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Oceans and Mountains

The skyline is a marble blue punctuated by a small craggy island. Some boats speckle the horizon, crawling in lazy slow-motion. The brisk relief of fall–nature’s exhale after a humid and rainy summer. My mind feels sharper in the crisp morning. Already the sun is baking the cool AM to a mid-day heat, but we’re ducking out.

We park our cars by the sea and walk toward the cliff-drop. We descend into a tucked-away cave with a craggy volcanic roof and smooth-stone floor, passing down gear-bags to outstretched hands. It’s dark down here, with small thunder from each wave that hits the stone shore break. The larger ones splash up in the cave’s oval window that frames the day outside.

There’s unnatural decorating that’s been done. Styrofoam beads have exploded in the cavern, filling up each crevice like a tiny ball pit. Other debris is strewn about too: flip flops, water bottles, buoys, a barnacle encrusted slipper–still furry. This scene could be a display in a modern art museum, the styrofoam reminiscent of a playful Yayoi Kusama creation. Perhaps it was the back-to-back typhoons that brought this detritus from the sea. Or perhaps the ocean had just had enough and decided to wretch out a little of what’s been bothering it. Sturdy mesh bags and gloves emerge. I put on a pair and we begin to clean.

I dig my hands into the styrofoam, flip them over, pull them out. I remember hearing on a podcast that humans find beauty in the multitudinous. There’s a theory that our survival instinct has us hardwired to react to surplus. Repeated patterns have a special appeal. The styrofoam beads pour down my gloved palms and quietly drop back into place. I scoop up handfuls and slowly start to fill my bag. Meanwhile, Subin and Namki snap pictures of the trash while making disapproving sounds.

Cerulean day

The sea churns waves underneath

In emerald cave

There are other efforts happening to clean Jeju. A group has been slowly working their way up the mountainous 1131 highway near Mt. Halla’s most popular trail (성판악). Their leader is ultra runner named Been–known as the tiger of Hallasan. Tigers, when they lived in Korea (the last one was seen in 1922, but there were never any in Jeju), used to operate in a radius. Her radius is this mountain. Been is playful and joking but prickles at the sight of highway trash. There’s an uncompromising regard for the mountain’s innate beauty that propels her forward. She and her rotating crew of volunteers clean the shoals of the road each weekend, sorting through brambles and bushes to extricate garbage that has been carelessly tossed out of windows or, in more egregious cases, dumped into piles. Been conducts the volunteers like a sportive general, jogging up and down the highway’s edge. Both jocular and chiding as she goes.

I help out one day, making the early morning drive up to the highway. There is a scavenger-hunt quality. Discovering bags of McDonalds in one culvert, and an antique bottle a few meters away in the mud. The bags fill quickly over the course of a few hours. Cars hurtle by and kick up wind. We drag finds out of the forest: car mirrors, wrappers, tires, a paint roller. The smell of composted leaves and damp earth. Patterns of trash start to emerge, and I notice a hierarchy of commonality. Lots of plastic straws, disposable cups, water bottles. The most common brand of bottle is I find is 삼다수. “The source of Jeju Samdasoo is under a superbly-preserved primeval forest near Hallasan National Park, free and far from contamination,” their website boasts.

I pluck an old cassette tape with no label from the bramble vines and they release it willingly. I wonder about the cassette’s owner. Who throws a cassette out of a car window? Was it somebody post-breakup who took an evening drive in the mountains. That one song came on that touched too hard on a raw wound. The person dramatically ejected the tape and threw it out into the dark quiet forest. Or maybe the tape wouldn’t play anymore and they just decided to ditch it. Plastic, the shed skin of human living.

After a few hours, we pose next to our hill of garbage, get into our cars and make our way back down the mountain. It’s hard not to keep noticing trash for the next few hours, my brain echoing the task for a while.

Vines and forest floor

Detonated time capsule

Tapes, bottles, mirrors

After we clean the ocean cave, we pull flippers onto our feet and goggles over our eyes. Subin has been leading the charge with her group of free diving friends, Diphda, on cleaning the beaches of Jeju. Like a traveling pod of dolphins, they spend their weekends at various water sources around the island– cleaning, sunning, playing. Subin brings the same passionate intensity as Been to her project. Simultaneously basking in the ocean while feeling an urgent need to help it. Geared up, we push out into the sea. The underwater world opens. The muffled sounds of bubbles and currents. Dull whir throb of powerful waves. We venture out into the sea to explore, occasionally taking big gulps of air before diving down to inspect a detail in the depths.

The news has been strange lately in its apocalyptic consistency. Vast blood red sky behind the Golden Gate Bridge. Hurricanes. Drought. The natural disasters seem in lock-step with the disconcerting political news that emerges each day. John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Venerated icons as wise as the redwoods leaving.

The earth can reduce styrofoam to small beads, and eventually nothing. Poisonous microplastics now will cycle out in the long run. People have become multitudinous on the planet, but I don’t get the same reaction of awe when I see them en masse. There’s an uneasy potential. Each is a small plus or minus for positive or negative change, and right now it feels like the scale is tipped in the wrong direction. On a recent hike to the top of Mount Halla, my friends and I arrived at the top to find a thriving colony of hikers. The occasional piece of wrapper blew away in the breeze. People formed a long line to take their picture with the sign. Nature reduced to a series of photo ops.

There’s no lack of causes to get involved with. For me these days, it’s cleaning up one bag of trash at a time. It’s a small anodyne. But anodyne for what? My environmental angst? The planet? Perhaps these small efforts can continue to cascade outward. Small social changes catching and changing minds. I’m convinced that in order to heal humanity we have to start with the earth.

There’s a lonely pod of dolphins that I spot sometimes on the west of Jeju. They hang and dive and swim and crest. Moving up and down the coastline. It seems like they’re playfully wasting time. They could be awaiting the arrival of some friends, or just surveying the ocean floor. They’re a patient mystery.

One day, after long hibernation, the tiger awoke. It emerged into the daylight, stretched out its claws and looked around. It’s was incredible how much had been unchanged while it had slumbered.

After years and years

A forgotten tiger wakes

Reclaiming mountain

“The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all.” – Michael McCarthy

DIPHA Jeju For people on Jeju, check out their Instagram posts for a chance to get involved in a clean-up effort while getting discounts on tasty coffee and beer!

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Forgetting

Vacation sets in. The mind moves with the forward progress of work and propels for days, even weeks. Normally there’s an emancipation to vacation marked by a physical leaving of Jeju. A transporting long trip to the States involving around 24 hours of buses, trains, flights, and cars. Bodily movement can coax the mind into a departure from routine. The hard reset of jet lag.

But this time I stay on Jeju for the first time in my seven years here. The vestiges of work-mind mix with a surplus of free time to create a low-level feeling of urgency. What to do with the time? A day can be spent on a small task–a trip to the grocery store or a walk on the beach. The hours melt away and then meander.

The swath of free hours means a migration of details. Transitioning from remembering the specifics of teaching (67 students, missing assignments, meetings, grades, deadlines, virtual school, maybe virtual school, not virtual school) to the open space of summer and a processing of what has been happening in the USA. With all of the time I could catch up with friends and family, organize my apartment, surf, work on music, read, stretch, write, figure out ways to become more politically involved, run, relax.

The list of things that I want to do swells the limits of a day’s hours. It feels like the hyperdrive mind of teaching during the pandemic isn’t going to be easily slowed. Each day eases a bit though, and the summer details start to come more into focus. The days elongate. I settle into my apartment and feel more command of the space. I visit the beach with Rupert and snap some photos.

In the midst of the drifting days a realization hits me like a thunderclap on a clear day. My passport is missing.

When was the last time I saw it? I close my eyes and conjure the image–a leather case sandwiching the navy blue outer casing. I’m not one to lose things. It actually feels like my mind is too active sometimes in its rundown of details. This isn’t like me.

The ensuing days are maddening. How do you retrace days that have all been exactly the same? The previous nine weeks fog up in my mind. I try to pick them apart but am only met with an impenetrable wall of mundane memories. I’ve spent much of my time since March in the same space. Many days working and then relaxing on the same spot. How can I dissect them?

The last time I knew I had had it was when I had fingerprints taken at the police station. I check the storage box where I usually put it. It’s not there. I pace around a bit. Check the box again. Still not there. I get on my hands and knees and look underneath all of the furniture. Finally I convince myself that I had left it in my classroom and put the thought aside for a day. Another beach walk. More photos.

It’s not in my classroom.

I check the box where I usually put it again. Dump out all of its contents. No passport but some old photos that I had printed fanned out onto the floor. I sift through, looking at images from three years prior when I had moved from Seoul to Shanghai. A mix of Jeju and Seoul. I put the contents away carefully, finally admitting that the passport isn’t there.

I reorganize my clothes, thinking that it might be in a stray fold. I check every coat pocket. I reorganize my music equipment. I take out everything from kitchen shelves and put them back again. I look under my rugs with the faint hope that some imaginary trickster had hidden if there as a bad joke. I do laps of my apartment on on all fours like a wild animal, scanning the hidden crevices at floor level. I vacuum every inch of my car, sucking up countless grains of sand from my trips to Jeju’s various beaches. I call the airport lost and found. I check drawers repeatedly.

Everything is clean and in order. My passport is nowhere. It’s OK, when’s the next time I’ll be traveling anyway? I can just wait and maybe it will turn up somewhere. Right? But I can’t wait. This is reaching a mania. The missing passport is a black hole pulling all of my other thoughts in its gravity. How could I lose something so important? Something that is such a keystone to international living. How do I even get a new one? I stare at the ceiling at night thinking about it. Ideas strike me. Drawers I might not have checked. I spring up and run to them but find nothing but disappointment.

So it’s a hail Mary trip to the police station on the off chance that I had left it there when I was fingerprinted for my teaching license renewal. Upon arrival, the area where the friendly fingerprinting cop used to be is now a construction zone. Not a good sign. I enter the main building and with the help of Google translate explain my plight. But my passport isn’t there.

I sit dejected eating some salmon eggs Benedict at a brunch spot near my apartment. I stare into space meditating, trying to conjure up where it might be. My deep meditation is probably concerning the waitress. I pay it no mind. I’m too deep into this mission now to care about civilians and their social norms. I slow my heart rate and focus. Maybe it was stolen? There’s a slight sliver of a memory that keeps nagging me. A faint flashback of telling myself, “It’ll be alright here. I won’t need it for a long time anyway.” But where was that?

I picture the moment when I find it. How good that feeling is when you discover something that you’ve been missing. When that light switch goes on. It’s unlike anything else. It’s a flood of nectar. I try to will that moment to happen but keep returning to the same realization. It’s nowhere.

I get back to my apartment. My nice clean apartment that feels so empty because of the one thing that’s not there. Rupert stares at me blankly. His cavernous jet black eyes as usual reveal no answers. They are voids that reflect the universe’s deep questions.

This has gone on long enough. It has to be here. It has to. I step up onto on my trusty stool. Good old reliable wooden stool. I start looking at my apartment from the bird’s eye. I move it to different spots, and stand and scan. And then my eyes meet the shelf above the fridge. And I open it. And there it is: on a stack of negatives that I had stuffed up there. The memory comes back to me. I had thrown it there the one night in a rush to clean before a Point Break movie night. “It’ll be alright here. I won’t need it for a long time anyway.” The shelf just out of the way enough that I forgot it existed. I don’t get an overwhelming feeling of relief, although there is a bit mixed in. It’s more confusion. Hadn’t I checked there? I’ve been reduced to a cliché: it’s always in the last place you look.

It’s nearing halfway through vacation and perhaps this is a turning point. I have a freshly organized apartment and nothing is missing. The disorganization of stagnation can dissipate. The space becomes more controlled and familiar. I can start to push outward on summer projects. Everything is accounted for.

R.I.P. to a legend.

If you’re still reading, here’s a petition encouraging a more direct approach to teaching about racism, oppression and injustice in the standards that my school as well as many other “American” schools across the world use. Please consider signing and sharing.

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White Water

Another wave rolls me over. The disorienting spin and roar and eyes closed and slight panic, because the board could be anywhere and could hurtle towards me and nail an arm, a leg, a hip or worse a skull. I hold my arms over my head and let my body spin in those tense few moments.

Surfing has hit a plateau. The sessions feel less productive, and the last three times have either been on waves too small to be fun, or on big unpredictable undulations that peak unexpectedly. There are long periods of floating and staring and then a clean wall of water is cresting in your direction and you better grab it or its going to crash onto your face.

The board feels more comfortable, but the moments when a wave takes me are still insecure, usually resulting in trying-to-do-everything-at-once shut that leaves me flailing around in a charging wall of water. The move from pure beginner to approaching intermediate feels like a long path at this point.

Today was a foggy session. There was a large group of surfers out, but they were more quiet than usual. Perhaps it was a reverence to the eerie fog that enveloped the scene. It was like floating in a flashback memory where the edges blurred until complete fade out. Strong silent waves rolled in one after another, cresting and occasionally carrying the surfers around me toward the shore. I’d look back and see them floating away behind cresting waves. There was a wave-pool effect though, and currents flowed in every direction, diffusing good waves at strange moment. I caught a few, but others picked me up and manhandled my board and I. A few seconds in the spin cycle.

And that’s how life has been lately. Lots of unreadable waves on the horizon of too many shapes and sizes to make any sense of. World news has far too many factors to detect a pattern or clear path forward. The logical mind needs to shut down and wait to see what is given and what develops. Some days feel calm and manageable, and some are heinous and relentless walls of water that are over my depth. Sometimes there’s nothing to do but to cover my head and ride the wave out, hoping that I’ll be unscathed after the white water rolls by. These are the extremes of trying to make sense of a global pandemic.

But still, when my feet touch the sand and I drag my board back to the car, there’s a slight feeling of accomplishment–a hint of progress. I’m sure I’ll find myself back in the water tomorrow, scrutinizing the horizon.

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