Thursday, July 23, 2009

These sultry months

We went up to Samcheok on Friday night a couple of weeks ago. We spent the night in downtown, and then went to this incredible beach called 초곡 해수욕장 (Chogok) on Saturday. It is surrounded by pine trees and a few small cliffs. There was a Buddhist temple to our backs constructed on the beach and the sun was to our backs while we swam and while we chilled. I did a couple rounds of snorkeling and spotted the largest sea slug that I've ever seen. Must have been two feet long or so. There wasn't a striking amount of sea life, but it never gets old dipping my head in the water with a mask on and seeing this parallel dimension of plants and animals. Life just exists so much differently underwater. It grows and moves with a rhythm set by the tides and the currents. There's this sheer multitude and variety of living things that we just don't even fully understand, because we can't live underwater. Everything looks so unfamiliar because we didn't grow up there; we see trees and bushes and flowers and other land plants and animals since we are old enough to understand we have eyes, but we don't see any sea plants or sea slugs, so the way they move always looks strange. And I think that's why no matter how many times you swim around with your head dipped in the ocean with a mask, it never ceases to look fascinating in some way. It's a cool split when your head pops up, too, because then everything looks right the way you know it: you can breathe without a plastic tube, and you are suddenly just at a beach swimming in the water with the sun dipping down and reflecting sharp glares against your mask so you can't see anything without it being blurry - and then you dip under again, and it's a parallel dimension of this crazy complex ecosystem that you can never be a part of because sadly, you can't breathe water. You pop your head up - this familiar world of air and primarily non-floating movement - you dip your head down - this unfamiliar underwater world where you can be happy slowly floating aimlessly around and observing, maybe forever.

There were all these dead puffer fish strewn about the beach next to piles of drying seaweed, pine needles, sea urchin skeletons and sea shells. I don't really understand why there were so many of them, but it was interesting. A lot of them really looked like birds.

The other day at school the office supervisor asked me if I knew the schedule for the day. I had heard from Elvis last night that we were going hiking but "not really hiking" in a valley in Gyeongsangbuk-do province which is just a little south of where I live, so I told him what I'd heard. He confirmed that it was "not really hiking," but he didn't know the English word for it, so he said "maybe a ceremony...a little, and taking fish, and a party." The other teachers were all bustling around actively, speeding like ants in and out of the staff room to my left and bringing in boxes filled with soju and beer and bags of fresh lettuce and mountain greens and onions and bags of fresh and strong smelling garlic from Jeju Island, and I noticed earlier the fridge was packed with bags of fresh and thick-sliced pork belly. I'd get out of teaching two after-school classes by joining them, so I said I was in for sure.

We drove in two vans down the winding road which follows the small river for 40 minutes. After 30 minutes they even stopped at a rest stop and sat for a while under umbrellas drinking instant coffee from vending machines that cost 300 won each, which I thought was unnecessary, but nonetheless relaxing.

The place we stopped was at this perfect bending point of the rocky river, behind this Chinese restaurant tucked away on the side of the road. Some of the administrators and teachers had taken me to the restaurant a few months back, and it was delicious. The place is known for handmade black bean noodles, which they were stretching out the dough for while we ate. We drank this ridiculously cheap bottle of Chinese liquor that was 67% alcohol and tasted like a crude blend of multiple cleaning fluids with warning labels. It made the 6th grade teacher howl like a wounded animal and scratch the wall beside me so he could show me without words how much it burned our throats going down and made us laugh a lot.

Right when we arrived, the principal got to work with his fishing pole while all the female teachers started preparing the grill we brought to cook the pork belly on. I noticed there were a ton of flat stones strewn about that were perfect for skipping, so I skipped them on the river along with a couple other teachers and found out that the word for skipping stones in Korean means water-birds. Because that's how the stones behave across the surface of the water.

I felt like I really connected with the staff of my school there. It was so peaceful and I was sitting on rocks in a circle with some teachers, and I was smiling as I looked around and all the other groups of teachers were smiling and laughing as well while a couple of children were running around and Elvis was placing a fish trap in the river between some boulders. This part of the culture I think found mostly in the Korean country is so beautiful: to be able to just stop work for half a day to have a bit of a ceremony and barbecue and fishing outing and drink together in a valley on some stones along a river. We collected flat stones to make tables with and larger tree stump-like stones for seats. We watched together with great interest as large ants infiltrated our food and carried away pieces of dried squid that were 10 times their own size.

I was listening to this soothing sounding EP by Atlas Sound called "Weekend." I really liked the first song, the song titles, and the album artwork. Later I wrote this poem:

Our ankles flowing free in the current,
warm and blurry and black everywhere
around us,
eyes wide open and
noticing glistening edges
and soaking in the way
other people writhe and sway,
balancing the madly escaping energy
wrapped up tightly
in our softly capsizing bodies,
and timidly dipping our feet
into moments of water,
into untarnished moments of existence,
shuddering deeper
towards curious
sweet and vast empty spaces,
stretching out feelers,
in-between everything with the same forces that make gemstones.

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