Following in the footsteps of a peaceful and mentally productive Chuseok on an isolated island abode, I decided to double-down during a three-day weekend. Following the Korean Harvest, the next holiday is National Hangeul Day (한글날) – a day of dedication to King Sejong and his scholarly minions who made a bold political stance for literacy.
“Chinese is too hard to read,” he allegedly said in perfect English. “Let us brainstorm and craft a more intuitive writing system.”
And so he decreed, so it was done. The Hangeul writing system has achieved astounding linguistic fame for its logic and intuitiveness. A foreigner can (ostensibly) learn how to read Korean words in a day. In practice, it takes several months for this learning to truly sink into effortless reading.
But regardless, almost anyone can pride themselves on learning to read a new language and Korean literacy has never been better.
So in short, Koreans celebrate a three-day weekend for learning how to read. Sadly, I later learned that Geomundo (거문도) earned its name from its relatively high literacy rate despite its detachment from the mainland. (문 (‘ moon’) typically appears in words related to reading, writing, and literature).
Instead, I went to “Black Mountain Island” in search of even more solitude and salutary hiking.
However, the journey there was far from peaceful. Despite the speed of the passenger ferry, Heuksando is a two-hour journey from Mokpo. And while most of the Shinan islands shelter passengers from rough seas, the second hour of the journey across open water gave my stomach a strong bout of tumbly-turnies. Luckily deep nose-breathing and a kindle saved me from the shame and disgust of full-blown sea-sickness.
Yet once I regained my land-lubbery legs, dropped my stuff at a local 민박 (meen-bak), and ascended the island’s hiking trail, I found my zen once again. Something about an island hike compels me to remove my headphones, take a break from courtroom theatrics, and bask in awe at the sheer scope of my travels. There I stood, a speck of dust upon a mountain on a small island, rooted in a small ocean, covering a small watery planet barreling through the vastness of space. Suddenly, small gripes about work or life abroad don’t feel cease to feel significant.
I may not fall off the mountain, but I do fall into the peaceful void of rural seclusion quite easily.
Despite this lingering sense of awe, fear not. I found frustration right around the corner as dinner approached. After dressing myself up in my Friday Night Lights best, I found that most restaurants wouldn’t serve me as a single traveler.
It’s a minor gripe that I find while traveling through Korea. A society that seems to prioritize social feeling and collective harmony doesn’t pay much lip service to solo travelers. Most restaurants have menus that specify a minimum of two servings.
Most Koreans I encounter seem to travel in groups and treat dining out as a very social experience, so it makes perfect sense. But only two restaurants would serve me as a solo traveler. Maybe this is a wake-up call to find more friends.
But I made a ton of new friends on my hike, as Heuksando is apparently littered with stickers. These little hitchhikers strike my pants like hollow-tips. By this I mean that hook themselves into the fabric, and instantly break in half when I try to remove them by hand. I have vegetation-infused sweatpants to this very day.
One small envy I have of schools in Shinan County is that nearly every school has a brand new turf soccer field and rubber track. I remember my days at Bella Vista High School. We prided ourselves as the only school in the district with a rubberized track and only recently purchased a turf field.
Fun and irrelevant fact – Bella Vista hasn’t won a football game since 2015 – the longest drought in a state known for droughts. We’re an illustrious 0-44 since then.
For a school with no more than 30 students, Heuksan Middle School has some awesome facilities!
Despite a few dining difficulties and unwanted hangers-on and painful reminiscences about high school sports failures, Heuksando was a beautiful place to visit. While I could find it tough to live there (the last native teacher left the island early due to concerns over isolation and healthcare), I love the chance to lose myself in the vastness of the universe – even if just for a couple days.