06 August 2008

Hongdo and Home

In 2004 a small production company with a minuscule budget shocked the film world by winning the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival with Old Boy, a revenge thriller. One of the producers on the film was a young man named Kim Dong Joo.

He is a Mokpo native with homes in Seoul and Santa Barbara. He had returned to his hometown to commemorate the eighth anniversary of his father's death. He was on his way to a coffee house near my hotel when he spotted me sitting outside a small family store with a group of neighbors having a spot of Soju. He told me later that he could not believe his eyes. It was so hot, and I was obviously not having much luck with conversation, but the locals had welcomed me into their cabal and we were laughing like life-long friends. He asked me if I wanted to join him. I was very reluctant, since I have had bad experiences in these kinds of situations before, as you know, but he was intelligent and well-dressed and spoke very good English so I agreed to go to the coffee house if he promised to help me find my way back. We talked pretty much non-stop for the next four hours, when I was dropped off by his driver at the front door of my hotel. In the interim he told me about a project he was developing which centered around the idea that there was a fourth Wise Man. I am not going to go into specifics here at his request, but he ended up asking me if I would look at the draft of the script and I enthusiastically agreed.

We hung out the next night as well, when he met Jourdan and I at the coffee house and then took us on a midnight tour of Mokpo. It is an incredibly beautiful little town, and I never would have known without the hospitality of D.J.

Friday morning we rose early (me on three hours of sleep) and went to the ferry terminal to get on the boat. I am not sure what kind of engine the boat had but it was a big streamlined catamaran with twin impellers and it flew. Our seats were in the center of the boat on the second floor, right behind the cockpit. It didn't matter, because I didn't sit down much. We were only out to sea for maybe 15 minutes when the first wave of nausea struck the passenger compartment. I have never seen so many people so sick in my life. It was carnage. Martin was ill and spent the whole trip laying on the floor and poor Jourdan almost died. He has a lot of stomach problems as it is and is very thin as a result so any vomiting on his part is particularly dangerous. I spent most of the trip attending to him and others nearby. At one point the second floor ran out of bags and I went downstairs to get more (there were 90 upstairs and 240 downstairs and it was way worse in the forward section of the downstairs where the wave action was particularly brutal). I managed to procure about five bags nonetheless, which I palmed into Jourdan's cargo pocket.

We arrived at the island after about two and a half hours and were deposited onto a long wharf lined with Hoe stands and touristy-type souvenir hawkers. We were shepherded into an area along the beach reserved for our tour and were given a long set of instructions in vehement Korean. Where we were to eat, how we were to procure our tour boat tickets, how and where we were to board the tour boat, how to procure our return ticket, how and where to board the return ferry, all of this I am certain was explained in great detail. We had to wing it. Jourdan, the only one of us with operational Korean, spent the entire meeting on the ground in the fetal position.

The island was shaped kind of like an 8 with the settled area straddling the narrow part and a harbors adjacent to each. We followed some people from our group over the saddle to the other side and went into a little dining room with seating for maybe 40 people. The meal was a simple fish soup with lots of good Korean sides. I told a guy nearby who could speak English that Jourdan had not fared well on the trip over, this explaining the death mask he was still wearing. The man produced a small brown vial with Chinese writing and told Jourdan to drink it after he had eaten. Up to this point Jourdan had no intention of eating, but the possibility of relief spurred him to eat most of his rice and a bit of soup. (I ate like a man possessed and was still hungry when they kicked us out so the next shift could eat.) He then drank what we came to call 'The Secret Serum," and never had a bit of seasickness again.

Woe to those who did not procure Secret Serum, because if the trip over was bad, the boat tour around the island was of another order. The boat driver went out of his way to help, running us as close to the cliffs as possible and searching out special spots which maximized simultaneous pitch and roll. I loved it. In retrospect, I cannot believe that the poor sick people even got on the thing. But they did, and the basement of the little tour boat became a very sicky sick bay.

Hongdo Island is without a doubt the most beautiful place I have ever seen. The cliffs were past vertical, hanging out over the churning sea in places. Spires and caves and pinnacles and balancing rocks and reefs and atolls and the beautiful harbors. It really took one's breath away. I sat up on the front of the boat snapping pictures until the tour guide can and grabbed me and my stuff just before the whole front of the boat got washed over by a huge wave. I would have been gone. At one point a fishing boat tied up along side and the crew began killing, gutting, filleting, an slicing them up to sell to the passengers. I was sick of Hoe and at 30000won a plate (with sides and a bottle of Soju) it was a bit pricey, but it looked great and it was a great piece of showmanship.

We got back in and split up to go sightseeing. I went down to the beach. It was a boulder beach, some of the rounded rocks ten feet across. I decided to go swimming but it was very difficult to get into the water, I soon discovered. It was possible to boulder hop down to the water, but getting past the break without breaking something was not easy. I hopped out and thought I was doing fine until a large wave came in and I was down on the rocks. I later discovered (during a similar fall on the way back in) that float-crawling up right up to the shoreline in the water was a much better strategy. Once in the water it was magical. The water was clear blue-green with great visibility. The boulders, which varied greatly in size, continued out into the water, and it was possible to find large ones to stand atop far out into the water. I must have looked quite humorous to the assembled onlookers, a tiny head far out in the water topped by a bright red Cardinals cap. (I have learned to swim with my hat to avoid scalp and facial burning.)

On the way out of the water I found the area around my clothes surrounded by a group of squealing children who were "crab fishing" in the rocks of the wave zone. They each had a piece of fish about the size of an open matchbook which they were dangling down between the rocks. When a crab snuck out and grabbed the bait they would scream for the bucket, which their mother would bring over. The tricky bit was to gently pull the crab up and into the bucket without making it turn loose. They were not getting many crabs into the bucket but they were sure having fun. When I came up out of the water they pointed at me and laughed their heads off until their mom made them quit. My belly is a never ending source of glee to Korean children. When I reach up to illustrate a point in class and inadvertently expose myself it takes five minutes to restore order.

We boarded the ferry and off we went. I had made quite a few friends by this point and spent most of the trip down by the engine room drinking beer with the boys. I met the captain and we chatted for a bit. He explained to me what little I know about the technical details of the ship.

Once home we went out to eat at the coffee house D.J. took me to the previous night. It is housed in a beautiful building that he told me used to be the home of the Japanese governor of the province during the occupation. It has a beautiful garden and incredible woodwork and tiles. It is called "Chateau..." something and I had BEEF and Jourdan had a chicken curry and it was delicious. After dinner up to the tea room for loose Chamomile and a meet an tour with D.J.

There is an area in Mokpo which houses five beautiful museums (art, modern art, folk art, natural history, and history) and we had considered going but by the next morning we were still beat and decided to head for Busan. The bus left at about 10 AM and we got back to town at 4:30 PM, about an hour late, but the trip was nice. And it only cost 25000won. Travel here is quite a value.

I went to pick up the cat from Min Ha's house as she had made her deathly ill (she later had to go to the hospital for an IV) and got home in good time.

On Sunday Yoo Jin came to Busan for a visit (YAY!) and we went to a wonderful sushi buffet in Dongnae, the kind with the conveyor belt that I love so much. We didn't eat much off the belt though because one of the sushi chefs kind of adopted us and handed down his personal recommendations. It was divine. Later that night we met Min Ha and her friend and Jourdan for a meal at the Indian restaurant near KSU, which I would recommend. The garlic naan, tandoori chicken and mutton curry were especially good.

Up then next day for school. It was refreshing to see my kids. I didn't realize how much I had missed them. I got a lot of hugs on Monday and that kind of dulled the post-vacation depression.

Well. That finally brings this blog somewhat up to date. I have 188 pictures for this post and they are here.