I don’t have a TV, nor can I read Korean newspapers, but I still catch wind of new threats being made by my crazy neighbors to the north. It’s the sort of talk that gets around. I say “my neighbors” because for the time being, that’s exactly what they are. Living here, you can’t imagine it’s anything like an insane, belligerent and irrational Canada threatening the U.S. with nuclear annihilation; you have to imagine an insane, belligerent and irrational New Jersey threatening Delaware with nuclear annihilation. It’s slightly closer to a psychopath than I would prefer to live. Now, I’m not exactly up to speed on what kind of military capabilities the North possesses, but the very fact that your next door neighbor is threatening to rig your doorstep with any kind of explosive can be a little unsettling.
I can’t pinpoint why exactly, but it doesn’t bring about the anxiety I might have thought it would. There is even a depraved side of me that secretly yearns for some survivable disaster, a calamity from which I can most certainly escape with a new and remarkable story to tell. That’s the key though, isn’t it? Surviving the ordeal. Preferably with all motor skills, cognitive abilities and limbs intact. I find myself contemplating death a lot during my stay here. My death, mind you … not yours. It’s not simply a morbid byproduct of my current proximity to these recent hostilities. There’s more. I think the absence of familiar comforts plays a role. Without ever having to consciously acknowledge it before, I want to die in comfort, surrounded by more friends than I actually have. Like a going away party where I leave just before things get really out of control. Granted, I have grown comfortable with some aspects of life in South Korea, accustomed to certain things. There are countless meals and dishes I know I will crave almost immediately upon returning. The fascination of strangers with my whiteness no longer holds the same amusement for me as it once did. I’ve even come to embrace the bareness of my living accommodations. But these aren’t exactly the sort of comforts that would in any way help to put you at ease at the inception of your mortal demise. So in spite of these, I still–countless times throughout the day–say to myself, I do not want to die in South Korea. And I mean it.
Before Christmas, I’m looking for strange, unique oddities to send home, bizarre gifts or trinkets of a manageable size that I can mail to my family. It occurs to me that I’m so out of touch that some of this crap could very well have been among the popular kitsch that was available in the States before I even left. I’m curiously investigating solar-powered, bobble-headed, brightly colored plastic gadgets and doodads and wondering if they’d be novel to my nephews back home, or only to me.
I don’t think I ever worried so much about being a douche bag until I became an uncle. My nephews don’t look to me to provide them with any sense of right or wrong. This is already provided for them by their parents. I have no serious responsibility to them. I feel like my only real job where they’re concerned is to be likable and maybe buy them some cool shit from time to time. There’s something about this relationship that strikes me as being almost more demanding than that of a parent and a child. I mean, anybody can tell a kid to mind their manners, treat people the way that you want to be treated, don’t lie, cheat or play in your own feces. Brush your teeth. Go to bed. Stop playing pee-pee tag. How difficult is it really to be a parent these days? Any moron with a vagina can do it. It takes something special to pull off being a good uncle. I have to be cool. That’s a lot of pressure. No child thinks his parents are cool, but kids are supposed to like their uncles. What does it say about me if I fail at something at which even children think I should be good?
Christmas comes and goes with very little fanfare in Korea. The music can be heard in the overpriced coffee shops, Korean renditions of the more popular songs. Decorations can be seen hanging in several locations. My students tell me that most families do not exchange presents but instead go out to eat in nice restaurants, so I decide to treat myself to some western-style comfort food at a T.G.I. Friday’s.
The week that follows is a vacation from work, so I take the opportunity to visit the island of Jeju to the south. It’s Korea’s most famous island and home to the country’s largest peak: Hallasan. I scout the local weather predictions and try to determine the most agreeable day to make the arduous climb to the summit. To reach the highest point of the rim on the mouth of Hallasan’s dormant volcano, there is a shelter that must be reached first, and it must be reached by noon during the winter months or you will not be allowed to pass. This is to eliminate the need for nighttime rescue attempts and to ensure that no one is forced to make the long, demanding descent in the dark. I arrive at the entry point before sunrise and stop into a store near the trail to purchase some gloves. The man behind the counter places a thirty dollar pair of crampons in front of me and begins to communicate one of two messages: either that I not even attempt to climb this mountain at all without them, or that I truly don’t need them at all to climb this mountain. I’m certain it’s the former, but since most Korean hikers arm themselves with all manner of unnecessary equipment from ski poles to helmets, I assume my Gore-Tex boots will suffice. I am wrong.
Every inch of the trail is buried in snow made slick by the trampling of those who have gone before me. The mountain is as wild and untouched as anything I’ve seen in Korea, made even more so by its frozen, crystallized state. The slopes possess a gentle incline, but they are long, and progress is slow. Hours pass with very little change to my surroundings of laurel and both leafless and evergreen trees rising up from the pristine landscape of bright, clean snow. The forest looks as sedate as the volcano on which it rests. My climb is a fight that takes place more in the mind than in the lungs. It’s late in the morning when the final two kilometers of the trail begin to steepen. In many places, I have less than a meter of width to a path that snakes its way around the sharply rising cone. It is during this last stretch of the ascent that I am now exposed to the full brunt of the elements. The sky is a clear and perfect blue, but the sudden force of the wind is enough to stagger me. Snow that hasn’t been beaten down is easily lifted and whipped about with a ferocity that abrades any exposed skin. Because I chose to forgo the crampons, I must pick my steps carefully, and I slip often. More than once I lose my balance and dig wildly and desperately into the snow itself for a handhold. When I stop to take in the view I am astonished by what can be seen at this elevation. I am literally above the clouds, and the land and sea beneath them appear as if under some barely transparent veneer. There is a definite bend to the horizon, and the sight is only rivaled by those that I’ve seen from the windows of airplanes. Approaching the peak, a set of wooden stairs has been built where snow and frost are accumulating and growing out from the sides of the wooden guide posts like horizontal stalagmites–driven there by the terrific, interminable wind. Layers of clothing are lifted and pulled from my body while snow and tiny bits of ice seize the opportunity to enter. When I finally reach the summit the wind is so intense that it’s difficult to keep my eyes open for very long. At the highest point on the rim I manage to briefly steady myself for an instant to look into the gaping maw of this long dormant monster. I shoot a few pictures of the frozen crater lake and try to appreciate the moment as best I can but quickly turn back to begin the more treacherous return below. All that time and effort, I think to myself, for the briefest of moments that I can just barely see or enjoy.
It’s the nicest weather I see all week and a number of options are immediately removed from the itinerary as a result. Attractions are closed. Festivities are canceled. A friend suggests taking a bus out to Seongsan where a volcanic crater with vertical cliffs named Sunrise Peak rises up from the shore. It’s the easternmost tip of Jeju island and therefore the first place to see each day’s new sun. We read the following information on the official website for the town’s annual New Year celebration: “On December 31, in celebration of the New Year, there is a torchlight show, a campfire and fireworks. A traditional shamanic ritual called gut is performed along with other fascinating performances.” It’s the “shamanic ritual called gut” that seals the deal for me, so we waste little time and catch a bus to Korea’s premier New Year’s party on the day of New Year’s Eve. I think to sneak a few minutes of rest on the ride out until I am startled awake by the almost crashing of our bus on the slush-slick roads. After securing a room for the night, we find ourselves a bowl of chigae in a small, unassuming restaurant where the verbose drunkard sitting next to us alternates between talking ceaselessly to himself and shouting in Korean at us. I assume that before long things will become naturally apparent, that some semblance of celebration will begin to take shape. Again, I am wrong.
We ask around. We are told that the festival has been called off on account of the weather. We are told that people will still be getting up early to view the sunrise from the famous Sunrise Peak on the top of the volcanic crater. It hails. We wander aimlessly. We join an inviting trio on their way to a karaoke room then elect to tick off the remaining minutes of 2010 while watching a CSI marathon on the Super Action channel in our motel room. We fall asleep to the comforting sounds of softcore Japanese porn. We rise before the much anticipated sun and walk to the entrance to the peak. We are told that we cannot climb to Sunrise Peak, the trails are presumably too icy and dangerous. A formidable mob gathers and we join it as it pushes onward towards the base of the crater. We huddle in the cold, windy dark, waiting for the sun to once again begin its ancient circuit. We wait. And we wait. We joke that maybe it won’t rise today, and then a funny thing happens … it doesn’t. The world is gradually illuminated. We begin to look around at one another, as if someone might offer an explanation, while day breaks behind an obstinate curtain of cloud without any one of us ever actually catching sight of the sonofabitching sun.
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.
In the weeks that follow my dog’s death, I punish myself–for whatever culpability I might claim for his demise–on progressively higher climbs into the mountains of South Korea. I’ve committed myself fully to the pursuit of the most impressive peaks this country has to offer. This is how I grieve. It cannot be overstated how beneficial the exercise and scenery is for my state of mind. A greater medication I haven’t found. Each weekend I’m hopping from big buses from big cities, onto smaller buses in smaller cities that serve as the disparate gateways to these majestic monsters looming above them all. I reflect on my first month here spent in a kind of trepidation at the thought of attempting to make my way from one location to the next in this insane, confounding carnival. I still get lost, but never for very long. Reading the language is almost effortless now, and fortunately the Korean term for bus terminal is “bus terminal.”
The reception of English-speaking foreigners in the more rural locales I’ve visited is even warmer than what I’ve already come to expect in the larger cities. On the trails, entrenched in the belly of the Korean hiking subculture, it’s even more so. No one is surly or disagreeable on the slopes of Songnisan, not even after climbing a thousand meters into the sky. I encounter no discourtesy on the Cloud Bridge spanning one of the many chasms of Wolchulsan. It’s a pleasure to see you, an honor that you’ve taken the time to visit this part of the world. Are you hungry or tired? Rest, please, have something to eat.
I behold such sights on these excursions as to almost believe that by tossing a rock into the distance I might expose the whole scene for a well-constructed forgery or illusion. One such vision can be found from the highest point on Mt. Songni, or Songnisan, situated in the center of the peninsula. I begin the hike later than anticipated, and start out from one of the larger Buddhist temples in the country, heading towards the second highest peak called Munjangdae. It takes a little over two hours of pleasant but demanding exertion, under cover of foliage just beginning to flaunt its reds and yellows, before I reach the rock for which the peak is named. The weather is perfect and I pass hordes of Korean hikers heading in both directions. It occurs to me that I never tire of this: the sunshine, the white clouds hanging in a blue sky, casting their enormous shadows over green treetops. On how many days have I woken to the exact same thing? I’m grateful that it still has the force to steal my breath.
From Munjangdae, it’s another two and a half hours across the ridge to Cheonhwangbong, the highest peak. Hiking through bamboo as tall as I am, I’m occasionally granted a glimpse of the landscape beyond, and am reminded of the weirdness of precisely where I am, where I’m from and how I came to be here. I’m aware that the day is growing late, and have come to accept that at least part of my descent will be made in the dark. It’s been more than an hour since I’ve heard another human being, let alone seen a fellow hiker. You have to have hiked in this country before at some point to fully understand how alarming this can be. The tall, wet bamboo eventually gives way to a meadow of brown and green grasses that blankets the saddle between the peak known as Birobong and the summit just ahead. For what might be the third or fourth time in the last five hours, I tell myself that I have never seen anything so beautiful in all my life. Another half hour up a comparatively gentle slope, and I’m clambering over the last few boulders on hands and knees to what feels like the zenith of the world. It’s a modest piece of land, not much to it really, and yet at this very moment, I am certain it must command one of the prettiest, most quieting views that this planet has to offer. And it’s mine and mine alone, save the large flock of cawing black birds I scare into the fading orange light of the sky. So much sky … and an infinite ocean of verdant hills and valleys coupling beneath me to the limits of my vision. I feel exposed, vulnerable, stripped of all pretense but comfortably so, like being judged and not found wanting for anything. I stand above all that can be seen, above the mountains afar, above all other souls that have long since begun their descents, above all that is civilized and the worries of men. It’s a tiny, private heaven on Earth, and I can stay but only briefly.
Climbing down this mountain would be treacherous in the light of day. At dusk, it is a whole other beast entirely. My feet ache and I half expect to find them swollen, misshapen and black when I next have the luxury of removing my boots. My legs are weak and wobble as they do after sex. Nearly halfway down, I notice a curious give in my left knee, something beyond mere fatigue that would maybe worry me more if I weren’t so giddy from the joys I’ve just experienced. Night falls and I hear rushing streams and waterfalls but fail to illuminate them with my little flashlight. I don’t, however, miss two giant, pink slugs as long as my hand and as thick as my forefinger, scumming and sliming their way across my path. After seven straight hours of hiking, I finally limp into the small gathering of restaurants and shops that serve the visitors of Songnisan. I find a cheap motel room, and enjoy a hot shower, a change of clothes and a meal of barbecued duck across the street. The only road leading into the temple I mentioned earlier becomes a strip of neon lights at night. Street vendors and other travelers and backpackers shuffle about, looking for entertainment or sustenance. It’s all here because the mountain is. The people are kindred spirits, and I enjoy their company before retiring to my room, exhausted, to watch an episode of Shark Week with Korean subtitles.
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.”
I sit in my room-which is not my room at all but the room of my employers’ son, who has been displaced to sleep in some room previously functioning as a closet-and listen to an argument taking place in a language that is still foreign to me. Knowing how to say, “I’m from America,” and “It’s nice weather we’re having,” doesn’t exactly give me mastery over the Korean language. Eavesdropping on people screaming at one another in a foreign tongue is a scary thing. It’s fast, it’s loud and it’s serious. I’m not even sure I know who’s arguing. Sometimes I think I hear a word I might recognize. Sometimes I think I hear my name. For what reason could they possibly be yelling about me? It’s like living with my parents … if my parents had shouted in code.
Living in Korea has dramatically improved my Spanish. I guess because it’s the only other language I’ve ever made an attempt to learn, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in need of a Korean word and my brain produced the Spanish one. I’m constantly speaking to Korean people in perfectly enunciated Spanish. “Hola,” I say by way of greeting, and, “Gracias,” I say in thanks. Dumbfounded, they leave me to inform their friends that they’ve just met face-to-face with the stupidest American to ever be issued a passport.
I found a website streaming episodes of television shows I’ve missed since leaving the states. I sat down this morning to watch an episode of The Office and immediately, just like a Pavlovian dog, began salivating for potato chips. Damnit, I didn’t travel halfway around the globe to eat pizza and watch TV, but I’ve been here less than a week and already I look to forsake my grand cultural experience.
There are two items you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere in South Korea: a tall glass of water and a bigass garbage can. Honestly, I have a hard time finding garbage cans at all. I never realized how nice it was having a nice, big can of garbage nearby. Nearly everything you do creates waste. Then, you throw it out. I spend a lot of time walking around with waste in my hands, unable to find an appropriate place to dispose of it. I now have a designated pocket in my backpack reserved for waste. In the city, you’ll find trash in little piles here and there where people gave up carrying it around, and you’ll find trash-people wearing special, trash-collecting vests and gloves, walking around picking up the trash, but no trash cans. When you do find one, it’ll be really tiny.
It takes some getting-used-to but I’ve come to enjoy the cuisine here. Nearly all Korean dishes give a kick that lines your stomach with a long, slow heat that I can only compare to the effect of a strong whiskey. Most everything I’ve eaten is delicious, but some meals I’ve eaten I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the chef had walked out into the back yard and just grabbed what he had to work with and threw it into a bowl before heating it up. Grab some of that grass … and a lot of those weeds there, oooh, what’s under that rock? Mushrooms, yes! Now put the rock in and hand me that chicken and we’ll kill it and chop it into large pieces and throw that in, too. What’s that? A root of some kind? Good, throw that in. Now stir it up with that fence post and we’re finished. I call it scavenger gourmet. It’s resourceful culinary. After dining on the choicest cuts of his kill, the American hunter goes in search of his next meal; the Korean hunter continues eating.
Saturday, we hiked Mt. Mudeung and before we climbed we visited a restaurant for lunch at the foot of the mountain. Mr. Park suggested a dish he described as a chicken soup of sorts. Don’t think Campbell’s. Also, don’t imagine you’re supposed to eat everything that’s in this soup. After our meal, we joined the throngs of people on their way up the formidable trails. At times, the countryside looked not unlike that of the hills of Pennsylvania, until the cackle of some strange, alien bird reminded me of the distance I’ve traveled to be here. The seasons are the same; the people aren’t. For one, you’d never find so many people out hiking at the same time on any mountain trail in Pennsylvania, and you certainly wouldn’t find them wearing these flowery masks and visors and bonnets, eyes and faces shielded from some risk that is lost on me. There are three Buddhist temples on the way up Mudeung and, after breaking off from the gaggle of Asian beekeepers and arc welders, we stopped at all three. I’ve never been one to celebrate organized religion but there is something moving about a great mass of people all gathered together in shared faith. It’s a powerful thing. Unless, it’s bent on the condemnation or outright destruction of another great mass of people all gathered together in different faith, in which case it becomes a very, very powerful thing. I felt an intense yearning to enter each temple in hopes of being close to something spiritually large. Each temple housed a different life-sized statue of Buddha and we were permitted to enter but not take pictures. I can’t say I didn’t feel something, but I also can’t say I haven’t felt the same thing upon entering a library. It’s a sense that if you look hard enough for something in this place, then you will surely find it.