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Trip 37 — Jeju and Xiamen Walks

Jeju day 7: Seongsan to Sehwa
Tuesday, 1 August 2023

Today: 19133 steps/15.17 km/9.43 mi/2h 54m
Total: 220353 steps/172.76 km/107.35 mi/32h 38m

As it was another short day, I kept to the serpentine coast, following parts of routes 1 and 21 of the Jeju Olle Trail. I crossed the bridge by Seongsan Harbor and wound my way among midrange resorts. Along the fence between me and the water, squid were hanging to dry. They had been arranged so precisely, equidistant and with legs dangling down, that they resembled lanterns with streamers.

I came to the launch point for ferries to Udo, a lava island said to take its name from its cow shape, though it looked more like a tadpole to me. The Jeju Olle Trail wanted to route me up Jimibong Peak, but I stayed along the coast, on a peaceful boardwalk overlooking the black rocks and people fishing.

I took the causeway to Hado Beach. Hado is prime haenyeo territory; the best friends in Lisa See's book grew up on opposite sides of town and would meet in the olle (lane) to walk together to the shore for the day's diving. The stone boundaries still suggest the network of olle that crisscross Hado; the modern houses by the sea are in striking contrast. Offers of surfing, kite-surfing, and other water sports at Hado Beach, and the plastic chairs rented out by women of retired-haenyeo age, support that mix of new and old.

After reading the book, I had to have seafood in Hado. Pictures on the outsides of Jeju restaurants indicate which animals are served inside, so I easily found a place specializing in octopus. The seafood ramen included octopus, shrimp, a whole crab, and mussels, and it was served with tongs and a pair of scissors for dismantling everything.

I thought of the haenyeo in the book and imagined that they had caught the critters I was disassembling. However, there is now an activities center nearby where one can don wetsuits and be a seafood diver for an hour. So then I imagined that my food had been caught by tourists who paid for the opportunity to do difficult work, sort of like those places in Thailand, if they still exist, where you can shell out a large sum for the privilege of volunteering at an elephant sanctuary.

I'd been excited to visit the Jeju Haenyeo Museum in Sehwa, the town where I'd be spending the night. And if I hadn't already learned so much about the haenyeo from Ms. See's book, I might have found it a reasonable and succinct overview. But it seemed almost cursory. There were exhibits about the haenyeo's homes (giving me a clearer image of Young-sook's house in the book), descriptions of ritual worship for a successful and safe outing, and a display of implements used by haenyeo — such as the bitchang, a pick used to pry abalone from the wall, and the tewak, a buoy and net for collecting seafood and keeping it secure during the diving session.

There were other odds and ends, such as a day-by-day calculation of the tides (only in Korean), a traditional raft, rules followed by haenyeo collectives (if one person harvests improperly, such as during the spawning season, the whole village could be banned from diving for a while), and an explanation of the tribute haenyeo were forced to pay in the early days (haenyeo have been around since the 1600s). There was a good treatment of the several-months-long excursions haenyeo would take to earn money on the mainland or in Russia or Japan. There was a fleeting mention of the impact of climate change; from 1924 to 2009, the water temperature rose 1.5 degrees Celsius, diminishing the supply of seaweed.

And there was a good discussion of haenyeo clothing. Fabric was scarce, and garments were often treated with persimmon juice in a style called garot, making them stronger and staining them so they became resistant to dirt and odors. I realized that that's why the woman in the Seogwipo market wouldn't sell me the persimmon juice. It was for a different, very specific purpose.

But beyond that, the museum just wasn't exciting. The introductory video had captions in English but the sound wasn't loud enough. The descriptions identified the tewak but didn't clarify how they were used. The captions told about how haenyeo risked their lives to put food on the table and money in their families' pockets, but with no details. Why was catching an octopus so dangerous? How did they learn to hold their breath, and what did the sumbisori (whistling sound when they came up for air) sound like?

And could there have been an activity to engage visitors, to get them to try to breathe like a haenyeo or pry loose an abalone? Why not mention the haenyeo center where one can try being a diver? Or the haenyeo "performance" (I missed it) that happens daily at Seongsan Ilchulbong? Could they have played a recording of the songs haenyeo sang as they prepared to dive?

There was a section of interviews with haenyeo, but there were no English translations. Maybe I'm being a petulant traveler; the world doesn't owe me explanations in English. But I would have loved to know what they were saying. The best video, with commentary in English, was hidden next to the gift shop. And the gift shop was closed. Where else can I obtain a copy of "Finding the Giant Abalone" for my three-year-old nephew?

The coastal road between Hado and Sehwa was a good supplement to the museum. There were examples of wondam, a stone barrier used to trap fish when the tide went out. At a shrine, people would pray for haenyeo's safety and success. And there were a few bulteok, stone-walled areas at the shore in which haenyeo would change into and out of their diving clothes, talk about the day's diving strategy, and gossip about their men. The walls were oriented to protect against the wind, and a firepit kept the women warm. (The need for a fire was not immediately evident during today's August heat.)

In 1985, new bulteok structures were built, modern buildings that were fully enclosed and had hot showers. The museum did do a good job explaining the transition between variants within the haenyeo tradition: how goggles became single-lens with rubber straps, how wetsuits became the preferred clothing in the 1970s, and how the gourd used for a tewak buoy was replaced by polystyrene.

Sehwa's beach, like Hado's, is popular for its rare white sand on an island whose coastline is otherwise mostly a mess of black rocks. I had a swim, showered, and set out in search of dinner. Even before eight, places had stopped serving. I found one open on the edge of town and ordered maeuntang, a spicy fish stew that I'd wanted to try. First they said it was available; then they said it wasn't and tried to steer me toward the flounder soup. I started to prepare "Is it because it's finished or because it's for two people? I can pay for two" on Google Translate, but then they relented and agreed to make it for me anyway. As at the pub last night, I needn't have ordered the soju; I could help myself from the refrigerator.

The Korean restaurants may have closed early, but a dessert place and a whiskey bar were still open. A bartender in Seongsan had told me about the bar, El Floridita. It was close to my lodging, and the outside, with pink walls and the name in stocky capital letters, looked more like 1950s Miami than 2020s Jeju.

The dessert was like a warm pita filled with cheese, accompanied by vanilla ice cream and berries.

"Finger glove," the server said, showing me a pair of single-digit plastic gloves on the tray. You can't just eat something simply in Korea; it has to be table-cooked or ladled or assembled or deconstructed, with the potential for, and sometimes certainty of, messy hands. This dessert was served with two finger gloves and a tiny metal fork. I didn't understand the purpose of the gloves; I pulled the bread apart with my fingers and the fork. It did not seem sloppy enough to necessitate gloves.

As well as I'm eating on Jeju, I'll be ready for a dish that doesn't require so much work. What's the opposite? What's the laziest food one can eat? One where you don't have to put anything together, where you don't even have to pick the food up or strategize its apportioning, where you don't have to worry about soiling your clothes, where everything is already in bite size? Something like tortellini with pesto. You can eat that with a fork in one hand while reading a book in the other. Perhaps that will be my first meal back in New York. But for now, a cocktail at El Floridita.

Go on to Jeju day 8