Author Archives: timcushing

Numbers

There’s been something uncanny about the whole situation. The response in Korea has been, by most accounts, timely and effective. New infection rates are dropping daily, and normalcy seems like it could show up on the horizon at any time. Yes, there were a few scary weeks in South Korea where it was uncertain what the virus would do. The initial outbreak here was made even more surreal by a story involving a cultish church in Daegu with connections to Wuhan. But since then, a calmness has found its way into the cracks of everyday life and people approach public spaces with more ease.

Meanwhile, in recent weeks the news on the other side of the world seems increasingly ominous. Negative numbers have increased: infections, deaths, periods of quarantine, the number of feet you should keep between you and another human. It’s hard not to open the news tab without anxiety.

On the day that things got real in the States, I hiked Mount Halla with a group of friends. There was no small amount of naiveté at that point. We began our hike with jocularity on a diamond Jeju day, packs full of too much food and not enough water. The virus had been starting to pickup on the mainland, but Jeju still felt sheltered from the events of the world. I had been watching the news, but didn’t feel concerned enough to stay indoors.

For a lot of people, realizing the heavy gravity of this situation seems to have been like watching an approaching train. At first it is moving forward with a hypnotizing graceful muscularity in the distance, dancing on an unseen but predetermined path. It gets closer and closer–another harmless piece of the countryside. At some point though, an invisible barrier is broken in an instant and the train savagely shakes the ground beneath your feet, screeching a million fiddles that you can’t reconcile with the idyllic picture that you were just staring at with quiet wonder. I think that this whole pandemic has brought into focus the personal dissonance that we suffer from with the news.

My friends and I came down from the mountain after eight hours of hiking. Two people went in a cab to grab the car from the trailhead. While they waited, the remaining three sat and talked on a wooden platform. The convenience store had been closed due to the virus so we halfheartedly tried to distract ourselves from our hunger and thirst through light conversation. When they got back in their car my friend jumped out. He had a look of excitement on his face that had not realized its unease: “Tom Hanks has the virus!” “Rudy Gobert tested positive and the NBA is shut down!” “The market is going to crash!” Humanity smacked into a wall of reality that we’re still aching from.

Near the summit of Mount Halla

There’s a guilty longing to being overseas at this time. The truth of the situation renders going back impossible, while at the same time that’s exactly where you want to be during this period of history. Jeju is one of the safest places to be right now. The only comparable thing that my friends and I have been able to think of is 9/11. A diamond day into which a vividly painful memory is suddenly lodged like a knife. The pain slowly moves outward. It’s like a bad movie where you keep looking up and down at the wound in disbelief as if it will disappear. An initial feeling of uneasy excitement that gives way to very real facts and numbers.

I’ve talked to several friends who can’t seem to stop watching the numbers go up and down. There’s so much data right now to keep track of but so few answers. There hasn’t been enough time for clinical trials to take place, and so we’ve been forced to be armchair scientists, gleaning what we can from the news and the experts. I do know at some point, that the numbers that matter will start to recalibrate. Respirators, masks, and testing kits will become more readily available. New cases and deaths will go down. Breakthroughs will go up. Then we can start the work of healing.

I think that one reason I keep looking at the numbers is to try to anchor myself to my home country. The numbers should be reflections of the truth through all of media fog. It can have the opposite effect though, and make my head spin. Instead, I’ve been trying to excavate memories that I haven’t revisited for a while and talk about them with loved ones. There’s a therapeutic element to delving into the past. It blurs time and ameliorates the impossible wait that is happening right now. Personal stories can help to facilitate a meaning that feels so much more immediate and real than the stories cycling through the media. There’s something unquantifiable and uncountable about them, and in that specific ambiguity is something in which I can take comfort.

A few haiku:

Pond inverts to sky 
I throw a stone with 
my eyes To see a ripple
Blue marble we're inside 
Spring with domed walls and birdsong 
And then hard quiet

Currently listening to: Funky Kingston by Toots and the Maytals

Just watched: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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The Moons of Jeju

As spring comes to Jeju and with it a series of stunning moons, I find myself reflecting on a project from grad school that my advisor, Gale Jackson, put into motion a few years ago. It was a time when I thought I’d be leaving Jeju for good, and so I started to say goodbye over the course of the springtime months through poem. 

Gale told me to “look at the moon” and encouraged me to write. I started jotting down a haiku each evening and then compiled my favorites. Haiku should be written fast like brushstrokes, and I slowly painted a picture of spring. It’s interesting to retrace the footsteps – to see the journey from cold to warm as the earth woke up, and to apply meaning to familiar images through a newer lens. 

Last year, I took a trip to Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms. I arrived at peak time when there were fluffy pillows in the gutters. I wandered the streets snapping photos, admiring the silence that the city and the season has to offer. I walked into Nijo castle at night and the illuminated trees took on eerie and mythic personalities with their translucent pinks and whites.

I was supposed to make the same trip this previous weekend. Again, the timing would have been perfect. I had the weekend circled, and as I waded through the day-to-day of work I held that on the horizon. But as events played out in the world, the trip drifted away and I found myself planted on Jeju spending much time at home, wandering the surrounding farm roads with my dog, and running my familiar trails on the weekend. The weekend where I was supposed to be in Kyoto drifted by like an easy petal in the wind. 

When the global news became serious, at first there was disbelief, and then frustration, and then fear and then acceptance, and now? Now, I find myself wondering what can be done. I think for many it’s been a good chance to reconnect to family and friends, which I’ve been doing, but also it’s been a chance to reconnect to the land. This week a calm has set in as I look around my island. It’s not without the flavor of uncertainty and fear, but my day-to-day has been in stronger contact with the details. I’m trying to take this as a chance to notice, and to see where the past lines up with the present to form a clearer picture.

Reading these poems again, I think about how I felt in that month before leaving Jeju and moving to Shanghai. The mounting electricity of spring that builds and propels you to the full splendor of summer. Trees shake off their delicate scales to show something more verdant and enduring. And it was at that point that I said goodbye to Jeju.

Now that I find myself more or less stuck here on the island, I realize that that electric energy of leaving Jeju might have been that of staying–that my nightly check-ins with the night sky had built an appreciation for something that I have often taken for granted: where I was. When I left Jeju I missed it, and when I came back I forgot that I had. When I wrote the poems or wandered Kyoto I wasn’t enamored by the transitory cherry blossoms of spring, but by the enduring heartbeat of the island or the city. This is an awareness that only honed observation can bring. 

And so tonight as a reminder of that I’ll tilt my head to the sky and pause for a few seconds to look at the moon, knowing that it’s a meeting spot for all of the places where I’ve felt the comfort of place. It’s home to a thousand translucent threads of time, space and memory that it only takes a few moments of pause to connect with. 

The Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto 2019

Recommended Reading: The Essential Haiku from Bloodaxe Books. An essential collection from haiku masters Basho, Buson and Issa.

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Haeinsa Part IV: Departure

I woke up the final day at Haeinsa feeling rested and ready to hit the trail. We had made a new friend the previous night who wanted to show us around. Her Buddhist name was Arona and she had been sweeping outside of our door as we came back from dinner the night before. Seeing our cameras she became very excited and insisted that we come see her pictures later. She was a sweet lady who told us about her family and her beliefs and showed us her workbook where she honed her English skills by copying famous speeches. She was all in all very motherly.

So the next day we woke up to rain and walked around seeing the temple with a new sheen. Arona snapped pictures and took us to her favorite spots that we had seen on the previous day but were made better by her excited chatter and picture taking. Before we left she made us go to the gift shop with her where she bought us Buddhist bracelets. The temple was empty due to the rain, so we had time to make small talk and sip instant coffee with the gift shop’s owner. The owner also wanted to give us a gift, and insisted that we take a pack of postcards and a bag of potatoes. Arona walked us to our trailhead and we said our goodbyes before leaving Haeinsa behind.

I made my way up the trail to the peaks of Gayasan quietly listening to the rain lightly smack the leaves. The dampness eventually found its way through my old raincoat and I gave up on keeping dry, taking off my hood and feeling the cold drops on my forehead. The hike to the top seemed brief. We found ourselves on a huge rock enveloped by fog. The first true peak was a silhouetted stone giant about a hundred meters away. A few Nepalese hikers snapped their pictures with us and we continued on to Sangwangbong, one of Gayasan’s two peaks. I looked into the grey fog and thought about the view that it was hiding.

The second peak is called Chilbulbong and is a few meters taller than the first. We reached it in ten minutes and then started making our way back down the other side of the mountain. Near the bottom a few Korean hikers emerged. They were having a picnic and offered us some fried chicken. We refused, but didn’t turn down the apples that they offered instead. We said “Thank you” in Korean and continued on down.

At the bottom we took a rest at a campground under a roof with benches. I used the automatic hand dryer in the bathroom on a few of my things that were especially damp. Following the road we came to a strange terrarium with a museum attached. It was all in Korean but had to do with the ecosystem of the park. The museum was completely empty. A man appeared to take a small entrance fee. I wandered through the museum section and then into the silent terrarium. Attached was a glass room with a woman inside. I went in and she handed me flower tea. She let me smell the different varieties and I bought a glass jar of purple petals.

We walked on the road toward town as occasional cars whizzed past. There was a small chance that two soaking wet vagabonds would be picked up so we resigned ourselves to the long walk. As we came closer to civilization we noticed that a celebration was going on. There were giant beach balls floating in the air and giant expo tents set up. We walked down the hill to the entrance and were greeted by a Korean with an Australian accent named Lucy. She was an English speaking tour guide for the Millenial Anniversary Expo of the Tripitaka Koreana. Amazingly, we had tickets to the event from our Templestay host.

Lucy, who had lived in Australia for a while, showed us around the Expo and then put us on a bus headed for Daegu. We reversed our trip back to Busan. Arriving around nine, we quickly checked into a hotel and ditched our wet gear before walking out on the street to reacquaint ourselves with civilization. We walked to the strange set of bars named after American cities and states excited to see it at night. However, all that greeted us was a depressing ghost town where strange women urged us to come in and drink with them. Feeling dejected by the sad scene, we walked half-heartedly around a few more blocks and then made our way back to hotel.

The next morning we met up with our other boarding assistant friends who were excited about what they had been exploring while we were gone. They took us to a much livelier part of town to the cheap but classy brand-new love motel where they were staying. From there, we went to the largest department store in the word called Shinsegae. It is nine floors of disorienting escalators and commerce that left me feeling dizzy. It even has an ice rink. We walked by the beach and through a strange downtown business district where a protest was happening.

The city was full of restaurants and bars. Many of them had strange allusions to America or were American chains. I picked up some books at a store near our hotel before we made the rounds of a few nightspots in the area. In the evening the street was lit up in neon and there were countless street vendors all selling similar food. We stopped at a few of them they quickly cooked delicious greasy dumplings and Korean pancakes on their carts.

The five of us left our motel early the next morning, got some coffee and made our way to the airport, leaving behind the mainland and heading back to our island.

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Haeinsa Part III: A Full Day

Waking up at three AM was something that I’ve never attempted. I’ve experienced it from the other angle and stayed up until three to see the most quiet part of the night. I’ve woken up at four to catch airplanes or buses. I’ve driven through the night in the middle of America watching the lines on the highway. However, waking up at three for the sake of starting my day was something foreign.

I was not groggy as I awoke – there was more of a pensiveness to the atmosphere as we all began to stir and roll up our mats and take turns in the bathroom and make for the door. Outside the moon still dominated the sky and as we convened in a courtyard we couldn’t help but stare up at it. We made our way in line to the drum and watched the monks and then went to the temple and listened to the monks chanting. The rituals were repeated but took on a whole new meaning in darkness of the very early morning. The routine had kicked in and I had come as close to immersion in temple life as I would during my stay there.

So we made our way to the tea room where we laid down mats in lines and faced forward at our guide and she put on a CD that took us through 108 bows. Backing a man’s voice was music that could have served as the soundtrack to Braveheart. The music wove it’s way through moments of intense adventure and tranquil lulls. After a while I stopped counting the bows and tried to focus only on the movements I was making. The bowing process becomes somewhat strenuous when repeated, and a few people had to stop and rest. After the bowing we meditated. I might have fallen asleep if it weren’t for the intense pain in my legs unused to being crossed for extended periods of time.

We had a delicious yet simple breakfast of rice, kimchi, and soup and pickled things and then went on a tour of the temple. We were shown a building that houses the Tripitaka Koreana. The building is carefully planned to provide the right conditions for almost thousand year old wooden printing blocks of the Buddhist scriptures.

After our tour the silence lifted and the Templestayers dispersed. Wesley and I were the only ones staying another night so I nodded goodbyes to the people I had not really spoken to. By this time it was mid-morning and I had been up for seven hours. I decided to take a nice long nap before lunch, unfolding my mat.

After lunch, Wesley and I took off toward town. We made our on the path and witnessed the full degree of tourism that occurs at the foot of Haeinsa. The flea market that had been empty the previous morning was bustling with school children and tour groups and people in costumes. It was a shock after spending nearly 24 hours in almost complete silence. We quickly made our way through saying hello to curious school children eager to try out their English on us.

After a little searching we found the trail head that we were looking for and began to make up way up toward the summit of Namsan Jeilbong. There were a few hikers who smiled or tried a little English. The path was well marked and maintained and took us fairly quickly to the summit using metal stairs where the rocks became too steep to be safe. We took in the view and continued on a steep descent down the other side not quite knowing where it would end up.

The trail meandered to a small temple at the base of the mountain with a garden full of greenery. I smiled at a lady as she made her way past us to do some harvesting. The path continued to a town with distant noises of cows and dogs and the occasional car. We saw a festival in the distance and walked in its direction hoping it would bring us to a road that would loop back to Haeinsa. We had slightly misjudged time and distance and the day was wearing on.

A van sped around the corner and came to an abrupt stop. “Haeinsa?” the driver said. We nodded and he motioned for us to get in. The man drove with a confidence a person can only have in their hometown roads. He cut the s-shapes right down the middle and honked at anything or anyone that was encroaching on his path. His foot slammed on the gas for straightaways and flexed precisely on the brake for corners. We soon found ourselves in Haeinsa town. The driver handed us a card for a nearby hotel, smiled, and took off up the road probably rushing to get back for dinner.

We trudged up the hill, set our packs down in our room, caught dinner and made our way outside to view the temple at night. The lanterns that lined the path had been illuminated and the atmosphere was one of quiet festivity. I heard the drumming and chanting from a distance – this time slightly muffled and enchanting, and night had returned to Haeinsa.

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Haeinsa Part II: To the Temple

After a chilly night of what I think was slightly below freezing temperatures, I awoke slightly disoriented on a stream bank. The sun had just come up and was reaching through leaves in full foliage colors. I hadn’t been able to see the trees in the dark and did not realize that we had arrived in the mountains in peak Fall season.

Wesley and I ate a breakfast of bread and water, and looked around. There turned out to be a legitimate campsite across the road that was completely vacant. There wasn’t even a sign of a caretaker. The occasional car rushed past on the road on some errand. We wandered the rest of the way down the mountain through Haeinsa town and and started making our way to the temple. There were a few town residents out eating breakfast or getting their shop ready for the day. They gave a friendly and slightly confused smile and stared as we walked down the road.

We got to the base of the temple and found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a flea market. The temple rush hadn’t started yet so all the merchants very enthusiastically pushed free samples our way. We tried a variety of foods including rice vinegar and homemade green tea. A group of Korean temple goers wanted their picture taken with us so we humored them. Eventually we pushed on past the mecca of commerce and up a path lined with colorful lanterns. Things got quieter as we neared the temple and the people thinned out. This quiet would soon be shattered by busloads of tourists and pilgrims. But for now it was peaceful. I walked down a path past a mirrored pyramid and looked at some buildings. Wesley said it was like Rivendale. I turned around and saw the first big group of the day leading droves of companions making their way to the entrance. We decided to hurry up before it got more crowded.

We found the entrance – a long straight path up a few stairs and through a few sets of arches. The second arch led into a courtyard where people peddled around. To the left was a giant drum under a roof where a monk performed a fast-paced routine with arms tracing patterns around the drumhead. The ground was all dirt and had countless footprints.

We saw a sign for Templestay and followed it down some stairs eventually coming to a room where we checked in for the night. We followed a lady who spoke no Korean who brought us to our room and then immediately brought us to lunch. We had a silent meal of soup and rice and kimchi and a few other vegetarian side dishes. At four, our Templestay program started. We met the monk who would be working with us and practiced bowing and then had dinner. There were about 10 of us total and the men and women slept in different rooms. Our sleeping room was a giant hall with sauna climate and mats to put down on the floor.

Following dinner, we had some down time. When the sun started to set we made our way to the courtyard. The tourists had left for the day and peace had returned to Haeinsa. We walked to the giant drum and stood quietly in a line. Monks took turns performing quick-handed solos on the drums with wooden sticks that seemed effortless. To switch performers, a monk would approach the drum and sync up with the beat before the other monk stepped off and sat down. From there we went to a shrine with three enormous golden statues of the Buddha. We did three bows and then listened as one monk began chanting with the accompaniment of a woodblock. The chant erupted as the other monks joined in creating a thunderous chorus. Outside the night was completely quiet. It was hypnotizing and was the most moving experience during my time in the temple.

From there we marched in a line to a room where we sat on cushions on the floor. They served us tea and we talked with the monk who taught us to bow. He spoke no English but we had a few translators. People asked him mostly about specific problems and the monk pointed out that the conversation was becoming cyclical, that people needed to become aware of their inner-mind. Most of the specifics of the conversation were lost in translation.

After an hour and a half of tea, we went to our room and went to sleep on our mats anticipating a three in the morning wake-up.

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Haeinsa Part I: Getting There

Last week I took a trip to a temple called Haeinsa with a fellow boarding assistant named Wesley. We had a flight booked to Busan on the southern coast of the country and vague plans of getting to the mountains in the middle. We were drawn to search for a section of the Baekdu-daegan, , a mountain range that runs up almost the entirety of the Korean peninsula and is often referred to as the “tiger spine.”

Upon arrival in Busan, we grabbed a Korean lunch of bibimbap and Coca-Cola and looked around a bit in the area of Busan station. We encountered a strange strip of bars that took their names mostly from American states and cities that sported banners welcoming the US Navy. (As we found out later in our journey this area transforms at night into a creepy ghost town populated by women of the night.)

From there we got onto the speed train called the KTX and were a quarter of the way up the country in a city called Gyeongju in a mere 15 minutes. After about 30 minutes of discussion we decided that Gyeongju was not, in fact, where we needed to be so we got back onto the speed train and found ourselves in Daegu. In Daegu, we hopped onto the subway to a bus station and got onto a bus going north. One of our fellow passengers was a monk on a cell phone. As the sun set I saw mountains in the distance who’s shadows got closer as we wound our way farther and farther into the dark landscape.

An hour and fifteen minutes later the bus reached it’s final destination in Haeinsa and I stepped out into crisp mountain air. There was a small mountain town at the base of the temple with a few restaurants and motels and we grabbed a delicious meal (again of bibimbap but this time with soju and homemade makali so cold it had ice crystals in it.) We had vague plans of camping for the night and inspired by the electricity of the mountains walked our way up a road that wound up and up. We reached what seemed like the top in a few hours. We were surrounded by stars and mountain spines with the occasional bark of a dog in the background and it felt like the roof of the world. We quickly made our way down finally stopping for the night at a makeshift campsite next to a gurgling stream. We unrolled our new Korean sleeping bags (brand: Buck703), sparked a fire, bundled up, and hunkered down for a cold night of sleep.

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My Trip to Chujado

A few weeks ago some friends and I acting on a tip went to an island off the north of Jeju called Chujado. Knowing nothing about the island I packed some clothes and took off in a cab to catch the daily ferry. The vessel was called “The Pink Dolphin” and looked like a worthy enough boat. I boarded with high spirits not knowing I was getting aboard something akin to Willy Wonka’s chocolate riverboat. Five minutes into the ride the sea began to rock the boat. I tried to walk around but my legs were rubber. I sat down and closed my eyes trying to sleep. Poseidon had other plans. I heard the people around retching violently as their stomachs caved to the ferocious swaying of the boat, but clenched my jaw determined to make it to Chuja with my breakfast intact. This went on for an hour, the Dolphin carving it’s way up and down relentless swells and me staring ahead trying to keep my mind blank as my hopes for arrival slowly dwindled. The boat stopped miraculously and so did the demon in the my stomach. I stepped onto Chujado with relief and a new outlook on life.

The island itself is small. One major town center with a small village a ten minute car ride away. The whole thing is walkable in about seven hours and has an amazing Olle that winds along its coastline over hills and through fields. We found a cheap hotel to stay at along the trail that was right on the ocean and had a spectacular roof.

Our first night we feasted on pork Korean barbecue style where you cook it yourself on a grill built into the table and then did a night hike. On our way back to our hotel we heard noise from a staircase and investigated. Inside we found some friendly Koreans front of a big screen TV singing karaoke. A group of quiet friends watched approvingly from a table. One man in particular took a liking to us (despite speaking barely any English) and immediately began to buy us drinks that were magically replaced when empty. In return we sang them songs. I began with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and all of us closed out the night with a stirring rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

The next morning we took off on a hike around the island and took in the sweeping ocean views. We realized we were running late for the departing ferry and fortuitously flagged down a Bongo who’s driver happened to be going right to the terminal. The ferry ride back was smooth. I even got a nap in.

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Olle Hike with the Kids

Up until now I’ve only had posts about my days off, but much of my time has been devoted to working with a group of 38 South Korean boys in the 6-8 grade range split into two families known as Ottawa and Platinum, respectively. On the weekends we have been taking trips to various places around Jeju. Here are some pictures of a trip a few weeks ago along an Olle trail by Jungman Beach.

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Trek to Sanbangsan

A few weeks ago my friend Wesley and I decided to trek to a mountain that has been a part of the landscape since I arrived on Jeju Island. The mountain is called Sanbangsan (but we have referred to it as the ice cream scoop) and it looms in the panorama to the southern side of KIS about six miles away. We took off walking mid-morning with packs full of snacks, water, cold weather gear, and with no plan other than to get to the mysterious hump in the distant landscape.

On our way we were sidetracked by a small oreum (something somewhere between a mountain and a hill) that turns out to be called “Dansan.” At the top we met some quiet rockclimbers and got a better view of Sanbangsan. We took off down the mountain after a miraculous recovery of a lost lenscap and after another hour of walking found ourselves at a Buddhist temple at the base of Sanbangsan. The temple turns out to be three temples in one and culminated with a climb to cave that had a statue and an on-duty monk who sat cross-legged in front of an out of place electric fan. Walking past people who bowed on mats I climbed some stairs to a pool where you can drink out of a natural spring from the mountain and a shrine where you can light a stick of incense.

From the temples we looked down and were baffled by what appeared to be an on-land wooden pirate ship. We walked to it and found instead a replica Dutch ship with a museum for a Dutch man named Hamel who had once been stranded on Jeju and was captive for a number of years. Opposing the ship was a bizarre store that offered an eclectic mix of kitschy Dutch goods and out of place Americana items such as Route 66 signs. From there we followed a rock shelf along the coast that took us past vendors selling fresh catches from the sea.

Eventually we ended up on a beach after a full day of walking and decided that we had found ourselves a campsite. It was semi-secluded and around the corner from a city that had restaurants and supplies. At about nine in the evening, however, two loud boats lined with bright lights pulled into the harbor next to us and parked for the evening with lights on providing an obnoxious nightlight.

In the morning we took a bus to a nearby city called Seogwipo and checked out a waterfall and bridge. After lunch at the Loving Hut we took a bus to a city near KIS and hitchhiked back to campus on a Bongo (the Jeju answer to a pick-up truck.)

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Trip to Udo

Last week for our 3 days off my fellow American boarding assistants and I took off for Jeju City. We spent a night exploring the bar scene and had some surprisingly good Mexican food. From there we took off for the majestic island of Udo off of the East of Jeju. It is viewable from Sunrise Peak on a clear day. The island is called Udo or “cow” because it is of a bovine shape. It takes about an hour to get around and features a lighthouse with a panoramic view of ocean and mainland. We rented scooters and bikes and got to exploring, almost immediately finding a room for rent a short walk from the beach. The room was more of a suite complete with kitchen, big screen tv, and computer. Not bad for 10 bucks a piece…


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