Rewards

Someone asked me if I get paid to teach climbing and maintain the gym’s equipment. I said no. I meant, not monetarily. A few days later after teaching a
young man to climb, he stopped me at the chow hall and expressed how much he appreciated my taking the time to teach him. For me, it was just a class; for him, it was the entrance to a new world he looked forward to sharing with his wife. I smiled. That’s my payment.

I planned a trip for 12 of us to take a trip south to Cheju-do Island, the “Hawaii” of Korea. Harrowing as it was at times and funny as it was at other times to lead such a gaggle, the snapshot I treasure most was neither of those. It happened as I meandered into the waves behind a fellow pilot, “Elvis”. Normally controlled and finely cultured, he glanced back at the
bro’s on the beach with a Cheshire cat grin in a moment of freedom and playfulness, just before he dove under a wave. The thrill of watching people enjoy God’s great outdoor playground is why I organize things like that.

Of course there were other highlights of the Fourth of July weekend on Cheju-do. One morning started for me with a short trot up steep trails, over forested
hills, and back through a ragged village of lava-rock walls. One tiny house had walls of stacked lava rocks and a roof of grass topped with a black tarp. It
looked so dilapidated I assumed it was abandoned, but through the door-less entry I saw a bright red purse beside a Korean recently used bed on the floor. I
quickly left the family’s front yard.

Another day, I set out to run up the volcano that towers up to 6300 feet in the center of the island. By the second mile of the trail, however, I was
dragging my tired legs up huge stairs made of railroad ties. Thankfully I could blame the rivulets of moisture streaming down my body on the visible clouds
that swept past, hiding all but the closest trees. Breathing deeply the cool air, all the stress of coordinating the trip, of being in Korea for the summer, and of the uncertain future, was lost in the inexplicable freedom of physical exertion in the great outdoors. I was reminded of the flight suit patch I sometimes wear on Friday nights – it’s an Ironman Triathlon emblem surrounded by the words, “if you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand.”

And I pondered again that much of what I write is an attempt to overcome that chasm – so I hope you get some understanding and enjoyment from the things I love, even if they are different from your interests and your life. And I hope you had a good Fourth of July weekend celebrating the wonder that we call freedom.

Donna
PS: Read on for more about our trip down south, or don’t and I’ll never know, but I’ll understand completely.

2 July: It was after 1am when we finally made it to our resort on Cheju Island. The travel agent, Ms Kim and my friend who acted as a translator, Mr Oh, saw us off at the airport. A man holding a sign with my name greeted us and led us to a car. 12 big Americans shoehorned themselves into a 12-Korean van as I call Mr Oh to translate again for our van rental man. In the end, he held on to my orange Korean driver’s license until we returned the car. He led us out to a
main road and set us free.

Shaq insisted we start with a full tank, but upon stopping at the next gas station, the man searched the driver’s compartment for the gas door opener only to discover that the nozzle he held didn’t fit our tank: he sold LP gas and we required diesel. On to the nest station.

Weather had delayed the flight an hour and hunger was sufficiently rampant to drive a stop at a random restaurant. Sinking into plush chairs and couches in
our private room, we ordered a steady stream of menu items that apparently weren’t served after a certain time. Our tiny Korean waitress spoke decent English though we had to laugh when she snuck into the room in humble oriental fashion, then announced, “Listen to me,” in her tiny voice. And proceeded to tell us something we never quite understood. Slowly our
orders arrived, dish by dish, bowl by bowl of uncertain food served with meticulous etiquette. Long stretches without sight of waitress drove a trip to
the unattended bar for another round of beer served by Snake. After tiny salads, a man came to tell us we were getting no more food. As fractured communication continued, we determined that he was only telling us
to eat fast because the restaurant was closing. 2 hours later, we finally got the last of our entrees!

2 July: Day 1. Wandering out to the beach a block from our “resort”, some of us carefully stepped over the crowds of cockroach-like bugs to brave the water’s chill and explore the black lava rocks and clear sandy bottom far out off our beach. Others enjoyed the view from a stone arch bridge leading out to a tip of rocky coast.

Under threatening skies, we began our exploration of Cheju-do Island inside it. In two steps the air temperature dropped about 20 degrees and 40 percent
humidity as we descended into a lava tube. Wide, flat, and high ceiling-ed, it resembled a black subway tube with dimpled walls and rough cobblestone-like
floor. Even ridges ran along the sides, interrupted by an occasional rock fall or naturally sculpted rock.

Back in daylight, we continued further around the island to Sunrise Peak, a stark round crater on the east side of the island. Heat and humidity drained us
of sweat but the view from the top was worth it. Hallasan, the volcano in the middle of Cheju, floated dimly above a layer of haze to the west. To the east,
the dense vegetation inside Sunrise Crater looked like a plush round carpet surrounded by jagged ridges that dropped sharply into the sea. A temple with all its ornate, uniquely oriental architecture and painting stood at the base of the crater.

Driving further around the island, we cracked the code on the police cameras. Not only were they displayed on the map, but before each one was a sign warning of their presence. The Korean solution seemed to be to maintain the speed limit, and slow down even more for the cameras. The American one was a bit more rebellious.

In Seogwipo City on southern coast we journeyed to a waterfall flowing off a cliff onto the rocky coastline. As we played our tourist games, the local
Koreans just down the coast laid out their seaweed to dry on the rocks, and sifted through small captured sea creatures to find the edible ones. After stairs
into the lava tube, stairs up to the crater, and stairs down to the waterfall base, we sought the level part of town and dinner. However, even with the
advice of some Brits, we managed to find the city market rather than the restaurant district. 2 block in each direction of 2-story high shops selling their
wares from low tables. Fresh fish, pickled vegetables of all varieties, squid jerky, fresh squid, dried squid, tiny salted whole-fish “fish fries” (like
French fries), fresh vegetables, shoes, purses, clothes, etc. High above, an arch stretched across the crowded streets, keeping out the rain and keeping
in the myriad of unfamiliar smells.

After splitting for dinner (some folks needed the taste of America only Pop-eye’s could provide) we rejoined on roadside chairs outside a convenience
store that served as our beer supply. There began the naming of our as-yet-un-named members: the admin and the maintenance lieutenants. The stories and suggestions formed time slices of entertainment for the remainder of the trip and beyond. I was just enjoying the atmosphere of laughter mixed with night air and the universal sounds of city life.

Eventually, however, there was a movement to travel home for the night.

During the day, especially after some physical exertion, the van was usually quiet as people slept or just watched the island go by, lost in their own
thoughts. At night, however, the raucous was highly entertaining. My favorite was each person picking a direction and shouting it at every intersection: “go
right!”, “go left!”, “go straight!”, “turn around!”. I just laughed and followed my combination of GPS and several maps.

3 July: Day 2. It was noon when we finally rallied the crowd for the attempt to find Surf. An hour later, arriving at Kwakji Beach on the west coast, we
searched for lunch and found only a Korean place on the beach that served 4 items. Thankfully one was chicken, cooked in a way that was palatable for all.
On the down side, it took an hour to pressure cook the 4 chickens. But the salty breeze flowed around us, there was some food on the table (standard semi-edible Korean fare), and the sound of waves lapped in the background. We could have been on Waikiki, had the hors d’oeurves been recognizable. By the time the chicken was served, several games of Hearts had been played and several beers drank. Shaq and I had explored the statues of women on the beach and the meditation area – a rectangle of lava rock walls
around a pool fed by a waterfall on one end.

The afternoon flowed by timelessly to the sound of waves, conversation, and laughter. Body-surf-sized waves entertained Krusty for hours while Lazr and Shaq made sand sculptures, Elvis dug ever deeper with his feet, and Dayton / M60 provided a steady supply of beer. A Korean man rode up on his 4-wheeler to tell us something about the chairs we’d commandeered, which had been neatly stacked against a row of plastic tables. We never figured out what he was saying, but $10 sent him back to riding along the beach, sometimes with his kids, sometimes alone, but never near us again. A shriveled old Korean woman strode by with a basket full of something. She stayed to chat for a while, nearly losing her dentures several times, though the language barrier prevented any communication from actually occurring.

We all rinsed off with the hose in the women’s room entrance then set off to find the “best western food restaurant” on the island – only to learn it had gone
out of business. 10 folks opted for Chinese food in Shinjeju City while Krusty and I went to explore Iho Beach. A cute arched bridge connected two beaches
across a stream-fed pond. A sign at the pond read “no swimming”. We had to assume the stream ran through Jeju City, draining its sewers. Unlike speed limit
signs, we heeded this one. As we strolled past a row of tents housing restaurants, several young employees strolled out like bait to invite us to eat at their restaurant. Eventually we took the bait sent by one place and sat on a platform with a small, low table in the middle of it. A traditional Korean dining platform. With the beer was served a platter of munchies: hard-boiled small brown speckled eggs, whole HOT peppers, and cucumber with red bean paste dip. They also served French fry-shaped, fish-tasting, Funion-textured munchies in a bowl, which was beginning to seem standard on the island.

Back in the city, 3 American women who were in Korea for some sort of work attached themselves to our group of mostly men. All 15 of us western-sized folks packed into our 12-Korean-passenger van and bottomed out the struts over every bump on the way home that night. Since it was now after midnight, and officially the Fourth of July, we lit our fireworks and shot them out over the beach at Hamdeok near our hotel. Not to worry, mom: there was only one minor injury due to slightly off judgment and aiming. I prefer to believe that the aim was off because of the strong wind that brought in a thunderstorm soon after. One beach umbrella was already lying in the sand, so 3 of us crouched behind it with a clear view of the night sky, but in a complete rain shadow, courtesy of the wind.

4 July: Day 3. Shaq, Snake, Krusty, and I left early for a short day of adventures before the flight back to Kunsan. The remainder of the group chose instead to sleep. With an eye on the gas gauge moving rapidly toward E, I elected to stop at the closer trailhead for the top of the volcano, called Hallasan, that drew Cheju Island from the sea. Snake hiked and I ran up
the beginning of the trail. Not far along the trail, a mile of slippery railroad-tie steps slowed me to a fast hike. As the ties gave way to a series of long
boardwalks that allowed running again, the forest gave way to white sky. Visible clouds swept in moist waves across my path. But the coolness, the springs of clear fresh drinking water, and the etched stone and wood markers along the way, made it a perfect run.

We all but rolled the van downhill to Seogwipo City and another waterfall, never passing a gas station. Pausing only to swim in the waterfall’s pond (and get kicked out of it), to sing in the amphitheater, and to photograph our imitation of the grandfather statues that stood at every turn, we swept through the waterfall park and drove on toward a “black beach”,
which turned out to be only brown with its mix of lava-rock sand and broken white shells, but stood beside a stunning view of cliffs and hills and surf.
Finally filling the gas tank, we continued to the Art Park.

I suspect folks may have had the idea I wanted to see the art when I suggested the park. Those who I dragged with me realized otherwise. There was one statue – 2 dancers doing a lift – that I did want to see again. The rest of my motivation for going was to laugh. And laugh we did. Not at the sculptures themselves, but at the comedy we could add to them with ourselves and our cameras. We imitated some and created scenes (like 3 stone women chasing Krusty) with others. Judging from the tarnish on some of the
sculptures, it seemed that such doings were not unusual.

Later, returning the van, the rain that had threatened all day finally began in earnest. Not to worry, however, since the rental van man insisted on giving
me his umbrella to cross the parking lot to the airport terminal. And I was allowed to bring it on the flight. My emergency pocket knife, that had made
it on the flight down, however, was packaged and sent on board the aircraft, to be returned to me upon landing – which it was. Things that would never happen in the US! After a short flight, we touched down across from the hangars that sheltered our aircraft from the downpour, less one eyebrow (lost to drunken buffoonery) and 3 days of our total time at Kunsan Airbase.

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