Since visiting the 5.18 Peace Park in Gwangju my interest in Korean history had peaked, especially the stuff that was seemingly swept under the rug. While looking for places to visit and things to do in Jeju I came across the 4.3 Peace Park and was immediately captivated by the Jeju Uprising, another bit of Korean history I was yet unaware of. As most things are in Jeju, the park was not an easy place to reach without a car, but I'm no stranger to Korean public transportation, so the hour long bus ride didn't phase me. Bus 43 runs from downtown and stops directly outside the park, the only problem is it only runs once an hour, so it's wise to plan your trip accordingly.
Having lived in Korea for three years, with various short and long term visits added in, I've come to learn a lot about the country. Quite appropriately, my first round of learning was through food, language and entertainment, after which I began learning more about the intricacies of the people and culture. What I've been lacking though, is a deeper understanding of the history and politics in Korea. I blame High School, scarred by too much note taking, but the currently political situation in Korea has sparked some interest. South Korea has had quite a year in politics, a political scandal, months of peaceful protests and finally the impeachment and arrest of president Park Geun Hae. Now, with the election of Mood Jae In, the country is buzzing with excitement and curiosity for the future, and I too am interested to see what's in store. Having been in Mokpo for the last two weeks I decided last Friday to take a trip to Gwangju for a history lesson.
Jeju is famous for many things, earning itself the title of one of the new seven wonders of the world as well as holding multiple UNESCO heritage sites. Hallabongs, lava rock formations, beautiful scenery, black pig and loads of other foods and snacks, are a few notable aspects, but a highlight no one should miss are the Olle trails. I often heard people talk about Jeju Olle trails, but I honestly never spent much time looking into them, that is until last week. After a few months of traveling, eating and drinking too much, I was ready for a few solid days of exercise, and lucky for me Jeju is the perfect place for this, along the Olle trails.
When I told my (Korean) friends that I’d be visiting Jeju again, this being my third trip, I received a lot of jealous and envious feedback. I guess it’s true that you don’t travel much in your home country because despite being a 1 hour plane ride away some of my friends have never been. I actually felt kinda bad because I wasn’t all that excited about my trip, in fact as I waited to board the plane part of me wished I were on a bus to my friends apartment in Mokpo. I get carried away sometimes and it usually involved buying airplane tickets, but then when the day comes I begin to think “Who signed me up for this?” sounds weird, I know. Nevertheless I was on my way to Jeju, first to meet a friend and then hang out and explore on my own for an unknown period of time.
Having the ability to show up in a foreign country and contact a friend has always been a dream of mine. I remember thinking that if I studied abroad in University I could make friends from around the world and then later go meet them in their hometowns. I did study abroad, but most of the people I met during that time were fellow Americans, a majority of whom were from the Midwest, so much for those global connections I dreamt of. Thankfully though, life doesn’t end at 21 and I still had plenty of time to fulfill those dreams. Today I’ve got friends in many corners of the world all of which have come from connections made during both my time teaching in Korea and also the traveling I’ve done during and after.
For two years I lived in Korea, teaching English was my main pursuit, but in my free time I worked to learn the language, culture and traditions. Living somewhere as an expat though creates some limitations. You don't have an immediate family to spend weekends away with, nor are the holidays quite the same. Chuseok, one of the largest holidays in Korea, is often spent with family, a time to spend together while remembering those who came before you. As the holiday is three days long and is often coupled with a weekend, foreigners take this opportunity to travel. During both of my first two Chuseok holiday's I took the opportunity to jump across the sea to Japan. Not having a family to spend this time with it seemed like the most logical alternative. This year though things would be a bit different, my friend Pete (a Korean/American adoptee) would be visiting. Knowing that most everything shuts down during the holiday I planned a few simple days for us, traditional village, hiking and temple exploration. I dreamed of being able to show him a real Chuseok but couldn't imagine how this would be possible, but remember: anything is possible.
Tuesday morning began early, loading up the buses for a day of adventure. I was given a schedule before we left (in Korean) but per usual our plans had changed - same destinations, but in a completely different order. Our first stop was a beautiful coastal walk at a place I can't remember (or was never told) the name of. Basically it was time to hear the students complaining that their legs were tired and it was too hot, not a good sign for the rest of the trip. Again this was just one big photo shoot, the boys were hilarious (and gullible) as I got them believing my boyfriend was back in Buksam at my house while I was on this trip. I'm hoping these guys continue to talk to me back at school because they were a blast to spend time with in Jeju, true colors were definitely showing.
So as I've mentioned multiple times, my school is awesome - I love the students, my co-teachers are helpful (most of the time) and my administration adores me. Last week I had the privilege to accompany the second grade students on their annual trip to Jeju-do, also known as the "Island of the Gods" and a popular tourist destination for Koreans and foreigners alike. Many teachers told me it wouldn't be fun because I was touring with the students and wouldn't be able to see what I wanted on the island. Okay fair enough, but let's consider the following: 1) I wouldn't have to come to school or teach for those four days 2) I'm going to Jeju (regardless of what I see the islands beautiful) 3) I get time to bond with the 2nd graders outside of the classroom and 4) Did I mention the principal wasn't making me pay? - um yeah I'm not complaining.
Last Monday was a national Holiday in Korea - officially 석가탄신일 referred to as Buddha's Birthday, thus providing me with a three day weekend. Having the extra time I knew that I wanted to take full advantage of the weekend, so Sara and I decided to explore Geoje Island, South West of Busan, but accessible by bus. The weekend snuck up faster than expected and we had failed to look into train tickets early so we wound up on the 6:55 am train from Waegwon - really not a problem as it provided us with more time on Saturday. Travel to Geoje went better than expected and we were on the island enjoying a lunch by noon.
A few weeks ago in my class I taught the expression "April showers bring May flowers". The kids understood the meaning however it didn't translate the best as rainy season here is generally in summer - July and August. Unlike the April showers we have at home, spring arrives here just in time to cure you of your winter blues, this is the time to catch the beautiful cherry blossoms [벚꽃]. Literally you need to catch them before their gone, the blossoms tend to bloom during the first few weeks of June (depending on location) and are usually gone within two weeks. I was in luck, my friend Son was planning to stay in Gyeongju for the weekend to explore and invited me to come along. Gyeongju was the capital of South Korea during the Shilla dynasty so there is a ton of history and lots to see there. It was the Friday after our school hike and I didn't really feel like rush to a bus so I decided to instead get up early Saturday and catch the first bus. I slept with ear plus in that night, thanks to the lovely dogs down the block and their incessant barking, which created a bit of a rushed morning after sleeping through the first five minutes of my alarm.
Where to start. After living in this country for three years I have memories, experiences and stories galore. I'll now always be a bit partial to the Land of the Morning Calm. Filled with delicious foods, beautiful nature and friendly people, I'm always happy to return.