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.