We get a phone call around dinnertime from Robert’s dad. They want to know where we are. Actually, they want to know where they are, but they’ll settle for knowing our location and having something to work toward.
We’ve been expecting a call all day. Paul and Bob took off on rented scooters to the other side of Jeju Island, Korea, mid-morning, without taking down the name of our hotel or the city we’re staying in. They know we’re on the South coast, on the other side of the volcano, but that’s about it.
Robert and I wandered around all day. It’s October, but it still feels like summer. There aren’t many tourists around and we are free to walk without jostling old men or tripping over children. It’s been sunny all day and my skin is warm with a light sunburn.
It’s been the calmest day of our trip so far. Three days ago, we took the train – standing room only – from Seoul to Busan. Our two days there involved riding down the street on an office chair and a terrifying taxi ride backward down a freeway. Yesterday, we flew to Jeju hungover and tired.
* * *
At the Jeju airport, we get on a bus that drives around for half an hour before the driver makes us get off in the middle of a deserted residential area. Despite being on a street lined with homes and silver KIAs, there isn’t a sound to be heard.
It’s Chuseok, possibly the biggest holiday in Korea, and families gather from across the country to tend family graves and honour their ancestors. No one seems to have gathered in this neighbourhood. The only time we see anyone is when we find an open supermarket tucked back from the road. We buy ramen noodles and water and sit at a deserted playground to discuss what to do next.
We can see the sea shimmering down the road, just past the peaked roofs of the residential area. We decide to walk to the sea.
Two hours later, we’ve walked past the residential area, through some orange
groves and across a highway to finally get to what may be the ugliest beach in Korea. Jellyfish resembling globs of phlegm spot the beach and seaweed clogs the water. We wonder why we left Busan.
* * *
Today we are trying to give Bob and Paul directions to the hotel over the phone. Both of them arrived in Korea within the past seven days and neither one can read or speak Korean. Not as many people speak English on Jeju as they do in Seoul, and while there is English on street signs, it’s naturally less prominent than the Korean. They’re having a hard time finding the turn-off we suggested, and asking for directions seems impossibly complicated.
Robert and I sit on the hotel steps because the last sign they could read suggests that they aren’t far. We watch the sun set and the sky darkens. We’re waiting so we can all eat dinner together. We talk and try not to look at our watches. When Bob calls back, they’ve driven three cities past us. Robert and I decide to go to the 7-11 for some beer.
* * *
We sit on the ugly beach for an hour before hunger demands that we figure out what we’re doing for our next meal. We see an open convenience store and head toward it looking for water, food, and a taxi.
I’m fully focused on Family Mart and barely notice at first.
Two well-tanned foreign girls are sitting on blankets at the beach. And I know one of them.
Naomi’s hair is golden from living an island life that includes frequent afternoons of suntanning. We worked together in Canada and she’s been here a year already, teaching at a private school. She smiles wide and looks breathtakingly relaxed and happy.
We sit with the girls and sip beer as the late afternoon sun drops lower. Naomi recommends a bar and a pension on the South side of the island. While we’re making evening plans, an elderly Korean man comes up to offer us makgeoli, a Korean alcoholic rice drink.
The deserted neighbourhood around the beach comes alive as men, women and children gather for a Chuseok celebration. There are races, tug-of-wars, wrestling and soccer games. Paul loses a bottle race to some elderly Korean women, but wins a family pack of ramen as a consolation prize. He claims they cheated, but seems happy with his ramen.
By the time the sun sets, we have dinner plans and a great beer glow. As the families trickle back to their homes, we prepare to find a taxi to take us across the island to food and working showers.
* * *
After Bob hits Paul with his scooter, a Korean family with a pickup truck takes pity on them. The family leads them to a waterfall near our hotel.
It’s damp and dark when we all meet up again and you can hear the waterfall rushing nearby. It’s supposedly a site marked by a famous Chinese explorer.
We eat tuna sushi for dinner and listen to the saga of Bob and Paul crossing Halla Mountain and coming back again. Robert and I tell them about following a couple in hiking gear to a second, prettier waterfall this afternoon.
After dinner, we buy some beer and head to that waterfall. On the other side of a low fence, we find a spot to sit on the cliffs and watch the tide break against the rocky coast. Boats are out on the water, just barely visible in the darkness.
“Sabrina,” Paul says, turning to me, “Did I ever tell you I’m a geographer?”
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