Category Archives: Documentary

Jeju Island – South Korea (Part Five)

Part Five: (Click here for Part One, Part Two, Part Three or Part Four)

I’ve taken an ice-cold shower once before. I was camping then too. I was just a kid, but I remember the moment well. Who can forget what it feels like to shower in mountain spring water so cold that it knocks the breath out of you? Never once did my whole body stand underneath the stream of water that came from the spicket in that wall. Instead, the trick was to wash one appendage at a time. First an arm, then a leg, and so on. To wash your hair simply turn your head to the side so the water runs straight from your head onto the floor, never once touching your lower back. That’s the worst part about a cold shower. Washing your back…well, that and maybe your armpits.

Ava took it like a champ. She was in and out of there with a thorough cleaning. Sarai, her 7-year-old twin, not so much. Sarai had a bit of a breakdown in that shower room, even more so when we discovered that one of her earrings was missing. The only thing that kept her mind on this planet was the promise of a triple s’more. And then we found her earring.

Wide awake like I’d had three double espressos at around 8pm at night, we jumped back into the truck and headed out to round-up some dinner. I’d packed enough food to last almost the entire trip. In fact, we were only shy two dinner meals. Packing our food saved us a ton of money. We drove to the closest CU (like a 7-Eleven) I could find on my Google map, hoping for at least a cup of ramen, a Korean staple food. Next to the CU was a “chicken snack” restaurant, Bill’s favorite. Basically, it fast food fried chicken in whatever kind of sauce your heart desires. He likes his blue flame hot. The man was happy.

While we waited for our chicken we began to notice the walls and the floors moving. With both the front door and the back door wide open, this place was literally crawling with insects of all kinds. No matter, when in Korea do like the Koreans. The bugs didn’t seem to bother the other customers in the place and the workers went about their business as though these bugs were just a part of everyday life, so we did the same, except that our feet were no longer on the floor but rather tucked underneath our bottoms.

To say that the landscape surrounding our campsite at the base of Mount Hallasan was beautiful would be an understatement of the grandest kind. Then again, I am partial to a mountain setting. Soft morning light filtered through the tree canopy and highlighted the mossy rocks of the dry creek bed that was located behind our tent. The birds chirped and the crickets sang. It was a symphony that any nature lover would adore. CJT_3708cOur short, but sweet (excluding the pouring rain that seeped into our tent and onto our bedding that night) mountain visit did wonders for my soul. As we packed up the ice chest and the tent and everything else, I watched our puppy sleep through it all, exhausted from five days of near endless activity that her young life had not previously experienced. She looked so comfortable to me, even if she was laying on a bed of rocks and wet dirt.CJT_3712cWe spent our last night back at the bungalow we’d stayed at when we first arrived in Jeju. Our ferry was scheduled to leave the port very early in the morning (click here for ferry schedules) and we wanted to be as close to the port and as packed as possible so as to avoid any issues we might have on the return trip.CJT_3738cBy 7:50am the following morning we were standing in line waiting our turn to present our tickets and board the Hanil Express, Wando bound. Our rental truck was already on board and secured, as was Roxy, who was probably sound asleep in her crate. It had been an amazing vacation.

But just as the journey to Jeju was complicated and stressful, so too turned out to be the journey home. The man collecting tickets took one look at the Hangul across the top and stated, “ticket exchangie .” We may not speak each others language, but those two words said enough. They meant that something was wrong with our tickets which meant that we had to leave this line for a completely different one where tickets could be exchangied. I looked at the clock. In 30 minutes the ferry would pull away from the dock, separating us from our beloved dog who had no clue what was about to happen.

I panicked and tried cutting in line. My good Christian sense flew out the terminal window. All of my American intuition told me that I would not make this ferry in time because people don’t work fast enough to make everyday life happen, let alone miracles. Bill turned in any direction opposite of me so as to hide his embarrassment of my actions.

Faster than I thought possible, the ticket agents worked their way through all the customers in front of us in a matter of minutes. By 8:00am we were in the process of getting our tickets exchangied. I produced our passports to the smiling agent who began thumbing through them at an efficient pace, that is, until she reached Bill’s. Being an American soldier sent to Korea on orders to protect the country from communist overlords, his passport was not stamped at customs when we arrived in Korea. Instead, they simply check his military ID and wave him on through the metal detectors. Now, here at the ferry terminal of hell, as it had so quickly morphed into, for me at least, this was a problem. “No stampie,” she said with a quizzical look on her face.

Bill tried typing the English explanation into his cell phone translator while sliding his military ID onto the counter top. As his phone translated she called someone from hers. I watched the clock tick and the kids fed into my panic, asking questions like, “Are we going to make it on time Momma?” And, “What’s going to happen to Roxy?!” The ticket agent continued her conversation with whoever was on the other end of the phone and Bill tried showing her the now translated version of his explanation for not having a stamp on his passport. “I’m an American soldier,” it read. “We do not get stamped.”

“Try writing it a different way” I begged him. “Try again!” But before he could erase the first translation the ticket agent had gotten the response she needed from The Person Who Ruled Terminal Hell and hung up the phone.

“OK,” she said, and the smile returned to her face. The ticket machine spat out five new tickets that looked exactly like our old tickets and we ran back into the line that was ferry bound. I held my breath as Bill handed our new tickets to the ticket collector man. After checking them once again he waved us by and I began to let out my breath, but promptly sucked it back in when we were stopped by another lady in the “foreigner” lane, who wanted to review our passports.

We made it on that ferry with 15 minutes to spare. When my feet stepped onto the plank that connected the ferry to the dock I looked around, half expecting to see someone running to us, needing to stop us from getting on that boat for some reason I wouldn’t be able to understand. But no one was running, and no one was looking at the foreigners. It’s all going to be alright, I thought, and I could feel my stress begin to melt away.

Despite all the details written into this post, know that I’ve left so many out. Reading about someone’s journeys is one thing, but living them yourself is quite another. I’m grateful for my camera and the modern technology of blogs so that I can share my experiences with the world, but I am even more grateful for the power of the mind, a gift that God has given to me, where I can hold and treasure the smaller, sometimes more important memories that my family creates. Bill, the kids and I held God’s hand throughout this trip to Jeju. He watched over the Army training up north, He soothed the nerves of the Korean leaders, He provided a safe and comfortable vehicle for us to travel in, He opened up a passageway for us to the beautiful island paradise He created so many years ago, He provided shelter for us every night and He threw in a few twists to make this story a little more interesting. I thank God for allowing me to discern His voice in prayer and for allowing me to see His wondrous creation!

Ears that hear and eyes that see- the Lord has made them both. Proverbs 20:12

Here are a few more photos from the last portion of our trip. Also, I’ve included a map that shows where each location mentioned above can be found should you be interested in seeing any of these sights yourself. Happy travels!

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Jeju Island – South Korea (Part Four)

Part Four: (Click here for Part One, Part Two or Part Three)

The next morning I woke early again to watch the sunrise from the beach. Little did I know that the very spot where we had camped was the exact same spot that tourist buses take their guests to watch the sun rise from behind Sunrise Peak. As I set up my tripod, and Roxy sniffed around the black lava beach sand (amazing by the way), I realized that hordes of photography tourists where piling in all around me. On one hand I was thrilled that we had inadvertently camped on the most perfect of all spots to be for a photographic opportunity, but on the other I hoped that everyone would be quiet enough to keep my family from waking up. Roxy wasn’t sure what all the black blobs emerging from the distance were and, being that she’s only five months old, did what any inexperienced dog would do. Sat next to me and softly growled. The growl was soft enough not to alarm, but loud enough to be heard, and to my delight, kept an invisible bubble all around me so that I was then free to photograph as I wished. Good dog.

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In this picture you can see our tent which was just behind me while I took pictures of the rising sun. CJT_3192cAfter breakfast we packed up our campsite again and headed out for some more sightseeing. Our first stop was the estuary at Hahyo Soesokkak Beach. The water here reminds of me of the book The Blue Lagoon. Yes, those are glass bottom kayaks folks!CJT_3269c

From there we headed just down the road to Jeongbang Falls (daily 8-5:30pm), known as the only waterfall in Asia that plunges directly into the sea. It was midday when we arrived, so the lighting was less than ideal for photography, but hey, you win some and you lose some. The midday sun did make the falls all the more enjoyable for the family, however. We all took our shoes off and played in the cool water and mist at the base of the falls.

Photographing a waterfall presented a new challenge for me. I wanted to get close to the falls and use my wide-angle lens so that as much of the area could be seen. But this meant that I had to be quite close the falling water which was spewing spray and mist at who knows how many gallons per second. My camera was protected by a rain sleeve, but covering the lens when you want to snap a picture is impossible. My plan was to preset the settings as best as I could before getting in front of the waterfall. I would then position myself for the shot, remove the lens cap, and fire the shutter as fast as I could before my lens became completely covered in water.

My first try out was a failure. I was soaked to the bone in a matter of seconds and my shutter wouldn’t fire. I went back to the bank of the falls to troubleshoot and quickly realized that I’d left my shutter on timer from the family shot I took a little farther away from the falls. Settings fixed and lens wiped dry, I headed back out to the pool underneath the falls. This time I got the shot, although it isn’t as magical as I’d like. Still, it was a sight to behold and I’ll treasure it in my memories for the rest of my life.CJT_3346c

Looking in the other direction from the falls were amazing boulders that seem to have fallen into their place thousands of years ago as well as a small island. Islands like these dot the circumference of Jeju’s coastline.

After cooling off in the water of the falls we said goodbye to the beach and the beautiful sea water of Jeju for the mountain region of the island. Along our way inland we came across a horse farm where pregnant ponies roamed the lush hillside in a dreamy and serene sort of way. Looking across the fields of thick grass and Korean pines as the fading sun shone on the feeding animals I felt as though I had been transported into one of my girl’s fairy tale books. As a horse lover, the place felt magical to me. Really, that’s the best way I can describe it.CJT_3606c

Just on the other side of the road from the ponies was this grassy field, flanked by more majestic Korean pines.CJT_3666c

We continued around the base of the Mount Hallasan in search of the Gwaneumsa Trail head. This trail is the only one I could find in my research with an official camping area, complete with pay-as-you-go showers.

Campsite at the
Campsite at the Gwaneumsa Trail head

Also, this trail is one of two that actually terminate at the summit of Mount Hallasan. I didn’t figure the whole family would make it to the top, but hey, a girl can dream can’t she? (For all the information you need on which trail to hike and why please visit this site.) Alas, upon arrival we were quickly turned down at the mere mention of a dog. I turned on my helpless foreigner look which brought nothing more than brisk wave with a hand that held no remorse for sending a family on their way to who knows where. If you plan to bring your dog on your trip to Jeju, know that you will have to hike unofficial trails because you will not be able to schmooze your way past these forest rangers.

I remained undaunted. We turned around and headed farther down the road until we spotted a turn off that looked somewhat remote (so no one would tell us to leave). Our makeshift campsite wasn’t five minutes down the road from where all the other campers had paid to stay. Sure, Bill had to clear the land a bit to get our tent to lay flat but hey, our dog was with us and it was all an adventure anyway! CJT_3681cBy now Bill and I were expert tent setter-uppers. I was glad for that because all I could think about were the showers five minutes down the road. Even my son, who I have to remind to take a shower, was now asking when he could clean up. It had been four days since any of us had experienced clean running water down our backs and over our faces. My girl’s hair was beginning to look like Bob Marley’s. We set that tent up in record time and piled back into the truck, anticipating clean skin.

The showers were out-of-order.

“Broken,” the forest ranger motioned to us in a giant X with his forearms. All five of us just stood there and stared at him. We knew what he was trying to say, we’d played charades before, but we were in such a state of disbelief that no one knew what to do next. “No workie” he motioned again.

“Like, how broken?” I tried to motion back.

“Ummm…ice,” he motioned by shivering and wrapping his arms around his body.

“That’s OK!” Bill and I exclaimed at the same time in overly excited voices. The ranger looked from us to the kids. “Ice,” he repeated.

I tried to think of how to explain to this man with body language that I was filthy. That my kids were filthy. That I wanted to look everyone over for ticks. That if I didn’t feel fresh water and soap on my skin in the next 10 minutes I might choke him.

Jeju Island – South Korea (Part Three)

Part Three: (Click here for Part One or here for Part Two)

I woke the next morning just before the sunrise, grabbed my camera and tripod, and walked 10 feet to the shoreline. Roxy, our puppy, danced around me and the two of us breathed in the fresh morning air.CJT_2650cCJT_2617cAs the day wore on, sand castles were built, and Coronas were kicked back, I grabbed my camera again to photograph the beauty all around me. Yet again I marveled at the lava rocks that had once flowed from a mountain at the center of this island.CJT_2688c

CJT_2764cHere’s a picture of Roxy at our campsite on the beach. CJT_2724cThis was a view from the tent. Gorgeous!CJT_2809cHado beach is known for its cleanliness because fewer tourists visit it. This was the main reason we chose this beach as the second (although the first night we didn’t get to camp) of our camping spots. Not only was the beach clean, but it was perfect for children as the water was crystal clear and as the tide recessed, a sandbar appeared creating an amazing pool for even the youngest of swimmers to play in safely. CJT_2880cDespite the blue skies, by the afternoon the winds from Typhoon Goni began to kick up again. The stakes to the tent kept pulling up from the soft sand and so Bill and I decided to pack up shop and head to our next camping spot, Seogwipo Beach. This beach did not have an official camping ground, but it was lonely and beautiful, and since no one was around to tell us otherwise, we decided to make a camping spot of our own.

I deserted Bill while he pitched the tent to take the following photos. I knew if I didn’t the opportunity would be gone forever.CJT_2928c

This, my friends, is the beauty of Korea. Apparently this couple had just gotten married and were now having their marriage photos taken. I snuck in behind the real photographer and snapped a few myself. Even at high noon with no shade, a nightmare for any photographer, these photos show you just how romantic and beautiful the scenery at Jeju is. The mountain behind the couple is Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak). This mountain is famous in Jeju, but I didn’t understand why until I saw it for myself.

After snapping wedding photos I joined Bill at the campsite just 20 feet away. At that moment we heard the distinct roar of jet planes overhead. To our surprise and delight, Korea’s Black Eagles (think America’s Blue Angels) were flying overhead! I drew my camera like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry and snapped what I could in the moment. It was like Korea itself was welcoming us to the beach of Seogwipo!CJT_2971c

Here are my kids playing in the beautiful water of Seogwipo Beach.CJT_2992cAll situated at the beach front, we hopped back into the truck for a quick, five-minute drive to Sunrise Peak. I wanted to hike to the top for a sunset view, which I was told was only a 30 minute trek. Unfortunately, dogs aren’t allowed up the mountain, forest rules and all, so Bill and the youngest kids stayed below while my son and I prepared for the journey. CJT_3002cIt may not look like much from the bottom, but at somewhere around 400 nearly vertical steps up to the summit, my son and I could feel the fire in our chest and legs which continued to burn days later. I was panting people. Panting.

But the view at the top was oh, so worth it. Here is what the remains of the volcanic crater look like from the top.

And here is the sunset view. The first picture is the more iconic vantage point. The second shows Mount Hallasan in the distance. Our tent on the beach could be seen from the second picture’s perspective during the daylight.CJT_3034cCJT_3036cAs we turned to head back down the mountain I took one last shot from across the crater. In the distance you can see the moon and the many fishing ships with their lights aglow in the sea. CJT_3048cBack at our campsite, Bill grilled steaks and I poured wine.

Jeju Island – South Korea (Part Two)

Part Two: (If you missed the first portion of this story, please click here.)

A good amount of time went by in a highly tense rental car before I received another text from our Korean angel.

The ferry company noticed ur depart time doesnt change. It will 1600 as well. Depart from Jeju ones were changed. Sorry for confusing.

I wrote back how thankful we were for her updates, which she did out of the goodness of her heart and told her I’d like to buy her lunch when we I returned. I also mentioned changing our departure date and asked how we could do this, if at all.

If you want to change the arrival date, pla let me know. They said it has to be canceled and re-booked. If I cancel and book on Saturday, you can print out in the port. Plz let know. Be careful ur driving!!

With her help, we changed our tickets to Saturday via text message and I once again sat back in my seat, allowing myself to relax. Sort of. There was still the matter of crossing the ocean over swirling seas. I thought about the pool floaties that were deflated, folded up, and packed into my backpack. If the boat went down and there weren’t enough life vests, my family would be floating in the middle of the ocean on those babies. I allowed my mind imagine my husband punching any grown adult in the face who so much as tried to take away my kid’s floatie.

By the time we got to Wando the sky was cloudy and bits of rain fell here and there. The water was a little choppy, but nothing like the scenes from the Weather Channel with Jim Cantore braving 50 mph gusts, standing at a 45 degree angle. Once inside the port, we got in line and waited our turn to ask questions, hoping as always, that a combination of the person up front knowing enough English mixed with a game of charades would be enough to get an information swap done.

She didn’t know enough English. I shouted back through the line asking if anyone did. Thankfully, one man came forward, and he helped us ask questions like, where do we get new tickets printed out for our return trip, how do we get the dog on the ship, where do we drive to load our car and where is the bathroom?CJT_2346c

The ferry ride over to Jeju was exactly three hours long. Very unlike what I had expected, on board chairs are in short supply. Instead, rooms are provided, carpeted in a substance very reminiscent of Astro Turf. CJT_2376You are to take off your shoes when entering and sit, or lay, on the floor. I watched as some locals slept right there on the floor while others gathered in groups to play card games. I have no idea what kind of games they were, but I could tell they involved gambling, as evidenced by the money and Soju circling about. It was a great experience. Everyone was happy and safe, free to do their own thing at will.

Wando Port terminal
Wando Port terminal

Bill and I cracked open a couple of Coronas out on the deck while we watched the Wando horizon fade into the bleak, stormy horizon.

By the time we arrived in Jeju the sun had disappeared beyond the outline of South Korea’s highest mountain, Hallasan. The plan was to set up our campsite the first night at Gimnyeong Seongsegi Beach (you can find information about all the beach campsites in Jeju here). This beach is famed for its white sands and for having the clearest water around the island. Besides that, it was in a prime location for the activities we wanted to do the following day. However, taking into consideration the 30 knot winds and gusting rain, we decided to find a hotel instead. Tired, but happy to be “on vacation” we drove in the direction of Gimnyeong Beach, hoping to find a place to stay along the way.

Despite being turned down at multiple hotels on account of being full, we finally found a bungalow type motel with small, individual houses serving as rooms for guests to spend the night. Believe it or not, these accommodations were, by far, much cheaper than the local hotels and so we quickly pushed our 50,000 won into the owner’s hand – who happened to recognize us from the ferry! – and began to set up shop for the night. Bill hurriedly passed bags from the truck to the bungalow door, trying to keep our belongings as dry as possible from the rain that was coming down at a definite pre-typhoon pace. I cooked dinner in the small kitchenette and the kids set up a makeshift bed for themselves on the floor.

The following morning, feeling refreshed, we packed up our stuff, said goodbye to the Jeju bungalow owner, and set out to find some picturesque moments and a coffee. We found both.

Never before have I seen lava rock tide pools. The black and holey rock that once spewed forth as magma from the innards of our earth were now beautifully placed all along the shorelines of what I could already tell was a majestic island. Even in the midst of a wet and dreary day, I stood on top of them in awe at the beauty of all.CJT_2396c CJT_2404cBelow is a home along this shoreline. Not exactly San Diego.CJT_2416cAlso discovered that day were the amazing lava rock walls that adorned every landscape requiring a formal outdoor barrier.CJT_2459cAdditionally, we came across massive windmills, apparently intended to harness energy for whatever future purpose. They stood like giants along the landscape.CJT_2484c

CJT_2485cBut these sights were just what we found on our way to our first planned stop, Manjang Cavern. This cave, unlike any other I’ve been to, is made up of the world’s longest known lava tubes (daily, summer 9-6pm, winter 9-5:30pm). Although they reach 8.5 miles long, only .5 miles of them are open to the public.

Because of the all the rain, we were advised to wear rain coats, or at least bring an umbrella, because of all the water seeping through the ground and subsequently dripping from the tops of the tubes. We were also warned to dress warmly as the temperature stays between 50-68 degrees F.CJT_2510c

 After a picnic lunch we traveled a short distance to Kimnyong Maze Park. This is no corn crop maze for kiddos three and under, although they’ll have just a much fun here as Bill and I did. The five of us started the maze at the same time, all taking off in different directions. Our son beat the rest of the family – by a long shot – to the end, where he promptly rang a bell signifying that the rest of us had been beat!

At this maze there was also a beautiful garden area and a plethora of cats for visitors to pet to their heart’s content.

As we drove to our next stop, the Bijarim Forest (daily, summer 9-7pm, winter 9-5pm), I found this man tending to his garden. The crops look a bit like tea plants to me, but I don’t really know for sure. I watched him for a moment and thought about the life he might have.CJT_2583cThe Bijarim (Korean nutmeg) Forest is the most amazing gathering of twisted, gnarled trees, providing a seemingly mystical and definitely most secluded  scene. I was in heaven here.CJT_2596c

At the end of a wonderful day we set up our tent at Hado Beach in frenzied chaos. As I mentioned before, Bill and I hadn’t camped since we were kids ourselves, and so putting up shelter to protect our children from whatever the night might bring as the sun was setting caused us some concern. Still, we got the thing up with only a few setbacks, one being a pretty ticked off Korean who had words with the other Korean we’d paid (5,000 won or about $5 USD) for our campsite. Apparently we weren’t in the “right” spot, or something like that, judging by stiff body language and spit flinging from his lips. The man we’d paid motioned to us that this other man was a pain in his neck by pretending to slice his throat with his own finger. As Grumpy walked off in a huff Bill and I set about perfecting our new home for the night. I laid out mats and blankets and Bill fired up the charcoal grill. Gumbo and s’mores were on the menu and we were all very much looking forward to it.

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.

Jindo Sea Parting Festival

Last weekend I went to Jindo for the Sea Parting Festival ‪‎ with my family and friends. What an amazing experience! We arrived in the wee hours of the morning, and were promptly fitted for our knee-high rubber boots. After receiving our torches we headed out to the sea! People clamored to the sand bar, trying to make it all the way to the island. During this night-time excursion we were pleasantly surprised by fireworks! The sun rose rather quickly, as did the tide. As the tide rose, people were forced off the sand bar and onto the beach. Only a few lingered as long as they could, digging for precious (and apparently delicious) clams.

Up next was the parade, wrestling and the performing arts at the Shell Stage. We headed back out for a second parting of the sea at around 5pm that night. After a full day (and full tummies from festival food) we spent the night in a hostel right on the beach! What a true cultural experience, thanks to Adventure Korea!

The pictures are in order of our adventures. I hope you enjoy!

Jacob’s House Orphanage

I had the great honor of tagging along with soldiers from 4-2 ARB today, delivering Christmas presents to children at a local orphanage. As a group, we played with the children and snuggled with the infants for as long as the caregivers would allow. It was so hard to leave!

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