Monday, August 20, 2007

serendipitous weekend part four

Sunday morning August 12th:

We knew the storm was going to be bad when the wind began knocking over full pitchers of beer, but we told ourselves it would blow over by morning, as the last one had, because we were now on an island that required a boat to leave it and we didn't want to face the increasing possibility that we would not be making it back to work on Monday and would have to face a chorus of I told you sos and the like. April comes to our room to tell us that our cab driver (I forgot to mention that our cab driver gifted us with a watermelon the previus night, a fruit which I've since learned costs $16 here) because he was so pleased to have us there) had called her early in the morning to tell her that the ferries had been cancelled for the day and the next one as well. We were about to panic, but he'd called her back to say there was an alternative: we could hire a private boat to get us off the island. It would cost about $400.

We decided that we'd gotten ourselves into this and so far we'd spent very little money, as people kept being overwhelmingly kind and generous, so we sucked it up and prepared to pay $80 a person to get off the island. Of course, no sooner that we decide this, April comes back to tell us that our cab driver had called back to let us know that he'd arranged for us to get on a boat with about 20 Koreans that were also trying to get off the island and that we'd be squeezed in a tight space, but would only need to pay $20 a piece. Again, amazing luck. So, he and Crankypants loaded us up and drove us to the ferry terminal where we crammed into a boat better built to seat ten and made as though we were being smuggled across the border. Actually, it was a pretty sweet ride, if a little choppy (the storm, er, edge of the typhoon, was rolling in after all) and chartering a private boat made for a pretty good story. "Yeah, we don't have a plan. We're doing this the American way; we'll figure it out when we get there and do whatever happens to come along." We'd have been so fucked if we hadn't been so fortunate.

An hour later, less than half the time of the regular ferry, we arrived back in Mokpo and, again via April, bought our bus tickets back to Haenam. We bought Nick and April lunch, stopped at the Paris Baguette for dessert and bread-- and the only sparkling water I've seen in Korea-- and managed to get on the right bus at the right time. We went back to Wims homestay family's house, who then called my homestay family to have them pick me and Brianne up. We went back to my homestay family's house in the country, to shower (Brianne's first hot shower of the homestay stretch of the trip) and eat dinner. It was lovely-- and they liked Brianne so much they invited us both back for dinner on the 23rd. It was very sweet. Brianne and I spent the rest of the evening applying these strange Korean masks (think paper sheets that make you look like the horror film character Jason) and generally feeling lucky. Sinae made me a cross-stitch gift, which included R in the cross-stitching, which was cute and odd, since I'd only ever mentioned him once. It was a nice end to a long and interesting weekend. I know I've forgotten a million things (the fish ice cream that violated no less than two people, the swampy mudroom that made out shoes smell like a homeless person's ass, Fallon falling on her butt straight into a huge puddle and managing not to break her computer, or get it wet, despite it having been in her backpack jsut above her butt at the time, etc.) but this was the gist of it.

In the end, I think my favorite way to travel is to have a general plan, but truly to proceed as the way opens. Had we not taken the advice of kind strangers, had we not chanced our luck, had we not been willing to fork out the money for a private boat, we would have missed out on so much. It was wonderful and I feel very fortunate just thinking about it now. Next up: the Buddhist temple-stay and 108 (make that 115, oops) bows ceremony.

serendipitous weekend part three

By now you've noticed this weekend required installments... now another weekend has passed and I've even more to tell. But first, the rest of the story. Saturday morning, August 11th, on the island of Big-eum-do:

Our taxi driver/personal tour guide/savior (along with the ever helpful and bilingual April) was so amazing, I don't even know where to begin. To start, he immediately smooted things over with the angry husband/cab driver (henceforth referred to as Crankypants), and then informed us that the hotel we were planning to call was not great and not on the beach and that he could take us to a pension, which is sort of like a hostelling situation, or a minbak, except that the family lives on site, yet not in the building they rent. This pension was on a beach, though he said he'd take us to a nicer beach and would drive us around the island, essentially all day, for a very reasonable sum (the equivalent of $30). His first order of business was to get us all to the pension, but along the way he decided to take us to a beautiful white sand beach. As we drove the road narrowed, finally to tall reeds, then emptied onto the beach itself. We drove along the sand and, as I happened to get into his cab with Nick and April, he relayed stories and information. This particular beach was one of the longest in all of Korea, north and south; in fact, it was one of only two and was four kilometers long. It was stunning. He pulled over to let us out to take pictures and walk around, while Crankypants took a cigarette break.

The beach stretched both directions, creating a sort of inlet, and there were islands off in the not-too-distant distance. The water was cooler than I expected, but nothing like Oregon, and the sand was covered with tiny sea snails and the hundreds or thousands of intertwining tracks they'd laid in the slow crawling across the beach. I did say stunning, didn't I? He took photos of us, for us. He smiled and laughed. We continued onto the pension. The long beach was the best road to the pension, and eventually we pulled off the beach and onto a small waterfront paved road. The beach near the pension was mud and there were children that had been playing and bathing in it, covered except for eyes and teeth in mud. They wandered up the road and to a cluster of buildings to hose themselves off. These buildings were the pension and where we'd be staying for the night. Too cool.

The pension itself was just okay. We slept on the floor and the walls had various bug carcasses smeared across the terrible floral paper, the bathroom/shower (as most showers in Korea are the entire bathroom--yuck) was less than desirable and there were many flies circulating the room, but for the price, it wasn't too bad, and we were only staying one night. We dropped our things in the room and he and Crankypants proceeded to take us to another beach. Again, the drive was amazing and he frequently pulled over to take photographs of us, or to let us snap photos, all the while telling stories of the local lore. On Green Mountain, there is a small temple, an original that was not destroyed by the Japanese and therefote very old; the two rocks jutting up from another seaside hill were dubbed the Lover's Rocks, because they stood like lovers leaning into one another; there a rock that looks like a turtle; that island in the mist is the island Nick and April had intended to vacation on but couldn't make it to; that other island right there is where Chogumbogo (butchered and incorrect spelling, I'm certain), a famous Korean pirate, used to fix his pirate ship; etc. He was driving us to Heart Beach, a beach so named because it is literally shaped like a heart. Our cab arrived to the beach a full ten minutes later than Crankypants' because of his excitement and guidance. When we finally arrived, I noticed an apright piano on the beach. When I asked (again, via April) what the story was about the piano, he simply said, "no story." It was just a piano on the beach!

Our taxi driver (I wish I knew his name) and Crankypants left, with plans to pick us back up at 7:00 and he insisted we do not pay him until we arrived back at the pension. Can you believe that? So, we played the piano, not well, as there was sand blown under the pedals and the weather had worn the keys and strings, but there was sound coming out of it and that was impressive. April, a piano player, actually managed to eek out a tune. It was great. We dropped our things on the sand and ran toward the water. The water was wonderful and the waves were big. We ran and jumped and swam and screamed (as the Koreans that were there liked to scream when the waves came; Brianne later stated it was more fun when you screamed). I should mention that by and large, Koreans do not wear swimsuits at the beach. Don't imagine this as a skin scene; it's quite the opposite. Koreans will swim in jean shorts and long sleeved button down shirts. I have no real explanation for this, except that they are quite conservative when it comes to mixed gender situations and very concerned about exposure to the sun. I would think that comfort would win out, but no. They also seem not to mind schlepping a lot of stuff to the beach (tent, tarps, blankets, tables, etc.) to avoid sitting directly on the sand or in the sun. Very different.

This beach was also covered in tiny, practically transparent little crabs, and on the rocks there were what I can only describe as sea cockroaches. But the beach was beautiful and the break well-earned and much appreciated. Soon the amazing taxi driver and his cohort Crankypants were back to whisk us off the beach and to a restaurant. It turns out that this island, though in Korea, land of all manner of creepy sea food, actually specialized in chicken, and that this restaurant served what is called "low chicken," which is the breast, which is usually not the preferred piece, because necks and feet are special prizes here. Additionally, the chicken is served steamed, rather than fried. The meat eaters among us would have loved it, but the restaurant was closed. I should also mention that when I told April that two of the five of our group were vegetarian, she said, "Vegetarians don't eat chicken?" I can only hint at the trouble we've had. Vegetarian has taken on new meaning here, more precisely, non-beef-eater. It's rather a pain in the ass. Since the restaurant was closed, we went to a market for beer and junk food/snacks and promptly quadrupled the shopkeeps monthly gross, I'm sure. We played silly drinking games on the floor of our pension room and watched the storm roll in...