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.
A few months ago an ex-student of mine, the one now living and studying in Milwaukee posted pictures on Instagram of his trip to Key West Florida, the Southernmost point of the United States. This wasn't the first "Omg I haven't even been there" moment while looking through his pictures, and I'd be lying if I wasn't the slightest bit envious. It's true though, that when you're in a foreign country you take much more time exploring, falling into old routines when you go home and losing that sense of adventure. I'm sure I've been to more places than he in Korea and just to prove it (not really, but coincidences occur) I was finally planning my weekend to the Southernmost point of Korea, Haenam.
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.
A few weeks ago I got a Facebook invite from an old La Crosse friend Mitch who I recently discovered is currently teaching in Seoul. He's been here since August and since then has spent a few weekends exploring and hiking throughout Korea, this time he was trying to get a group together to tackle Jirisan, the second highest peak in Korea (the first, Hallasan is on Jeju island, so this is actually the highest on the mainland). I'm a fairly active person, but since being in Korea I haven't had many major athletic challenges or tests of my endurance, none the less this invite spiked my interest. Two weeks later, along with my friends Sara and Amanda who I talked into coming headed towards Jinju. Friday night we all met in Jinju, found a budget motel and went to bed early, before starting our adventure Saturday morning.
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.