an ode to jeju

an ode to jeju

IT wasn’t like i was arriving in San Diego for the first time; the place i first went to that was further than anywhere i’d ever been...since that time i called my family from the east coast when i was 11 years old and told them i wanted to stay there forever. i think i made my poppa cry that night. i was so at peace and i hadn’t even crossed an ocean yet. but i was right by an ocean and that was enough. 

the first impressions after arriving at an airport are hard to shake. they can be majestic, stunning; and they can be the glue that holds your angst and your love for a place forever. just like men. just like the first date or first week of dates that lead to a failed relationship. it wasn’t a failure at first. 

IT wasn’t like I was young, naive, filled with wanderlust, filled with only hopes for the day that lay ahead, with only palm trees, and the fresh breathe of non-recycled air that you get overwhelmed with those first few moments after stepping outside from the baggage claim. it’s all up from there. i had just seen the Grand Canyon. i had seen rows of palm trees as the plane landed. my first palm trees. i had survived my first plane ride. i had my first middle seat as i talked with the strangers on either side of me. my first experience of being guided by older traveling men (the kind who talk at you). i had no idea how many more of those characters i would inevitably encounter on my next decade and a half on the road which i had no idea had already been written in the stars for me.
it wasn’t like i was that girl. it wasn’t like it was that day. but it might as well have been.

over 14 months of living on the korean peninsula and never taking a plane ride, only short bus rides. lots of crowded subways, lots of empty subways. lots of lonely walks. dodging the mid-week drunks and sometimes dodging nothing but the putrid alleyway stink and stray cats. there were not so lonely walks too. those were particularly more difficult to shake. even the intoxicated couples were hand in hand, sometimes domestic in their abuse and backward in their thinking… so why did i have to do it alone? 

the country might as well be an island. the peninsula has no land border. flight is the only way. we are given the wings to teach, to get an apartment, and given the comfort of a microwave, floor heat, 24-hour bathhouses and beer. but flight prices go up on weekends. flights go up on those few days of the year when the people in one the most overworked countries in the world get a three-day weekend. so the ones with wanderlust stick it out. we stay on the little hermit kingdom. the little locked-in peninsula, plotting our next move or just talking about it over a few glasses of Cass on another Friday night. then another and another. that view of the diamond bridge is great. the walk home at the end of the night isn’t as sparkly, isn’t as bright or hopeful. it’s a dead-end even if it seems like tomorrow is something great to look forward to. 

IT wasn’t like i was arriving in a place just for the sake of a weekend getaway. we work long weeks. i take what i’m given. sometimes i don’t grab it soon enough. sometimes it’s too soon. a door opens; i run through. a window opens and i breathe in the air. a door closes and i sometimes wait outside much too long for it to never open again. i regret. more fresh air. repeat.

IT wasn’t like i was choosing to visit that place much too late. much too overdue. somewhere i had longed for without even knowing that i was longing for it. but when i stepped off that plane. when I stepped outside of the airport, and greeted with that well-constructed first impression; palm trees, (a misty mountain!) and eager taxi touts, opting for a city bus that could go anywhere and finding my way to the beach all by my lonesome. i felt more in control of my life than i’d felt in over a year. the entire day that unfolded was a day that i made for myself. i did it all from the ground up. as i walked the well-paved roads of Jeju city, tourist friendly and palm tree-lined all i needed to do was turn a corner and look out into the horizon. i only saw a deep turquoise sea. i followed it and found a beach to walk on barefoot. early March and shoes off by the water. that is where a Canadian blooded girl can find success. it’s not a tropical island, this Jeju. but it might as well be. what else are seaside cafes playing Neil Young on the jukebox machine for?

i’m never one to refuse a good paying job in Korea. i’m always on the first, or second, flight out. if i sleep in extra, i take the third flight. but Jeju, Jeju took me a long time to get to. it was only an hour flight. a swim from my port city. a ferry to escape. but it might as well have been eleven years ago, during my first four-hour long journey from east coast to west, in between two american businessmen giving me advice about how to find the Hotel in that movie and what beaches to avoid. this man next to me on Jeju Air, eager and dressed in his recently purchased, crisp and colourful hiking gear, headed to the precious semi-tropical island of his country. buying me an extra jeju tangerine orange juice as we flew over the sea on a misty saturday morning was all i needed to fuel my day of adventure and discovery. 

IT wasn’t like i had any regrets about waiting so long. about all the weekend getaways i could have indulged in on my peninsulas precious island. 

it was somewhere i needed to be. on that weekend. on that beach and that sand in between my toes, on that misty Saturday morning. it was supposed to pour rain. it poured a little. the sky cleared. i had to spend extra money traveling from one side of the island to the other. the taxi driver didn’t have to give me a discount late Saturday night, but he did. i didn’t have to pick up a photography book in that basement dive bar, over 3 dollar beers in between card games and find pictures and stories of people i knew from back home. i didn’t have to realize that i’m part of that group: the wandering group who wander, wonder and sometimes stand still. but i did. and i made it back to my floor heat at the end of the night, just in time to see another misty morning. a Sunday morning in Jeju. my pension was a block from the sea, but i couldn’t see anything through the mist. i knew it was there. just a few whiffs of Jeju morning air over instant coffee and i was half a world away from my usual Sunday mornings in Busan; not wanting to go anywhere. being pulled down to stay while simultaneously dreaming of being anywhere else. land of the morning calm. the Jeju morning gave me a different feeling. i wasn’t on my peninsula anymore. Jeju is something and somewhere different.

people say it’s the island of the Gods. i’m not sure if that’s true. i’m not sure if first impressions are good to follow. i’m not sure if happiness should begin or end with palm trees and fresh juice. but i’m not saying not to go. because i know that if you land on that island, and hop on the bus, and follow a road that looks like it will lead you somewhere, maybe even leave you barefoot and filled with a contentment you thought was lost with your 21 year old self; i’m not saying not to take it. Take it. It’s only a ticket. It’s only an hour. Or two. Or 24. You can never tell how it will make you feel, or remind you of what you are capable of once you get there. 

we literally set fire to the rain. Jeju Fire Festival-March 2016.

i took a very jenny break to look out at the sea

can you see the remnants and clues of this semi-volcanic island?

i miss you, Jeju