Apparently such a thing is possible.
As the Walrus said in Alice, the time has come.
It’s been over three years since I first set foot on Jeju Island, the island province of the Republic of Korea. I left South Africa blithely assuring friends and family that I probably wouldn’t be staying more than a year. Within three months I knew this to be false. And even after a second year teaching English in the public school system here, I still hadn’t had enough. Cue year three.
But three years, it seems, is the cut-off point – for me, anyway. I need a break from the full-time job thing (ugh!) and most especially I am done working for the Korean government. Thanks for always paying me, for providing me with a shoebox in the sky to live in, and for the afternoons filled with nothing more than reading the Internet and napping, but I am Done. D. o. n. e. Done. I want a new challenge, something different, something exciting. A change of scenery. A change of lifestyle.
And so, I finished my third contract here, and made plans to do something which I’ve been wanting to do since I got here, something which was one of the main reasons I came to Asia in the first place: a backpacking trip across seven countries.
Through no fault of my own, and to my mother’s immense distress, this trip will be a solo one, but hey: I will not be deterred from this dream of mine by the lack of company. And South East Asia is filled to the brim with backpackers: as bad as I am at meeting people, I am sure it will be unavoidable along the way. And this way I get to do exactly what I want to do, which is the absolute best thing about being on your own. Compromise! For who?!
For the last six weeks I’ve been residing at the actual house (very exciting in Korea) of a dear friend, and her adorable cat. Substitution work at various hagwons (private, after-school academies) has kept income trickling in and my brain ticking over. It also gave me some insight into the incredibly varied world of hagwons. Should I ever come back to Korea, it would have to be at an extremely good hagwon: one that is organised, well-run, and with a decent curriculum. But I digress.
Why have I been waiting around for six weeks, I hear you ask? There is indeed a good reason for that.
While I like to think that I am generally quite well-organised, I do like to procrastinate. So I kept putting off vital things, like, say, applying for my new passport.
My first grown-up passport was acquired way back in 2004, as I was preparing for a gap year in Europe. The expiration date of November 2014 was always there in the back of my mind, but it just seemed so far away. Until it was December 29, 2013. And I thought, man, I should really do something about applying for my new passport. And it was then that I discovered two things: 1. You cannot go travelling with less than six months’ validity on your passport (so for me that would be May 2014) and 2. It takes three to six months to get your new passport if you’re living in Korea.
The two weeks after this awful discovery were filled with winter camps, which are morning events, and of course the embassy is only open for consular functions in the morning. The embassy which is in Seoul, of course. So I seized the first opportunity I could, flew up to Seoul and filled out the application. And commenced praying.
I had an idea to renew my contract and leave after six months, but various events conspired to lead me to the realisation that the two things I want to do most are 1. travel and 2. go home. So I scrapped that idea, and held on in hope and faith that my passport would arrive sooner rather than later.
And it did. I got the most joyous email of my life in early April. There was much rejoicing.
By this time, however, I’d committed myself to playing in the legendary May beach volleyball tournament. In its sixth year, the bi-annual tournament, along with many other events held throughout the year by the charity organisation Jeju Furey, has raised millions of won for needy families in Korea. And the volleyball weekends are basically the best weekends of the year on Jeju. Also, it seemed I was not the only one doing the whole “stay for the volleyball and leave right after” thing: there’s a whole group of us. So I am in good company.
Leaving Jeju won’t be easy, especially at this time of the year, with the warm weather and the beautiful beaches and the fun things to do with awesome people (the ones who are left). But there are many who have gone before, people who have stayed here one, two, or even ten years. So I know I can do it too. We will always have Jeju in our hearts and memories.
Jeju has changed a lot over the last three years. There are coffee shops in places that had never even heard of espressos, let alone hand-drip Dutch press before. There are concrete walkways and permanent caravan parks on formerly “secret” beaches. There are housing complexes dug into the side of Halla Mountain. There are neon signs and tri-lingual menus and cheap shops selling all kinds of junk in the heart of Shin Jeju. It’s not the same Jeju I met in 2011.
The tour buses used to leave in winter; now they’re visible all year round. In some places you’re far more likely to hear Chinese than Korean. In fact, I fear the whole island is in danger of being turned into a giant theme park for the Chinese. So this helps me to think, maybe, I’ll be okay with leaving now.
In my three plus years I have learned many things. To love spicy food, to use chopsticks like a pro, to have patience in the most frustrating of situations, to “just go with it”, to elbow my way onto buses, to ride a scooter, to live in a space roughly the size of your average walk-in closet, to eat kimchi for breakfast, to interact with children, to quiet an entire classroom with a Look, to explain what it is to be South African to someone who’s never met anyone from the entire continent before. I have learned that while people from Australia, the UK, the USA, Canada and South Africa may look the same, we have very different cultures. I have learned that I love my country, despite its many faults: we have the best weather, the best food, and the best people.
I’m excited about travelling through South East Asia but I’m even more excited about going HOME. There is, after all, no place like it.
May 20th: depart Seoul for Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Then: Vietnam, Laos, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia (in that order)
Then: return to Korea to travel the mainland and Jeju with my SISTER!
September 28th: return to South Africa.
2015: ??? (please supply suggestions in the comments below)
See y’all on the flipside!