“Is this what you ordered?” I asked my friend.
We all looked down at the plate that a broad Korean man in a small white apron brought to our table.
“I have no idea” he responded.
A few other plates followed containing whole fish and seafood in various sauces. Covered stainless steel containers filled with white rice were placed in front of each of us. House made banchan, or side dishes, a staple in Korean meals, were deposited at the centre of the table so everyone could pick from the bowls with their chopsticks. Pickled daikon radish, kimchi, fish cake strips in soy sauce, sweet and tangy cabbage salad were amongst the choices. The main dishes we ordered were a mystery. The five of us pointed at various menu items from the board above the counter. The menu was in Hangul and the staff only spoke Korean which, unfortunately, none of us could understand. We were so hungry that no one really cared what kind of food was brought to us, as long as it was plentiful. We were seated at one end of a long communal table. This seating arrangement is customary in Korean restaurants since solo eating is not typical. At the other end of the table sat a group of men who looked as though they had just finished their work day on a fishing boat. Their level of cheer was indicative of the amount of soju, the national rice based alcohol of choice, they had consumed before our arrival. They grinned at us as we inspected our plates. I can imagine our facial expressions were quite comical as we tried to figure out what we had ordered and how we were going to eat it.
We arrived on Chuja-do, a small island in between mainland Korea and Jeju Island, after a gut wrenching two hour boat ride on rough seas. We travelled here specifically to hike a 19 km trail that crosses almost the entirety of the island. This trail is part of a broader network called Olle trails which span 422 km over Jeju and a few other smaller islands. This part of the Olle was meant to be the hardest because of its length, the elevation gain and it’s ruggedness. As soon as we started hiking the Olle trail, the morning of our arrival, we were grateful we had persisted in coming. This was our second attempt to travel here. Our first, a few months before, was cancelled due to monsoon weather that prevented ferry crossings.
The trail was challenging because of the numerous oreums (small volcanoes) it traversed. The continuous climbing and descending was arduous on the leg muscles but it made for extraordinary views of the coastline. My favorite viewpoint was the highest. We had been climbing for about an hour when we emerged at a flat area with almost a 360 degree view. There were two pagodas placed on opposite ends of the space. These shelters offered a welcome relief from the intense sun. One of the pagodas was exceptionally beautiful. The wood carving on the roof and side columns were elaborate. What was most mesmerizing about it was its perfect placement that made it seem as though it were precariously suspended on the edge of a cliff. Stepping onto this pagoda was an immersive experience. Like diving into the horizon with the mountains and ocean at our fingertips. We sat on the benches and admired our surroundings.
After a full day of intense hiking, we were grateful for the meal that was set before us. The Chuseok holiday in Korea is a time of thanksgiving and I felt like I had much to be thankful for. I find myself on the other side of the world, far away from everything that is familiar, but I have managed to find connection with this beautiful land, it’s patient people, and a community of kindred spirits.