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.”
This is an odd place to wake up from a nap. There are a lot of Koreans here. I woke with death on the brain and a faultless understanding of why it was such an unmitigated necessity that we dream up the gods. Is there a scarier prospect than a forever of nothing? No feeling, no observation, no experience, absolute nothingness. Pain sounds more appealing … in theory.
I took a walk to burn off some anxiety. Heading into the city, I passed all the skinny Korean boys in their skin-tight clothes, with their exaggerated hair down in their eyes. I double backed towards the apartment to do some push-ups and chin-ups on a bar installed near the trail where I went hiking the first day I was here. The whole area was covered with a fine, golden film of pollen, or maybe this was the dreaded Yellow Dust that has everyone so excited. Exercise, I have discovered, is the linchpin. Without it, my mind scrambles dangerously forward into the future, or backwards into the past, unfocused and unstable. Where am I going? What have I done? What does it all mean? And, seriously, what the fuck is Yellow Dust? Should I be wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask, too? Nonsense, just work.
I almost ate dog. At least, I think I almost did. We stopped at some roadside truck stop offering a buffet of sad-looking food the other day. One of the items on display was a pink, ham-looking meat. I was told to try some.
“What is it?”
“Dog,” she snickered. I thought maybe she was putting me on, so I asked someone else.
“Smoked dog,” he said. “Here,” he offered to fork some onto my plate.
“No, thank you. I have one at home,” was all I could think to say. Later, when we were sitting at the table, the man said that wasn’t dog up there just now. It was turkey, he said. Turkey my ass. There’s no turkey in South Korea. I haven’t seen turkey once in all the time I’ve been here, and I’ve never seen pink turkey anywhere in my life. Without passing judgement (on the eating of dog, not the being lied to), I helped myself to more rice. The dog-to-person ratio isn’t what it is in the states, but some people still keep dogs as pets. I’ve seen them; hell, I hear them barking every night outside my window. However, come to think of it, there always seems to be one less bark in the mix with each passing night. Where once I might have heard ten dogs barking in unison, I now hear maybe three. Is there a dog farm in the neighborhood? Those poor, little bastards. They’re being harvested, one by one. No wonder they bark like that.
I chipped my tooth failing to use chopsticks properly. Yep, just when I thought I was getting better. It got me thinking about dentists and doctors. I can hardly order a meal; how would I go about ordering surgery? An invasive operation is scary enough when you have unwavering confidence that your surgeon knows exactly what ails you. Here, I could never be certain that I was properly understood. Everyone is bowing and smiling, and I’m feeling assured, I’m feeling placated, and then I’m waking up in a recovery room with my balls on ice. I said I needed an appendectomy, not a vasectomy.
Living in a culture of such dissimilarity to home is a lot like being the new member in some clandestine, secret society with its own secret language, and secret rituals, and secret handshakes. Once you learn all these things, life begins to carry on in its familiar rhythms again, but until then you’re just an initiate in Phi Kappa Korea.
Climbing some stunning path through yet another cut of breath-taking Korean wilderness, Mr Park turns to me to ask if I’d like to stop at a natural spring to refill our water bottles. He says to me that the best things in life are free. I’ve heard that before, but it’s as if I’ve never fully understood what it meant until just that moment. He points at the water, the sun, then like an enlightened shaman waves his hand at the group of us to indicate fellowship. He’s right, of course. I would argue that you don’t really need to pay for food either; you pay for the convenience of someone else preparing it. Sex should be free as well, for that matter. What do I concern myself with most? The things I need? No, I have everything I need. What does that leave? The things that money buys. Shit … frivolous, trivial shit. It wasn’t necessary for me to come to South Korea in order to remember this, it just so happens I did.
I can’t find a single stick of deodorant for sale anywhere in this whole city. Apparently, Korean men don’t wear it. Seriously. Some women do, but I guess it’s only as a substitute for perfume, and then only rarely. I haven’t quite discovered the reason for this yet. I just know there’s no demand for it, so there’s no supply. Perhaps, it’s available in larger cities with greater concentrations of western transplants. To be fair, I have yet to smell a Korean person at all, malodorous or otherwise. I mean, I don’t even notice the scents I’m used to smelling on women: perfume, hair products, body lotion. It’s one massive, odorless mob. Check with me again in August.
The dogs have all stopped barking.
There was a fleeting moment when I entertained the idea of taking my dog with me to Korea. After all, I can’t remember being apart from him for more than a couple of nights in over eight years. That is a record commitment for me concerning relationships with other living things. His name is Solo because when he was a puppy only one of his testicles ever descended. He had both of them but the one was hidden from sight, tucked away somewhere safe in his innards, leaving that lonely gonad to hang there solo. When he was about nine months old he was diagnosed with an untreatable liver condition that keeps him extremely thin, but as he ages the symptoms have multiplied. You can’t pity him, though. I won’t let you. He doesn’t know that he’s sick, see? And I’ve never told him, so he behaves much like any ordinary, healthy dog would. He does, however, require medication and a little more attention to certain routines than you would probably give an adult dog without his condition. Doubtless, I am in no way prepared for the loss that I will experience upon leaving him behind. You can pity me. He’ll be fine – better than fine. He’ll be cared for by family who have land, dogs, horses, even pigs. I, on the other hand, will be inconsolable without him. I have no pigs.
People always say things like, “You need to appreciate what you have,” and “Be grateful.” Okay, I’m in. I want to fully acknowledge the blessing that is these last few days with my dog. How do I do that, exactly? Can someone describe to me the act of being grateful? Merriam-Webster describes appreciation as “a favorable critical estimate or sensitive awareness.” If I was to write down instructions to someone on how to appreciate what they have, what would the first line read? Okay, first, close your eyes. Always with the closing of the eyes, right? Alright, so I can’t do this while driving. I’m serious, though; I desperately want to better appreciate the now before I lose it. Oops, shit, there it went. Did I appreciate it enough? Can I be thankful for what I have while doing anything else or will this require all of my mental faculties? I’ve got things to do today. Can I practice flashing the perfect sideways peace sign in the mirror, all the while practicing perfect, heartfelt appreciation for my special bond with my dog? It seems unlikely. This is what sedentary, lazy people should say they’re doing when criticized by their lack of activity. “I’m appreciating this precious moment and I couldn’t possibly clean out the gutters without becoming distracted from that!” I suppose it all depends on the activity. I’ll bet I could be thankful for the time I have left with Solo while also taking him for a walk. We’ll start there.
Ultimately, I decided to not take him along because I have no idea what I’m getting into. I don’t know where I’m staying when I first arrive. Do people in South Korea keep dogs as pets? Would he need to be quarantined? Could I find an animal doctor for him? But the big question is, what’s really in his best interest? Before she agreed to take him in, my step-sister said she was worried that if something happened to him I might forever blame her. I told her I would be surprised if he was still alive when I returned. If you think that’s hard to hear, imagine how hard it is for me to say it. When he was diagnosed, I asked the question that everyone asks: “How long does he have?” They took a guess but they did it in months. Eight years is the low-end of a healthy Doberman’s life-expectancy and he’s closing in on nine. It doesn’t seem like a reasonable expectation to imagine he might be here when I return. However, I’ve grieved for this dog believing on half a dozen occasions that I was spending my last moments with him only to see him recover, time and time again. He defies odds; that’s what he does, every moment that he’s alive. I wasn’t kidding when I said that nobody’s ever told this dog that he’s sick. He seriously has no idea.
Don’t think for a second that I’ve managed to talk myself out of any guilt over this. I feel like one of those high school girls who gets knocked up by Bobby Badass just before he leaves town forever to go race tractors. So, she dumps the kid off at her mother’s because she wants to go off to college and make something of herself but the kid thinks his grandmother is his mom, and he has no dad, and he’s never quite right, so he drops out of school to go race tractors. I tell myself that it would only be selfish of me to drag him along like a boy who won’t part with his soiled binky. I’m the one that signed on for this, not him. Truthfully, I have no idea what I’m doing … with any of it. If anything about this makes any sense, trust me, it’s purely accidental. I’m abandoning my dog. There is only one living thing that depends on me for anything and I’m turning my back to him. Funny, I thought writing it all out might make me feel better.