Working life in South Korea can be a tiresome venture, so when you get a few vacation days you appreciate every waking and slumbering second of them. I just recently had a few days off from teaching and decided to take a trip to Jeju Island, which is a hop, skip and jump away from the mainland.
Jeju is very distinct from mainland South Korea in so many ways. First of all, the island is so very green. It is so nice to be able to look out a window and not see skyscrapers towering over the city or the tinge of smog hovering over a town. The atmosphere was so much more relaxed than mainland. I could see for miles and miles without any obstruction. The horizon was so uneven and rigid when looking at the terra landscape, yet so elegant and simple when I turned to the ocean landscape. There was most definitely a great deal of serenity in this wonderful place. I actually forgot I was in South Korea all together on numerous occasions. I really think my utopia is based around island living, even though I do not like beaches very much. I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but I’ll manage.
The island is based around tourism but you couldn’t tell by the businesses there. I did not find many large chains or huge restaurants, especially outside Jeju City. Everything was homegrown, authentic and genuine, including the people. I met an amazing mother and daughter team who have spent their whole lives as haenyo. The daughter was 50 years old and the mother was 68 years old. They were outside cleaning freshly plucked fish, squid, octopus and abalone, in quite chilly weather, all while sitting on a pair of small, round rocks. They were running a small outdoor eatery and provide raw delicacies for customers to enjoy.
What are haenyo?
Haenyo literally translates into “sea women”. The haenyo culture has been around since the 19th century. Until the 19th century, diving was considered a male profession but because of heavy taxes placed on men, women decided to dive to make ends meet. Over time women became very skilled at diving and finally became the breadwinners of their families. Now, all over Jeju island, as well at U island and Mara Island, Korean Confucian culture has change from patriarchal to matriarchal.
On my final full day I took a ferry to a smaller island off of Jeju. I went to Udo, or U island, for some fun in the sun. Udo is one of the cutest places I have ever been. It was tiny as it only took about 15 minutes to cover in diameter, but was filled with 15,000 years of history. The people on Udo have been living their for generations and they had made the most out of their resources. They build walls around their houses out of volcanic rock and it makes them come alive. There are ancient burial grounds, tombs, all over the island. These tombs are grazed by the most unusual, and athletic cows I have ever seen. These mountain cows were thin, athletic, yet powerful and welcoming. Udo was most definitely worth the 15,000 won (15 usd) ferry ride there and back.
I arrived back on Jeju Island for my final night in a nice little hotel that was themed around rosemary. I could not help but think of what life must be like living on an island your whole life. I could only imagine what it must be like to eat the freshest seafood ever day, wake up to the most beautiful sunrises and live a much less stressful life than most. The idea of small island living is so appealing, I may just have to take the leap and make one my home some day.