Travel : Korea : Dolsando

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In the middle of June, Mike, Kathryn, and I visited Dolsando, an island connected to the city of Yeosu by bridge. It was another trip without much premeditation. And time without an agenda meant opportunity to meet strangers. When I think about that trip, I think of the likelihood of the three of us coming together in a small, residential section of central Seoul- Kathryn from Toronto, Mike from Texas, and me – and the likelihood of us liking each other enough to travel together, on a whim, without much more than a one-way train ticket to our destination.

We traveled, nay, zoomed by bullet train from Seoul to Yeosu, and it was entirely worth the extra expense. Most people were in the city for the World Expo, but away from the giant white tents, the side streets we walked were deserted. We peeked into a restaurant, and a man and woman, a pair of grandparents, presumably, peeked back.

“Samgyeopsal!” proclaimed the man, indicating that the restaurant specialized in barbecued pork belly and lettuce: a dynamite amalgamation.

We looked at each other with glee, nodded to the man, and followed his motion to a table near the kitchen. The woman produced a grill, a hefty tray of side dishes, and bowls of tepid seaweed soup. The man observed closely after he delivered the main attraction. He didn’t take much interest in Kathryn or me, instead focusing his attention on Mike. He wanted to take care of him, to make sure that he was enjoying his food. A man-to-man effort, it seemed. Little did he know that when it comes to barbecue, Kathryn and I can (and do) throw down with the best of them. We double-wrapped our grilled meat in sesame leaf and lettuce and added slices of cooked garlic, thinly shredded leeks, sesame powder, and a deliberate dab of salty ssamjang, a paste that is revered in the world of Korean Barbecue. This was the order the gentleman prescribed, and he was right. Samgyeopsal must always be served with cooked garlic, shredded leaks, sesame powder, and ssamjang. And it must always be double-wrapped.

Mike has said, for a long time, that the first thing he’s going to do when he gets back to Texas is cut a hole in the middle of his kitchen table to fit a charcoal grill. Sounds tricky to me, but if there’s anyone who can make it work, it’s Mike. He once fashioned two metal bowls and a few other gadgets together, called it an oven, and an hour later we were all eating warm chocolate chip cookies.

On our bus ride from Yeosu to Dolsando, we met a high school music teacher named Kong. He wore a purple striped shirt and brown and orange checkered pants held high with a leather belt, white sneakers, and a white and black gingham fedora. We learned he was a widower and a father of two, and that he was traveling an hour from his hometown for his favorite grade of makgeolli. When the bus dropped us off in Dolsando, he went his way and we went ours. We needed to find a place to stay, and he had his own mission to carry out.

The first four places we tried were booked, and each manager told us that everything on the island was full for the weekend. On our way to the fifth motel, we heard Kong shouting to us to join him at a picnic table outside of a small restaurant. He’d found some friends, or maybe new acquaintances. We diverted. Makgeolli would ease the stress of finding the night’s accommodations, but we didn’t need an excuse beyond Kong. He treated us to an a cappella performance of his favorite ballad, in Italian, and then he spoke pursuasively of why Mike should switch from beer to makgeolli, and immediately. “Veeeeeerry very good for the health! Really!” Kathryn and I took a short break to see if we couldn’t secure a room and be done with it. And we did, in an ondol-style room, which meant we’d be sleeping next to each other on the floor. (This is actually much more comfortable than it sounds. Especially with the sound of the ocean outside your window). When we rejoined Mike and Kong, they were talking about marriage. I wonder what Mike will remember from the conversation, and what sort of advice he was given. I wonder if Kong will remember the day like we will.

A baby boy taught Kathryn how to bow in front of a statue of Buddha. He looked like he’d just learned to walk. We watched women gutting fish outside of the island’s only restaurant open past 9 pm. Giant buckets spilled over with dried mussels, and the smell soaked the air all around. We met a German teacher, well past the mark of cynicism, who seemed disgruntled with everything about Korea, his country of residence for the past eleven years.

After we hiked to Hyangiram Hermitage, we ate seafood pancakes and seafood stew at the only restaurant on the hill open after dark. We picked up a few beers at a nearby 7-11, and we took them back to our room. The island was still, quiet, and dark. My alarm went off at 6:50 am, and I walked in the opposite direction of the crowd while I wondered if there was something I was going to miss. There was a tall, dense fog at the horizon, and it took some time for that neon-pink sun to break free.

Read Kathryn’s reflection of the same trip here.