Jeju Island in the Winter


Five years ago when I was working in an elementary school in Busan—another way of saying, when I was in purgatory, boiling off my sin in vats of molten glass—I managed to communicate a question to one of the few students who did not dream, night and day, of finger-raping my asshole: “If you could travel anywhere you wanted, where would you go?”

She replied in earnest, without hesitation: “I want to go to Jeju-do!”

My disappointment still makes me wince. With a snap of a blue genie’s fingers you could wander the volcanoes of Hawaii, or pay a man to sing you opera in a Venetian gondola, or drink what is apparently staggeringly good coffee in Ethiopia (tanking up for a marathon with the best runners), or see a battle between lions and alligators and wildebeests, or ride with gauchos over the Argentinian pampas, or debate the most ancient philosophical questions with whoever else happens to be riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad with you, or go for a swim in the coral-blue bathwater surging underneath a Mayan temple perched on a cliff, or try to trip up your North Korean minders (“explain to me what Juche means exactly!”), or simply go for a walk on a Manhattan sidewalk—one of my cousins who lives there once told me that whenever he gets bored he just walks around; inevitably within minutes he’ll see something or someone worth seeing, like a man waltzing around in a glitzy purple boubou, or a gladiator spitting fire.

But no, this girl picked Jeju-do.

I’ve been in Korea five-and-a-half years, five-and-a-half years, and I haven’t managed to learn taekwondo, do a temple-stay, visit Japan or China—at the Beijing airport I had a chance to run out through the whirling revolving doors, where I could see taxis waiting to whisk me off to a country that is apparently full of garbage, terrible smells, friendly curious materialistic impolite people, and endless adventures—and, until recently, I had never been to Jeju. A year ago when I was buried in that pit of barren wind and icy death which is winter in Gyeongju I had the most vivid dream of this island as a sunny tropical jungle fuming with warm wet wind and surging with the symphonies of birds. I checked google images, asked around, and found that it sometimes snows in the winter, and is just as maddeningly cold as the rest of South Korea—which is supposed to be warm, because it’s in the south!

I flew out here six days ago on the dime of Nutrage Airlines, with which my wife and I had saved up a lot of airline miles, and was happy to bid farewell to the smoggy apartment buildings and gray rice paddies slumbering in corpselike stillness—gladder still to be traveling without small children for the first time in several years. It was such a joy to sit in the airport and watch the other parents carrying their laughing little shits around on their shoulders, and even after my flight was delayed for an hour or two (the ceiling blasting deafening incomprehensible announcements, an old Korean man shouting at a politely-grinning airport worker to go fuck himself) I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I love my kids, I’m crazy about my kids, I miss them desperately, but I would give their arms and legs for a child-rated sleeping pill I could dose them with before hauling them around the world to visit their American grandparents.

Even on the bus to the airport I was smiling as though I had been lobotomized. Beyond the windows a desolate wasteland swept by, so colorless I found myself wondering if I had strayed into a black-and-white movie, filled with garbage, factories, slaughterhouses, highways packed with cars, and apartment buildings: All Borg. But none of that mattered, because I was free—free to go where I please and strike where I please.

The flight was interesting because of a strong fat fortysomething Asian man sitting across the aisle from me, dressed in a camouflage jacket, and preoccupied with shitting in the bathroom just as we were about to take off (what better time or place?). The Korean stewardess, or steward I should say, knocked on the door and told him repeatedly in slavishly polite Korean and then barbarically rude English that we were taking off, he had to get out, and then when the door was finally flung open (filling the cabin with the most delicious bathroom odor), this same steward had to haul the man into his seat and buckle his seatbelt for him as we were hurtling along the tarmac. I should have applauded; it was an impressive show, but it wasn’t over yet. A few minutes later while the stewardesses were wheeling out drinks this same mysterious man, who appeared to speak neither English nor Korean nor any language at all, snatched a paper cup and a bottle of orange juice from the drink cart and ignored the stewardess when she repeatedly asked him to wait. My wife told me later he must be some kind of migrant worker, possibly from China, since Koreans are always so scrupulous about following the rules.

The heroic steward then spent the last twenty minutes of the flight bragging about his exploits in Korean with a pair of giggling beauties who sat behind me.

The winds of the Korea Strait buffeted the plane, and clouds swept past the wings like wisps of milky tundra, but within minutes it seemed like we were flying over fishing boats shining blazing lights into swarms of squid, and rusting tankers chugging their way to Jeju City, a square of apartment buildings laid out in a grid, and looking small enough to fit inside one of Busan’s festering sewage pits. The rice paddies here were still green, however, dark green in the gathering night, and when I made it out of the airport and ran into my first grandfather penis statues (made from black volcanic basalt?) I discovered that the temperature was honestly pretty comfortable, maybe in the fifties or even the sixties for my American readers who have read this far—basically Spring-like for everyone else.

I took a taxi up through the night, passing plentiful evidence of increasing Chinese influence on the island: not just the usual signs written in prestigious classical Chinese for the benefit of older Koreans, who can’t read the words but like the way they look, but real Mao-reformed simplified Chinese trying to entice middle-aged Beijingers into “19+” gentlemen’s clubs. The Americans are also building a military base here, which has predictably delighted the locals, ever eager to enjoy the pleasant company of foreign soldiers.

After the sun rose I discovered that the island seemed like Korea Minus Korea, the only place in Korea I’ve been to where I didn’t have to force myself to like it: I didn’t see much garbage anywhere, there wasn’t even that much neon, and once you got out of the very small city you were surrounded by country roads, forests, and farmland. You could actually see small horses, supposedly descended from those belonging to Mongolian invaders, pretty regularly, and there were cows wandering over yellow scrub and cliffs. The smog usually obscured the sea, but the water was still easy to spot from most places I’ve been to, while vast Hallasan at the heart of the island stabbed up into the sunny clouds like the Devil’s Tower from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Even from the university, where I’ve been teaching/babysitting for eight hours a day (so exhausted by the end it’s all I can do to turn a page of Dickens), I can see the ocean and the cliffs, airplanes diving into the airport, and tankers floating in the blue bay. The landscape is sometimes more dramatic than the mountainous Korean mainland, with low-lying hills leading to sudden volcanic cores leaping straight up at the sky, perfectly vertical and looking as though you need ropes, picks, carabiners, and rocket boots to climb them. Unlike the rest of Korea (excepting Seoul, Gyeongju, and maybe Jirisan, which I can’t personally vouch for), there are places worth going, things worth seeing and doing. I spotted some pink-petaled, yellow-stamened camellias at the car museum (where I was so stupidly overjoyed at discovering my first real-live Delorean that I actually asked someone to photograph me standing beside it smiling hard enough to break my face in half), and even what appeared to be a wild rabbit, late as usual for his appointment with the Cheshire cat. At the Aerospace Museum (heavy on the Aero) I got to sit inside a Huey, flick switches, fire rockets, and throw the throttle forward. With a camera and a few guys in fatigues and helmets a movie with that thing would basically make itself.

Yes, Jeju is Korea Minus Korea, but historically at least it seems to be the Korea of Korea, a small poor island always trying to be independent and always getting pushed around by its bigger neighbor to the north. Repeated independence movements never succeeded (and often led to terrible massacres), and my colleagues tell me the locals can’t stand the mainlanders. Koreans typically complain that their country has been victimized by history, and finally I’ve discovered a place that has been victimized by Koreans themselves, even if the children are Korean enough to shout “wa masheeketa!” when passing a truck plastered with advertisements for individually-wrapped second-rate choco pie-ee. I was also intrigued to find out that the famous Sea-women, or the old divers who hunt around the undersea rocks for fifteen-dollar-a-shell abalone, are driven around the island in pimp-mobiles by gangsters, no different from noraebang ajummas further north. If I discover an old woman using a Haruban statue to get herself off, my journey to the dark side will be complete.

In short, while I would definitely prefer a trip to Hawaii, and while Thailand is probably a better option for English teachers in search of a break from the soul-crushing miseries of Korea, even in the winter Jeju really isn’t that bad, and as I’ve heard from a coworker here, it’s “the shit” in the summer, so as some Australian guy (maybe) said in a tourist ad from my American youth, “come and take a day!”

(He might have said “come and say g’day!”, I can’t remember, but that makes more sense, doesn’t it?)

Also—if you read this far and didn’t feel the need to threaten my life, take a look at one of my travel books.