My work in South Korea finished so I went on vacation. I left the convention of the International Diabetes Federation in Busan, walking from the convention center to a bus stop where I caught a bus to to Busan’s airport. From there I checked in at Busan Air’s ticket counter for a flight to Jeju Island.
This is Korea’s biggest island. Just a few years ago it was a backwater but is now a tourist center and honeymoon haven. The phrase “tourist center” may be misleading. I saw only seven Westerners the whole time I was on the island.
This certainly doesn’t mean, however, that the accommodations are primitive. The Jeju Grand Hotel where I stayed is as modern a hotel as anyone would want. I stayed there for two nights.
My first full day there was for touring the island by taxi. At the hotel, people at both the front desk and the bell desk told me it wasn’t possible to get an English-speaking tour taxi. But my good luck held.
They said that all the taxi tour drivers who spoke English were already booked. Japanese tourists probably booked most of them. Jeju is 53 miles off of the tip of the Korean peninsula and an 800-mile flight from Tokyo.
Jeju is much bigger than any American island. An oval 45 miles long and 20 miles wide with more than 30,000 square miles, Jeju dwarfs our biggest island, the Big Island of Hawaii, which has 4,000 square miles. In population too it is much bigger. With 565,000 people living here, it far surpasses the Big Island, where 150,000 people live. Of course, all the islands of Hawaii get thousands of visitors, but Jeju in my experience here gets many more.
An eruption of a huge volcano about two millions years ago created the island. About 90 percent of island is covered in basalt, and until the Asian travel boom in recent years Jeju Island was one of the poorest parts of Korea.
I admit that I had not especially looked forward to seeing basalt and lava. What I failed to factor in was the two million years since the volcano erupted. In fact, today the island is covered with forest and has the largest arboretum in Asia. It’s already on my list to see the next time I am here.
The literal and figurative center of Jeju is Mount Halla, which at 6,400 feet is the highest mountain in South Korea. Since the nine-hour trek would have consumed my entire day of touring Jeju, I opted instead to tour around the island.
But first I had to resolve some niggling problems. Except for finding a tour guide, I took care of all of my problems before breakfast.
I had a big breakfast at the hotel, figuring that I would skip lunch and dinner as I had been doing. Intermittent fasting and travel go well together. While it saves time and money, I also hoped this is the way to finally hold my weight in check while on the road.
The strangest — and therefore most interesting of the many familiar and unusual breakfast buffet offerings was a bright red and hairy fruit. In fact, the hairs are more like needles. I had to ask four people what the fruit is.
Finally, someone told me that the name of the fruit was rambutan, which the restaurant got from Cambodia. When I ate it, I guessed apparently correctly that I had to cut it open to find the fruit inside. It was ivory colored and sweet with a single seed inside the fruit.
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My biggest concern before breakfast was that my producer (i.e. editor) at HealthCentral hadn’t posted any of the three articles that I had sent her. Normally, I post them myself, but HealthCentral hasn’t updated the system so it can work with the iPad that I used in order to travel light. For my next trip I bought the new MacBook Air that Steve Jobs announced while I was in Korea, and that will make it easier in the future. My editor finally posted my articles.
Another concern was dealing with a vagary of culture in respect to electricity. Now that I understand it, Korea has a neat system for turning on and off the electricity in the room by inserting the room key into a place by the door that holds it. The only trouble is that I couldn’t figure out how to leave the electricity on at night when I wanted to sleep with the lights out. Consequently, I discharged all the power from my iPad and my rented cell phone while I slept. When I asked for help, a bellboy came up to my room and showed me the one plug that removing the key from its holder doesn’t turn off.
I find these technological and cultural differences fascinating. In fact, I find that the Korean answers to dealing with several things please me more than ours.
Already I have become comfortable here. Far from the trepidation that I felt ahead of time, I have never felt safer among people as I do here. I felt safer in Korea than I have felt in a long time. People in that country didn’t want anything from me. Oh, some school boys practiced their English on me, but essentially everybody else ignored me, which is just what I like. They certainly didn’t stare at this lone foreigner.
Nobody even asked me about my iPad, and I know that they must be curious about it since Korea is such a technologically advanced country, and iPads aren’t for sale here yet, forcing people to import them from abroad. I worked a lot on my iPad in the hotel’s lobby, and one person did come up to me. But he was a tourist from Nepal and instead of wondering about my iPad wanted to know how I got wi-fi access there.
While I felt safe in Korea, that’s not true of the Koreans. After all, the irrational regime of North Korea is right next door. Signs of preparation for trouble are that my hotel room had an emergency flashlight, smoke mask, and escape rope.
The hotel staff couldn’t tell me about any organized tours. That would have been my first choice for exploring the island, because it was so unfamiliar to me and what little study that I had done of it indicated dozens of interesting places to explore.
So I had to study and decide for myself where I wanted to go. Which was a good thing. I picked four places that attracted me from the guide book to South Korea that I bought more than a year ago when I first hoped to come here and from a detailed guide book to the island that the information desk at the Jeju Airport gave me. I wrote out my list of where I wanted to go and took it to a nice young lady at the front desk named Ms. Park (the third most common Korean name after Kim and Lee) and asked her to tell a taxi driver where I wanted to go.
In fact, the first taxi driver to show up for us in front of the hotel, Mr. Ki Hyung Kim, spoke just enough English that we could communicate without being too chatty for the eight-hour tour on which we embarked.
The language barrier is really the only problem in this country. Korean doesn’t use the Roman alphabet that we use, but rather a Korean one, called Hangul, invented by King Sejong the Great in 1443. Margaret told me that the Korean people are proud of their sensible alphabet and their wise King Sejong. Most Americans think that Korean has thousands of characters, like the Chinese, but it is actually a quite simple and logical phonetic alphabet. It has 14 basic consonants and 10 basic vowels. Letters with similar sounds have similar shapes.
While everyone studies English in school, very few people can speak many words of English that with my rather poor hearing I can understand. Also with time I am sure that I would understand their accent better. Margaret, Alex, and Dr. Nam from i-SENS are the exceptions to the rule.
The other problem that usually bedevils travelers in foreign countries is money. Korea, however, it’s simpler for Americans than any place I have visited overseas except Liberia, which used the U.S. dollar when I was there in the 1970s.
The conversion rate is easy. The hotel in Jeju where I stayed has an ATM conveniently located in the casino. With the help of a casino employee, who translated the language on the machine for me, I purchased 100,000 won. My bank debited my account $88.86. So I figure that $1 is roughly 1,000 won. Just drop three zeros.
Mr. Lee, the taxi tour driver, quoted me a rate of 170,000 won for the day. When I said off-hand that I didn’t have that much on me, he immediately said 120,000 won. The one hard part about money here for me is bargaining, but this time it was easy.
The easiest part about money is that the country doesn’t allow tipping anywhere. But Mr. Lee was such an excellent tour guide as well as being a very good and careful driver that I would have given him a big tip if that would have been acceptable in his culture. So when we got back to the hotel and I settled the bill, I slipped him an extra 10,000 won (about $10). He didn’t count what I gave him, so I got away with it.
We stopped first at the Jeju Stone Park. This was also our longest stop — about two hours — because this new park, opened only in 2006, is so wonderful. I had never imagined that stones could be so fascinating. It is both an outdoor ecological garden full of traditional basalt statutes as well as raw stone in a myriad of forms and a stunning indoor museum. My camera went field-day wild.
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The stone statutes of “grandfathers” remind me of what I have read about Easter Island. These “Dolharubang” stone grandfathers now symbolize Jeju, but were first made in 1750. Now, 45 of them still exist, and I saw most of them and photographed many.
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Isn’t it wonderful that human beings are able to express our creativity so strongly with whatever materials are at hand!