The funny thing about unfit men sprinting is that they feel they’re very fast.
In my mind, I was Bolt but I was puffing and panting like the fat boy in school whose punishment was a jog to the school gate and back. This was Daejeon, where the three of us had to catch a train in another nearby station because we had got on the wrong train. We tried to run to the station but to no avail. We knew we couldn’t make it and stopped short of entering the station, breathing heavily and watching our train go by in the distance.
My friend summed up that brief slow motion run in two words, ‘That hurt’.
We had taken the early train to Mokpo in South Jeolla Province. Mokpo is the capital of the province and is located at the southwestern tip of the Korean peninsula. First impression said this was a sleepy coastal town with laid back citizens whose main occupation would be farming and fishing. After all, the Jeolla province is considered the food bowl of Korea. We were eager to hit the beach as soon as we had checked into our hotel, but the ‘beach’ in Mokpo is a small strip of sand. I realised later on that Mokpo has no beach because it was primarily a port town. The ferry terminals and numerous jetties dotting the harbor was proof. Apparently, Mokpo was an important port during the Japanese occupation and served as an important midway between Japan and China. Further back in time, the famed Admiral Yi Sun-sin would use Mokpo as an important naval base while fending off the Japanese armada. A quiet town it was, much like its simple son, the former President Kim Dae-Jung who needs no introduction.
We checked in to the old Shinan Hotel, a straight block of concrete like it had been transported from North Korea. I recalled a trip to Uzbekistan and my initial shock in Tashkent, seeing all the uniform grey buildings. It was my first sense of what USSR would’ve looked like and how communism reflected on man-made structures. The hotel lobby was crowded- a wedding I guessed, because there were many women in hanbok. I wanted to get out and breathe the air that came from the sea, the freshness that came in stops, bringing wishes into my head. We spent some time watching the coast outside our hotel, strong gusts blowing waves right where we stood, and we were glad to be away from the noise in Seoul.
Heading to the main ferry terminal, we decided to eat at a local joint before boarding the next ferry to Oedaldo Island. The southern part of the Korean peninsula is dotted with hundreds of islands, many of them known to have pristine and quiet beaches. Mokpo is also the gateway to Dadohae National Maritime Park, the largest national park in Korea. That most of the people were in shorts and sandals made me uneasy- I had clearly failed to do my homework. It was much, much warmer.
The ferry ride to Mokpo was something else. Quiet at the top level, we drank Cass and ate seedless oranges watching the gulls play with the food we threw at them. There is something about the sea, really. There’s something so different and indescribable, especially when you get used to being in a city with crowds. Oedaldo Island is about thirty minutes away from Mokpo and it’s an island popular for tourists, with a small water park done up in season. This time around, however, it was abandoned except for the few residents. We took a walk around the lighthouse and the beach, and rested by the few hanok houses facing the coast. Seeing little children played by the swings in the front garden, I wondered how they’d grow up and fall in love with each other without knowing they had been so close all along.
Conversations can be fueled by the coast and we did just that, talking about life and enjoying nature till our ferry returned. We then headed downtown to the newer part of Mokpo for dinner and then kicked back at a local bar before a late night walk along the sea front promenade. Once could see hints of spring early in this part of the country.
After eight months, I’m convinced that there are two kinds of Koreans- the ones from Seoul and the adjoining areas and the ones from outside Seoul. If one were to argue and say that I noticed the fisher folk in Mokpo alone and not the youth downtown, I’d say I’ve seen the nightlife in Jeju, Sokcho, Jeonju, Busan and Mokpo. They are very different and maybe it will take some time to really explain what I mean. My fondness for this country has been growing and I’m certain that my heart lies in the Korean countryside – where ordinary people go about their daily simple routines, where the air is fresh, where there’s a lot of green, where there’s peace and quiet, and where there’s honesty and enthusiasm at serving a weikuk-saram who can manage a smattering of hanguel.