Wind, Rocks and Women

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May 19, 2013 by travelinggrits


When I heard my spring conference was scheduled for the “Hawaii of Korea,” I couldn’t help but imagine exotic flowers and pristine white beaches.

But aside from a few decorative palm trees dotting the sidewalk at the airport, the island of Jeju presented an entirely different character from the one I envisioned.  With nearly one million people, Hawaii’s most populated island has some of the worst traffic in the U.S. Jeju’s population is below 600,000, with more of an overgrown feel. It’s known for its bulbous oranges but also grilled meat from native black pigs. It even has its own dialect that is unintelligible to mainland Koreans. Compared to the silken elegance of the Hawaiian hibiscus, Jeju is a feisty, free-spirited wildflower.

They say Jeju is known for three things: wind, rocks and women. Although most of our conference was spent passively listening to presentations and powwowing on teaching ideas, I think I would have done Jeju a disservice if I hadn’t taken some time to come in contact with all three.

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We were afforded a day to take a free tour of the island, hopping from Sopjikoji’s fields of golden rape flowers (that’s no typo) to the columnar joints at Jusanjeolli. At the base of Ilchulbong Sunrise Peak, I witnessed the rituals of the haenyo, a group of female divers that have a reputation for their stoic stamina. They are a dying breed, as the danger of diving sans equipment increasingly outweighs the profit acquired from abalone, squid and other treasures of the sea, and the women’s daughters now choose safer professions. Only a few thousand are left, and their average age is well over 50.

Before their dive, the women chanted while waving their baskets and nets, their song like the enchanted strain of rugged mermaids. Clad in wetsuits, goggles and loafers, they waded out into the clear waters, slowly sinking down even with the surface. They swam in slow circles, intently looking below. With each successful catch, they waved the prized captive above their heads to the approving applause of the onlookers on the shore. They made it look easy, even though they had just sung a petition to the sea for safety.

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I could never consider joining the ranks of Jeju’s haenyo, nor do I deserve to be counted among their number. But perhaps inspired by these wonder women, I capped off my trip to Jeju with a test of my own fortitude.

Jeju boasts the tallest mountain in Korea: Hallasan, at 6,398 feet. While no Mount Everest, all hikers should expect to spend at least seven hours completing the hike. It’s a full-day commitment. If you can’t pass a certain point before 2 p.m., you will be turned away from reaching the top.

As a former outdoor adventure camp counselor, I drooled a little bit just thinking about it. It was a no-brainer to switch my flight to afford enough time to scale it, even though I would arrive home at midnight and teach the next morning.

I’ve done my fair share of hiking in the States, but I don’t think I’ve ever climbed volcanic rock; the lightweight, porous stones softly crunched under my feet, and in some areas the path was paralleled by wrinkled, hardened lava flow. Even though it was a Tuesday, there was an abundance of fellow hikers, including high school students on school field trips. I was hiking with a team of no-nonsense, go-getter Fulbright teachers and researchers, so we weaved in and out of the youngsters, who were often paused to whine about the difficulty of the hike, hunger or the weather. There were certainly no stouthearted haenyo here.

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After we overtook the treeline, the  trail was replaced with steps built out of logs the size of railroad ties; our group dutifully marched in an ant-like stream through this giant territory. At the summit, the winds were brisk, and the small lake inside the crater at the top was still iced over. We spent an uncomfortable half hour scarfing down muffins gripped in our numb fists, and our smiles for pictures were no more than frozen grimaces.

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But the view was unbeatable. On all sides, one could see the coastline snaking below, the sea blindingly radiant in the sunlight. And when I crawled into bed late that night, after a plane, train and bus ride to reach home, this picture painted the backs of my eyelids as I sank into sleep.

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No matter its secondary status to its sister island of paradise, Jeju has character that the Traveling Grits aspires to gain: to be sturdy as the rocks of Mount Halla, energetic as the swift seaboard winds and fearless as the haenyo.

 

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