My Halloweekend in Korea started like many Halloweekends past – absent of any plan. I sat at my desk in the Namak High School Teachers’ room twiddling my thumbs at my desk (I mean…lesson planning) when a proposition came across my desk via Facebook. It was The Bard.
“Come out to Imja for some live octopus.”
That was all the motivation I needed. When I have no plan, any plan will suffice. I decided to make a move.
After consulting him on travel recommendations, I did a quick search for bus routes. The next-closest bus departed from Mokpo 55 minutes after work, which meant I needed to catch a city bus in 13 minutes. As 5:00 drew near I set myself a timer – 13 minutes.
I rushed home on my bike, packed my bags, sprinted back to the high school bus stop, and encountered a fellow English teacher with five minutes to spare (I can be quite quick when the moment moves me).
“Where are you headed?”
Her answer belied surprise as if I was venturing into a remote territory meant for exiles. I remained unfazed. Once I reached the Mokpo Bus Terminal, I purchased a ticket for Jeomam and set off for adventure.
The ride was long though the distance was not. The stops were many. I soon empathized with The Bard. He made this trip nearly every weekend. I don’t know how he does it. I sat, read an article about positive biopsychology, squished myself next to a fellow traveller at Muan, watched him get off at Jido, and then sat some more. Darkness obscured any captivating coastal sights.
Eventually I made it to the Jeomam ferry terminal. More waiting ensued as I purchased my ticket, confused.
I approached the counter, handed over my passport, and received a ticket. I provided no funds and the attendant seemed not to mind. Free ticket? Oh well.
“Just smile and do what you’re told,” I always tell myself.
I sat by the water and appreciated a cigarette by the sea until the local Nonghyup ferry arrived. Its ramp crashed into the concrete boat launch with a jarring grind as cars disembarked single-file. I followed the many Koreans walking up the ramp. In a foreign land, informational social influence is your friend.
I boarded, wondering where to sit. I climbed the steep stairs to the open-air top deck. Can I smoke here? There were no signs indicating either way. I exercised foreigner discretion and opted out. Instead, I sat down in the heated waiting room. When I say “sat,” I literally mean planted by butt on the floor. There were no indoor tables, chairs, or even a stool. Another family sat near me, staring but looking equally travel-weary. In that moment we were kindred spirits.
30 minutes later, I promptly exited the ferry alongside a rolling column of cars. I felt like a soldier stepping onto Omaha Beach the day after D-Day. The Bard was right there waiting for me and welcomed me with a bottle of soju. I smiled, deeply inhaled the fresh island air and deeply drank my Chamiseul Fresh.
We proceeded to walk nearly two kilometers toward his apartment. His life here is no joke. Able-bodiedness is a must. Almost everything was closed (which meant no live octopus), but we drank for a while in front of a mom-and-pop grocery store (a discomfitingly common activity in Korea). We then went to his apartment, listened to eclectic music, engaged in eclectic conversation, drank so-mek (soju + beer) and ate some delicious huevos tacos. The night concluded with me playing video games on an ondol-heated floor while The Bard nodded off. I passed out soon after, happy and full.
I woke up five hours later slightly hungover and more than slightly soaked in beer. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the 2-liter bottle of Cass went unfinished, tipped, and leaked onto the floor. My sweatshirt-pillow reeked of rice-brewed beer. I dry-heaved once and then composed myself because I know better. After coffee, a hot shower, and a clean change of clothes, I recomposed myself. Life was good.
We decided to check out the beach. I did not realize this would constitute another several kilometers walk. I didn’t mind. Seeing the island in daylight was like night and day (duh). Everything looked beautiful, pastoral, and clean compared to city living. The trip to the beach was also well worth the walk.
We laid by the beach in reclining chairs waxing philosophy and life in general. The only thing missing was an icy bucket of Coronas. We would have made a great commercial.
Eventually it was time to walk back. I undoubtedly got my daily steps in (12,000 by 1:30 P.M). We stopped by the local CU and indulged in candy bars, kimbap, and roasted eggs. I was far from regretful. Walking is a lifestyle here on the island. Calories are a must.
As we meandered toward the ferry terminal, my question about tickets was finally resolved. I didn’t have to pay until I returned to the mainland. I suppose that’s how they get you.
The ferry ride was short and the view of the surrounding islands is much easier to see in daylight (go figure). Our inchoate plan involved a Halloween party at a Mokpo foreigner bar. We could see Scrabbles, meet The Immortal’s new girlfriend, and dress up. It was shaping up to be a good night.
My visit to Imja Island yielded many important (and other less important but otherwise interesting) lessons:
-Visiting the island is an amazing breath of fresh air, but it is not where I’d prefer to live.
-I cannot live in a place with only one convenience store. I need more choices than just a CU. I’m used to seeing CUs, GS25s, 7-Elevens, and Ministops everywhere (not to mention smaller-chain and small-business convenience stores). I need variety, man.
-The Bard has an interesting relationship with his island, starting with his Puppy Friends. As we walked around he identified many dogs who were his Puppy Friends and dogs who were not.
-The Bard’s students see him often outside of school (like me) and mispronounce his name (like me). To my students, I am “Ee-ahn”.
-The island scenery is incredible. Mountains, farmland, Dutch-looking windmills, onion field, citrus groves. and the repurposing of garbage into items like flower beds and rustic decor gives Imja abundant anachronistic charm.
-My love for beer has slowly waned into a small flickering ember in danger of extinguishment.
Chilling at the top of Yudal Mountain. The view was incredible.
This is a bridge connecting Mokpo and Yeongam.
The only thing I hate more than being told what not to do is being deported. So, I decided not to approach.
Exercise parks like these are everywhere on Yudal Mountain.
Tire Samurai and his trusty sidekick Pilot Bird Man (I’m terrible at names today) guard their shop as well as the lovely mannequin maiden Ju-Hee.
These older neighborhoods of Mokpo remind me of villages in Central America with shorter buildings, antediluvian signs denoting bars and stores, narrow streets, and terraced hillside construction.