"Barf Boat to Jurassic Park!"
Trip Start May 28, 2010
15Trip End Jun 06, 2010
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Where I stayed
Scattered at random spots on the floor were people lounging in quiet meditation. Coming from a country so fixated on always doing something productive, it was a bit odd to see, but I was envious at the same time. I couldn't help but realize that I’m hardly ever just at peace with myself. At work, it’s about my students, and there’s always music on in my car, and chances are, the television is on in my home. But, other than one TV with no audio in a small corner of this mediation room, there were no distractions. Patrons had pulled out lounge mats and were just arbitrarily laying there in silence, some appeared to be in a deep slumber. The extremely-dim lighting and fragrant aroma made for an incredibly-soothing environment. Brielle and I had dinner at the house restaurant, and we were the only customers. For about $6 total, we ate bibimbap and ox tail soup, and received two Korean fruit drinks that we used to mix more of our Grey Goose. Sitting down Indian-style at the table, Brielle appeared to have had a much more peaceful experience than I did in the hot tub, and she explained to me the whole concept of the "cold pool".
Fortunately for Brielle, she had scheduled a 45-minute massage/exfoliating session with a lady downstairs in the women’s spa. Encouraged to do the same, I headed upstairs to try and get a massage, too. I stepped one foot back into the spa area, and saw a line of naked, Korean men waiting to get rubbed down furiously by a four-foot-tall Korean masseur (also naked), and since he was so short, he was forced to use much of his own body to wipe down the people on the massage table. No thanks! While I’m very appreciative of other culture’s customs no matter how bizarre they seem, having another man’s genitalia wax me up was low on my priority list. Instead, I decided to try my hand at the meditation that seemed to put everyone into their catatonic state. I laid alone in a sauna at 45-degree Celsius temperature, wearing my robe, and placed my neck into a resting brace. Feeling nothing but the beads of sweat dance down my back gave me a calm sense of fulfillment. I didn’t have any idea of how much time had elapsed; I just had this feeling that I’d emerge when the time was right.
At about 1:00 a.m., I came back to the main room and used the sleeping bag I had brought for camping to lay on the floor in a quiet area unoccupied by other people. We had to make a 9:00 a.m. ferry ride to Ulleung-do in the morning, so my alarm was set for 7:00 a.m. Over the course of the night, an older Korean man decided to set up his sleep spot only a few feet from mine, so instead of my phone, my alarm ended up being the horrible snores of the elderly man. After a sweaty night, it felt indescribably good to leap into the cold pool I had missed out on the previous night. Brielle and I were running late, so we frantically conveyed that to the lady at a restaurant beside the boat station, and gobbled up something with egg in it before running to the ticket station.
Getting on the ferry was a lot more hectic than I imagined. People were scrambling quickly to secure spots on the floor to lay out newspaper to lay on and sleep for the three-and-a-half hour ride, and by people, I mean entire families. Having experienced tremendous seasickness from a boat ride in Cancun a few years back, I was a little nervous to see that the boat was already rocking from side-to-side. Thinking quickly, I preemptively took 4 Ibuprofen tablets to make up for my lack of Dramamine, and grabbed a six-pack for me and Brielle to split. Sure enough, not long after we left port, the motion sickness swept over the boat passengers like the creeping San Francisco fog over the Bay. Although I was fine, it was rough to look at (and listen to) people vomiting in whatever bags they had on them. One husband, in particular, was babysitting his sick wife whose face looked as white as Nicole Kidman.
When the boat was pulling up to the dock at Ulleung-do, the passengers rushed toward the door, and we found ourselves waiting patiently with a British man and his Korean girlfriend.
"Do you think we'll have trouble finding ourselves a minbak?" Brielle asks the man.
"Minbak?” He replied, with a look on his face saying he needed more explanation.
“Yeah. One of those circumstances where an Ajumma (old, Korean woman) offers you a room in her home for your stay?” Brielle goes on in more detail. “The guidebook says that we’re likely to get offered one as soon as we get off the boat.”
“Oh yeah, of course.” His confidence in the situation assured us it wouldn’t be an issue. “They probably don’t speak any English, so just don’t get ripped off. 30,000 Won should be enough for a night.”
Stepping off the boat, I felt like Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) from Jurassic Park, when he first steps out of the Jeep and sees the beautiful islands and the dinosaurs in the background for the first time. The view was awe-inspiring. We were surrounded by lush, green mountains and gorgeous landscapes, all enveloping a quaint town of humble Koreans, most of them in their 30s and older. With every step I descended off the boat’s stairwell, I was noticing something else that was spectacularly different about this town. My head was on a swivel and I had one of those open-mouthed smiles like when a kid first walks into a Chuck-E-Cheese.
“JUH GI YO! (excuse me)” An elderly Korean woman barks at us with a big smile, and waving a sign with a South Korean flag and something illegible written on it. Brielle and I shot each other a look realizing that this was most certainly the minbak opportunity we were seeking, and it was even more clear that she spoke zero English. I just sat back and enjoyed the show, laughing as I watched Brielle negotiating with her in English, and the lady nodding and signaling things in Korean. Isn’t it funny how, even when we know another person doesn’t speak our language, we keep trying to convey our points, usually by looking even dumber with wider eyes and slowing down our speech with raised volume? As if somehow the old Korean lady who has never been off this non-English-speaking island will somehow “see the light”, and English will come to her naturally. Nope.
Well, we must have agreed on something, because the barely-four-foot lady started marching away, looking proud as ever to show us her town and accommodation. She was a cute, old woman. The thing about these Ajummas, and I’m almost embarrassed to say, is that they all looked the same! No, not just because they were Korean, but because they all were less than 5 feet tall, they all wore ridiculously mismatched outfits with baggy pants that a chef might wear, and every one of them had the same haircut (short, poofy black hair that was somewhat covered up by their rhinestone-plastered visors that I wouldn’t even wear on tax day). There was also no way of predicting the ages of these women. They could be anywhere from 40 years old to 80, some more withered from their days in the fields. This was the same look that foreign women who were living in Korea would try and emulate for Halloween, only these outfits were everyday life for an Ajumma. As we were walking in front of a beautiful part of town with a nice backdrop, Brielle grabbed my camera, gave it to the woman, and signaled for a picture.
“Ahh, nayyyy” (yes). Brielle and I could not contain our giggles as she kept smiling and holding up the camera in such an awkward fashion. We tried to convey to her that her fingers were blatantly in the way of the camera’s lens, but we were laughing too hard to do anything about it. “Hanna! Dul! Set!” <click. And out pops our finger-framed picture>
After every few steps, the Ajumma (whose name we never knew) kept looking back at us, similar to the way a dog looks back at their owner to make sure they’re still there. Her apartment was only about a quarter mile away from the boat dock, and right in a convenient location of town. We followed her up a flight of stairs that was right on top of a convenient store, and then into a small, simple flat that she clearly used to house random people like us. She showed us to a tiny room (one of two available) that had nothing in it except a TV, and a wall-mounted air conditioning unit that had a plug that didn’t reach any outlet. The middle part of the floor was slightly padded and raised up from the ground, but still was decorated to match the surrounding wooden floor. It was Korean custom to just lay down a bunch of blankets and sleep on the floor.
Perhaps the funniest part (well, second-funniest next to the camera incident) was when the Ajumma brought in her other friend to help convey the price (35,000 Won), show us on a map how to get around town by bus, and most importantly, show us how to drink water from the sink. High tech shit! Again, imagine us just throwing up hand gestures and continuing to talk on in our native languages as if the other person understood us. What else could we do? This video here will help to relay some of the language barrier we were experiencing.
Not long after, the Ajumma and her friend left the apartment, and we were free. We did it. Just looking at each other, we could not stop laughing at how wild this day was in just the last 30 minutes, and that we were actually able to secure a place to stay while speaking no Korean. Let’s just hope it was safe. After setting our stuff down, we took a stroll around town to see what kind of people called Ulleung-do home. On some back road, we bumped into a tall, South African girl named Zelna who recommended to us a good afternoon hike around the island’s perimeter. We followed Zelna out to a small bridge off the coast, and watched as her friends were leaping off into the clear blue water below. A walkway along the coast enabled us to see much of the island and its beauty, as well as the small shop owners laying out their fish for sale.
After ascending a long, natural stairway made of rock, there was a clearing that provided magnificent views of a distant part of the island. Again, the Jurassic Park theme popped into my head. I was just waiting for the pterodactyl to fly by as the fog was clearing out. A gigantic, spiral staircase led us down to another city in the distance. The city appeared to be a small fisherman’s town with a really condensed population, and apartments that had a nostalgic feel to them. A proud, earthen monument looked over the city. The local folks dubbed it “Candlestick Rock” for its appearance.
While walking up to Jeonbu Harbour, we noticed the enormous, steel penguin we had read about in the guidebook, famous for its erect, phallus-shaped crane protruding from a peculiar area of its body. Brielle captured a wonderful picture of a local fisherman that really embodied the feel of people on the island. The man stood there on his boat, happy as a clam, and we read about how the lights on his boat are turned on at night and lowered into the water to attract squid to their doom.
After grabbing some dinner on the island, we walked back to our minbak in the glow of the sunset. We mixed the last remaining sips of our Grey Goose into a vitamin water bottle, and stopped by the convenient store to grab those delicious graham cookies with the chocolaty underbellies. I was so glad that I brought my little, battery-powered iPod boombox with me, because it came very much in hand that night, and would keep doing so throughout the vacation. Two adventurous souls sitting on the rooftop of the Ajumma’s flat and armed with Grey Goose and cookies, we blasted music from my iPod and threw a mini dance party while drinking away the evening.