Written by Jacob Rawson
Too much wine – I must have dozed; my boat drifts into rough water.
Make fast the lines, make fast the lines!
Now peach petals float around us; maybe paradise is near.
Chiguk-chong chiguk-chong oshwa!
At least we’re far away from the dusty world of men.
-From The Fisherman’s Calendar, Gosan
Outside the window of the Mokpo ferry terminal the sea churns with the frothy consistency of bean paste stew. I am anxious as I watch for the ticket girl to signal the captain’s decision. It is a small flat-bottom ferry that will motor out some thirty nautical miles into unprotected waters. If the wind is too strong it will not sail, and I will be stuck waiting another two days for one more shot at the next scheduled sailing.
A giddy old man from Anjwa-do chuckles in the seat next to me. He is reliving tales from his world travels in a monologue that I am somehow a part of. Have I seen Huang Mountain in China? I really must go. Have I been to the Thai beaches? He continues to rattle off his world tour checklist until the captain finally appears and gives an expressionless nod. The ticket girl waves to me happily and I sigh.
The Island Love 10 chugs through dull beige water out of Mokpo Harbor. Orange shipyard cranes spin overhead as tankers and freighters glide by, their girthy bellies sagging fully laden.
The harbor opens and whitecaps curl across the choppy straight. Laver plots and eel rafts disappear into a sliver of shoreline off the stern. This is deep water, and the ferry begins to roll in a slowly mounting swell.
The few other passengers aboard are octogenarian islanders huddled together and peeling oranges on the heated vinyl floor of the main cabin. I have the windy extremities of the vessel to myself until the ship’s engineer climbs down from the bridge to light a cigarette and finds me on the stern deck. Can I speak Korean? And where am I from? Washington state? Why, that’s where the White House is! He invites me to share a pot of barley tea in the small crew’s kitchen.
We are now chugging through the northern Jindo islands. They are small, each no more than a few lengths of a tanker ship. The islands bounce in my peripheral vision as if they are floating on top of the foaming breakers.
The engineer has worked on passenger ships like this for thirty-five years. He asks why I have come to such an isolated place, and I explain that I am tracing a path across the South Sea coast on foot, but that the scarcity of ferry runs between islands has made the going tough in places. My trip would have been a cinch if I had set out during his youth, he tells me. Back then there were regular ferries for each little rock – thriving island communities from Mokpo to Busan. Now as the network of expressways and sea bridges spiders out to every crack and corner of the peninsula, the ferry lines are dying one by one. Those who live on rocky crops too far out for the bridges have dropped their fishnets and plows and moved to the cities to find work sitting in stacked cubicles punching sales figures into glowing spreadsheets.
The engineer recites the populations of each island as we pass. “Eight… Three… Was three, now one…”
He and the captain are old, both in their seventies. The island residents are older, and they will soon be gone. It is no longer a question of decades; it is a matter years or even months.
This ferry has twenty-one scheduled stops – twenty-one stepping-stones into the Yellow Sea. But most of the scheduled stops have no passengers, and today the ferry stops only six times. At each island it rams its bow up onto a concrete ramp and drops its iron jaw just long enough for one or two sun-beaten fishermen to climb off. No one boards.
The engineer and captain are well past the age of retirement. When the last of the island residents die off, the engineer and captain will move in with their children in the city. The old iron-hulled Island Love 10 will find retirement in a shipyard somewhere before it is gutted for parts.
It is a sad story the engineer tells, but he is unmoved as he tells it. Like the waxing of the moon and the rising of the tide, it is an inevitability. And these islands will not die altogether. Under their original caretakers, the azalea, the deer, and the magpie, they will thrive once more.
This is not a story that speaks to the gall of human endeavor, and this is perhaps why I find it sad. But these human concerns are somehow transcended by a greater kind of perfection. In the ebb and flow of civilization this place has reached a sort of cyclical completion, and this is something the old ferry engineer and master of the tides understands well.
U-do (“Cow Island”) is so named because its shape resembles a bovine in recline, or so professes the glossy wisdom of the tourist brochures. The island’s volcanic soil is black and rich, and the interior teems with fields of broccoli, chives, leeks, garlic, peanuts, and the yellow canola blossoms that blanket the island with patchwork precision each spring. On the sea the mackerel and abalone keep the men busy while the women dive under the waves for sea-grass and urchins.
On a cool morning in April a horsehand at Genghis Khan Ranch drives his six horses into their corral. Few riders are expected on a cold day so early in the season, but he smiles and hums all the same.
I climb a volcanic cone to the lighthouse at the highest point on the island. Horses graze below next to more volcanic mounds, which are in turn covered with small hemispherical grave mounds. It is a lesson in recursion and destruction, in impermanence and renewal.
The lighthouse is quiet save for an Italian aria reverbing from a speaker mounted at its base. The lonely lighthouse keeper of an era gone by has been replaced by an equally lonely bureaucrat coughing at his computer screen and a visitor information display that gives the essential facts on the first lighthouse in the world (Pharos), the first lighthouse in Korea (Yeon’an), and the first lighthouse in the Jeju administrative region (Why, it’s this very one! Queue the camera..)
I descend from the backside of the cone through a dense labyrinth of white pines and spider webs, and pick through yellow canola seed patches. The fields of garlic and canola are divided by stacked stone fences. They are much like the stone rows of old England, but these are formed by pocked and gnarled volcanic rocks.
It is a Sunday morning and the island is quiet. The only bustle is at the church where mass is about to begin. One member stands outside meditating on his cigarette. He wears a steam-pressed suit and his belly bulges out under a blue-striped tie. I ask about the congregation starting with the moksa, the preacher. This is a Catholic church, he corrects me, so I should say seongjik, priest.
The priest, he tells me, is from Jeju. He shares his duties with other churches, and takes the first ferry to U-do each Sunday to hold mass. Among the congregation, he continues, are most of the island’s diving women. They have chosen this faith over the island’s two other options – a protestant church and a Buddhist temple. There is a shack next to the church, closed now, but after mass it will open for the divers to sell their catch.
The man ends each sentence with the -sumnida suffix. It is formal and polite, but not distant. It is dignified and sincere, and quite possibly the finest choice of a verb suffix to use on a crisp spring morning before Sunday mass. He finishes his cigarette, stamps it out in the gravel path, then bows to me, low and reverent, and joins the congregation inside.
I continue through the maze of stone fences until the path opens up onto a seaside bulkhead road where the villagers have laid out their fish nets and sea-grass to dry in the breeze.
Around the windward side of the island the artist Ahn Jeong-hee sells her work out of a retired city bus parked next to a salty inlet of tide pools and mudflats. She has dressed up the rusty outer shell in a new coat of pinks and purples and hung pleated curtains inside the sliding windows. When I enter her bus gallery she is shelling the peanuts her husband grew on the island. I nod and ask about the place. She tells me she is from Busan where she used to teach art classes for high schoolers in corporate cram schools. It was on a vacation to U-do that she met a local farmer and fell in love. For the last ten years she has sold books of her art and poetry from her bus cafe. “Self publishing is no way to make it rich,” she tells me between peanuts, “but I couldn’t possibly change my work for the editors of a big publishing house.”
Her paintings are imaginative and playful. They are inspired by life on the island, but there is something else as well. A butterfly explodes into yellow canola blossoms below a church. A giraffe eats the last leaf on a tree that grows out of the sea. An angel wearing a green skirt soars over a lighthouse amidst swelling breakers.
Jeong-hee spends her time on the island, only leaving to visit Busan once each summer. “I have to go back to watch baseball.” She laughs. “You can’t shake your hometown pride, at least when it comes to the ball club.” I sip makkeolli from a bowl and make small talk as she continues to shell the peanuts. “They taste different, the peanuts we grow here.” The farmers on Jeju tried to grow them, she tells me, but the nuts would not take to the soil. “Even soil from the same volcano can have different properties.”
Her paintings are accompanied by poems in her book. “Paintings are poems, and poems are paintings,” she says a wise man has once told her. “So why not throw them together?”
Her favorite poem shares the page with a watercolor of a bottle of makkeolli sitting on a tractor, and framed by a volcano background.
Drinking at daytime
in front of an unmarked grave
that man is dead
Pretty flowers are in blossom
I’m smoking a cigarette like a dormant volcano
A hardworking tractor
Unsold peanuts laugh aloud
Passersby wander in and admire her quiet life. Her husband enters and jokes with the customers. His face is dark and sun-parched from working the peanut fields. He fills a cup with water and they exchange an affectionate smile. He is a rural peanut farmer and she is an urban artist, but somehow these labels mean nothing here.
The artist’s bus cafe is a pleasant place. It is a place with no clocks or schedules, a place where poetry washes in and out with the tide. It is a place that could only exist on an island.
We sit in the left-field bleachers in Seoul’s Jamsil Baseball Stadium, built for the 1988 Summer Olympics. Forest spent the day drilling his high school students on a mock election. I passed the afternoon on city detox, brooding over a pot of tea in his apartment.
The only items in my pocket are a ticket stub and a copy of Gosan’s The Fisherman’s Calendar, the Joseon Dynasty ballad recited by every Korean schoolchild and whose author was exiled to live in a hut on a South Sea island where he wrote the finest sijo verses of his era. It was Gosan’s ballad that inspired my walk and drew my path to his island of exile a month earlier. The ticket stub is new and creased. The lyrics are furrowed and tired. They have knocked around in my pocket for 335 miles – 1,372 ri of frayed boot tread.
We planned to smuggle in a few bottles of makkeolli suds, but Forest surprises me with a bottle of Chilean wine.
“Kings of our own domain!” I float the words over the cinder-crumb warning track as he pops off the cork.
The outfield grass is cut short. Alternating mower lines catch the listing sun in a deep green pattern that surges like seawater. The grass stretches out to a horizon of angled bleachers in right-field. Like the sea, the expanse of grass seems infinite.
Suddenly I want nothing more than to feel the grass on my bare feet, to bathe and be lost in the pungent spread.
“Shoeless Joe Jackson was the wisest sage of them all.” I croon my epiphany to Forest. “He took off his spikes because he understood the sheer thrill of the humble void.” When I glance over to Forest his bare feet are already stretched across the bleacher back in front of us. He is grinning at me like a buoyant baseball Bodhisattva. I strip off my shoes and socks as fast as I can and we wiggle our toes in the warm breeze that sweeps down the Han River. We sip wine from paper cups and swear to never again wear shoes in a ballpark.
Hanhwa Eagles left fielder Choi Jinhaeng bobs on his haunches like a fishing skiff in ocean swell. The left-hander who now steps into the batter’s box is a pull hitter. Choi knows this. He cheats left, foot behind prowling foot. Then, just as the lanky pitcher cocks back, Choi takes a half-step right. It is a calculated maneuver against the current, the work of a weathered helmsman who has studied the charts and the tides but still knows he must give in to the fluky whims of nature.
We talk of our dugout days. Forest was a catcher. He instructs me in the art of chatting up the umpire to work the pitch calls, and freezing the runner on a snap throw to first base. He talks and I listen, but I know nothing of his world. I was a left fielder.
I watch Choi rowing alone in his grassy sea. He is a stark image of Gosan’s humble fisherman. When he drifts back to snag a fly ball in the webbing of his glove, I shout, “Chiguk-chong chiguk-chong oshwa!” Forest laughs and pours more wine. We no longer languish in the digestion of the ceaseless city. We have pulled anchor and drifted far from the dusty world of men.
In the seventh inning lightning splinters apart the right-field sky. A boom of thunder is followed by cool wet droplets, then torrential deluge and more splintering flashes.
There is mass exodus from the bleachers. White shirts scatter like ants escaping some dreamed-up doom. Only Forest and I stay. We stand and gawk at the grand display. It is the same crude power that weeks before stranded me on Geumil-do and grounded the mighty abalone fleet. Infielders dash off the grass to find cover under dugout awning. Choi lingers, peering at the right-field sky. I know he is lost like we are.
He looks for just a moment, then jogs off to join his team. Forest and I taste the raindrops until we too pull on our socks and run for cover, wet shoe bottoms squeaking down the subway tunnel.
Jacob Rawson (Fulbright Korea ETA 2005-06) coauthored the book Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands. The passages appearing here are selections from his forthcoming travelogue about a walk across Korea in 2011.
Featured photo: Waiting. Erin Slocum. Mokpo, Korea.