South Korea’s westernmost island in the Yellow Sea is Hongdo, and it’s home to around 700 people who give me the impression that they’d rather you not visit. When I arrive in the middle of the day the fog is so thick that it veils nearly all from sight. I hear the sounds of the wharf, the waves lapping lazily against the shore. I can smell the salt in the air, and the acrid, metallic odor of the myriad fish brought in from sea is so strong I can taste it. I know that I am on an island surrounded by ocean, but I am virtually blind to that fact and can see only what is five feet in front of me. From out of the mist shuffles a hunched old woman with brown, leathery skin like au gratin, and she’s advertising a room for the night. I only know this because a Korean woman I met on the party boat tells me so.
Ah, the party boat. Perhaps I should start there …
Total fucking bedlam. I’m not sure what I expected from the two and a half hour ferry ride from the city of Mokpo out to the island, but it wasn’t the raging kegger that greeted me. This fiasco was replete with singing, drinking, screaming, dancing, brawling, gambling and open flame. Shortly after departure, my lap was full of things being shared and passed my way by those sitting next to me. At no point during the trip was I empty-handed. From oranges to corn chips to Dixie cups of Korean liquor to rice cakes to cup ramen to pieces of cooked pork to plenty of shit I failed to identify. I’m certain I pissed someone off by refusing most of it. I quickly gathered that this was a popular thing to do among the adults of Mokpo: call up the Kims down the street and ask if they’ll watch the kids this weekend, call up the other Kims next door and see if they want to party like teenage assholes on the island of Hongdo, load the entire pantry into a suitcase, catch the ferry Saturday afternoon and proceed to get blackout drunk before you ever get off the boat.
We doubled the population of the island simply by stepping off the ferry, and our half was drunk to the nines. This helps to explain the frosty reception I was experiencing in some of the establishments I had visited. Imagine if every member of your tiny, peaceful island community suddenly spawned a drunken, unreasonable twin one foggy Saturday afternoon, threw a decadent, end-of-the-world-style-party all over your idyllic, tranquil paradise and then left just as suddenly. I felt like the calm, discerning eye in a hurricane of stupid.
Okay, back to the fog …
My friend Pete and I drop our bags in the room we rented from the stooped old woman we met on the wharf and head off in search of a peak to climb, wondering if it’s possible to climb above the lethargic mist. Our first attempt takes us high into the terraced fields of someone’s farm. The fog is oppressive, almost supernatural, and succeeds in making dusk out of what should be early afternoon. Eventually, we locate a manicured path being navigated by other hikers, obvious in their superfluous neon gear and apparel. My visibility is so hampered that I look to the sky and note that the full moon is visible in the middle of the day, only to realize after climbing a few meters higher that I’m looking into the sun. The fog is thinning the higher we go and before long gives way to a gorgeous day, hiding above a blanket of gloom. The sky is a cloudless blue, the sun is warm, and I can see as far as the horizon permits. My surroundings are so quickly dissimilar that I find myself nearly disoriented. Standing in the approximate boundary between these two contradictory spaces, it’s as if I am treading water. I see a few, isolated peaks cutting through the ocean of white like the immense dorsal fins of some prehistoric leviathan. Feeling rejuvenated by the view and assured of an escape from the cloying haze, we begin climbing in earnest, shedding layers as we go. The hike itself is an unassuming one, but the reward is great.
Looking down from the highest point on Hongdo, with all of existence beneath an altitude of 100 meters buried under a covering of smoke, with even the tiny fishing village of the island obscured from view, it’s easy to forget that there is more to the world. It’s easy to feel, if for only a second, that you have succeeded in disappearing from all that you once were, all that once identified you. Untethered and weightless.
Descending back into the cumbersome drear, we hear the drunken revelry before we see it.
The next morning the fog has lifted, and I am able to appreciate with new eyes the haven that exists here for Koreans who desire less than the crowded peninsula has to offer.
The time remaining on my contract dwindles. When the weather begins turning warm again I’ll soon after be heading home to consider my next step. There are times I feel a great, sad weight of loneliness settle upon me, heavy and discomforting like wet linen. Not the bright, sharp, panicky loneliness of youth but a dull, aching awareness of momentous change having occurred, the knowledge that some things can never be the same again.
This past Sunday I was returning from another weekend trip to Busan, about to begin reading away the three hour bus ride when two other English-speaking foreigners boarded the bus and sat behind me where I could overhear their conversation. I tried to focus on the novel in my hands but couldn’t, needing to reread line after line. I could understand distinctly every empty and inane word that came from their bleating mouths, and it maddened me. I soon found my earbuds and gratefully became reacquainted with my inconsolable alienation once again.
The last time I hiked Mt. Mudeung I admired one of its neighboring peaks from a distance, a large rock outcrop featuring a number of sheer cliff faces. I later learn that it has been given the name Saeinbong. I set out this time to find my way there. It’s a beautiful September afternoon and at times a difficult climb, at others it’s downright grueling. I am rewarded, however, with one of the most enthralling views I’ve ever seen. An ocean of green mountain waves undulating out into the bend of the horizon. I take so many pictures that I begin to feel foolish. The beauty is limitless, almost redundant. I realize that I am never more in the present than when I am humbled by the magnificent vistas of unfamiliar destinations. Too bewildered at how insignificant and small I am, to be concerned with yesterday or tomorrow. Or, perhaps, it’s the entire process. The climb, the exertion. In pursuit of the difficult yet attainable, the prospect of something hard-earned and worthy of all that it cost. A metaphor for the very undertaking that has brought me here in the first place. I have yet to be disappointed when setting off to explore these remote, exotic mountaintops, and I am quickly becoming acquainted with more and more of them.
The following weekend I grab a bus to Busan again. On Saturday I visit the world’s largest department store (seriously, it’s in Guiness) and I buy a book on impulse because it sounds fantastic and the very first line sinks its hooks in deep. When I step outside I see a mountain in the distance covered in craggy spires of rock. There also appears to be a giant golden statue of Buddha peeking above the treetops halfway up its side so I decide to start hiking in that direction and see where it takes me. The first road that I attempt leads me to a dead end but I quickly find another that appears to go in the same direction. This one takes me up steep switchbacks through tightly packed rural hovels that become more and more sparse the higher I journey. After about an hour, thankful for the exercise but close to giving up the pursuit of a noteworthy perch from which to view the city, I reach a temple which is home to the aforementioned Buddha. From here I locate another path that seems to wind back out towards the face of the mountain and continue climbing for another hour or so until I discover what I was looking for. It’s remarkable this countryside. On foot, I can walk from the largest shopping complex on the planet to a mountaintop where I can then overlook the second largest city in the country in just an afternoon. The mountain is called Jangsan, and I never actually make it to the peak but do manage to find myself a view of the coastal city of Busan that I won’t soon forget.
The temperature is beginning to drop, autumn is preparing to roost before the onset of less accommodating weather. I resign myself to spend each of the remaining weekends exploring a new, unplumbed mountainside or national park or other Korean gem I have still to lay eyes on.
Yesterday, as is my habit, I roll over before rising from bed to begin the long, hard-fought process of starting up my antiquated laptop. I nod off while waiting for the internet homepage to load and then direct the browser to my email inbox when it finally does. I see that I’ve received a message from my step-sister who has been selflessly caring for my dog while I am away. Yet again, I’m confronted with heart-breaking news regarding his condition. He is having difficulty standing and getting around, and has of late been refusing food and water. The loss of muscle mass and connective tissue is beginning to warp his spine. He does not whine or cry out, I’m told. But then he wouldn’t. There is talk of putting him down and two days later it’s done.
I try to come to terms with this knowledge that the last time I saw him is the last time I ever will. All those times I grieved for him, believing that I was losing him, and this time it’s real. I am mourning the loss of my best friend in this place where I have none. My sorrow is compounded by the punishing certainty that I’ve abandoned him when he needed me most. For over nine years I was all that dog knew, his constant companion, and in the last–assuredly the most difficult–five months of his life, I was nowhere that he could find me. I was in such a goddamned hurry to leave. Was that precisely the instrument, then? Was my leaving the coup de grace? Perhaps, I’m erring a little into the melodramatic but this loss unmans me entirely.
Work is a chore requiring great effort and better composure than I possess. I am unfocused and vacant, and it is obvious. My employer inquires as to the nature of my disposition. When I explain, she looks at me like I’m a sentimental idiot, like some sad, weeping lunatic becoming overly emotional about the death of a plant. She smiles politely and says, “We had pets growing up.” I attempt a smile in return and that seems to conclude the conversation.
One of my more perceptive students asks, “Teacher? Sad?”
“Yes,” I say, “Teacher sad.”
Never in my life have I been so excited to buy a bed sheet. At least I think it’s a bed sheet. It feels more like a curtain. Why would anyone want to put this on their body? Is it made from burlap? I did! I bought a fucking curtain to cover me while I sleep.
I took a week’s vacation last week. A vacation from my vacation. None of it feels real. I think it’s the lack of any tangible consequence to anything I’m doing. I mean, the worst that could possibly happen is I’m fired and sent home, forced to evaluate my next move. But then, I have to do that anyway even if I complete my contract to its end. I can’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t spending significant portions of my day focused on the next part of the plan. If this is my career then what’s the next step to advancement? How do I make more money, earn more respect, invalidate the other guy and nail his girlfriend? This isn’t a career. This is more like “Korea: The Game.” This is a holiday from ambition. Even the money looks fake.
By far, the cheapest place to stay in the city of Busan, South Korea is the Actor and Tourist Guesthouse near Gwangalli Beach. It’s run by a former traveler-turned-hostel owner named Mr. Lee who prefers to simply be called Lee. It’s a four bedroom apartment on the top floor of a tumble-down brick building, a ten-minute walk from the beach. Three of the rooms are loaded end-to-end with bunk beds covered in mosquito nets; the other is Lee’s. Fifteen dollars will get you a bed for the night, and we decided to stay for seven.
Lee’s lifestyle is one I can’t get my head around. It’s just him. He has no secretary, no wife, no assistant. The man can’t leave. He’s both at work and at home simultaneously. Drifters and vagabonds nightly arrive to loaf in his home, to sweat into his furniture, to shit into his plumbing. There are terse, handwritten notes scattered about his home, taped to each appliance instructing guests to put things back where they found them, to firmly turn the hot water knob in the bathroom so as to prevent the faucet from leaking, to wash any dishes that they use, to wipe their feet before they enter, to not feed the dog, to not screw on the roof. For all the charm of the Actor and Tourist Guesthouse it’s hot as living hell during summer’s peak. Lee insists that the air conditioner is to be run only between the hours of 11 pm and 5 am. For the remainder of your stay, relief comes only in the form of electric fans running on timers to keep you cool inside the nylon womb of your mosquito net. Inevitably, you nod out, the timer goes off and with it the fan, and you wake up stuck to the mattress in a viscous soup of sweat, sand and drool. It’s here that I learn about Korean Fan Death.
All fans sold in South Korea come with a timer feature to prevent the fan from running uninterrupted throughout the entire night. I mistakenly assumed this was an energy conservation feature. It is not. In Korea–and only in Korea–there’s a popular belief that an electric fan left running overnight in a closed room can cause the death of those inside. I’m not kidding. There are many ‘scientific’ explanations given to an individual with enough curiosity to ask about this ‘phenomenon,’ each one more preposterous than the previous: that if the fan is put directly in front of the face of the sleeping person, it will suck all the air away, preventing one from breathing; that the fan uses up the oxygen in the room and creates fatal levels of carbon dioxide; that an electric fan creates a vortex, which sucks the oxygen from the enclosed and sealed room and creates a partial vacuum inside; and–my personal favorite–that an electric fan chops up all the oxygen particles in the air leaving none to breathe. Now, I’m not saying that all Koreans buy into this shit, but there are enough to obviously impact and alter the way in which all electric fans are mass-produced in this country.
Otherwise, the week I spent hopping around the various beaches and bars of Busan, South Korea was hands-down the most surreal, liberating, disengaged and hypnotic week of my brief thirty-two years. The kind of existential unreal that I know, even while I’m in it, I’ll have a hard time believing afterwards that it even happened. Moving at such a leisurely pace that I half expect time to slow itself to a more permissive grind and accommodate me. Meeting total strangers from Germany, South Africa, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Russia. Forming solid, meaningful bonds over some dangerous, exotic meal, before some glorious, effulgent backdrop only to bid farewell two or three days later to become total strangers, forevermore. Watching Koreans–and not just fat kids, either–swimming in the ocean in their clothing, in full rain gear, hoods up and pulled tight, sunglasses on, masks secure. This occurring more than you would believe. Some say there exists a fear of the sun’s harmful rays. Or a fear that one will take on the reddish-brown hue of the common laborers who work the fields. Either way, I cannot possibly exaggerate the fact. It’s a gorgeous day. Where’s your wool sweater? Don’t you wanna get into the ocean? Well, then put some jeans on! What are you waiting for? Grab your turtleneck, moron, and enjoy the beach. At night, eating whole schools of raw fish, cursing loudly in English among the multitudes on the beach, broke, nothing in my pockets but sand, firing a roman candle at Gwangan bridge and suddenly, as if I was drugged and startled awake from the hallucination of it all, it’s over.
At home, staring out the window of my shitty high-rise, mere hours before returning to work and I’m watching the lightning pulse like an electric artery just beneath the flesh of the sky, never cutting through; watching the evening wink out light by light in the buildings across the empty street; sounding out in my head the giant, now-familiar Korean letters etched in fluttering neon on the public bathhouse next door; anticipating the sun rising on this still new, exciting hemisphere.
In the morning Bill is fired again. This time he loses his job.