Seongsan to the Mermaids

A few days before arriving in Jeju, just making small talk with the owner of my favorite cafe, I asked what he recommended I do there. Before I could say “double shot” he drew me a map of the island with more travel destinations than the three pages my Lonely Planet book covered. A lot of his points were on the way or near to my must-dos, so it was fun finding all the interesting unknown-to-tourists establishments between the sight-seeing.

Day 2

Eastbound, we found my first check-point, inCafe-inGuesthouse, where my map-making friend said I should stay. Muhyuk and Yunju knew just where it was, they are regulars. By the way, making friends with the locals is probably the best thing I did for myself in Korea.

You can book a room, a bunk or just a bed capsule-thing on the seafront.

You don’t see things like this in the States. Sometimes you just need something in between a bus station bench and an overpriced hotel.

I officiated my hand-drawn map with inCafe’s rubber stamp to show cafe-owner friend he hadn’t made it for nothing. Then we were on to the main event. Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak, a crater that formed from an eruption 100,000 years ago. It looks so prehistoric, I half expected to see nests built around the place and pterodactyls soaring above the cliffs. To butcher the description in my book, “It looks like something from the Land of the Lost. Making the ascent to the peak before dawn to watch the sunrise over the island is a life-affirming experience for many Koreans.” But my Koreans want nothing to do with dawn and neither do I, so overcast at 10AM it was.

From the crater we made our way back down to the eastern shore, to a cove where the Haenyeo (literally, “Sea women”) divers have made their living for many generations in Jeju. The story on the Haenyeo is really interesting to me for a couple reasons.

Korea’s Confucian culture, where women are seen as inferior to men, clashes with the Haenyeo being the breadwinners of their families. The women provide for the family and the men raise the children. Diving was considered the lowest form of work but with a huge amount of exporting to Japan, the divers have thrived in Jeju.

According to my book, their heyday there was in the 1950s, when there were about 30,000 women divers. Today there are less than 3,000 as most of them have been able to send their daughters to college, who go on to work, ending the tradition with this last generation.

Which brings me to my next reason, the Haenyo at this particular cove range from age 56 to 76 years old. These little old ladies can dive up to 20 meters and hold their breath 2 minutes as they fight an octopus off a rock and into their nets!

They also have the risk of encountering jellyfish and sharks. They catch things like octopus, conch, albone, sea urchin and “other edible sea creatures,” according to the menu sign.

The First Catch!

An Octopus! Let the bidding begin…

Sticky Sucker

Lunch. We pulled up a seat at the restaurant to wait and watch as the women came in with their catches, handing them off to other Hanyeo, still in their wetsuits, behead or shell the animals and serve them up raw or boiled at most. I thought the Chinese had stranger appetites than Koreans, with their famed scorpion kabobs in Shanghai, but the tourists around us were more squeamish than me, even turning food away or sending it back. Muhyuk explained to me that Chinese people don’t eat food raw.


It was also interesting to hear the Koreans around me complain about how loud, rude or gross they thought Chinese people were. They’d say things like, “They are really selfish” just before shoving someone out of their way to get to the front of the line. Or give a nasty belch but then grumble about how dirty some Chinese man was, not removing his shoes and so on. I kept this amusing observation to myself.


Raw chopped conch and albone porridge. I would not recommend either. Like chewing on cartilage, that fights back. No amount of gochujang (red chili pepper sauce) is going to make the conch stop twitching as it goes down. And the porridge while hot, tasted like mud. But you better believe I ate it all. No leftovers in Korea. Lest you forget (you’ll be reminded) how our friends to the north aren’t getting enough.

We said goodbye to the mermaids and made our way back inland. Muhyuk stopped by his cousin’s and gave us the tour of their new guesthouse-in-the-making. It was freezing right about then though so they quickly made dinner plans and we were on our way again.

Dinner with the Parks. Seafood a little more my speed.

If you tell a Korean your my favorite Korean food is jjampong, a spicy seafood noodle soup, similar to Italian cioppino, prepare to get jjampong for your next meal. No cold wriggling nuggets tonight.

Halfway through the entirely Korean conversation, Samchun made a sarcastic remark to Muhyuk and it wasn’t until I laughed, and Yunjun said, “You understood that!” that I realized, in fact, I did! It took four months of immersion, but I am beginning to experience what it’d be like to communicate solely in Korean. It’s more that just getting the punchline of a joke. Personally, it wears on me to constantly miss the opportunity to connect with others as my true self and I long to be more to these great and generous people, than the clueless mute who nods at everything, especially when it comes to showing appreciation for the experiences they’ve given me. For someone who’s never been fluent in a second language, it was the glimmer of hope I needed to know that I can really achieve this, and to know I would.

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