Finally, here is Namhae Chapter 2! (Catch up on Chapter 1 here).
Where did we leave off?
Ah yes, our undiluted desire to spend the night on the beach. This desire was distilled in our minds: the cool feel of sand between our toes, the ukulele songs mingling with the crackle of a campfire, the sighing of the wind across the waves – we had to have it.
We would lug that two gallon jug of water.
We would haul that lopsided tent bag.
We would survive on nothing but pringles and strawberries until morning when we found a real restaurant.
Nothing was in our way now!
To make sure that we knew where we were getting off, HY, S, and WN spoke to the bus driver while Andrea and I dragged the stuff onto the bus. We chatted about this and that, relaxing in the absurdly comfy seats that I’m fairly certain only seemed so comfortable because they were the sweet victory seats of the last bus we’d be taking before reaching our final destination.
Except after twenty minutes, we realized that HY, S, and WN hadn’t come back yet.
I squinted through the shaded windows to see their dark shapes still talking to the bus driver. “Do you think everything’s okay?”
“I’ll go check,” said Andrea.
So she edged down the narrow aisle and off the bus to see if there was a problem. Her return less than a minute later boded well, however.
“Everything seemed fine,” she shrugged. “They’re all talking in Korean, but we’re on the right bus.”
Soon after, everyone climbed aboard, bus driver included, and we pulled out of the station. Considering it was so late, we were surprised that the bus was as full as it was – maybe 2/3 of the seats taken up, not including the four occupied by our bags (we felt a little guilty about this, but no one was standing so we left them there).
Once we’d settled, Andrea and I asked the others what they’d been chatting about with the bus driver.
“He wants us to get off somewhere else,” HY told us.
“What’s wrong with our beach?” I asked.
“He says it’s not nice, there are no restaurants or bathrooms.”
I thought about how we’d all made a pact to use the forest/a patch of water in the ocean somewhere down the beach. Perhaps a place with bathrooms wouldn’t be so bad…
“Does this new place have a beach?” asked my brain twin: we’re always on the same track.
“He said yes,” said HY, and S and WN nodded.
“Is it crowded?”
“Ahhh I don’t know, he didn’t say so. His accent is really funny.”
And from that point on the conversation devolved into HY, S, and WN laughing about his accent, which was apparently really stringy, nasal, and clipped into sharp, harsh syllables, almost like Cantonese.
The bus barreled down the country roads, charging into pitch blackness that was only bated back by the glow of the headlights. Just like that part in Alice in Wonderland, where she’s standing on the only square of pink path that hasn’t been erased, oblivion on every side, it felt as though our bus existed only as far as the oblong headlight orb threw itself.
Considering the fact that we were often swerving around cliff faces and on streets no wider than the width of 1.5 cars, we were going much faster than one might deem safe. This was especially true when the trees, signs, and lamp posts would appear suddenly in front of the bus and the driver would wrench us sideways to avoid collision.
But we’ve long since resigned our lives to hectic Korean drivers. After all, it seems they navigate the road through some kind of sixth sense, because we never do hit anything in the end.
All through this time, other passengers were getting off the bus. An hour an a half later, we came to the stop we should have got off at. The only people left were the five of us and a hardcore Korean hiker with a heavy-duty backpack complete with strappy buckles, pockets, and a tin water cup hanging off the outside. He made us look like amateur campers. Which, to be fair, we were.
The bus driver pulled over at this point, got up, and started talking to us.
“He’s saying that this is where we wanted to get off to camp, but he doesn’t want us to get off because there are no bathrooms or restaurants,” HY translated, reinforcing their previous conversation.
“He really does have an accent,” Andrea snickered to S.
“So where does he want us to go?” I asked.
“He wants us to go to his town.” She listened again. “He says it’s the most beautiful place in Namhae.”
Part of me wanted to go along with the adventure of listening to locals…but another more cynical part of my brain couldn’t help but be suspicious. I wasn’t so much nervous that this was the beginning of a horror movie where we get lured into some bloody, torture porn plot. But was he luring us somewhere else so he might be able to get some commission off us paying a slightly inflated “tourist” price at some motel? He knew we were camping, but would he try and coerce us to pay for a place just like he was coercing us to go to this other beach?
All of us seemed half reluctant, half exhausted. We weighed our options.
Ultimately the exhausted half won out. Not only were we too tired to argue, but the seed of doubt he’d planted that our chosen campsite was no good was hard to kill. We wanted to trust the local, and so we agreed for him to take us to his village.
The bus pulled off the side of the road, away from the beach, and I felt my heartstrings tug taught before snapping as we sped to this other promised land. He called out that he wanted us to move to the front of the bus, so we moved our gear to the first few seats and sat with it.
The Korean backpacker (let’s call him KB) was still with us, looking awkward and bemused. It was clear he’d been planning on going to the other beach too, and this was a route slightly outside his plan of action. I don’t even think he raised his voice in the debate, so our group of 4 waygooks + 1 Korean now had his destiny in our hands.
While navigating the inky back roads, the bus driver regaled us with stories that no one could understand (indeed, now that I was closer to it, the accent was very, very perceptible).
“What did he just say?” I would ask HY right after she finished a loud belly laugh.
“I have no idea,” she’d whisper back.
“How much farther do we have to go?”
“Ajeossi,” she said to him. “Eolmana meopnikka?”
“Deol meolri,” he called back.
“What’s that mean?” I asked.
“That’s helpful,” I chuckled, though inwardly I grimaced – my stomach was beginning to spurgle from motion sickness. (Curses upon these hairpin curves!)
“People on the island sometimes have a very different time than us,” she said, shaking her head.
At last, we slowed and pulled to the side of the road. I wondered if we’d already arrived, though looking at the pitchy night still swallowing the bus, it seemed more likely we’d broken down.
Yet the driver got up and off the bus after refusing to let us pay for the extra distance he’d taken us, instead tossing a highly accented exclamation our way.
“We’re here,” HY translated.
Apparently I stood corrected.
We grabbed our bags and I had a polite Canadian standoff with the KB getting off the bus, all mimed exaggeratedly in the presence of the language barrier.
As we emerged into the much-chillier-than-anticipated air, we saw the bus driver had already lit a cigarette and was puffing happily, his job done, his clients all delivered to their destination.
Except what our destination was was hard to make out.
It appeared we were high on a cliff side. Below us sprawled a steep-laid village, and beyond that seemed to be the ocean. Though we couldn’t see it or hear it, we could smell the vaguely salty air carrying promises of fish and seaweed. We noted that someone had campfire going somewhere to the far left on the mountainside.
We started discussing how we’d get down to the beach when the bus driver started talking again, indicating to the concrete sidewalk in front of the bus door.
HY made some unimpressed noncommittal sounds. “He says we shouldn’t camp on the beach.”
“But then where are we going to sleep?” I asked.
“I think he wants us to sleep here,” S said. “Is that what he said, HY?”
“Yes he thinks we should sleep here,” she confirmed.
I laughed before realizing he was serious.
The driver seemed put off, then walked around the front of the bus to point and babble about what turned out to be a brightly lit rest stop just across the street. Better yet you should camp in front of the toilets, his actions clearly indicated. He was dead serious that this was a viable option and told us so.
“If we get caught by someone who tells us we can’t be here,” HY translated, “I think he says we can tell them he told us it was okay.”
Not wanting to sleep on either concrete highway shoulder nor ceramic bathroom entrance – especially if the legality was debatable – I searched for the most polite yet firmly logical objection we might have against setting up camp in his suggested sites.
“We don’t have sleeping mats,” was my (somewhat lame) result, “so it might be a little uncomfortable to sleep on a surface this hard.” Never before have I been so happy to have been irresponsible enough not to bring sleeping mats camping.
This counter response to him seemed just logical enough that he grumbled ascent that we not agree with his proposals. We thanked him thoroughly, but told him that we’d really prefer to go to the beach. He shook his head.
“He says we can’t sleep there,” HY said.
We were confused.
“But…he told us there was a beach…”
“There is a beach, but he says it’s not good for sleeping.”
“We saw that place with a campfire going,” WN said. “What about there?”
But the bus driver threw down his cigarette before we could ask, and ground it beneath his shoe, gesturing us down the hill.
“He wants us to follow him, he’ll lead us to the beach,” said HY, and we all sighed happily with relief.
We followed, dragging many, many ounces of liquids, bundles of blankets, and backpacks with us. The very silent KB followed us. It was quite clear by this point that he spoke little to no English, but had thoroughly accepted his fate to be stranded with us for better or for worse.
We were still somewhat ambivalent about the bus driver by this point – or at least I was. Was he being nice? Or was he just taking us – quite literally – for a ride? Why did I have to be suspicious of people all the time if they were genuinely being kind?
As we curved down the steep walkway, suddenly headlights blasted us. A car turned into our path, nearly bowling us over. At that, the bus driver shouted angrily. He waddled surefootedly down the path to knock on the driver’s window and yell at them.
Don’t you see there are helpless foreigners here?? I imagined the translation. He waved the car off down a side road, gruffing to himself.
I covered a smirk and relaxed. It seemed he had taken us under his wing, and weighing this against the fact that he’d refused extra payment for the extra leg of the trip (remember from Namhae Chapter 1 that you paid per distance traveled rather than taking different buses of varying costs), I concluded that he wasn’t taking advantage of us, but was just a Good Guy Greg.
To reinforce my realization, he then indicated to my bag and reached out to take it. Let me take it for you, he was saying.
“Ani, ani,” I said. No, no. But he took it anyway, hoisting it out of my hands.
Thus we walked down through the village’s streets. So many children were out playing together while their mothers sat in the courtyard’s drinking makkeoli and raspberry wine. I found this strange, though it took me a while to put my finger on it – and no it wasn’t the latent alcoholism in unconcerned mothers.
It was the children themselves: in the cities kids never hang out to play in the streets. Aside from the obvious reasons that street-playing is dangerous due to a far greater presence of fast-moving vehicles in cities, most kids I come across are doing homework, or going to hagwons – private after-school English classes.
This is technically posted as a high school student’s life, but it’s pretty much varying shades of that for every South Korean student in any city.
Here, however, it was a farming town inside out. The houses looked like Suamgol, the painted village behind my apartment. (I posted about it near the beginning of my trip here, and then some more photos here.) Clustered together, cracked walls, uneven cobblestones, and we had transported to an entirely different way of life.
Signs of its relationship with tourism were evident even at night, however. Beautifully rendered murals of scenic things the town has to offer, such as oxen-pulled carts and various local birds/mammals, spruced up the walls like new tattoos on a senior citizen.
Going down the streets was difficult. Not only were we carrying a heavy load on steep and often unstable footing, but we were quite hungry and feeling the gnaw of fatigue in our joints.
We arrived at a – miraculously open – depanneur and were about to stop in to get some ramyeon (Korean ramen you can buy and cook on the spot with instant hot water) when the bus driver waved away our suggestion.
Apparently HY had mentioned to him that we really really wanted to try myeolchi-muchim (I think that’s what it’s called), an anchovy stew these Southern regions are famous for. As such, he told us he’d bring us to some of the best restaurants in town.
Although we were feeling our shoes drag a little more with every step, the prospect of a hot meal got us moving again. We climbed back up – on the steepest street yet, lined with bamboo lit with yellow ground lights – and found a restaurant still glowing with life. The sign above boasted delicious myeolchi-muchim, and we eagerly crowded around the door behind the bus driver.
But when he began to speak to the owners in increasingly desperate, pleading tones, it was clear they were closed for business. Indeed, it was nearly 10pm. We listened intently as the bus driver seemed to gain sway, and would then be shut down.
He turned to us in a puff of malcontent. They’re clearly not up to the standards of service I’d imagined them to be, were his paraphrased words. But I know another place!
And so we tread back down the steep bamboo street (the bus driver and the KB walked down as if on a flat surface while we inched like Montrealers on an unsalted ice-walk). The second place we were at seemed more promising. In fact it looked nicer than the last one – a beautiful patio with umbrellas, and a spacious wooden interior with lots of lights and windows.
“Maybe we could even sleep here,” Andrea said.
HY laughed, emphasizing her appreciation of the idea with a few rapid smacks to Andrea’s upper arm. “Yes!! We could be their first customers tomorrow too!”
And yet it wasn’t meant to be either. Even with our doleful, puppy-dog peering through the doorway (at the instruction of the bus driver),
they simply wouldn’t/couldn’t allow it.
Thus it was that we continued on our quest for a place to sleep. It seemed we weren’t getting any nearer to the beach, so we brought it up again.
The bus driver shook his head.
“He says it’s too dangerous to walk down at night,” HY told us.
I was bemused. “But…wasn’t that where he was taking us?”
HY listened for a moment, then said, “No, he says there’s a place to camp nearby though.”
We cheered in jubilation.
“He says there or…” she listened again. “…An abandoned playground.”
Cheering turned to nervous laughter. The bus driver (who, it was clear by this point was deeply enjoying leading our helpless group around like a mother quail with her string of chicks) said something again.
“He says it might be like the beginning of a horrifying movie though,” came the translation.
“Wellll…” I said. “Maybe as a last resort?”
“I’m down with that,” said WN.
The rest seemed divided, so it was decided we’d check out the campsite he’d mentioned first since we were nearly there.
Once more we followed the bus driver. Sometimes HY would turn to us to translate some of the tour-guide explanations he was giving us (“Over there is the famous-actress cafe! Up here is another good restaurant you should try in the morning. This here is the community hall for ajummas [older women]!”).
Not long after, we arrived at the campsite. It was a small park with a giant, rather phallic rock extending at a 45 degree angle. Apparently this was a famous, national landmark/monument.
The bus driver asked HY to ask us a question.
“He wants us to guess what the monument is supposed to be.”
“A…penis?” I said.
The bus driver immediately burst out laughing, his face stretched into the grin of a cheeky 12-year-old who’s just discovered how to draw a penis flip book out of the corners of his biology textbook. We all joined his infectious chuckles and agreed this was an awesome place to sleep.
“If you pray here,” HY translated, “you can get a son.”
I could only imagine what would happen if we slept the night.
So we thanked the bus driver and bid him goodnight. He looked confused.
You can’t sleep here, he was saying.
“It’s a protected tourist site so we can’t stay here,” said HY.
“So…playground?” said WN.
We all agreed yes, although our hunger was seriously competing for our need for rest. Thus we requested that the bus driver lead us to the abandoned “horrifying movie” playground via the depanneur so we could pick up some ramyeon at last.
The campsite was all the way down the hill, so we hauled our baggage up the mountain streets again and made it to the depanneur – only to discover (you guessed it) it had just closed.
Outside the darkened shop, however, rested a high stack of flattened cardboard boxes. The bus driver suggested we carry some to sleep on as mats. WN backed up this claim saying that he’d tried it and indeed it was much more comfortable than the ground.
“There’s a reason homeless people sleep on cardboard,” was his response against our raised eyebrows.
So we grabbed the cardboard, feeling comfort in the fact that at least the end of our journey was nigh. Up, up, up the streets we went, veering onto the blackest, most unpopulated roads the sparse rural town had to offer. As we plunged into darkness, the KB handed me a flashlight. I saw that he had a headlamp strapped on (I was astounded how prepared he was – and by contrast, how absurdly unprepared we were).
Thus the KB and I lit the way for us as we wandered away from the town into dirt paths between crop fields. Horrifying movie indeed.
Occasionally the bus driver would see a wheelbarrow in our flashlight’s illumination, and he’d poke around to find various pieces of soggy and bug-ridden cardboard to add to our collection. We looked with transfixed trepidation whenever he’d stop, a mixture of, “You said you’d bring us straight there!” and, “Don’t…no, don’t pick it up – don’t do it! Don’t do it!!”
Thankfully, he always discarded his finds and we moved along quickly.
Just as we were feeling too overburdened by the awkward cardboard mattresses we had tucked under armpits, we suddenly came upon a strange sight: two foreigners on the road in front of us, walking towards us.
Now, I’ve mentioned this in the past, but seeing foreigners in Korea is like sighting a deer on the side of the highway. They’re not particularly rare, but you can’t help but slow down, or at least point enthusiastically as you witness this rare and beautiful occurrence.
“Hi!!” we all said.
“Oh, hey,” they said, completely unconcerned by this mismatched group of four foreigners, a tall Korean city-woman (HY), a hardcore Korean backpacker with a lamp on his forehead, and a smartly suited Korean bus driver – all of us carrying three bags each and as much cardboard as we could muster our strength to hold.
After a few pleasantries, we asked where they were spending the night.
“Oh, we’re doing a home stay,” they answered. “Are you camping?”
“Err…trying to,” we laughed despairingly.
“Well we have a bonfire going in some abandoned playground,” they said.
Aka, the very abandoned playground we were heading to. Aka, our last hope of a sleeping sanctuary wasn’t so abandoned after all.
“You’re welcome to join us. See you later.”
And they walked off like some poorly scripted plot point meant to keep the heroes from their climactic moment of victory.
But climactic moment of victory we would have. We’d come too far now and forward was the only way to press on.
And so we beat on, land-boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into failure.
Now that we were getting to the end of the road, we saw the illumination of the bonfire lighting up the copse of trees in oranges and reds. It felt somewhere in between wandering into fey land and realizing someone must have laced your drink with acid because this is some trippy ass shit that’s clearly led you outside reality.
But there were no fairies or LSD: we were concretely in the surreal.
A giant bonfire reached into the starry night throwing umber shadows against the skinny trunks of pine and maple trees. Around it, hovering, lounging, and drinking, was a congregation of foreigners larger than any I’ve seen since Orientation. There must have been about forty or more.
When they caught sight of us, they beckoned us to the campfire, said we should join them – they had makkeoli, beer, and baked potatoes.
While we were lured in by such delights like Christina Rossetti’s goblin market –
– the bus driver made a beeline for the only Korean present who also seemed to be in charge. They started up a quick and impassioned discussion.
Half having discussions with the foreigners, half making quick assessments of where we could put our tent (and indeed what time this party might break up that we might get some sleep), the rest of us stood around in the dozy daze the presence of a campfire always seems to induce.
“So what are you guys doing here?” we asked a particularly tipsy foreigner who was just about lying down on a mat around the fire.
“We’re with Adventure Korea,” he said.
“How many of you guys are here?”
“About…maybe, like…eighty? Hey, you guys should drink some beer!”
Interrupting this, however, came HY’s translation of the increasingly confrontational discussion between the bus driver and the guy in charge of this fiesta.
“The guy doesn’t want us to sleep here. He says we can’t.” She had a tired pout on her face. Indeed, I felt a similar expression on mine.
“Come on,” I said, wholly exasperated. “Why not?”
“I don’t know. The bus driver is talking to him to ask him to let us stay.”
I looked over at them, translating for myself.
Bus driver: Come on, please? Look at these pathetic foreigners. Can’t you take pity on them? They didn’t even think to book a room in advance! Seriously. Have mercy on these poor, helpless waygooks.
“We should give him something to say thank you,” HY said then.
We all agreed wholeheartedly.
“Maybe not the alcohol though…” HY said, and we laughed because we all knew we weren’t good enough people to give up our most prized possessions.
“Maybe the strawberries?”
Our hearts broke at the thought of parting with our styrofoam crate of perfectly ripe berries…but we knew it had to be done. It was either that or the raspberry wine.
Eventually the bus driver came up to us with the other Korean in charge of Adventure Korea. They had reached a conclusion. We waited with bated breath.
“He says we can’t sleep here,” HY translated when the bus driver finally reported the news.
We all deflated on the spot, energy utterly spent, hopes wholly dashed.
HY held up a finger: “But he says we can stay at the ajumma community center.”
Our hearts perked.
“We’d have to pay a little bit – ” (momentary cringe at the assuredly hiked up prices) ” – maybe $9.”
“That’s nothing!” we all exclaimed.
“And the place has heated floors.”
“And we’d have to be quiet and stay on one side of the room because he has a meeting there now.”
At this point, we’d have probably agreed to sleep on someone’s porch, so this was absolutely no problem at all.
The Adventure Korea Korean (let’s call him AKK) peered at us sternly. We cringed away, fearful of this man who wielded our night’s rest in the palm of his hand.
Then he turned away, told Adventure Korea to break up the party (it had been nearing its end anyway), threw water on the fire, and started clearing up the mats. To our heartbreak, he ordered us to toss our hard-hauled cardboard into the fire as well. Part of us died a little as we watched the flames take it to cardboard heaven.
By the fire there lay a little pile of baked potatoes, half in foil, half with skin bared and blacked by ash. AKK started handing us these potatoes.
“Eat,” he ordered.
Hey, we thought, at least we’re getting some food finally.
S tore into his with the silent desperation of the deprived and Andrea and I picked cautiously at ours, trying to avoid as much soot as possible. WN wouldn’t touch his.
“Have fun getting cancer, guys,” he warned, but the foil wrapped ones weren’t too bad.
As we ate, the bus driver came up to us to say goodbye.
“He’s going home now,” HY said. “And he says that we’re very lucky we were with him because he has a lot of influence in the town. Otherwise he would not have been able to get us this place to stay.”
We thanked him all profusely and presented him with the strawberries. He tried to refuse, but we pressed him and he eventually accepted with tears of gratitude in his eyes. The look about him said he’d just had the best night in months.
He had one last surprise for us – the reason why he had influence in the town.
“I famous,” he said, and pointed to his phone.
“He’s saying he was in a TV show,” HY said and we crowded around his old, battered cellphone to watch the clips he was loading. And sure enough, there he was: appearing in a cameo role as a bus driver.
We grinned ear to ear about this amazing development, overjoyed to have encountered this strange village with its stories and its quirky people, all on the whim of following the advice of a local.
After that, things all turned out as if in a dream: we followed AKK to the ajumma community center (the one right beside the depanneur we’d first stopped at), set up camp on one side of the room and cracked open the makkeoli while we waited for him to come back for the meeting.
This took a very long time. We had enough time to strike up conversation with two other leaders from Adventure Korea that he was to have the meeting with, and get to know the KB a bit more, who had at last relaxed and accepted our journey as an awesome experience. We even filled each other’s cups, a sign of Korean camaraderie!
As the night wore on, he told us about his wife (who unfortunately had to be working through this holiday), and asked to take some group shots so he could tell her about his adventure. So somehow we managed to turn this facepalm of a night around enough that a Korean man will be telling this night as a story to his family with pics to prove it.
When AKK finally returned – a good 45 minutes later – he was bearing gifts of fresh pajeon (Korean seafood pancake that goes great with makkeoli) and spicy squid side dishes.
FOOD AT LAST!!
We were overjoyed, and he had his meeting right there in the circle with us while we feasted on his spoils, drank through every bottle of makkeoli we’d bought, and told stories about anything and everything.
HY had to do AKK’s translating since he spoke no English, but by the end of it he was nowhere near as scary and intimidating as we’d first thought and we were all good friends. AKK even confessed, with the pinkened cheeks of many-cups-of-makkeoli-later, that this was the first time he’d relaxed in over a month (apparently coordinating Adventure Korea had been a huge effort/nightmare, hence his previous sternness at the bonfire).
Around midnight, he bid us farewell and told us to stay for breakfast – to be served at the community center – and to come plow with an ox in the morning for free.
“Work for free?” WN said skeptically, but it was one of the activities Adventure Korea was paying for, and we were getting special privilege.
With the excitement of the day and the fatigue of the makkeoli pulling at our eyelids, we went to sleep on the heated floors, excited for our next day of big adventure.
Stay tuned for Namhae Chapter 3 to hear the rest!
(And here’s the link for Namhae Chapter 1 again.)