only now i have gotten the chance to begin retelling this adventure to the Park family's old stomping grounds in the country town of 보성 (boseong). the tale actually begins one day before arriving here, yesterday, when i met my friend 원철(wonchul) and his family in the city 안양 (anyang) which is southwest of 서울 (seoul). i transferred immediately from the bus to their car as soon as i arrived in 원철's neighborhood.
the trip from 안양 to 보성 where wonchul's grandfather lives traverses nearly the entire length of south korea from north to south. on a normal day, this trip takes only a few hours, but at this time of year, one can not expect such fortuitous conditions as the roads and highways are entirely choked with the countless families attempting to make it home for this very important holiday - 추석 (chuseok), the mid-autumn festival - one of the two most important, traditional holidays in korea (the other being the lunar new year). as a result, we couldn't possibly hope to make it all the way to 보성 in one evening...
with the electronic GPS mapping computer (essential to every korean car) mounted on the dash and making vague announcements of the road ahead every 10 seconds, wonchul's father piloted us haltingly south, cradling the wheel in his thumbs and softly singing traditional korean folk songs. the darkness outside was dimly illuminated by hundreds of pairs of red breaklights, endlessly blinking in a stop-and-go rhythm. wonchul and i dozed intermittently in the back of the car. other than a brief stop in 아산 (asan) for dinner, we made it without trouble nearly all the way to 광주 (kwangju) - the only major city in southwest korea, leaving only a short leg to 보성. we encountered a bit of trouble just outside of 광주, however, when the engine started overworking itself and we had to stop for half an hour to fix it. we discovered that it was out of water but we called a korean AAA-equivalent to be on the safe side. some guy in a truck came and told us we were out of water. unfortunately, he had no other assistance to give, as his truck was seriously lacking in tools, equipment, and most importantly, water. luckily water is relatively easy to acquire. we did, and headed for a nearby 찜질방 (jjim-jil-bang) - a large public bath and sauna - to spend the night.
i was greatly anticipating this. during my last sojourn in korea, i had the pleasure of patronizing one of these luxurious communal bath/spa houses in 대구 (daegu). they are actually really cheap - 7,000 won ($7) - and popular in korea. once you pay the entrance fee, you can stay as long as you like. and it is quite possible to stay inside a 찜질방 for days, at no additional cost.
well, now was my chance to experience the intriguing notion of sleeping in one. i had discovered in japan 4 years ago the joys of communal bathing. relaxing in a hot bath, casting off the anxiety that accompanies being naked within the view of others - it takes some getting used to if you've never done it before. but it is such a freeing feeling! it makes me wonder how people in america would be different if they could regularly practice such detachment from the outside world of appearances. for that is really what it is - a refuge, a sanctuary. the outside world in korea is just as superficial as america, and even more homogeneously, but the occasional deliverance from such a world does wonders for the spirit, not to mention engendering a healthier view of oneself and others.
before jumping into the bath, i first shared a round of beers with wonchul and his father. when you enter the bathing area (which is separated by gender, of course!), you first must wash yourself. this consists usually of sitting on a very short stool at a 'shower station', equipped with a bar of soap, a scrubbing cloth, and a bucket for rinsing. then you are free to move about the place and get in any kind of bath you like. i enjoy moving back and forth between hot and ice baths. talk about exhilarating! i feel so refreshed afterwards.
after drying off and putting on some of the loose clothing provided for us, wonchul and i walked around the upstairs where the men and women are joined again and where everyone goes to sleep or sweat out a stint in one of the sauna rooms. actually, a 찜질방 has all kinds of amenities, including an arcade room, cafeteria, smoke rooms, an internet room, massage rooms and massage chairs, sleeping quarters, and a large common area. the sleeping quarters consist of little cave-like holes in the wall, large enough for one or two people to lay in. the common area is basically a huge, open floor-space upon which countless people were sleeping. actually, you can find people sleeping just about anywhere - massage chairs are a popular spot, as are the massage beds; if these are taken, people will choose landings, stairways, hallways - pretty much any floorspace is fair game. eventually wonchul and i chose a small alcove to stretch ourselves out on. the warm, marble floor is quite comfortable despite its hardness.
i awoke fresh and rested, if a little stiff and groggy. we took a taxi to find some food for breakfast, which proved to be more difficult than we expected as many places had been closed for 죽석, no doubt their owners gone to visit their own families. we then met up with wonchul's father's brother and his family who lived in 광주. before leaving for the countryside, we stopped at a fruit and veggie market to pick up some fresh fruits for 추석 (for koreans, there should always be plenty of fresh fruit available to munch on at family gatherings such as this). the whole place was enormous! several incredibly large warehouses were filled with countless fruit sellers peddling domestically-grown agriculture. we sampled s few tasty fruits and carted off a whole pile of them. wonchul and i still had enough time to take a look around. we saw a building where veggies were being auctioned off.
then, we were finally off into the countryside! the rolling mountains and small villages tucked into the valleys before which spread streams and patches of farmland really give one a feeling of returning to someplace home-like. it took about 45 minutes to reach wonchul's grandfather's house which lay on the slopes of what i later learned to be something like the 'park-family mountain'. the house was smallish, but very welcoming. several other small buildings surrounded it, housing any number of things, including a tractor, cut bamboo, firewood, and goats (wonchul told me there used to be cows, chickens, and pigs too), but most of which i could only guess. we met woncul's father's other brother (1 brother and 2 sisters would be unable to make it) and then we all paid our respects to wonchul's grandparents with a buddhist-style 5-point bow. i sat and listened for a while to all the catching up that was going between families before we ate dinner, sitting on the floor, korean-style (the method for all future meals and one to which i was already much accustomed, not the least reason being that i have no table in my own apartment, nor did i in alaska, for that matter). lunch was delicious 삼겹살 (samgyeopsar) - fried pork belly - my favorite! we lounged around for a bit to encourage digestion. then wonchul told me we would be taking a trip up the mountain to a spot where many chestnut trees grew.
할아버지 (grandfather) gave us a ride up in the tractor, a luxury im sure was arranged for my benefit, although unnecessary. at the top were, indeed, many trees, planted no doubt purposefully by someone long ago. the late afternoon sun glowed through the patchy canopy onto the grassy forest floor, creating a lazy, surreal atmosphere. 할라보지 instructed us to put on some heavy gloves and demonstrated how we were supposed to extract the 밤 (chestnuts) from their dangerously spiky seed cases, making sure to only do so for the shells that were already peeling back from the ripened nuts. the other men in the family joined us and the nut-hunting continued for a couple hours, full-force.
after a while, wonchul and i wilted our gloves and washed our hands and heads in a small, nearby mountain waterfall. we then headed back down the mountain on foot. upon returning home we got some water and collapsed under a pavilion that lay next to the road. in the rays of the setting sun, we chatted for a while, idly watching the pavilion's resident spiders construct their webs, and napped until suppertime. the rest of the evening was consumed with continuous conversation, almost continuous eating and drinking, and intermittent resting and napping. i later learned more fully from my students that this is generally the practice at family gatherings. you feel like you are in one of those greek paintings where everyone is just laying around idly talking and surrounded by food and comfort. superb.
around 10 pm, wonchul and i headed over to a neighbor's house, who happened to be 할라보지's uncle, despite being younger than him, where the two of us would spend the night due to lack of space in wonchul's grandparents' house. sleep, however, would not come until wonchul's great-great-uncle's son (who was just a few years older than wonchul) was satisfied with our 소주 (soju - a strong korean alcohol) drinking ability and our listening ability. the man was a young father (his 2-year old daughter promptly urinated on the floor in her sleep when we entered the house) and an extremely accomplished architect of traditional korean buildings, including the magnificent house in which we were now sitting and the lovely pavilion where we had been napping earlier that day. he talked for a long while about the art of constructing houses and of the (apparently) large 박 (park) family tree. i sat patiently through this, trying to be as polite as possible and trying to get used to soju again. finally after we had each finished a bottle of soju each (more than i wanted at the time), we retired to a nearby, smaller building and slept as if dead. even wonchul's snoring (a noteworthy ability which is louder than most people can scream) could not wake me...
***stay tuned for the 2nd 1/2 of chukseok***