Monday, September 26, 2011

해녀 Haenyeo Divers of Jeju-do

The Haenyeo Divers of Jeju-do

I had never heard of the Haenyeo divers before I went to Jeju Island. But since then I have seen them, read up on them and watched a movie based on the fictional life of one of them. Spectacular stuff. Haenyeo divers are a bunch of free diving, Korean, fishing women. Most of them were based on the island of Jeju, but there were other places around Korea where they lived and worked.

Prompted by high fishing taxes for men, the women took to the seas. Haenyeo divers fish for anything from seaweed, to shellfish, to octopus and fish. They have no oxygen tanks, just a mask, a wet suit, and a knife to pry the shells from the rocks. They have a floating buoy on the surface and a net to hold their catch. The women are known to free dive up to 20 meters and hold their breath for over 2 minutes.

In the 1950's when their numbers were at their highest, there was about 30,000 female divers. Although it was a difficult and sometimes dangerous job, there was a mark of pride to it as well. These women were usually the primary bread winners (or kimchi-winners) in their family, and in some places it went so far as the men becoming the child rearers while the women worked at sea.
Over the years the numbers have dwindled. Daughters used to start their training at the young age of just 9 or 10, where they would collect clams and abalone (Jeju is famous for it's abalone). But now, it seems an easier walk of life to grow up and work in Jeju's thriving tourism industry rather than follow in their mothers' wet footsteps.  In 2002, there were just over 5000 haenyeo divers, with more than 50% being over 60 years old. Now, less than 10 years later, there is estimated to be less than 3000 divers left. Sadly, it is a dying breed.

Garry and I arrived on Jeju Island at maybe just after noon on a Saturday. We veered off the main road and ended up walking to the nearest town through empty fields and cliffs overlooking the ocean. About 15 minutes into our walk we came across 3 haenyeos all kitted up. It was an amazing sight, like we were in a time warp. The ones left have an amazing, almost ethereal presence on Jeju, like that of a mermaid. There are museums devoted to them and statues and plaques everywhere.  Seafood restaurants flaunt pictures of them, so you can identify that you are supporting these people. As well, dotted along the coast, were little shacks where you could see their suits and masks hung up to dry and their nets laying empty in preparation for the next day.

One of the sites of the Haenyeo divers.

A Haenyeo seafood restaurant

Haenyeo divers out front of the restaurant selling their wares.

After our trip to Jeju we watched the Korean film, My Mother the Mermaid. A little slow off the cuff but it gives you a real sense of the job the Haenyeo's did, the lives they led and the feeling of community these women had. It is a rich and fascinating part of Korea's culture and a sad one to see disappear.
There was a museum in Hado-ri, Jeju if you're interested in finding out more, but we didn't have time to make it there. Living on the mainland of Korea, I had never heard of these women before, but after a trip to Jeju Island, I feel like I have uncovered one more layer of Korea's heritage, a beautiful and interesting and captivating layer, about the integral role they played in living on Jeju-do.

Haenyeo sculpture on the seafront in Jeju City.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Jeju Island

Traditional Jeju statues made of volcanic rock

Jeju-Do. For months I have heard this and that about Jeju and all it beholds for Korea. I've read about it, had friends visit there and seen lots of pictures of it. For Chuseok (Korea's version of Thanksgiving) I had a 6 day vacation from school, so off to Jeju I went. 

Late Friday night Garry and I hopped on an overbooked train from Suwon, and headed south to Gwangju. We arrived in Gwangju blurry eyed and tired at 2:30am. The plan was to linger in the train station for a few hours but exhaustion got the better of us and we checked in to a local love motel for a 3 hour nap. At 6am, outside Gwangju station we hopped on a free shuttle bus headed for Jang Heung. On our last leg of the journey, we took a 3 hour ferry headed to Seongsan Harbor in Jeju. It was a long and tiresome journey, but we made it there feeling pretty accomplished. There are 2 big ferry ports at Busan and Mokpo, where most of the foreigners go to get to Jeju (or by plane). We heard about a cheaper, more difficult and not so tourist friendly route (it was all Koreans on the ferry), hence feeling a little proud to actually have made it to Seongsan-ri.

Ferry to Jeju

Sleepy and Happy

Saturday afternoon, when we arrived on the island, the weather was horrible. Strong winds,  lots of rain and a chill in the air. After dealing with 2 weeks of tropical storms in the Philippines, the LAST thing we wanted was to endure the same thing in Jeju. We checked into a guest house, attempted to brave the elements for lunch and came back soaked head to toe from the rain. I was not impressed. Things were not off to a good start. Pretty much the only redeeming factor for Saturday was a delicious meal of grilled mackerel and large dose of Jeju's own soju.




Sunday we woke up to a few lingering clouds from the day before but by midday the sun had burned them off and it was lovely summer weather from then on in. HUGE sigh of relief. Just outside of our guesthouse was the Ilchulbong Crater. We climbed to the top of it for beautiful views of Seongsan and the surrounding area.  Ilchulbong is an extinct volcano. It was a short climb up and definitely worth the trip to look over the surrounding area.


At the top of the crater looking in

The view of Seongsan-ri

Dry & Fashionable

Next on our list of places to go was Loveland. Yup, Loveland. Jeju is chalk-a-block full of random amusement parks, a Ripley's Believe It or Not museum, a mini world, golf courses and other bizarre tourist attractions. Loveland is one of these. I had seen pictures of it from a friend before I even had a job secured in Korea and it was on my list of things to do and see from the get go. For such a non-physical and reserved culture, Loveland is definitely out of the ordinary here. It is a small park full of erotic statues and beautifully manicured gardens and ponds. There were a few galleries and an XXX gift shop. It only took a short time to cover but we got such a kick out of it. Most of the people there were foreigners but watching the few Koreans couples and families (!) and even ajummas and ajoshis giggle their way from exhibit to exhibit was worth its weight in gold!

From Loveland we headed to Jeju City, the capitol. It was a surprisingly large city and we just barely covered the sea front. We wandered about until we found a black pig (heukdwaeji) restaurant. This is one of the foods Jeju is famous for (abalone is another one, but I am not a fan of this seafood). So we had black pig and it was utterly disappointing and overly priced. It tasted just like regular saemgypsal. Saemgypsal is just pork barbecued in thick strips, but Koreans eat it really fatty. Like picture 80% of the meat being fatty bits. Not my cup of tea. We figured the black pig would be a little different or special, but no, to me, there was no difference (except in price!).

Black Pig in Seogwipo


Monday morning we left for Udo. Udo is a small island just a 10 minute boat ride off the east coast of Jeju-do. It's population is less than 2000 people and it spans 17km in circumference. We rented a cute little car and drove around the island. It was so refreshing to get behind the wheel of a car and DRIVE! Ten months is a long time not to have driven. We drove around the island stopping anywhere we saw that tickled our fancy. There were lots of seafood restaurants, lookout points, a few beaches, a traditional cemetary and a few light houses just to list off a few of the sites. It was a great way to kill a few hours out in the sun and exploring the island life.

From Udo, we headed to the southern part of the island to the second biggest city called Seogwipo. We arrived late afternoon and had time to check out the city and walk to Cheonjiyeon waterfalls. There was a huge temperature drop from being out is the sunshine to walking through the canyon leading to the falls. It was a nice break from the heat. We got to stroll the harbor at dusk and see everyone enjoying the evening. The food specialty here was raw fish but Garry and I didn't have the energy to fight our way ordering in a chaotic Korean restaurant. After lots of walking we finally settled on a comfortable little Hof (a Korean style bar usually with a basic food menu). The food ended up being great and we spent the evening there relaxing with a few bottles of Jeju soju.

Seogwipo Harbor

Cheonjiyeon Waterfalls

Seogwipo Harbor
The morning of our final day in Jeju we were beach bound. We randomly picked a beach off the map, grabbed a local bus and headed to Jungmun. What a beauty. It was a mission to get to it, but once we reached it,  it paid off. Crystal clear water, sandy bottom and perfectly tempered waters. Just what I needed to round off the perfect trip to Jeju-do, because what island vacation is complete without beach time? We didn't have long so we soaked up as much sun, sand and sea as possible and then started the long and arduous journey home.

Jungmung Beach


From Jungmun we hopped in a taxi to Jeju City. This took maybe just under an hour and afforded us a nice cross island driving tour. In Jeju City we were booked on an overnight ferry back to Incheon. The ferry was epic. I had heard of this through friends and love being on any kind of vessel, so this was right up my alley. We boarded at 3pm and sailed north for 14 freaking' hours! The boat was such a happy place. Upon our departure there was an entertainer throwing a dance party complete with bubble machine and booming speakers. At one point there was a Survivors Game in play and we heard annoucements for a Treasure Hunt too.  For the older crowd there was a bar, complete with a horrible Korean band playing mostly Abba and other elevator tunes. There was a small restaurant which we didn't actually have the nerve to brave. Garry and I settled for a romantic instant ramien noodles and soju meal on the boat. The soju came in smaller than normal bottles and we saw groups of people set up with boxes of it, obviously thinking the trips back and forth to the store on the boat would be saved with just one mass purchase. Classic. As the night wore on, the more soju and beer and was consumed, the more entertaining the sights. There were sleeping rooms but lots of people just dropped where they stopped. We played cards in the main hall area for ages watching the night unfold and then eventually headed back to our common room for some kip. I had a decent nights sleep till we docked at 5am at Incheon. From Incheon Port we grabbed a taxi to Incheon Bus Terminal. From Incheon Bus Terminal we found a bus to Osan. Almost 24 hours later, and worth every bit of the journey, we walked in and opened the door to my apartment in Osan. There is no place like home.

Boarding @ 3pm

Sleeping accommodation

Disembarking @ 5am.   Zzzzzz.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Korea: meet Will.
   Almost 13 years ago, on a world wide back packing trip I met a Welsh guy who was pretty cool. After parting ways in Melbourne, Australia in 2000- we made a drunken pinky promise to keep in touch and meet up elsewhere in the world at some point in our lives. I moved to the south of England while he was living up in the north but we made a point to hook up as often as possible, usually on a dance floor of some club or another. He made a few trips down and I made a few trips up. As timing had it he moved to Brighton where I lived just as I headed back to Canada. But since then he is always on my list of people to see in England. Living in my old city, it's always a good time going back to Brighton to see Will (or Matt, whatever the hell your name is ;) Over the years he has been to Canada to visit me and one of these days I have hopes to make it to Ibiza with him and his crew. Well- he came to Korea. Korea isn't exactly on many peoples lists of places to see, so it was so great to have my first visitor here.
He was in the country for about 2 weeks but I only saw him for 5 of those days. I live just outside of Seoul, in a pretty small city, with not much to see or do. We only spent 2 days here. He got his bearings in Osan, we did lots of catching up and then were headed to Seoul.

One point of interest we squeezed in before Seoul was in Suwon, the city's Fortress. It's like Korea's miniature version of the Great Wall of China. It outlines the old city walls and there is an old Palace dating back to the Joseon Dynasty. It is has lots of history to it, and the views high up on the fortress walls are unbeatable.

Our Weekend in Seoul 

Friday afternoon Garry, Will and I made our way to Sinchon, the Love Motel capital of that area. After sussing out many a love shack, we finally settled in to one. From there we headed to Hongdae. This is one of the most colourful areas in Seoul in my opinion, and couldn't be left unseen. We picked a nice restaurant to eat because after a few days of rice and kimchi, Will was ready for a change of menu. After dinner we spent the evening hopping from bar to bar and watching the night go by. We had to be up early for Saturday so at a decent hour we started to make our way home. Enroute though other plans formed and we ended up ringing in the morning in some seedy bar with a group of Korean randoms. Lots of soju later and very little sleep, Saturday morning showed it's face.

The following series of photos are an excerpt of how our night unwound. Will made friends with these random Korean guys on the way home and somehow, against better judgement, ended up drinking in Sinchon with them till the sun came up.

1 : 7

2 : 7

3 : 7

4 : 7

5 : 7

6 : 7

 7 : 7 - The Finale
(and possibly the most random photo ever! Teddy Bear, WTF?)
Saturday I had us booked on a trip to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea). Garry and Will and I (but mostly the boys) were a site for sore eyes. I am actually impressed we even made it to meet the bus (I assure you it was a valiant effort on my part, the boys- not so much!) We met up with a bunch of friends on the trip and what started off painfully ended rather well. We had a few stops including reunification villages, the Peace Bridge, and a viewpoint where we got to see North Koreans, as if we were watching them like animals in a far off zoo.   There was a traditonal Korean food lunch stop and some touristy gimmicks during the day, but most of it was interesting. We watched a short documentary on the North and the South, we got to climb down, through and back up one of the discovered tunnels dug by the North (please note this was the WORST possible hangover cure EVER!) We looked through a photo gallery and a few other things to stretch the day out, but overall, minus the hangovers, it was a cool tour.

Peace Bridge

After a brief nap and some grub back at the Love Motel, Will and I suited up, got some soju in us and were off to meet some friends for the next item on the agenda. Global Underground @ Club Elui. Dancing is what Will and I do best together and somehow from England he sorted us with guest list, VIP and all that jazz to Seoul's newest club. Nice-uh! It was a little difficult to summon the energy but a few shots in we were nestled into the dance floor as happy as could be. I haven't really been to a decent club in Seoul and in 10 months I was going through some withdrawal. Will came at the perfect time. We danced till 5 am and the music and company was fantastic!

Sunday. After a very brief lie in, off we were again. We met up with Garry midday and made our way to the base of Namsan Mountain. We hopped in a cable car and spent the next few hours at the top of the mountain overlooking Seoul. There were some traditional performances going on we got to watch and then the rest of the time was just scoping out the views. We went to the top of N'Seoul Tower (the equivalent of Toronto's CN Tower) and lucked out on a perfectly clear day to enjoy the views.  Seoul is a huge metropolis, with a population of about 12 million people. It is geographically dissected by the Han River and dotted with mountains, a strange characteristic of a city, but it makes it all the more spectacular to see with a bird's eye view.

After a long and fun filled 5 days of touring and catching up we parted ways underneath the city, in Seoul's metro. We sent Will off down to Busan and Jeju to experience a little more of Korea, and Garry and I were homeward bound for Osan. Not only was it amazing to see Will and have him visit here, but telling him all about Korea as a country, the people who live here, and my experiences in the last 10 months here, reminded me how much I love korea. I have done so much traveling to so many foreign places in my life but Korea is different. Never have I had the opportunity to spend so much time in one place and integrate myself into a society like this. I have seen a side of this country I would never have grasped just passing through. It was nice to talk about and tell someone about it and share what Korea has been for me.