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.