Jeju Island – South Korea (Part One)

Note: My original intention was to publish the entire Jeju post at once, but after watching my husband’s eyes glass over after the first 1,000 words I took his suggestion and have broken it up into parts. The majority of my photos are included in the latter parts of this story and so, if you are interested in seeing them, I’m sorry, you’ll have to check back here for Part Two tomorrow. Remember, I’m doing this for your own sanity.

Part One:

My family and I haven’t been on a vacation in about two years. Sure, we’ve PCS’d to Korea, but taking time off to pack a house and ship it overseas with 30 days notice is not what I consider to be a vacation.

Jeju-do, the “do” means “island” in Korean, is considered to be Korea’s very own Hawaii. Advertisements to take a vacation to this island paradise are constantly placed in front of our faces at Camp Humphreys, from the library check out stand to the back of the bathroom doors at the local swimming pool. After nine months of drooling over this tropical carrot I finally succumbed.

“Honey, I want to take the family on a camping trip to Jeju.”

“OK,” Bill stated flatly.

“OK?” I repeated. Bill and I have never taken a camping trip together before, let alone with three kids and a puppy. In fact, neither of us had camped since we were kids ourselves. What I thought would be more of an issue for Bill though, is that he is not an outdoorsy type of guy. As in, at the first buzz or bite of anything with more than 2 legs he’s either vacated the premises or bombed the general area with enough poison to kill a horse. Don’t get me wrong, I call the man to kill the spiders and whatever else I find in my house that clearly was not invited in, and he jumps at the opportunity to be my hero, but ask the man to sleep outside in the midst of wilderness central? I think not.

I was wrong. Camping seemed like a good idea to him, especially considering all the money we’d save in hotel costs. So I started planning the camping trip of a lifetime. I researched all the places I thought we’d like to see and mapped out all the campsites that we’d potentially like to stay at. The last week of August was to be epic for the Thomas family. We were going to experience paradise.

And then the Army called. What had taken me days to plan and coordinate was whisked from my fingertips like a strong gust of wind to that all important stack of papers. Gone. Bill was to go north, beyond Seoul, to participate in a month-long training exercise, aka, “Hey North Korea, look at our big muscles!” And so, two weeks later, off he went, guns blazing into the sunset while I waved goodbye to my husband and my big camping dreams.

Two weeks into the exercise Bill tells me over the phone that not only is there a good chance he’ll be home early, but that he’ll be home the following day for lunch. That’s the cool thing about your husband being a pilot. Sometimes he gets to fly in for lunch.

“Wait, you might be home earlier than expected?!” I shrieked into the phone. I could hear his cautious smile thru the line. A glimmer of hope for our camping trip rekindled in my heart but I knew to hold back as best I could. We’ve been doing this military thing for a long time. By now we know never to depend on what should be dependable.

“Yep. But you know, things could change Hun.”

Bill’s lunch rendezvous turned into an overnight stop due to maintenance issues. The following day, as the helicopter was spinning up on the flight line about to embark on another muscle-flexing, look-at-what-I-can-do mission, the kids and I got rear-ended by a Korean who, as far as I can tell, was texting while driving.

Also, North Korea fires rockets into South Korea.

Although our truck was still driveable, it did need repairs, which meant coordinating a rental car – courtesy of a Korean insurance company that we could barely communicate with – in conjunction with a potential drive, and ferry trip across the ocean, to Jeju Island. Fun.

And if that wasn’t enough of a monkey wrench, there was the whole potential WWIII issue brewing just 40 miles north of my home. Nice.

I tossed our paradise camping trip away like yesterday’s garbage and quickly got to work packing an overnight bag in the case of an evacuation. In a matter of minutes I realized that practically everything in my house was worthless; if it didn’t fit in my luggage I wouldn’t miss it. I imaged it all being blown into smithereens while the kids and I watched the particles fly into the air from the window of our C130. The kids cried as they packed favorite stuffed animals, trying to decide which to take and which might never been seen again.

About a week later Bill was home early from training and whispers of a potential “let’s keep the peace” discussion could be heard across the social media sound waves. Bill put in a leave slip and that night, with three nights to spare, we went to bed dreaming of Coronas on a tropical, blue water beach.

But going on a vacation in a foreign country isn’t as easy as packing and hitting the road. We didn’t want to fly to Jeju as most foreigners do because we didn’t want to spend the money on tickets or a rental car. Besides, we had a potential rental already, if we could coordinate the details. Our truck, the one that had been rear-ended a week ago, was still due for repairs. The plan had always been to bring it to the shop after Bill returned from the exercise so that he could handle the finagling.

A month and a half ago, when I had started my research on getting to Jeju, I discovered that taking a ferry across to the island would be our best option. This way we could pack a tent, a cooler and our dog without having to worry about extra baggage fees. The only problem is that the English version of the ferry website does not offer tickets for vehicles. That option must be done on the Korean website. We could call, but finding someone to translate was a major obstacle.

I was glad I hadn’t figured out a way to buy tickets earlier because, even though the roller coaster of going/not going was finally over, we were now attempting to cross the ocean in a rental. Tackling a ticket exchange was more than even I would want to handle.

Saturday morning Bill and I took off in different directions. He went to the repair shop to drop off the truck and coordinate a rental and I went to a local office where I had sweet talked a Korean lady into helping me purchase ferry tickets online. Her shift would be over by noon and so we had to be sure the tickets were bought before then.

Two days prior I was in this very office putting on my best helpless foreigner charm. She’d walked through the entire itinerary with me, translating as best she could and verifying that there were plenty of spaces available for both people and cars on the Hanil Express. I couldn’t purchase tickets then though, because one, Bill wasn’t back and things could change at the last-minute, and two, I had no idea yet what rental vehicle we would have for trip.

She welcomed me back into her office with a great big Korean smile, the kind I’ve grown to expect in this country from locals because truly, they are all so very kind and helpful. As she cued up the website I watched her smile turned to a quizzical look. Not another issue, I silently prayed.

“There are no spaces available for a vehicle on the ferry.”

By now my roller coaster ride had been so long that my only reaction was a smile. I said nothing. I stood there and stared at her. She looked up from the computer screen, analyzed what must have been a look a sheer defeat on my face, and looked back at the screen. I could tell she wasn’t really reading the screen but just staring at it in an effort to give me a moment of privacy within my bubble of failure. She picked up the phone and called the port in a valiant effort to do something. She’d tried calling two days ago, and I’d tried a month ago, both of which ended with an unanswered busy tone. But this time someone did answer, and I let the glimmer of hope spark to a faint glow once again. I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said, and so instead, maybe now knowing a little bit what it must be like to be deaf, read every expression on her face for clues as to the fate of my trip to paradise.

She hung up the phone and told me that the port opened one vehicle spot just for her, or more likely, the poor, helpless foreigner woman. This, my friends, is Korea for you. People who will bend over backward for you, hold your children while you eat dinner and open slots on a commercial ferry so that you and your family can experience the beauty and wonder of their country. That doesn’t happen in America.

The two of us quickly went to work booking five people for a round-trip ferry ride to Jeju Island. When she got to the vehicle reservation section I called Bill. I had expected him to call me already with the rental car information, but as yet, there was no word.

“Do you have the rental car yet? We have to enter the information into the computer now or we’ll lose the one spot left,” I quickly blurted into the phone.

Our time-table was tight. Not just in getting the rental car information into the computer at that instant so that the nice Korean lady could hit “reserve,” but also in that we couldn’t leave one single day later. For one, there were no slots on the ferry available. But also, this was the last week of summer vacation. We had to get to Jeju and back before the following Sunday or there would be no sipping Coronas on the beach in Korea’s Hawaii.

“It was here,” Bill said, “but it didn’t have any paperwork so they took it back and I’m still waiting on a new one.” This is also Korea for you. Half done stuff moving at a rapid pace. Things may get done faster, but it comes at a price.

I think Bill could see my eyebrows raise and my mouth fall agape through the telephone cord. The thought of losing the one slot that had been opened up for our trip by thoughtful Korean people I’d never meet crushed me. I just wanted to go camping people. Was that so wrong? Argh!

I looked at my Korean angel sitting behind the desk, smiled sweetly, and mouthed that I was trying to get the vehicle information for her. She nodded her head and hit the refresh button. With me refusing to get off the phone, Bill explained the urgency of needing the rental car information to the repair shop man who in turn, and also via phone, explained it to the rental car man. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the refresh button being pushed again.

Although the car wasn’t delivered until hours later, the make, model and identification numbers were given to us about five minutes later via text message so that I could book our tickets.

With these tickets in hand, I met Bill back at the house and we began packing. We hadn’t actually talked through the details of the trip together yet – typical military family fashion – but that night, with the papers I had gathered all strewn about, we decided that we really wanted to stay one extra day in Jeju, returning on Saturday rather than Friday. But there was one problem. The lady who had purchased our tickets was not available for the rest of the weekend to help us make changes.  I couldn’t complete the changes myself because, not only can I not speak Korean, but also the reservations were made under her bank account. You see, ferry reservations have to be purchased with a bank account rather than a credit card. So, we had given our Korean angel 500,000 won (approximately $500 USD) which she deposited into her bank account in order to purchase our tickets.

We left Monday morning early in order to be at the ferry on time. They ask you to arrive two hours ahead of schedule in order to get vehicles loaded before passengers. About two hours into our planned four-hour trip to Wando (one of the southern ports that takes you to Jeju), we got a call from our Korean angel. “The ferry is leaving Wando two hours early because of the incoming typhoon.”

Typhoon Goni had already killed people along its path up the Philippines. Now it was getting ready to plow into the islands of Japan. Jeju, our tropical island paradise, was about to become an innocent bystander. For days now I knew weather was coming in, but the full impact and implications of taking a vacation on a small island in the midst of a typhoon hadn’t really hit me until that moment. I looked up weather from my cell phone while Bill continued our drive south, hoping beyond all hope that we’d make it to the port on time. I found a little about the incoming typhoon, but what I wound up reading was an article about a ferry that had capsized last year on its way to Jeju, killing hundreds of children.

As worried as I was about making the ferry on time I began to have sinking feelings about whether embarking on a trip across an ocean on a ferry, let alone during a typhoon, was a good idea.

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