Monday, June 25, 2012

Namhae Island - Damyang Bamboo Forest - Jinju Farm

Sangju Beach, Namhae Island

I'm Southern girl. Yet, I find it strange that in my year of Korean exploration, the south is an area that I've hardly touched. I hadn't even visited a Korean beach yet! So my boss/friend, her gal pal, and I decided to spend a three-day weekend road-tripping to one of the southern islands that speckles South Korea's coast.

Namhae, which is Korea's fourth largest island, is linked to the mainland by a sturdy bridge. A bridge that, at times, can be seen bearing a one-lane clot of parked cars on the right. As I witnessed, drivers, giddy over the first sights of the island-dotted landscape, pulled off on the bridge to hang over the sides of the railing, snapping pictures of their smiling faces in front of such a pristine setting. I admit that I was one of them. 





After crossing the bridge, we wound our way on past the lush greenery and cliffs spilling into the sea. The search was on to find the perfect beach to plant ourselves at for the day. This road hemming the coastline was one of my favorite parts about the island. It was simply beautiful. Never mind that my two companions were conversing in Korean the entire drive. I was happy to experience the solitude (and also give up the 'listening practice' for a while) and fully immerse myself in the beauty of the land. Jagged coastal rocks pieced the stirring emerald waters below, while in the distant backdrop, dozens of mounds swathed in green vegetation protruded from the sea.

Namhae is made up of two main islands, a handful of smaller inhabited islands, and roughly 70 more uninhabited islets. This made for great scenery all around. And another perk: The places we visited were virtually foreigner-free...yes, I know! The only 외국인 we met on the island were of the respectful-towards-Korean-culture type, so we were pretty pleased about that.


At the southern tip of the island we found Sangju Beach. It wasn't too crowded, considering some Korean beaches can become pretty packed. This was actually my first Korean beach experience (what the?), and though I'd heard stories of the fully-clothed beach-goers, it was still interesting to finally experience firsthand. 

Yes, it's true. Most Korean people come to the beach dressed from head to toe. Even if they decide to venture out into the water (which can also be rare, as many Koreans cannot swim), they will most likely still be fully clad! It's no secret in this country that Korean people are very concerned about protecting their skin, which is really a great thing. Unfortunately, I believe it has less to do with preventing skin cancer, and more to do with maintaining the "beauty" standard. Darker skin and "sun spots" (aka: freckles) are frowned upon, while pale skin prevails. Countless whitening creams clutter the beauty counters; tanning beds are virtually non-existent; and I'm finally praised for my milky skin, rather than hassled by all the orange Americans to hit up a tanning bed (which is kind of awesome). 





And OK -- I've worn swimsuits to the beach my entire life, yet I couldn't shake the twinge of insecurity I felt as my boss/friend and I decided to go all "western-style" on that beach and -- gasp -- bear our bikinis! 

The weather was pleasant, the temperature perfect. We rented tubes and whiled away the afternoon, floating peacefully between the heat of the sun and the chilling sea. The seaweed I found particularly interesting. I'm so used to the nasty, brown stuff that litters our shores in South Texas. But this version was bright green and looked rather appetizing. I felt inclined to try some of it on more than one occasion (but I didn't). And though it still lined the shore, it was more like a well-watered front lawn to the sea and less like a soggy, brown sea monster creeping out from the waves.



After lunch, we continued along the coastline road until we found it -- the American Village. I was stunned. Really? It's a village built for Koreans who lived in America and wanted to return to their home country and still maintain that "American" lifestyle. These total white-bread houses looked as though they had been plucked right out of a country club and transplanted in the middle of a rice paddy (which is kind of the case, I suppose). We had a good laugh, and I delighted in the chance to sprawl out in the grass for a bit. Oh how I miss yards! We don't have front nor back yards in Korea...



I was also excited to teach my friends that while the wealthy, along with the "credit card millionaires" of America might live in homes like these, the mass majority does not. Stereotyping can run pretty rampant around here.

As the sun began to slip away, I was informed that something had gone amiss with our sleeping arrangements. I'm still not really sure what it was, and I began to realize that I would be left out of a lot of the planning throughout the weekend, as Korean would become the primary spoken language and my attempts to ask for a translation would occasionally be ignored. But instead of feeling offended and left out, I took it as a free pass to let go of the responsibility of planning; instead, I sat in the back seat, soaked up the scenery while getting lost in my own thoughts, and allowed myself the joy of surprise in not knowing where we would end up next (I can be a bit of a control freak, so this was good practice...).


And the girls did well. We ended the day at Daraengi Village, a tiny, seaside community famous for appearing in a Korean commercial once upon a time. The word "daraengi" (다랭이), I learned, refers the the stair-casing effect that the rice paddies create along the coastal slope. The village has just over 100 of these babies. We also met a sweet older woman who gave us a room to stay in, because the guests she was expecting didn't show up. Lucky us. The porch was divine and looked out over the village and the sea. So we sat out there, sipping our lemon makgeolli, a rice wine flavor that is made only in the village, until bedtime.





The next morning, we took a walk along the sea. We were met by beautiful gardens, rocky cliffs, and farm  plots covered in freshly-pulled crops, laid out for curing under the sun. 




After an outdoor seafood lunch in the village (and for the vegetarian -- a mixed seaweed bibimbap...incredible!) we took a boat ride that snaked around some of the nearby islands. And finally, we hopped in the car and headed West to our next destination, Damyang.


Damyang (not to be confused with Danyang, a town up north with beautiful mountains) is known for its bamboo, or in Korean, "de-namu" (대나무). There's an extensive bamboo forest in the middle of the town, so we stopped there first. Though beautiful, it was a little disappointing because there were just so. many. people.

I swear we were toe-to-heel with fellow trekkers the entire way through the forest. Disappointing, as the scenery imposed on one the desire for a quiet, reflective stroll. You can't win 'em all, I suppose. In the northern part of the forest, the bamboo suddenly retreated and we found a few traditional buildings, as well as a lake which we rested by for a while.



Before leaving Damyang, my boss/friend insisted we try "de-namu-tong-pab" (대나무통밥), a bamboo cup full of rice. The rice took on the flavor of bamboo and it was decent. Perhaps not worth an entire trip to Damyang for. But definitely worth trying, if you're already in the area. I've said it once and I will say it again -- the beautiful thing about dining in Korea are the side dishes. There are always way too many, and though people proclaim that it's impossible to be a vegetarian in Korea (it's totally not, as long as you're serious about it, by the way...coming from the girl who became a vegetarian while living here), you can totally make a meal out of the side dishes alone. Restaurants will often provide a variety of fresh lettuce leaves with which you can wrap various vegetables and roots in. The wrapping of the leaves is called "ssam" (쌈). And it's something that I will certainly take back to the States with me. 




The farming father and I
(and his sweet beard)

The trip to Damyang was a quick one, and that night we finally drove to Jinju, where my boss's parents live. They have a farm on the outskirts of the city, and it was the perfect way to wind down the weekend. My boss's father is a retired business man-turned-farmer, and he really did a smashing job on the place. His greenhouse was incredible, with hanging pieces of recycled materials and hunks of wood supporting various forms of fungi.

The small pond was surrounded by a multitude of green plants and an arbor flourishing with fragrant red roses. Several ladders had been laid across parts of the pond, planters resting atop. There was clear creativity behind much of the garden area, and I really appreciated that.




 After pulling some onions out in the garden together (and discovering that they weren't quite ripe) and a home-cooked meal prepared by my boss's mother, the girls decided to rest; I took the opportunity to sit out on the porch with my book. Bird sounds...stillness...the rustling of leaves in the delicate breeze... and that's when I heard it. A subtle, sweet melody interlaced with the occasional chime of a bell. A temple bell. Temple music. There was one down the road, I learned, and because it was Buddha's birthday, I decided to pay it a visit.

I was instructed on how to bow properly to Buddha, so I did, wishing him a happy birthday, but secretly praying to God instead. The inside of the temple was brilliant with color, and edible offerings spilled out in abundance all around Buddha's statue. It started to rain, so we quickly ran along the small road and back home. 


We eventually packed up and headed back home, cutting through the rain. Once at home in my warm bed, I deemed the trip a definite success and passed out. The end.

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