We reluctantly dragged ourselves out of bed early on Saturday morning (I was feeling perhaps slightly worse than I would have done had I not been drinking soju the night before).
On the previous day we’d met Mona, the lady in charge of the TaLK programme on the island (it stands for Teach and Learn in Korea. They’re mostly American and British and teach voluntary after-school English classes) and she’s told us about a field trip for the TaLK scholars on Saturday morning, and invited us to join. (She also gave us each a copy of the TaLK Jeju orientation book, which was amazingly helpful. EPIK, my programme, were just like… “Oh good, you’ve arrived. Show up at your school on Monday and start teaching.” But that’s another blog post.)
We trudged up the hill towards the POE building (provincial office of education. POE is what its friends call it), keeping a sharp eye out for coffee, but sadly not spotting any places that looked open. It was about 8:30am. The bus was waiting in the parking lot; we greeted Mona, who was glad we’d come, and climbed aboard. We were among the first to arrive along with a few Americans at the back of the bus. The bus had little curtains along the windows and highly decorative seat covers, which we thought was strange, but soon came to realise this is the norm for buses on the island.
When everyone had arrived, we set off. Mary, the girl I’d met the night before, was there; we also met a couple of Brits, including the TaLK teacher at my second school, Jamie, and Simon, a truly unique individual. He’s sort of a combination between the roommate from Notting Hill and a high-energy version of the guy from Black Books. Yeah.
On the bus we were given cold coffee in cans to drink (or milk or water if we wanted it) and sweet buns (with or without cream) to eat. Very strange.
Our first stop was Seonsang Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak), the volcanic crater that you see in all the pictures of Jeju. (Well, not all. You know what I mean.)
The drive there was quite spectacular. We drove through the more inland region, through fields of cabbages and past sheep and goats and wind turbines (very exciting for me, because I am a nerd). The road to the crater is along a narrow spit of land with fields of yellow flowers on either side. It’s apparently quite popular for honeymoon couples to have their photo taken in the midst of the flowers. Besides the fact that it’s pretty, I don’t really know the reason for this.
Sunrise Peak is the most easterly point of the island and every January 1 thousands of people climb it to watch the sunrise (hence the name). It must be so crowded and so cold, I would definitely pass, thanks. It’s a World Heritage sight and has been nominated as one of the 7 New Wonders of the World. (I personally think Table Mountain is far more impressive, but hey. I’m biased.) It doesn’t take that long to climb and there are steps all the way to the top but…
It was so damn cold. I know I’ve been going about this a lot and you all must think I’m being ridiculous, but really. I was wearing more layers than I had ever thought it was possible for one person to wear at one time, but I was still freezing. The main problem was the wind. It was like someone was blowing Arctic air with a giant fan straight onto your face. The wind chill factor must have been like minus 20 or something. Never had my black coat, the heaviest garment I own, felt so thin. It was horrible.
So, I tried to climb it, I did. I made it about a third of the way up. But I was feeling so miserable and tired and wretched I decided to stay at the first viewing point with two American girls and wait for the group to come down. It was really rather pretty (if INSANELY cold).
Our next stop was lunch at a (you guessed it) fish restaurant. We filled up their large dining room, a whole group of Westerners with their shoes off sitting on the floor. There were various banchan (side dishes) as usual, and soup and rice. The main dish on the table was a big pot of Korean fish soup.
Now Koreans don’t fillet their fish. At all. Ever. It also appears they are quite happy to cook it with the heads and eyes intact. I was a little put off by the eyes staring at me, I’m not going to lie. I tried a little of the soup (avoiding the fish parts) but it was really fishy (unsurprisingly, one might say) and quite spicy, so I mainly ate the rice and broth.
Our next stop was the maze park. I love mazes, so I was very excited. One of the saddest moments in my life was when I couldn’t do the Alice in Wonderland maze at Disneyland Paris because it had closed. (True story.) The maze was made out of conifers which were not in full leaf as it is still early Spring. It looked easy, but this proved to be deceptive. It took us more than half an hour, I think, to get to the platform in the middle and ring the bell.
Afterwards Sylvia and I bought Jeju Citrus flavoured ice cream (it was more like sorbet) and tasted the pink Cactus flavour (no jokes) of Wilkin, another TaLK scholar and an African-American. (I can’t even tell you how excited I was to see a black person. Seriously. Everyone here is either white or Korean. More variety needed, I say!) He has long dreadlocks which he says are a source of endless fascination to Koreans.
We skipped a visit to the Manjang-gul cave (part of a lava tubes system) due to the weather – Mona told us the cave is like an airconditioned room in summer, so it must have been an absolute icebox then. After dozing off several times on the bus trip home, the last thing I felt like doing was moving, but I knew that it had to be done, so Sylvia and I gathered up my luggage, hailed a taxi and drove off to my new abode.
My studio apartment is in a large block (its actually made up of two buildings. Fortunately we picked the right one the first time) on the 11th floor. I knew it was a studio (one room plus a bathroom) before I saw it but I was not expecting it to be as small as it is. What was worse, because I can deal with living in a small place, was the absolute lack of any useful item whatsoever. (I had noticed that the inventory list seemed to get shorter and shorter every time I saw it.) I have a bed, desk, large monitor, printer, built in fridge, two-plate gas stove. That was it. No kettle, toaster, microwave, rubbish bin, pot, plate or fork. Nada. Niks. Zippo. When they tell you that you need about $1000 for your first month in Korea, I was not expecting to have to outfit an apartment as well, especially when I was told the place would be fully furnished. FML.
It was not the first or last time I would be extremely grateful for Sylvia’s company. If she hadn’t been there I would have sat on the bed and cried, but instead she remained cheerful and positive and insisted we go out looking for a supermarket of sorts.
So we did. We wandered around and asked the clerk at the 7/11 (is there anywhere on the planet where they don’t have 7/11s??) and she drew us a map to the E-mart (we’d looked it up in the orientation book before setting out). It turned out to be less than useful as we found ourselves on some strange side street (which, fortunately, was not far from my building). A man in a weird shop spotted us and started talking to us. (When I say “weird”, it had blacked-out windows with pictures of goats on them and sold strange-looking bulbs in giant vats of water. WEIRD.) He spoke like five words of English so I can’t tell you what he said, but it included something about 1974 and all the peninsulas around the world. We eventually managed to get away but not before he’d pressed bags of some bizarre herbal health drink on us and made us drink some in front of him. It tasted revolting, even though I took the tiniest sip possible. As soon as we were out of sight I dumped the lot.
We tried to follow the directions he’d given us but eventually, by a happy accident, stumbled across the Lotte Mart (similar to the E-mart but with fresh produce). When I tell this story to people in my building they just laugh, because the Lotte Mart is literally two blocks down from my building. Now that I have my bearings, I think it’s pretty funny too.
The shopping was an Experience (yes, with a capital E). I don’t think I can say this often enough: No one speaks English. Everything is in Korean. Labels, names, signboards. There is some English here and there but mostly you judge by the picture and the price. Fortunately they use normal numbers, which helps for reading things like the price and best before dates. It takes me twice as long to shop now because I have to try and guess what stuff is and whether A is better than B, based solely on the packaging.
We gathered the most important necessities I could think of at that time: rubbish bin (it says “A beautiful life for you” on it), bathmat (blue and fluffy, I love it), a bath towel (the largest we could find, still pretty small but the only one in that size) and hair towel, toilet paper (the smallest we could find: 12 rolls. We agreed to share it), a mug, bowl and cutlery (we struggled to find teaspoons because they don’t use them over here. I nearly bought one intended for babies) and a kettle. The kettle nearly ended me. We could only find ones you put on the stove. I’ve never used a gas stove before and I was having horrible visions of never being able to have any hot beverages because I couldn’t work the kettle.
“What am I doing here? What was I thinking? I can’t spend a year in this country where no one speaks English! I’ll never be able to eat anything,” I cried desperately, and some other things of that nature. Sylvia managed to calm me down and we proceeded to the third floor where the clothes and electronic goods were….and we found a tiny electric kettle on sale (half price)! I was very happy.
I also bought a few groceries: cornflakes, milk, sugar, coffee (in sachets. Blurgh), biscuits and Pringles. (What?) I swiped my card (you sign an electronic keypad, no PIN needed) and packed my own shopping bags (paper, with useful handles), and we set off back home. This was when we discovered how close we were to home.
The flat began to look a lot more homey once the things had been unpacked. We shared a cup of coffee to celebrate the success of our first Korean shopping trip and then headed out to find dinner and internet.
We ended up eating at the Pizza Hut about a block away from my flat. Please don’t judge us! We were desperate to eat something we recognised (and without eyes). We were also both craving cheese like crazy.
I can’t say it was the best pizza I’ve ever tasted, but it was good enough to give me goosebumps. Olives, green pepper, sausage, cheese… I love you all. The waitress had brought us plates for the salad bar, and seemed quite distressed when we said no thank you, we weren’t going to have any. (It was the strangest salad bar I’ve ever seen. Lots of fruit, lots of cabbage, and cornflakes. Yes, cornflakes. No, I don’t know why.) No Coca-Cola products, so we had to do with Mountain Dew (ew). We asked directions to the nearest internet cafe (Pee-see-bahng, if you ever need to find an internet cafe in Korea) and the manager, who could speak a little English, helped us out.
After a few false stops, including getting laughed at by two teenage shop assistants at the Paris Baguette (basically a bakery/sandwich/coffee place) who were practically doubling over as they pointed across the street (I don’t really get it, but anyway) and a detour into the wrong building (upstairs: smelly abandoned rooms; downstairs: seriously dodgy-looking karaoke bar) we found it. The internet cafe. Which was really more of a gaming place. We were the only Westerners, probably the only females, and the only ones looking to use the internet and not play games. It was bizarre. And dingy and smoke-filled, cough. But at least there was internet, and it was cheap. (This was before we discovered the awesomeness that is free internet in fabulous coffee shops.)
We spent a couple of happy hours catching up on Facebook and email (and Twitter for me), then home and bed.
The next morning I slept late, which was wonderful. I had coffee, which was less wonderful. The reason they drink sachet coffee in teeny tiny cups, it turns out, is because when you have it in a large cup, it tastes like dishwater. I unpacked the many belongings I had carted across seven time zones and stuck up all my photos, which made me happy.
Speaking of dishwater, I returned to the Lotte Mart to buy some more essentials: dishwashing liquid (I picked the green one because it reminded me of Sunlight. Alas it smells like apples), a long-handled brush and skoppie combo (all I need for about two square metres of living space), washing powder and softener (the smallest I could find. Still quite pricy) and cloths and sponges. I also got a few more things for the flat: a mirror to do my makeup in so I don’t have to stand in the wet bathroom after getting dressed, a bedside light and a wooden cube to use as a bedside table (like Ikea, it comes flat-packed and you assemble it yourself. I had to subsequently buy a screwdriver).
I returned to the PC-bang for some more cheap internet and then hurried home to eat something before 9pm. Sylvia and I were going to the hospital for our mandatory medical check the following morning and had been told not to eat or drink anything after 9pm. I dined off cold pizza (hey, you know what would be far more useful to me than a printer? A microwave. Yeah. You think about that one) and tea, and then watched series on my laptop before turning in for the night.
And waited. And switched on the light and read. And went to the loo. And read some more. And waited. And watched more series until I finally fell asleep around 4am (9pm SA time). The jetlag had made itself felt. This was unfortunate as I had to be at the hospital at 08:30 the following morning…