and Soju with smokes of course. Meeting folks like these was truly a unique opportunity, and it was made very easy and comfortable by the Master. He explained my presence in such a way that they all instantly treated me like one of the family.
Before I knew it I had spent a full week at the Master's house.
Another night at the Master's house. More rice, more smoking, more soju, and more singing. I had to dig deep in the recesses to pull out some Korean oldies. Surprising what's still left in the ol' bean.
아아 어쩌런 말이냐 흩어진 이마음을...Try singing that song. But I did bring it. Again with passion and whatnot. I did not know yet whom I was singing in front of. That helped. Had I known who the Master's wife was, I might have been crippled with stage fright. Ignorance can indeed be bliss.
I already mentioned how she spent 10 years in NYC. I came to find out that she was a huge pop star in Korea--that explains the singing voice and guitar skillz. She got so popular as a young woman that she couldn't go anywhere without people hounding her like crazy. She had at least one song that I daresay every living Korean knows by heart, even today. Eventually she got tired of it all; the stardom was too much. She bailed to the Big Apple to disappear from the Korean spotlight. She married a Korean fellow (who, I gather, was quite large in stature) and had 2 kids: Kimi and Yong.
She separated from her husband and returned to Korea where she met and married the Master. Together they started their own line of clothing using her Fashion design training and his traditional dyeing expertise.
At a certain point, my path crossed the Master's on a car ferry from Wando to Cheju. And here we are, me singing K-Pop oldies to a famous Korean Pop Singer.
Here are a few more faces. This first one is Kimi. She was a typical high school girl in 1997. Smart, talented, good cook, great singing voice (from her mother?). Turns out the Master is her step-father; her mother separated from the father. But one could could never tell by observing the relationship between Kimi and the Master. He definitely dotes on this one.
Here is 민철. He's the one who picked me up in front of the Moseulpo Post Office. 착해, this one. He told me Korean people often ask him if he's American Indian. Do you see it?
I called him 민철, he called me 형.
I slept soundly my second night at Mr. Kim's museum-like home in the countryside of Cheju Island. In the morning, the gong again signalled my call to breakfast. I joined the others, we ate rice, had our instant coffee with powdered creamer, and some enjoyed smokes. Mr. Kim arose and motioned for me to follow. We headed out to the back "yard" again. But this time, instead of lighting a fire under the rice stalk boiling vat, he lit a fire under two 50-gallon drums. The drums were 3/4 full of water. When the water was bubbling real good, he added some different ingredients to each. He explained that he was experimenting with new ways to make additional colors. In addition to the persimmon juice, he used red earth to make different shades of brown, coal to make black, and much more. It didn't feel like work, but I guess that's the nature of the traditional dyeing business.
He wasn't very forthcoming about his background, but I did manage to pry some high level history. His father was a ship captain in the Mokpo area, teaching at a Mokpo Maritime University; he was now passed on. His mom lived near Cheju City at that time. The Master was in Gwangju in 1980 and saw friends of his killed by the military. Like many others, he blamed the Americans for the massacre, and that shaped his worldview for many years. He once told me that if he had met me 10 years earlier he would have ended me on the spot.
After the Gwangju massacre, he was known to the government for his anti-Americanism and anti-government statements. So he "went to the mountain." He spent 10 years somewhere in the Jiri Mountain area reading, studying at the feet of a mentor, and living life in a more simple way. 10 years. And that is how one gets to become a Master.
The lunch gong pulled us away from the boiling drums and fascinating conversation. We ate and I suggested it was time for me to get back up to Seoul. The Master told me I should stay longer. And so I did.
After my guided tour, I went in and crushed out a nap. The dinner gong roused me and I went in to eat more rice. Before every meal Mr. Kim would say out loud: "잘 먹겠습니다." Others at the table would say the same, just not as loud or enthusiastically. After filling up on rice, a soup, and some side dishes, Mr. Kim would lean back and loudly proclaim, "잘 먹었습니다." I loved that about him and took it upon myself to do likewise. (Back home in the States I taught a friend of mine to say that, and a couple other Korean words. He went to Medical School in Seattle and would treat any Korean patients to a barrage of Korean non-sequiturs: "잘 먹었습니다, 맥주, 남대문, 집주소." He was usually met with either uproarious laughter, or total confusion on the part of the Korean patient.)
Mr. Kim fired up a cigarette and we sat around the table talking while someone did the dishes and cleaned the table. After dinner we moved out to the main assembly room that adjoined the kitchen and dining area. Conversation continued. He called for the Soju and our seated circle expanded. Soon there were 6 or 8 of us in a circle pouring Soju for one another and chattering away. As is inevitable in such a situation, somebody suggested we sing. Around the circle we went with each person singing a solo while the others clapped or blissed in one way or another. I wasn't sure if they were really going to make me sing too, but I was prepared just in case my protesting fell on deaf ears. Secretly I hoped my singing might fall there too...
They insisted. I relented. A standing ovation followed. I'm sure it wasn't that they thought I was a great talent (I'm not), but I sang with commitment and passion. And I treated them to an oldie but a goodie. I hadn't sung that song since 1987 when Mr. Shin and I sang the occasional tune while eating spicy Octopus and drinking Soju, so I was surprised the right words and tune came out at all. But the applause and the look on Mr. Kim's face was enough to say I had done right.
The song I chose for my effort that night was "고독한 연인 by the lovely 김 수희. I think I might still have the LP hanging around somewhere... Anyway, I sang with Soju-enhanced passion and really finished strong with a heartfelt "모르는 사람들 처럼."
Singing continued around the circle until it reached Mr. Kim's wife. She took up a guitar and sang a beautiful song I had not heard before. She played a nice guitar, but her voice was clearly better than most. We all felt like we had experienced a special treat. But the rotation did not end there and before long, it was my turn again. I took a risk and introduced my next song as one popular in Seoul at the time: Juju Club's "16/20." I nailed it. But I imagine it was a bit strange for such traditionally-minded Koreans to see a whitey like me singing such a teeny bopper tune. Say what you will, JuJu Club has a few songs I cannot get over. Even today, "견뎌야 하겠지" maintains a constant spot in the rotation on my iPod.
It was late into the night when we all retired. A pretty good day I must say.
The inside had been totally re-done as well. Several rooms were used only for storage like the one with all the unfinished masks. Four or five of the classrooms had been turned into huge sleeping areas (I was sharing one with 민철 and 명룡). There was only one bathroom in the whole joint, shared by both genders. It could be awkward to emerge from a stinky stall to see one of the Angels brushing her teeth. Or vice versa...
One of the classrooms had been turned into the domain of the Angels. Their room was piled high with rolls of cotton fabric that had been dyed using natural ingredients, primarily the juice of the ubiquitous Jeju persimmon. The dyeing process is executed during the fall months when the fruit ripens, and now, during the winter/early spring, the angels were busy sewing the dyed fabric into outfits. Four sewing machines whirred while 민철 told me how Mr. Kim's wife designs all the outfits and Mr. Kim and his helpers do all the dyeing. The clothing they make is referred to as 갈옷 (brown clothes) and was very common in the older days of Cheju. Only, these clothes have a bit of a modern flair. Turns out Mr. Kim's wife was in NYC for 10 years studying fashion design (more on her later).
We left the angels and went up the stairs out onto the roof. The backside of the center pillar in the photo above is a giant picture window that looks up at Halla Mountain. Inside of the pillar is a bedroom, but one would never guess that from looking at the place from the front. The view makes the bedroom the perfect spot for an afternoon tryst or nap, and I wanted to crush one out, but my tour continued back into the house. We hadn't even seen the ground floor yet...
The next morning I was awakened by the loud banging of a gong. It was earlier than I would have liked to get up, but I still had a lot to learn about this place--and I didn't even know it. I went in to the dining room again and Mr. Kim was seated at the long table ready to eat rice. He asked if I slept well. I said I did.
The others I had met the night before soon joined and lent a hand in setting the table. Turns out there's a younger brother too, simply referred to as 용이, and he lurched his massive girth in and sat down, bedhead and all. He was a sophomore in high school and appeared tired from studying and lack of sleep. Next came four ladies known as the 천사 (angels). They were the only ones paid to be at the house that morning, but they joined in the meals as if they were part of the family. There were 11 of us at breakfast that morning. Mr. Kim referred to the group collectively as his 식구--all were mouths to feed, but family as well.
Mr. Kim's wife did the cooking that morning, but 민철 did the dishes. After breakfast the dining room cleared out except for Mr. Kim, his wife, and myself. They both lit cigarettes. 민철 delivered three instant coffees with sugar and Prima to us as we sat talking it over at the dining table. Mr. Kim told his wife how he and I had met. I guess I thought he would have mentioned me before; she had seen me talking to him on the ferry after all. But now he told the story of meeting me through his eyes.
He told her that when he noticed a foreigner sitting next to him, he thought I must not be American because I was sitting still and silent. He expected all Americans to be noisy and rambunctious. When he found out I was American he was very surprised. Then he told her that I was lucky he had not met me 10 years earlier. If he had met me then he would have ended me. They both laughed. I didn't know what he was referring to. The conversation stayed very light and high level because we were all still feeling each other out. But I took my cue not to be an obnoxious twit while around these folks.
Mr. Kim's wife occasionally threw in an English word and I noticed her pronunciation was very good. I didn't want to probe, but I commented on her English. She switched to English and told me she spent 10 years in New York City. It had been years since she returned to Korea and she apologized for having forgotten so much of it. Mr. Kim also knew a ton of English vocab but couldn't really construct sentences so we spoke Korean almost exclusively.
When we finished our coffees, Mr. Kim rose and told me to follow him. I silently trailed him out behind the house. The back "yard" was much more rocky and weed covered than the front of the house. There were no neighbors behind and we enjoyed an unobstructed view of Halla Mountain. But we didn't go out there just to ponder a mountain...
The driver of the Korando was in his late 20's, single, and introduced himself as 민철. He asked me if I preferred Soju to drink or what. I told him beer, Soju, Makkeolli, whatever was fine by me. He asked me if I needed cigarettes or anything else from the store. As far as I knew I needed nothing. He pulled over in front of a nearby store and left the vehicle running while he ran inside. When he returned, he had a couple of bags filled with snacks, smokes, and beverages. Off we drove into the darkness of the Korean countryside.
After driving for nearly fifteen minutes we were square into the middle of noplace. It appeared to be an industrial area devoid of the common Korean residence. Finally we pulled off the main road onto a dirt driveway that led to a building unlike any I had ever seen in Korea (or anywhere else for that matter). I took this picture the next morning in the light of day:
We parked the Korando around back and took the rear entrance up to the second floor. At the top of the stairs we came into a dining area just off from an enormous kitchen. In the dining area was a long, low family style dining table. There were no chairs, of course, as one sits cross-legged on the floor while eating. The table was rough-hewn lumber, well used with celebrated knots and stains. It was long enough to seat perhaps twenty.
Seated at the table was the Mr. Kim from the Wando Ferry. He rose to welcome me, now speaking only Korean. He re-introduced the Korando driver, 민철, and another young fellow close to my age called 명룡. He proudly introduced his daughter Kimi. She was the gal who had answered the phone the second time I called. She was a "healthy" high school junior, cute, shy, dutiful. She opened the bags of snacks and drinks and started preparing to serve us manfolk.
After a while, the woman of the house returned. She came in very bubbly, perky, and full of energy and happiness. She took my existence in stride as if it were common for strangers to appear in her house. She loved to talk and everyone loved to listen. The next couple of hours were spent drinking and chatting while most of them smoked like chimneys. They were all very curious about me and I about them.
When I was too tired to continue, 명룡 showed me to a large room where I was to sleep on the floor under an electric blanket. There was no central heat and the air was quite chilly, but I slept the sleep of the dead in my clothes.
I was not a little bit relieved to be rid of the Church van driver. Standing now by myself in the middle of 모슬포 nowhere, I looked down at the scrap of paper in my hand. Mr. Kim’s name and local phone number stared back at me. It called to me. I put my phone card in a pay phone and dialed the number. An older woman answered, I focused on using my clearest Korean and asked for Mr. Kim by his full name as it was written. She was rather terse with me and said he was not home and she didn’t know when he would return. I hung up.
I walked around the heart of town thinking about what to do next. The center was not much larger than a single intersection and I didn’t see much that would set this place apart from any other small town in this country. Plus I had enough exploring for one day.
It was starting to get dark and I decided I better see to some food and accommodations. But first I gave Mr. Kim another dial. This time a much younger sounding voice answered. She told me he was not home. That was enough to make me give up on seeing this so called “Traditional Korean Museum” today. I paused a moment debating what, if anything, to say next. Then I just blurted out that I was the foreigner that Mr. Kim met on the ferry from Wando. She gave a slight gasp, perhaps realizing that the person at the other end of the line was speaking Korean and she never considered I was not Korean.
I had no idea who she was. I didn’t know if she was also on the ferry and had seen me talking to Mr. Kim, or if he had told her about me, or anything. She told me to call back in 15 minutes. I told her I was going to find a cheap motel for the night and would call back in the morning. She was getting more excited and told me she didn’t think I needed to do that; I should call back in 15 minutes. We agreed on that and I rang off.
Tired and hungry, but with piqued curiosity, I roamed the streets to kill another 15 minutes. I dilly-dallied and waited a full 30 minutes before I dialed back. This time my call was answered immediately on the first ring. It was a man’s voice so I asked if it was Mr. Kim. He said it was and asked if I was the foreigner from the ferry. I confirmed. He asked me where I was. I told him I was standing in front of the 모슬포 Post Office. He told me not to move and he would come pick me up in 10 minutes. I hung up and waited.
Fifteen minutes later a Korando pulled up in front of me. The driver was not Mr. Kim, but he was dressed in the same old school style, and had a long pony tail pulled tight in the back. He yelled out the window that Mr. Kim sent him and I should get in.
I got in…
The Church Van driver and I left the crater and headed clockwise around Cheju Island. It certainly was much better than having to worry about catching a bus from place to place. And so far, it was much cheaper too. He wanted to stop at the Folk Village but I didn’t so we made for Seogwipo. We drove around for a bit just taking it all in and then we stopped at Jeongbang Waterfall. My driver insisted I get my picture taken in front of it. I flashed a meaningless gang sign. We left the waterfall and without telling me our next stop, he pulled over in front of a 다방. He seemed to know the place well and he greeted the owner familiarly as we entered. We sat. I ordered a drink; he did too. He got up and walked to the front and had a private conversation with the hostess. He came back. Pretty soon a cute young lady came and sat down next to me. She spoke only to my driver, asking questions about me and so forth. He asked her if she liked me (마음에 들어?). She looked over at me and kinda shrugged her shoulders. Of course they had no idea was following most of their conversation.
My driver, and erstwhile love advocate, had a perverted-looking grin on his face and asked her if she wanted to take me in the back and give me some service. She kinda shrugged her shoulders and said, “별로.” It’s not like I was dying to go get my service on with this little cutie, but it wouldn’t have killed her to fake it just a little.
My driver was progressively getting weirder the more time he spent with me. But I went with the flow and piled back in the van. We headed West. We pulled over somewhere in 중문 resort and took this picture of me. No gang sign this time.
Nobody was around and nothing seemed to be going on. Westward ho once more.
Our next stop was Sanbangsan. This giant nipple-like formation appeared as if you scraped it off the earth with a giant spatula and turned it upside down like flipping a pancake, it would make a great filler for the crater I climbed earlier in the day. We pulled into the parking lot at the same time as a group of tour buses. An endless stream of drunken and cackling old ladies teemed from the buses like ants from an anthill. Without missing a beat, my driver started asking them who wanted to buy ramen noodles from him. That lead balloon was greeted by more cackles and the occasional “Hello Hello” directed at me. More cackles and off they trundled.
I had a look around at the mountain and the scenery, a Buddhist temple. Nice. But I was getting tired, and getting tired of my driver so I didn’t linger longer. As we drove along, my driver decided he had set the hook and I was ready for his pitch. He thought it would be a great idea to head back to Cheju City where he would put me up and I could teach English to the church people who owned the van we were in. I had no intention of returning to Cheju City yet, and even less interest in living with this traveling Ramen salesman who couldn’t move any product. I told him I couldn’t really do that and he started asking me for money. I was grateful for the ride, and it was an experience I might not have had without my driver, but I wasn’t going to give him 100K Won like he asked.
At that moment we were entering a small town called 모슬포. This just happened to be the town in the address that the guy on the ferry from Wando had written down. I suddenly told my driver to stop the van. “Stop the van right here. Stop here.”
I got out in “downtown” 모슬포 and walked away from my driver forever.
I left my temporary 호떡 haven and made my way afoot for the bus terminal. I stopped to rest in front of the Post Office, near a famous landmark building in the heart of town. I must’ve looked lost and lonely. A kind foreigner came up and sat next to me and asked if she could help me with anything. I said no and we got to talking. She was a Canadian who was teaching English in Shin-Cheju. She quite liked it. I told her I taught English some 10 years before in Busan and was back to have another look around. I told her I was using my Lonely Planet as a guide and I planned to head east, circle the island clockwise, and see as many hot spots as possible. She wished me luck and we parted never to see one another again.
I grabbed a bus and headed for 성산일출봉—a volcanic crater on the eastern tip. It is famous and nearly every visitor to the island gets a look at it at least once. I must’ve missed a memo somewhere along the way because the bus dropped me off quite a long walking distance from the crater parking lot itself. Feeling like a silly foreigner I started hoofing it toward the crater. Before long a Korean man in a van pulled up alongside. The van carried the name of a church in Cheju City and the lone figure driving it asked me in poor English if I wanted a ride. I rode.
It didn’t take long to see that he didn’t have much English but I wasn’t ready to play my trump card yet and so I stuck to English. This bad habit of mine really drove JT crazy when we were together in Seoul. He couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t use the “great gift” that I had. Anyway, I always leave it to the Korean to dictate the language we use to converse. It seems like more often than not they want to use English even if it doesn’t really work. Then I would only turn to Korean out of necessity. I stuck to English with this guy, and as a bonus, it helped keep the dialog to a minimum.
We parked at성산일출봉 parking lot and I walked back to get the following establishing shot of the crater.
Down a small side street off the main drag coming up from the ferry terminal was a row of cheap motels (여인숙). I picked out one at random and opened the front door. There was a bell on it that dinged loudly to announce my entry. I had come up with a strategy for easing the motel owner’s experience when trying to accommodate the foreign traveler. As soon as the bell dinged and I could hear someone inside rustling about I would yell out loud in Korean: “Hello? Do you have any rooms”? Invariably the answer would be that they did have a room, so I would yell out and ask how much per night. They would usually respond with a fair price. I would get all of this done before they had a chance to see that I was from way out of town and get all freaked out that they didn’t speak English. It worked great on this occasion too, and soon I had a room at the end of the hall on the second floor of a fine establishment.
The small room had only a TV and some blankets and a floor pad. There was a pillow filled with rice or corn or something. The bathroom was down the hall and halfway down the stairs to the first floor. Standard 여인숙 stuff. The owner was a short, jolly fellow who took extra pains to make sure I was comfy, that I had a bottle of water (probably recycled, and not in the way one might think), and that I knew how to work the hot water in the bathroom. Very nice and friendly. I decided this would make a great home base for a few days as I poked around lovely Cheju Island.
Cheju City from a hill east-ish of city center A cool shot with the KAL Hotel in the far background
After a couple days of wandering around Cheju City--the capitol of beautiful Cheju Island--I returned to my cheap motel room for the evening. I was greeted at the door by the owner who invited me into his room for dinner with the family. He had treated me to two meals already, one free nights of lodging, and even chauffeured me on a near-death drive to Dragon Head Rock. Or, Horse Head Rock as I like to call it…
He also told me not to worry about money, but to stay as long as I needed, use his motel as a home base and travel around the island and return each night. I tentatively agreed. Anyway, this night, the motel owner really opened up. He told me he was a writer, showed me notebooks full of his hand-written work, and read me parts of a story he wrote about when he was with the U.N. forces in Viet Nam and about the wound he brought home with him. He said he had had many favorable experiences with the U.S. soldiers while there and he hoped we could become close friends. We finished dinner and I went up to my room to watch a little KMTV before I fell asleep.
About 11 p.m. that night, there was a knock on my room door. I rousted myself up and opened the door to find the motel owner with two Cheju City policemen. They wore suits and were quite terse with me demanding to know my name. They were holding the registration form from the motel, the one I had thought it would be funny to put a fake name and passport number on. Name: Tony Opda. Turns out they did not find that as humorous as I. To compound my initial mistake of phonying the motel registration form, I told them I left my Passport in a locker box in the train station in Seoul. Not funny. They demanded to see any form of ID, my boat and train ticket stubs, my birthday; they grilled me. They wanted to see some proof that I had come down from Seoul, and had not snuck onto their island in some other clandestine fashion. I passed their exams, but I still got a lecture about the danger of spies, especially on this island. They reminded me of the recent news about the North Korean dictator’s ex-son-in-law who had defected to the South, had plastic surgery to change his face and was still shot in the head by a spy just days before. I thanked them and said goodnight.
Early the next morning I slipped out the front door while holding the bell so no one would wake up. I felt like a fugitive as I ran down the street in the still dark of morning. I didn't stop running until I was at the public market where I went deep into its bowels to a 호떡 stand where I burned my fingers and tongue on the melted brown sugar filling goodness.
The stoic Korean gentleman next to me on the bench continued to stare out of the ship's window into the darkness of the sea for quite some time. He finally broke the silence by turning to me and asking in halting English: "Are you American"? It was as if he was debating with himself whether or not to engage me at all.
"Yes," I responded. He simply nodded and turned to stare back out at the black of night. I thought it was strange but it was not annoying. Again we sat in silence for many minutes.
When he again spoke, it was to ask me where I was going. I told him I was headed to Cheju Island. He asked if I had been before, and I told him I had not. This brief exchange, again in English, was followed by more silent stillness and more staring out at sea. As the ship neared port, he tore a scrap of paper from a notebook in his beggar bag and wrote his name and address with a black charcoal drawing pencil. I had not spoken one word of Korean, nor made any indication that I could speak better Korean than he could English, but his name and address were written in Hangeul.
I treated the scrap as if it were a business card; I thanked him and held it and stared at it for a moment before putting it in my shirt pocket. He then told me that I should visit him, "My house is a traditional Korean museum," he said.
"OK," I said. I left him with a slight bow and went to retrieve my backpack/erstwhile pillow. On the way off the boat I noticed that he had been joined by a woman. She wore the same style of clothes and walked a couple of steps in front of him. They certainly were a unique-looking pair, both in apparel and hairstyle. Other Koreans stared at them too. Thinking I would never see these folks again, I waved goodbye and exited the terminal into the salty Cheju night air.
The owner of the kindergarten in Seoul where I had briefly taught had arranged for his brother to meet me at the terminal and make sure I had a good visit. Since I was the only whitey in sight, I figured I would be pretty hard to miss. But nobody approached. I made a half-hearted attempt to call him, but nobody answered. Secretly I was a bit relieved because I didn't want to be beholding to anybody. I wanted to roam freely.
Lonely Planet said there were cheap motels (여인숙) aplenty near the terminal and I soon found that to be true.
Somehow I managed to get a spot for me and my backpack on the green turf-covered floor where I had a reasonable 5-square feet of personal space. All around me Koreans sat in groups small and large. Some sang, most smoked, others slept, and some drank Soju. In my closest proximity was a middle-aged Korean fellow and two female travelmates. I got the distinct impression that neither was his wifely figure.
Not long into the ferry ride, he untied the knot in a plastic baggy and revealed a still-squirming, mostly alive, octopus. Another bag produced two bottles of Soju. He used a pocket knife to slice the octopus into bite-sized bits of tentacle and hood. The girls giggled and the man did most of the eating and drinking. Ahh, good times. For as much as they ignored the rest of us, they might as well have been in a private room. It really is uncanny how Koreans are able to treat others whom they know not as if they were a telephone pole or tree. I was a tree. A lone white tree planted in the corner on a field of plastic grass.
I got up to wander around and check things out. I went on deck and looked out at the ocean. Nothing looked back.
By the time I returned to my little corner, a Korean fellow was asleep using my backpack for a pillow. I didn't feel like rousting him so I went back out and used the potty. It was dark out by now and the lobby area was deserted except for a bench with one sleeping gentleman on it. I tried to sit down on the bench without waking this guy up, but the bench was rickety and even my body weight caused it to bounce one time. He opened his eyes and looked over to see who had disturbed his solemn reverie. His reaction was an emotionless pokerfaced stare for an uncomfortably long time. He drank in every detail of my face and head, and turned to stare at the darkness out the window.
I couldn't detect any stank of drunkenness and I figured that if he wanted to practice his English on me, he would have done so already so I stayed put. The two of us alone on a bench on a boat. Neither one speaking. Not moving. Trying not looking at each other. I cheated enough glimpses to notice he had shoulder length hair and a wispy mustache and goatee. He dressed in traditional looking clothes; the ankle-tie and waist-tie pants with the super low crotch, and a button-up cotton jacket. He carried a mendicant monk-style shoulder bag. I pegged him for an artist.
I was not far off...