I recently returned from a vacation that took me to Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. It was my first time landing in Malaysia and Singapore but not South Korea. I had been an English teacher in Korea almost 20 years ago. When I was there, I wrote a bi-weekly column for a Nova Scotia newspaper about my experiences. I’m doing that again except this time, the columns are for my own blog.
Part IV of Singapore ‘16
Revisiting Taejon put a part of me at rest. I had left bits and pieces of my DNA there 20 years ago, remnants that had been twisted in uncertainty and pain. Back then, I was either looking into the past or at the future, I hadn’t really been present. This time I was in Taejon in the here and now.
I saw what I needed to see there and did what I needed to do and it was time to move on. After less than 24 hours in Taejon, Jason and I got on a train heading south. We were going to Jindo, South Korea’s third largest island. I had never been there but had seen it on the news. It was close to where the MV Sewol sank in 2014, killing more than 300 passengers, many students. Before the tragedy, Jindo was full of tourists enjoying the ocean air and seafood restaurants. Today, there are still some visitors but not like before.
We were going to Jindo because it was off the beaten path for international travellers. Lots of people like to go to Chejudo, another island. (“Do” means island in Korean.) Cheju is a party place and Jason and I wanted to avoid that. I had read that Jindo had some of the highest tides in the world, just like where I grew up near the Bay of Fundy. Our plans were further solidified when we found a place on Airbnb offering a traditional Korean home, a hanok, for the evening. Why not spend a night the old-fashioned way?
Getting to Jindo was going to take some time. We would spend more hours going to and from the island then actually being there. (I don’t know why I didn’t figure this out until we got there.) Edward, our Airbnb host, gave us directions but they were a bit off. After arriving by train from Taejon to Mokpo, a southern port city, we had to transfer to a city bus to get to the regional bus station. We didn’t know how to get there but a few friendly Koreans showed us how to get from Point A to Point B. One man asked where we were from, and when we said we were Canadian, he proudly exclaimed to us, “Montreal!” I guess he had been there several years ago.
We got the first bus and then transferred to a second bus and rode it for an hour to Jindo. At the bus station on the island, we were supposed to take a third bus to our accommodation for the night. Edward’s directions said take the green bus to the village of Oh-il-see.
All the buses were green.
Green buses were coming and going. Going and coming. One pulled in. One pulled out. Which one did we take? We asked the bus drivers but it seemed no bus was going where we wanted to go. A senior waiting on a sunny bench outside the station said something and motioned for us to sit beside her. But without knowing Korean, I didn’t know what she was getting at. There was a man taking tickets and he looked at our tickets and then pointed to the bench the woman was on. That was where the bus would pull up. Ah. We got it.
We were sure we wouldn’t have to wait long for our green bus since there were many green buses buzzing around. But an hour and a half later we boarded our green bus. A 10 minute jaunt and we were dropped off in the middle of Oh-Il-See. Our next move was based on Edward’s description on how to find his house: when you arrive Oh-il-see, there are two super markets, and my place is about 10 min from there on foot.
The village was a maze of narrow quiet streets. Surely someone would know where Edward lived in this tiny place. We asked a shopkeeper and she pointed down the road. That way.
We had told our host we would be at his place between noon and 2 p.m. It was now 2:30. Jason and I started walking in the hazy afternoon and moved off the street when a man with a toddler strapped to the back of his bicycle rode towards us.
“Lea? Jason?” he asked.
It was Edward, concerned his guests were lost since they hadn’t shown up yet. He introduced himself and his daughter Danbi. It was the start of a new friendship and a great time in Jindo.
At Edward’s home, he showed us into the hanok. It was basic, rustic, but that was fine. It was all we needed for one night. The small wooden home had enough room for a mat on the floor for sleeping, two pillows filled with hay and our two backpacks. There was a pit toilet outside. Jason and I had wanted to do something different while we were in Korea. We didn’t just want to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants. We had wanted to meet people and experience some of the culture. Here was our chance.
While we were getting our stuff organized, Edward brought us out some lunch. We sat at his outdoor kitchen table and ate kimchi and rice. Danbi brought out books and then musical toys and so we had an impromptu concert with our meal. Then we went for a hike into the surrounding hills where we passed rice fields and a lake. While Danbi played in a trickling stream, Edward told us some of the history of the island and why he and his wife Han were on Jindo.
Edward’s a musician as well as a fairy tale writer and philosopher. He liked the slower pace of life on the island, an island where a lot of artists live too. He asked why we were spending only one night in Jindo and we told him it was all the time we had. He asked why we had chosen Jindo and I told him the tides were a main drawn. That was when he decided to put us in his car and take us to the beach.
The sun had stayed in Taejon. Rain started to fall in big heavy drops while we drove to the water. Edward let us out of the car with an umbrella and he went to visit a friend with Danbi. The tide was out and there was a familiarity with the scene: the mud flats stretching into the horizon, rope strewn on the beach and the smell of the sea. If I looked hard enough into the fog, maybe I’d see Parrsboro.
I shivered. The rain was cooling. This was the first time in a couple of weeks that I was cold outside. About 20 minutes into our beach foray, Edward pulled up. It was suppertime and so we tried out a few restaurants. The first one was for kimbap (Korean sushi) and mando (Korean dumplings). The second for duk bo gi (spicy rice cakes) and the third for sweet fried chicken. Everything was delicious and the way I remembered it.
After supper, Edward was going to take us back to the hanok before picking up his wife at a potluck. Jason and I knew this would add hours onto his evening so we said we could all squeeze into the car. That was how we ended up being invited into the party when we arrived to pick up Han — and being serenaded by a talented musician. It was a completely random moment that made Jason and I feel like we had friends in Jindo.
Back at our hanok, we had no trouble drifting off to sleep on the floor. I did wake up a few times because the hay pillow was hard as a rock. Who knew straw could be molded into a brick? We woke up to the sounds of birds and the Jindo dogs barking instead of chugging motors and busy people starting their hectic day. It was a good break for my spirit. Seoul was the next and final stop on our journey and it would be filled to the brim with activities.
Breakfast was served to us: an apple and a piece of chocolate cake, and then Edward and Danbi dropped us off at the bus station. They stuck around while we boarded the bus and then waved goodbye as we drove away.
We had left Jindo too soon but we had certainly felt its magic. It has a different kind of energy: the type that’s used to being in the shadows of other, more popular places, but knows it’s special. The people are genuine and that doesn’t mean they’re all friendly. They can be grouchy too but they’ll be grouchy to everyone, not just the tourists. In Jindo, people came up to us and asked us where we were from. Then they would ask why we came to Jindo. We would tell them because we wanted to go somewhere different. Because we wanted fuller memories and stories rather than just photos taken in museums or conversations had only with other travellers.