Friday, June 10, 2011

Korea Memories - Monday, May 23rd

On Monday morning we packed up and took a short flight south to Jeju Island. Jeju is one of Korea’s provinces, and it is a volcanic island just south of the mainland of Korea. Jeju is a huge vacation spot for Koreans and Japanese. Like Hawaii for Americans, many Koreans go to Jeju on their honeymoon. Jeju is legendary for a plentiful supply of three things: rock, wind, and hardy women. The rock is pretty self-explanatory since the island is volcanic in nature and made of lava rock. They weren’t kidding about the wind either: lots of it, and consistent. And the hardy women? There is a group of Jeju women that dives for sea creatures year round. They dive pretty deep and they stay under for over two minutes. We didn’t get to see any demonstration while we were there, but I guess it’s pretty entertaining.

The flight down was interesting because it reminded me of flying out of Owensboro in that nobody acted like they’d been on an airplane before. The flight attendants at the front were constantly on alert to jump up and tell people to sit down when they were supposed to. I saw quite a few people wandering around the plane before the flight looking for their seats. It was kind of amusing.

The first stop we made was at O’Sulloc tea farm. Jeju has perfect conditions for tea growing (porous and mineral-rich volcanic soil, plentiful rain, and proper temperatures), and in Korea and China they don’t speak of drinking tea – they talk about the rich and historical tea culture. These cups were from the three kingdoms dynasty, so probably about 1000 years old.

This is a roaster. They roast the green tea leaves, turning them over by hand in this basin that is heated from underneath.

Here are a few pictures of the tea fields. It was peaceful, beautiful, and the smell was exquisite. Mom, I know you would have been in paradise.

Ok, it’s time to interrupt with a story. The first couple of days, I was a little self-conscious because people really stared at us a lot. I only saw one Korean person my height the whole time I was there, so I literally stuck out because of my size. And Susie’s blond hair is really a rarity in Korea, so she stuck out as well. At first I was very aware of it, but after a few days I kind of got used to it. Near the end of our trip I occasionally had one of two thoughts: “Come ON, we can’t be the only white people you’ve ever seen.” Or: “We’ve been here 10 days, and this country is so efficient, so I know some kind of government notification memo had to have been sent out about us to the entire country, so we really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.” Still, it was definitely a different feeling being a true curiosity everywhere we went. It was usually little kids or old people who stared at us, and occasionally people would ask to take pictures of us or with us. I will say, though, that it wasn’t a feeling like we were intruding and the Korean people made us feel unwelcome. I definitely didn’t feel unsafe at any time because of our difference. And there was no feeling like we were being singled out in requests for handouts or assistance like what you may encounter in some Latin American countries. It really felt like a genuine sense of innocent curiosity, nothing more.

So it didn’t really get under my skin when we were walking around the tea farm gift shop and I noticed that Susie and I were being followed around by a few people with high end photo cameras and a video camera. After a bit, one of them approached Sungwon and asked her in Korean if we were uncomfortable. We said no, so they asked if we would look at specific items or areas while they took pictures/video. No big deal so far, right?

Then they asked if they could take pictures and video of this place down the road that was a bonsai garden. As we walked out of the tea farm the leader said we could follow him in our car. Then he said he could just drive our car for us since he knew the way and his associates would follow. Then he just said that we could ride with them in their bus. Keep in mind that all of this is in Korean with Sungwon and we were getting loose, rapid translations. I couldn’t decide how concerned I should be, especially when they loaded us up in their bus and gave us snacks and drinks (some preopened). I leaned over to Susie and asked her jokingly if this is how foreigner abductions usually begin?

The whole story is that they worked for a travel/tourist part of the main Korean Broadcasting Company (KBC), and they preferred to have foreigners in their shots of popular tourist attractions for their ads. There was a British guy in the bus as well, but he actually had been living in Seoul for some time and could speak Korean and was helping us translate as well.

We were bused to this bonsai garden and our admission was taken care of. The place was beautiful, but it was windy and raining. Here are a couple pictures. In the first, you can see the cameraman filming the British guy, Susie, Sungwon, and myself walking across a stone bridge.

Because it was raining, and because it was right around lunchtime, the crew took us inside and bought us lunch at the park’s main hall. It was a huge Korean buffet and was outstanding. After eating for a while, they came back to us and said that since it was raining they couldn’t do any more shooting and offered to take us back to our car. As we loaded onto the bus, they told us that since some of their crew had to fly back to Seoul we were going to stop somewhere so they could pick up their bags before dropping us off. Once again, that kind of got my feelers up, but I didn’t want to let that on at all, and we were already committed. Turns out, they dropped us off, and we got to see the bonsai park and had a free lunch, all for playing interested white tourists for a few frames. Can Susie and I put model/actor on our business cards now?

After the tea farm we went to visit Cheonjeyeon falls in south Jeju. It was a series of three falls that emptied out into the ocean. Here’s a picture of us in front of the middle of the three falls. Very lush, tropical, and green.

To top the evening off, we went to dinner at a famous seafood restaurant near the beach. When I say seafood restaurant, please understand that the Korean version and the American version are two different things. At their roots, they are the same – serving things from the sea, but the presentation of those things are where they differ. I never actually saw this, but I heard that at some seafood restaurants you can actually choose your fish from the tanks in front of the building. Quite a few restaurants in Jeju and elsewhere in Korea had these tanks.

The other difference is that many times in Korea you just eat the whole fish. I’ll be honest. This was not the culinary highlight of my trip, and I think Susie would agree. But we both tried it (we have proof of Susie here). I think they want you to eat the head first because it would just be creepy if the fish got to watch you eat the rest of him. Luckily for us these fish were cooked, because it would have been a lot harder to do this if it was raw. We ate some raw whole fish as part of a kimchi, but they were much smaller.


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