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Published: April 8th 2014
“Wait... I don't think they're going to cook it,” I say looking down at the freshly slaughtered sea cucumber we just bought; chopped rings of flesh still wriggling and pulsating on the plate. It was alive seconds ago... and maybe it still is? One of the women gives us a spicy sauce for dipping and some seaweed. We plop down at a table a mere 20 feet from the sea. “Cheers!” we say tapping our chopsticks together and then slurp down a slimy animated morsel... More about the squirmy seaside delights in a bit...
Known as Korea's signature honeymoon destination, Jeju Island boasts a giant volcano right in its center and is blanketed endlessly by flowers in the Spring. Charcoal cliffs and jagged formations rule most of the coastline causing waterfalls to pour directly into the sea. In Seogwipo the cherry blossoms are everywhere; the streets are clean, and civilized. Seafood is abundant and clearly the dominant dish in town. Massive Mount Hella makes for a dramatic backdrop with it's snowy peak and reminds me of pics I've seen of Mt. Fuji. Am I in Japan?
So we hop a one-hour flight
to Jeju City, then another hour by bus and we're in the southern town of Seogwipo. Which (by the way) is pronounced “soggy poo.” As you can imagine, that opened the door to about 100 crude jokes (some of which I may share later). Luckily, Seowipo is nothing like its name suggested. Cool coastal breezes glide through the alleys in town. Cherry blossom petals fall like snow. It's quaint. Quiet... and simply BEAUTIFUL
. The place kind of reeks (not of poo
) but of a fairytale wedding. It's that perfect not-too-hot yet not-too-cold temperature here. It's romantic. Pleasant. Fluffy. I start randomly proposing to women... You know, because it just puts you in the "getting hitched" spirit.
It seems like we're the only Westerners here; the majority are Korean with primarily Japanese and Chinese tourists. The people-watching is immense! I snap a picture of two eccentric Japanese girls posing near a waterfall. *click* A few feet away a guy with an awesome beard ponders by the river. *click* Children run through the falling petals. Brightly dressed elderly tour groups pose for stereotypical photos on bridges. Everyone seems to be wearing neon colors as if
to mock the island's sapphire waters and bright blooms. Happiness is in the air, but where are the honeymooners? Shacked up perhaps.
All around Seogwipo are trails that hug the coast with lush views of volcanic formations, islets, and endless flora. Just west of town a solo tall rock protrudes out of the water with a bulging slab at its base. Tourists line up at a viewing point to get a picture with this erected mass. Let's just be real though, shall we? It looks like a friggin' penis. In fact I just start referring to it as “Penis Rock.” It's impossible to NOT
think phallically when you see it. The family pictures posted at the photo stand by the viewing platform brought me to tears... of laughter. In one photo the rock appears to be rocketing out of grandma's head (I fall to the ground laughing
). Another shows a family gathered around it like a shrine (physical tears pouring down my face
). I know, I know, I should be more respectful, but come on! Anyway, I'm mature... I promise. Right, so back to the sea critters...
There's a tradition on
Soph and Matt seaside
Raw seafood by the sea!
Jeju Island where the women are the primary seafood collectors and they're referred to as “woman divers” and dive they do! With full wetsuits on and nets draped over their shoulders, they plunge into the timid waters and retrieve basically anything that moves; octopi, abalone, sea cucumbers, conch, sea snails, whales… Then they sell the live seafood smack dab next to the bit of ocean they just crawled out of. “Let's try it!” I insist, “You can't find much fresher than this!” My friend Sophie agrees and we hand over a few bucks to the sopping wet woman. Instantly we witness a display of quick chops and the yanking out of innards. Suddenly our sea cucumber, two abalone, and a small conch are ready. “What are we, on an episode of Bizarre Food?” I suggest. The abalone is quite scrumptious and Sophie is almost too fond of the sea cucumber even eating the bit of egg sack. As mentioned above, the sea cucumber flesh is indeed still MOVING
as it was killed just seconds before and the nerve endings are still firing causing it to spasm. I'm mortified yet intrigued. Despite the somewhat gruesome preparation, the meal is easily the
most unique culinary experience I've ever had. For the first time in awhile I have to stop for a moment and ponder, “Wow, is this really happening?” Also, that location! We eat the meal right by the sea with huge cliffs towering over us. The sand; charcoal-colored and matching the lava rocks that creep toward the sea. Retrospectively this radioactive-green seaweed crawls out of the surf and interlocks with the frozen lava (like two forbidden lovers from different worlds). The Little Mermaid comes to mind... Stupid romantic island. Ugh! Time to ditch the mushy stuff (figuratively and literally
) and find some adventure...
These cliffs! These giant magnificent molds! So we hike up this UNESCO
site that leads to an enormous crater. It offers epic views of the sea and surrounding towns. Accompanying us at the top are a hundred or so teenage kids in full school uniform, all dallying about and taking a million “selfies” which undoubtedly are for Facebook or some other social media frenzy. A few of the teenage boys stammer out a few English phrases to me and then gesture insistently that I be in their group photo. I accept and make ridiculous goofy
faces in each photo so they'll have something to laugh about when looking at them later.
The following day Sophie and I jump the guardrails and march to the edge of a hefty cliff that drops straight down to the sea. I hang my legs off the edge and feel that rush of adrenaline. You know, that perfect mix of excitement and scare factor? A familiar scent lingers on the breeze. It's crisp. Salty. I'm reminded of the Oregon coast. I breathe in deeply. Sophie and I find our way partly down one of the cliffs and manage to scale the edge of this volcanic mound. We get just close enough to hang our feet just above the shimmering sea swells. One rolls in submerging our legs, then drops and casts back out to sea. And so it repeats one after another until an unexpectedly large swell sends us scurrying back up the rock. We lay down on the bedrock for a rest with the sun glimmering off our faces. The sound of a distant seabird. Waves. Tranquility. Peace.
I feel a little hungry though... “Hey, Soph...” I say turning my head slightly. “Yeah?” she groggily responds.
“Why don't you dive in and fetch us some lunch and I'll chop it up!” We laugh.
Sometimes it amazes me how we insist on physically torturing ourselves when we travel. Firstly, we simply MUST
see everything. Right? So this means lugging our butts around all day to as many sights as humanly possible. Secondly, we continue the lugging but this time at an incline because we're bound to find some kind of trail, mountain, or epic staircase to a temple (or all three, or even three of all three). Whew! Tiring, but it's so worth it, isn't it? Maybe the actual goal is to wear ourselves out just enough to feel justified in calling out of work the first day back home. Either way one thing's for sure; by the end of this trip I was down right exhausted. My legs were like mush (soggy even). I was pooped. I was... (wait for it
)... yes, soggy poo. Thanks... ***I was lucky to have my friend Sophie join me on this impromptu adventure. She's the type you actually want to travel with. She is super laid back, and hilarious (I don't think I
stopped laughing the entire trip). Also, she truly embraces being "local." She drinks only local beverages. She grabs a local newspaper and reads it on the bus. And she's a surprisingly good sport when you ask her to try things like fish eyes and gelatinous sea slugs. Thanks for joining me, Soph!***
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