It is such a nice feeling walking out of the school dining hall, out onto the steps, taking in two lungfuls of the brisk, clean air and looking up at the branches of autumn trees forking across a very bold blue sky. Lunch was good, in fact it’s always good. Well, 95% of the time it’s good. Students and teachers alike eat the same meal, and it’s a bloody good feed. And of course it puts the school dinners back in England to shame; although to be fair, it has been some time since I sat down with my old classmates for school dinner – but I’ve seen Jamie Oliver’s crusading TV shows! It’s now been more or less ten weeks since I started teaching here on Jeju island, and so far things have gone pretty well. And in general, life on the island has been great; full of interesting encounters, gorgeous views, hazy nights out, new tastes, new experiences, and of course… new friends.
To say this is even ‘lukewarm off the press’ would be an outright lie! It’s cold. But it is off the press. And yes, it’s a short novel I’m afraid. You don’t have to read all of it, I won’t be testing you or anything. You can just look at the pictures if you want. This isn’t what I say to my students by the way, although it’s pretty much what a lot of them do anyway! I actually started writing this months ago, and I’ve been making irregular additions to this post as I strived to complete it! But, I never got up to date. So, I decided to cut it off at new year. So when you come across sentences like ‘I’m fast closing in on my 20th week‘ – I’m not! That’s just when I originally wrote it. Oh you get the idea. Anyway, the last four or five months will have to wait till another time… is anyone really bothered though?! On with the story…
So there I was, standing in from of a class of very smiley, very curious, and very wide eyed, first grade high school girls and boys. Only fifteen minutes earlier, I had been sat with the headmaster (Mr Bu Sang-Ho), the vice head and my main co-teacher (Miss Jean Yang) in the head’s office. Mr Bu’s English was actually pretty good and we were able to chat about all manner of things. He’s a big, cheery man with a loveable manner. We didn’t get to chat for that long though, as it was time for a staff meeting, but I did leave Mr Bu smiling from ear-to-ear after I placed a bottle of whisky in his hands. The staff meeting came and went in a blur (nothing to do with whisky I assure you), I managed to say a few words in Korean, got a round of applause and was then soon whisked off to this, my first class.
The lesson went really well – it was just an introduction to me, but even so, the kids stayed focused and asked lots of questions – a lot of them about my hair and whether I had a girlfriend! There were also questions about my height and my blood type, both big factors in knowing your place in society here in Korea! And there were frequent comments about my face…”Teacher, your face is small!” And this apparently is a very good thing here. I did get one unwelcome surprise that week though. I still hadn’t got to grips fully with my timetable, but from what I’d been told in that first meeting with my co-teacher (a few days earlier in Jeju-si), I had only to teach my introduction lesson in each class for the first week. Easy stuff. So on Wednesday, I start my lesson again, when suddenly…. “Teacher, we did this!”
It had only been just over a week, when I had my first evening out with the Sehwa school staff. This was also my first taste of Samgyeopsal, and boy, oh boy – it’s good stuff! Barbecued pork, large strips of it – fat and all.
Sam (삼) three; gyeop (겹) layered; sal (살) flesh. Around twenty of us teachers took up a large section of a restaurant fairly close to the city centre, our shoes were off, and we were all sat cross-legged on the wooden floors, cracking open bottles of Soju, pouring each other’s drinks (as is tradition), making speeches, and turning over strips of pork on the barbecue grill in the middle of our table. Around the table are small dishes of chopped pumpkin, seaweed, anchovies, garlic cloves, onion, samjang (a tasty chilli paste) and the ultimate grilled pig dip… gireumjang (a mix of salt and sesame oil), and of course kimchi! Also there were baskets stacked with lettuce leafs, and perilla leafs. The meal is eaten by making a small wrap with a leaf. Take a little pork (now cut up into bite size pieces), dip it into the gireumjang, take a clove of garlic (dip into the ssamjang), add a little barbecued onion, wrap, consume… close eyes… savour. In some roundabout way I’ve managed to challenge one particular pre-conception held by my co-teachers on us Brits, the eating of spicy food. Those teachers sat around me would all look at me, with chopsticks, food and leaf held in mid-air, lips parted, eyes wide, waiting for my reaction – which when they saw it, aroused a mixture of disappointment and pleasant surprise. I get the feeling that some of them were looking forward to me racing for the jug of water. When I explained that one of the most popular foods for us Brits is curry, be it Thai or Indian, then they got it.
Comments were made to my adherence to the drinking customs, but even as I write this now (more than 6 months on), I’m still learning slight nuances to the practice.
After the meal, I was invited out for more drinks with three of the teachers, and we drank late into the night. I made it into work just fine the next day, but I wasn’t surprised to see that one of teachers from our little group was nursing a sore head. There was a good reason for this – for each glass of beer the three of us consumed, he worked his way through a bottle of soju! And we had four beers after the meal!
At another staff dinner the week after, Mr Bu (the headmaster) presented an English translation of one of his Korean poems. Something was definitely lost in the translation, but it was still a wonderful gesture and I felt pretty humbled.
It was the weekend again, and it was Island Stone where we found ourselves. Don’t we always!? For the past couple of weeks (and for a long time to come) this was the start of many nights out. The vibe in this place is so good (I’ve mentioned this before) and tonight was no different… well, except for the crazy lady who suddenly switched from Miss Sweet to Miss Satan in a heartbeat. I had come to Island Stone with some friends, enjoyed Stone’s cocktail show, took some photos, drank some beer and was sat at the bar, ignoring the gang, but chatting to a Korean guy and his girlfriend. All three of us were haphazardly chatting for a while, and seemed to be getting on great. I turn away, order a drink, turn back and she’s in my face! Prodding and pushing me in the shoulder, shouting something I didn’t understand. Her boyfriend is trying to calm her down, an arm across her chest, holding her back from what I imagine is a brewing slap! I’m calm and remain perched on my bar stool, waiting for my change. I’m not entirely sure what I’d done. Stone steps in to defend me, and the boyfriend continues holding her back. After another minute or so, she eventually leaves the bar – her boyfriend in tow. I asked Stone what the fuss was all about, and apparently she was asking (rather loudly) why I was on Jeju – a subject I thought we’d already discussed! But, for whatever reason, she was suspicious of me. Once someone explained to her that I really was a teacher, and that I’d only been here a couple of weeks so, she got embarrassed and ran off. The fresh air must have calmed her down because she came back, a little wobbly on her feet, and apologised. It was then all smiles, more drinks were ordered, more drinks were finished, and Jane’s Groove was about to get some more customers.
That Sunday I walked down to the port to get a meal… seafood of course. Jeju island has many things going for it, one of them being the abundance and variety of sea-faring creatures that you can stick down your gullet. The quayside in Jeju city has many restaurants all situated next to each other, and of course they all want your custom, and your won. So far though, this is the only place I’ve seen in Korea where a member of the staff is standing outside the restaurant, greeting passers-by. But there is never any pressure to eat at certain places, and you’ll never get badgered or sweet talked, a simple ‘hello’ and ‘good evening’ is all you might get as you walk past. Perhaps an invite to look at the menu. I chose one place, ordered, and sat up on some decking overlooking the sea, and the sunset. I enjoyed a slap up fish and shellfish soup, with all the trimmings for only 10,000 won (about £5). Result.
Halla-san (Halla Mountain) is South Korea’s highest peak and it sits smack bang in the middle of the island, the place from which the rest of this island was spewed forth. It last erupted back in 1007, and shows no sign of rising from its slumber anytime soon! Sam (my neighbour) and I caught the early morning bus, and jumped out at the start of the 9.6km Seongpanak trail. As mentioned, it’s been dormant for the last ten centuries, and so it’s well vegetated – providing plenty of cover from sun. At 1,950 m, it is twice the height of Snowdon, but it is roughly half that of of Mount Fuji, and only a third of Mount Kilimanjaro. So yes, it’s high, but it’s not gonna win any prizes, or ever be bestowed with a notorious or legendary status.
Now, I really enjoy walking, but to be honest only in places that are off the beaten track a bit. Places where I can exercise some freedom (as well my muscles) and follow my instinct, letting interest dictate where I head to next – letting nothing except the terrain (or perhaps a sign saying ‘military testing ground – keep out!’) deter me. Which was why I found the walk up Halla-san so tiresome… confined paths, countless people, hold-ups, wooden decking, the only thing that wasn’t there to ruin the experience, were a series of speakers piping out music and greetings in four different languages. No, they save that for Sunrise Peak! Oh, the great outdoors!
In fairness though, it is worth mentioning that it was the Chuseok holiday, so there were more people out walking the trails than usual! Hiking is taken very seriously here; and the island is covered in trails and paths (called Olle) and they are seldom empty – even on rainy days. It is taken so seriously, that you’ll find an abundance (possibly an over-abundance) of hiking stores here on Jeju island! So, while I turned up in an old scruffy t-shirt, cargo shorts, a weathered hat, and a well travelled ruck sack (and Sam wasn’t much different), everyone else seemed to have just walked out of the changing room of their favourite store!
At one point, a couple of kilometres from the top, I left Sam behind and scampered up the path – I had a reserve of energy that I just had to burn off! The view over the island was obscured by clouds, but that didn’t bother me too much – there is something rather majestic about walking up into clouds. As it’s rather dangerous to be caught up on the mountain (and signs advising you aren’t enough apparently), there are wardens who actually shoo you off by a certain time. So, after twenty minutes or so at the top, it was time to take the walk down again. We decided to take the shorter, but much harder trail down, the Gwaneumsa trail – and thankfully there was much less decking on this path. All in all though, the experience felt unfulfilling, as if the walk was detached from the land somehow. It’s hard to describe. I imagine 20 years ago it was probably a better better place to go trekking up. I’d had a good day for sure, and it was a pleasant walk and a good work out, but le Cirque de Mafate it wasn’t!
After about three weeks into my stay in Jeju, I got an email from the POE – it was good news; I had been offered the housing allowance. This meant I could now chase up an apartment close to my school. The only catch was that I could either move out in four days time, or move out in two months time. The decision wasn’t too difficult to make, but it was a bitter-sweet one. My new neighbour Sam, and I had struck up a really good friendship over the past few weeks, where it came to light that I had serious cured squid addiction! I have now managed to knock that on the head – although I am now partial to devouring a whole range of dried-out sea creatures!
So in mid September I moved out of my apartment in Jeju city and needing somewhere immediately and not having enough time to find my own digs, I moved into my friend’s spare pad in Seogwipo, the city on the south coast. Jamie and Mike had been on the orientation with me, and I had gotten on with them both right away. They’re both from the States, very much in love and both terrific company. Here on Jeju, they have a nice little set up; having moved into the same apartment, they now give up the spare apartment to visitors and vagabonds.
Seogwipo was where I ideally wanted to be when I applied for Jeju island. And being here now, it doesn’t quell my expectations of the place. As I expected, you actually feel like you’re living on an island when in this town. In Jeju city, you could be fooled into thinking you’re in any Korean city. Here though, things are a little different; more palms, fewer tall buildings and just a better vibe. Some spots reminded me very much of towns located on the Mediterranean, with their walled, twisting paths that lead past tucked-away bars and restaurants, opening up to views of the bay, and eventually leading down into little coves.
So, my wish had been fulfilled and I was out of Jeju city, and for the moment I had an even longer commute to school; this though would be a short term inconvenience. It made a nice change to see a different part of the island on my commute, and I was impressed the first time I saw Sunrise Peak looming on the horizon. Little did I know that I’d be living in this town by the start of next week. During my stay in Seogwipo, Jamie and Mike introduced me to the batting cages, enclosed spaces where you can practice your baseball swing. I hadn’t swung a bat since a couple of softball lessons at school, and like every other British boy, I also played rounders at junior school. I remember being quite good at both, but we would see whether those skills had stuck with me. No, they hadn’t. Well, not at first. 15 balls served, 15 missed. I stuck with it though, and two nights later, I was hitting 15 for 15 and delivering into the upper net, at serve speeds of 170 km/h. I was pretty pleased, but my love affair with it was short lived. I’d just finished hitting a dozen sets or so (at 500won a set), and as I was saying goodbye to the old gentleman who runs the cages, he offers me a free set. Nice. So I put down my things, head back into the high speed bay, pick up the bat and ready myself. Crack, upper net. Crack, lower net. Crack, my face! Yep, I didn’t hit it square and it deflected into my right eye. The pain of being hit by something that hard and that fast is difficult to describe. I think the shock took the edge off it though. I collapsed to the ground, clutching my face. The old gent had heard my shout, and came over to aid me. He put his hands round my face, wanting to inspect the injury. I struggled to open my eye and despite every fibre of my being telling to keep my eye closed, I did manage it. I didn’t like what I what I saw, or didn’t see! A blurry, hazy mess populated by grey splodges. I was already convinced that my right eye was royally screwed. The ball had got me square in it. The old gent helped me back to his shack, and there, he and his wife looked after me. Giving me wet flannels, to tend the intense pain. I had noticed some improvement after ten minutes, and so now, being able to see a little better, I asked for a mirror. My eye was a mess, bloodshot and puffy. There was some bruising starting to show around the socket, where the ball had been halted from squashing my eyeball any further into my skull. I thanked them for their assistance and haphazardly made my way back to the apartment, all the way testing my eyesight. Every bright light source was now flaring, with a very noticeable halo around it. Damn. Later that evening, the bruising came out some more. I was thankful in part for the bruising though, as there was a case of pink eye going around the school, and so at least the students would realise that my bloodshot eye was down to other reasons! Of course on the flip side, the other assumed reason was that I’d been fighting! The bruising was only around for a few days, but it was a couple of weeks till my vision was back to normal.
Having the free set in the batting cage reminds me that I should mention ‘service’, this is the term used for anything that is given away free. Many of the small convenience stores (especially privately run ones) will give you free stuff. You might have spent a lot of money, perhaps you’ve made a nice impression, or maybe you’re just a valued, recognisable customer. There’s no exact protocol for it, and it should never simply be expected.
The weekend of moving into my new apartment in Seongsan, was an enjoyable and very fortuitous one. First off, Jamie and Mike would be helping me, and then spending the afternoon in the seaside town with me. So, with three pairs of hands, we made light work of loading my stuff onto the bus. And then after an hour and a half bus journey, we rolled into Seongsan, told the bus driver (who wanted us to get off) that I lived two stops on (the fare is the same) and soon we rolling past the looming volcanic crater, then out the other side of the town. I could see the stop ahead, we got up, made our way to the front of the bus, but he didn’t stop, and just zoomed by. So, we had a little walk back to get to the apartment. I couldn’t have done the move alone, well definitely not without spending some money on a long taxi journey! My belongings had swelled a bit since arriving in Jeju, so I was very thankful for Mike and Jamie’s help. My new place was a little cottage, a pension (a guesthouse) with a small and very lush garden outside, and the sea was located a mere 30 metres from my front door. Result!
We dumped my stuff, I paid the management, and then we headed back up the road to Sunrise Peak (Seongsan Ilchulbong). We spent the day on the peak and down in the cove, observing the Haenyo, fisher-women who dive without gear, prising up catch from the rocks, sometimes up to twenty metres below the waves. The majority of them are elderly, as the later generations were much less inclined to follow the tradition. We ate some of their catch, raw of course. And it was pretty good. You don’t get much closer to tasting the sea, until you watch your food getting plucked from it, and then chopped onto a plate in front of you. We spent some time just strolling the beach and taking lots of photos. Dusk came on quickly, and it was soon time for Jamie and Mike to head back. It had been a good day.
Back at my place, I soon realised just how incredibly kitschy it was inside (the island is very popular with honeymooners) and I tried to reduce the sensory insult as much as possible. Without much of a kitchen, and having no food in – I went across the road to a restaurant. My grasp on Korean at this point still wasn’t good enough to pick out more from a menu aside from the beers, so I had learnt the Korean for ‘What can you recommend?” But, I obviously wasn’t saying it right, and soon found myself struggling. However, a couple from Seoul came to the rescue and I was soon sitting with them enjoying some delicious food, and some good company. I mentioned at one point that I looked forward to getting some surfing in, and we talked about the surf here on Jeju. And we were soon discussing why windsurfing and kite boarding were preferred options here; not many swells, but plenty of wind! As it turned out, Joe and Mina were both here for some kiteboarding, and I was chuffed to discover that on the following weekend there was to be kite boarding festival and competition held right on my doorstep.
So, a week went by, and I met up with Joe the following weekend at the kite boarding festival. There he introduced me to his friend Mike. Like Joe, he was a Californian native, living and working in Seoul, and escaping to Jeju for some kiting. Mike had been living in Korea for 14 years, having come over initially to teach English. He eventually found other work though after getting to grips with the language. He now works as a voice actor for educational English books, but he has also had some success with getting on to Korean soap operas! I would have the pleasure of Mike’s company on more than a few occasions over the next few months.
Back to today though – despite having some equipment (courtesy of some very generous Korean gentleman), I had no experience kiting, and so I just shot away with my camera for the whole weekend. I was looking forward to getting stuck into this new sport, however the weather quickly turned, and within a fortnight, it got noticeably colder. And it was fairly apparent that winter was closing in quickly. The Sunday of the event was in itself very cold, and so to remedy this, Joe suggested we hit the sauna. Within the hour we both sat stark-bollock naked in the spa of the nearby Phoenix resort.
Mentioning the menu issue just now reminds me that I should write a little about the language. What at first looks like indecipherable nonsense to most westerners, is in actual fact a very easy script to read and write . It is a phonemic alphabet – with each block of letters forming a syllable sound. The difficulty comes (of course) when you try to take some meaning from what you’ve read! Hangul (Korean) was developed by the very much revered King Sejong sometime in the middle of the 15th century. The Korean language had of course been round for a long time, but it did not exist in written form. Those who could read and write, used Chinese, and learning that language was only ever an opportunity offered to the privileged few. It’s said that King Sejong spent about ten years (in secret apparently – away from his counsellors) developing a written form of Korean that even the most dimwitted of peasants could understand and learn. It has gone through some changes over the centuries, but is still more or less the script. One of the most significant changes (a shift in formatting really) occurred as recent as the 1970s and 80s, when the popularity of writing left to right in rows really took off. Before then, writing in columns and right to left (akin to a traditional Chinese layout) was much more prevalent.
There are just 24 characters to learn – 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The consonant shapes are based on articulatory phonetics – the shapes your mouth has to make for certain sounds. Imagine (in X-ray profile) the whereabouts of your tongue and teeth when pronouncing the consonants. Double consonants are simply aspirated.
The vowel character shapes are less scientific in their origin, and are inspired by lofty yin and yang principals. These are all then combined into syllable blocks, which when sounded out, form the words of Korean. There you go.
12 basic consonants
10 basic vowels
So, to make the syllable “da“, you’d write…
The syllable “ta“…
The name “Dan” which is only one syllable of course can be written as…
If the syllable doesn’t have a starting consonant, you’d start with the null character: ㅇ
Thus, the syllable “al“, is written as…
The syllable “ŭl“, would be written as…
My name “Adam“, is two syllables, so you need two blocks. And the first syllable doesn’t start with a consonant, so it’s written as…
…although most Koreans pronounce my name as…
Okay, now with that little knowledge, try reading the name of a regular side dish…
A fairly potent (and sneaky) Korean tipple…
Now, something a little more difficult – the name of a delicious Korean meal…
Occasionally, you’ll find yourself reading something and then it’ll dawn on you that it’s actually an English word. So, here the first word you might not know, but you’ll recognise the second. And when you recognise that, you can easily take a guess at the meaning of the Korean word.
Well done, you can now read (and write) Korean… well, the script anyway. This is a fairly quick and loose introduction; and there is a little more to it, but I haven’t the time or the inclination! But, if you wanna learn more, then I can’t recommend a better place than Talk to Me in Korean. Their website has everything you need to get started, and to help you progress pretty far. They also have a lot videos on YouTube, including ones on reading and writing Hangul script – like this. After eight months of exposure to the language, I have become quite good at reading and writing. But as mentioned before, this is only the start… just like any other language, there is a whole universe of vocabulary, and a whole new syntax to get your head round.
Back to the story. My stay at the cute but rather kitschy cottage was over. It was difficult to get a definite reason why after one month I had to go, but I suspect they made more money from the the regular visitors and honeymooners than they did from me. The place I was staying, even though rather overbearing on the senses, was still a fairly unique place to stay when compared to the more regular pensions. Still I’d have expected more than four days notice! The first I knew about it was my co-teacher telling me she’d had a phone call. That was last thing on Thursday afternoon. They wanted me out Sunday night. So after school, I had a quick and meaningless chat with the owner of the pension, his English was about as good as my Korean! There was some pointing at the calendar, some alien words were spoken and I knew I had a definite problem. There was one possible solution though. I headed across the road to the restaurant where I’d met Joe and Mina a few weeks ago. Not only was it a restaurant, but a pension also. There are only four rooms, and they’re all very nice, minimalistic ones too – and it would make a great replacement for the kitschy place I was getting kicked out of. The place was run by Mr Park, a jolly fellow, who would often give me extra dishes (and sometimes free beer) when I ate at his tables. His son also went to Sehwa high school. Mr Park doesn’t speak much English, but his father had spent a number of years as a cook in San Fransisco, so his English was pretty good. After mentioning my problem, there was a quick phone call across the road, I had got an extra week to get sorted, as well as a room here at Headamsol (해담솔). Great.
One of the perks about living where I do is the lovely scenery to go running through. Across the road from me is an oreum. One of several hundred volcanic cones which litter the island. Find here a relief Google map of Jeju island, and you’ll see that I mean. It’s one of the smallest I’ve seen on the island, and so it’s not far to the top, but that’s not too bad when you’re running up it.
Just 15 minutes walk down the road from me is the port. From here you can take a ferry out to Udo island. A sleepy place, where for a pretty reasonable cost of 25,000won, it’s possible to hire a quad bike and whip round the coast. It was here, half way round the island that I stopped, and discovered my love for barbecued shell fish. Amazing. I really have fallen for Korean food, it took a while for me to appreciate just how good it is, and I know it would have been very unlikely that I would have ever tasted it, had I not visited this country. Of course it isn’t as popular as Chinese, Thai or Japanese food is in the UK, but I will definitely be making an effort to seek it out on my return to England. I won’t be making any effort to seek out the beers though. Except some lucky micro brewery finds here on Jeju, there isn’t much to miss.
The weeks of teaching went by fairly quickly, and I’m fast closing in on my 20th week. The last few have been so easy. It’s been speaking tests and end of year exams, so I’ve had no lessons to plan for three weeks, then there was a week solely for exam revision, and then I can sit back for another week or so while the exams are on, five very easy weeks. The speaking tests themselves were great… okay, maybe the majority of the results weren’t, but it did give me a chance to talk to some of the more quiet students. My girls classes are always better than my boys classes (it does seem that girls no matter where they are in the world, have a better affinity for languages), and in those classes are some very good speakers indeed. One girl in particular though has managed to really surprise me. Her name is Ka Hae and she has remained fairly quiet throughout all my lessons over the last few months. I’ve seen small glimmers of ability from her but nothing that would prepare me for what I discovered. In preparation for the speaking test that I had to conduct with the all the first and second years, I had revision lessons where the student could write out and plan responses to five questions based around five particular themes we’d covered. But Ka Hae astounded me when I got her to read what she was preparing. When I asked her about her English ability, I expected her to say she’d spent time abroad, or that her parents spoke English, but no. And in pretty accurate and well pronounced English, she told that she ‘fell in love’ with the language at Elementary school and tried to study and speak it in her spare time. It showed. I had no doubt that she would ace the test, so I got her helping some of the students around her. A big smile appeared on her face, and she got stuck into her friends. Around this time also, the third graders took their end of year exams. Outside in a seating area in front of the school entrance, were tied hundreds of good luck ribbons – all written by the students.
With Christmas just around the corner, and being so far from home – I thought it’d be a nice gesture to arrange a party for all my friends here on Jeju, and perhaps to hold it at the Reggae Bar – which had plenty of room, lots of tables and nice long bar on which we can set up the dishes. I haven’t wrote about the Reggae Bar yet; this was a new bar in town, one which I’d helped my friend Max get off the ground. I did some of the interiors and knocked up some flyers, and generally helped out with the place – including jumping behind the bar when it got busy. Being a big fan of reggae, and having spent a few months in West Africa soaking up the vibe, I was in a good position to assist. And the bar quickly became the new starting point for many of us waygooks having a night-out in Jeju-si. Back to the party plan though… I had mentioned it to a few people, but a solid plan was still eluding me. Then one day in early December, on Facebook a message went up about organising a party… and then my name cropped up!
A light fluttering of snow came down on Xmas morning; not nearly enough to settle, but just enough to give a little sparkle. I had a big day ahead, and despite all the planning with Zach and Sam, there was still a lot to get done before the party could kick off. There was still music and films to sort out, mulled wine syrup to mix, and that was before having to open the bar with Max. We also had to make sure that everyone who was coming (we were expecting close to 50) paid up their 10,000won, so that we could then head out and pay for 16 whole roast chickens we’d ordered. I left the Backpackers hostel in Jeju-si, where I had spent the night, and made my way to the bar in the hope it was already open. It wasn’t. So, with some heavy bags, I made my way up ‘Mount Ido’ to Sam’s place. We stuck on the Blackadder Christmas Special and got to work preparing our food and drink. I had a barrel of mulled wine to prepare – around 15 litres of the delicious stuff. I had traipsed all over Jeju-si trying to find the ingredients for the mulled wine syrup, and had pretty much got all of them. If you’re interested, I used the Jamie Oliver recipe – a tried and very well tested one :) Click here for it. Star-anise was a difficult one to find here, though I did find it, it was in catering size proportions and was pretty expensive! So sadly, that was missing in the final thing. Bay leaves also came in a catering size tub, but thankfully it was pretty cheap, about 6000won. Guess what I’ll be using in all my meals for the next 6 months! Oh and where better a place to source your oranges, than here on Jeju island?!
Just before setting off from Sam’s place, our friend Harold showed up at the apartment, spreading some Christmas cheer. Sadly, because he lived out on Chuja island, and that he had to start teaching winter camp on Boxing day (like most of us), he couldn’t hang around for the party. So, soon after wishing us a ‘Merry Xmas’, and trying a little of the mulled wine, he was then saying goodbye. So, it was a nice surprise to see him come through the door of the Reggae bar later that day – his ferry had been cancelled.
Now let’s clear something up… I might very well be a card carrying atheist, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to impose my beliefs (or lack of them – depending on where you’re coming from!) on other people at this special time of the year… so yeah with that in mind, the day’s playlist included church choirs, Bing Crosby and Wham :)
The day was a resounding success. The spread of food was impressive. The 16 whole roast chickens we ordered from Baghdad Cafe turned up tandoori of course, but that was okay – nobody complained – they were too busy devouring it! The White Elephant gift exchange was a laugh. And there was a ruck load of food left over at the end, and I think nearly everyone helped clear up by taking something home. And of course, it was no surprise that all the mulled wine got drunk! It was nice witnessing the reactions of people who had never tried it before… “Wow! It’s like Christmas in my mouth!”
The following week it was New Year, and I was living in the best place on Jeju to enjoy the last night of 2011… right next to the peak. A big festival was on the cards, with live music, a massive bonfire, and plenty of fireworks. My plan to only house four or five people comfortably at my place soon disintegrated; we could have saved some money the previous week and just held the Xmas party at my apartment too, ha! But seriously though, it was a lot of fun. A few of us met up at the earthen bar down the road, a place called Siwanagne (시와나그네) or ”The Poetry and the Wanderer’ – a place I will talk about more next time. But, check it out if you find yourself on this side of the island :)
While everyone was busy with their drinks, I rushed back to welcome the next bus load. Within the hour, we were all settled down on the floor in my place drinking copious amounts, playing silly party games, listening to music, watching videos, sharing more than a few anecdotes, and generally laughing our butts off. I was able to keep the Xmas vibe going by filling the air with the smell of more mulled wine, as it brewed away on the hob.
The entertainment at the site itself was fantastic, a huge bonfire was lit by a fireball that sailed down from the top of the peak. Then started one of the most impressive firework displays I’ve ever seen. More drink was drunk and the dawn approached. A few of us more hardy and drink-resilient ones walked to the top of the peak to catch the sunrise. The more sensible ones among us went back to my place, the soupy sky was not going to clear up. So yes, I spent the first morning of 2012 watching the sky turn from one shade of grey, into another.
I don’t want to leave this on a dismal note – I’d had an excellent night, with some excellent friends. And just thinking back to that night now makes me smile.