Day 7: Sokcho to Samcheok
So I found out where all the youth of Korea lives. I’m not kidding; I have never been in a population of people where the average age was so extensively lowered by teeny-boppers and iPod-jammers than in this little coastal nook. The last town I was in, I couldn’t sit on a bus in my own seat because it was full of pensioners with eager canes. This town, I can’t stop sucking in my gut for fear of chuckles and pointed fingers.
At the bus station, I found myself talking to the clerk when another woman showed up next to me and started shouting something at her in Korean. I didn’t know what she was saying, but I felt that whatever it was it could wait until I finished talking and turned back to finish my appropriation of purchasing a ticket. Then, as though I had become the nuisance in the situation, the teller stood up and began shouting at me. I stepped back and tried to reassess the situation. I realized that she was being stressed out by the situation and allowed the other conversation to continue. Once the other lady was gone, I again asked her for my ticket and she indicated I was at the wrong window. I suppose that the other lady was in a hurry to buy her ticket because her bus was about to leave and assumed that I, as a foreigner, simply immediately took the backseat to any rush that may occur for locals. I moved to the correct window, purchased my ticket and took my seat in the waiting room.
I arrived in Samcheok after only a couple hours on the bus. But, waiting outside and talking to one of the local military kids (before I boarded my bus) that could speak English, I found out that two hours is quite a long way away. As he explained, ‘You live in America, everything is big. Two hours is nothing. Here it is so far because we all grew up in the same village and have never left. Going to work in the military is very scary for us.’
And scary, it must be. Right out of bootcamp, South Korean soldiers are expected to stand watch at the DMZ, a place of international apprehension so profound that it literally has dozens of nations keeping round-the-clock tabs on the news coming from the region. That’s a rough first duty station. And the moment that this all fell on me, I was brought back to my own experience with boot camp putting out electrical fires in full firefighter gear. Because when there’s a fire on a ship, we’re all fire fighters – or we’re all dead.
Now that was enlightening. In fact, it’s conversations like that one that really help my perspective take the back seat as I really meld into the new, foreign cultures and what they’re used to around the world. Just the two-hour bus ride that I took a nap on was one that he and all of the friends (which were graduating boot camp with him that day) had never experienced before they left high school. Now, faced with this new, big country (about the size of Indiana), they are only focused on the next 22 months of forced dedication to their government’s military.
I remember when I joined the military, I flew half-way across the nation – a distance that would be the equivalent to South Korean teens traveling from their country to Southeast Asia. And I didn’t even know this sentiment existed until I spoke with this young man today. I suppose, when I joined, I was about the same age, cared about the same things (which is to say, very little) and paid attention to little else. So, seeing it from his perspective, it was a really interesting interaction.
The young soldiers left for their bus and I sat, breathing in the crisp, clean air coming in from the arctic winds and gathering together with the salty, North Pacific currents and pondering many times past. I honestly haven’t breathed in air this fresh since being back in Alaska. It was such a refreshing feeling. I sat there with my eyes closed in a crowded bus station just drifting into someplace else that had nothing to do with Korea.
On the bus, an older man sat staring at me with the emotionless observation of a motorized camera mounted behind bulletproof glass. It continued for the bulk of the time we were in motion. When I’d look over at him he’d look quickly away as though he was looking at something else. Then, when I looked away, he’d return his studying gaze to me and examine me with all his attention. And it occurred to me that Asians, Koreans in particular, really can’t conceptualize the idea of seeing at something without looking directly at it – sort of the way I was “watching” at this guy.
The same was true when I was in Central America. I had sunglasses on and I knew that a man was looking at me and where I’d hidden my camera after taking it out frequently to snap shots off the side of the boat on our ferry ride from Punta Renas, Costa Rica, to the Montezuma coastline on the inner jetty of the Pacific peninsula. I finally dropped my sunglasses down onto the lower bridge of my nose and looked directly at him. And when our gaze met, he looked away and never looked back at me.
There is definitely a different kind of mentality and awareness that takes place in developing nations than that which is learned by westerners as they grow up. “Don’t stare. It’s rude,” our mothers would say, reminding us youngsters of the ability of others to be aware and to be made uncomfortable by someone leering at them incessantly. But, as I have noticed in other Asian nations, it simply isn’t instilled in their youth as it is back in the U.S.
On to Samcheok; the entire reason that I came here was because I read about the Haesindang Park (http://visitkorea.or.kr), or phallic sculpture park.
Now, this seemingly simple park dedicated to the manliest organ in the human anatomy sits on a beautiful, craggy coastline with an amazing view of the North Pacific. It would appear that at some point, the locals may have wanted to put something together in such a way that they were perhaps tired of the same old parks and the kitschy things abound therein. So they
erected (excuse the pun) these stoic phalluses in an effort to shake things up.
But this is not the case. Rest assured that there is a truly deeper and more interesting meaning behind these formations. Located in a little village surrounded by mountains and agricultural valleys, this park sits alongside lots of other parks including an aquarium and a fishing village folk museum.
Legend has it that a young boy’s unending passion for a young girl, Aebawi, who drown in the shores off the coast of the area that this park overlooks, spurred the construction of this peculiar place. But what’s more popular is the story of her spirit, who, as the fable goes, was affecting Sinnam’s fishing catch.
The locals thought, rather than changing tides, warming ocean currents, climate change or simply a series of coincidentally bad fishing seasons, that the maiden’s soul was wandering alone and desperate without her lover so she was angered into finding vengeance in the form of low marine yields. And in response to this, and in an effort to appease her, they produced a multitude of items they thought comprised all a girl could want.
In fact, more than 50 of these oversized constructions were placed at the cusp of the cliff side to allow her some satisfaction (again, with the puns; I am truly sorry). Among them are drums, cute little seats and even a huge bench – complete with carved areas that support the genitals and vaginas for legs. There’s even an area at the upper entrance to the park that represents the 12 animals of the zodiac (photo above), presumably so that just in case the specter was into bestiality she’d be covered.
There would be more of these magnificent monuments, as the town used to host a penis sculpture festival and contest. But Christian protestors put an end to that. But they couldn’t stop the Moon Festival in February following Soellal, Korea’s New Year, which is normally around the end of January. It’s the first day of the lunar year. In this festival, there’s still a slight inclination to giving the faithful the finger as the “tug-of-war” and “jousting” competitions are afoot and in full, suggestive effect.
Most of the figures are carvings from local felled trees. But there are some castings from concrete as well. Her likeness appears as a bronze statuette overlooking the entire park. There are even what appear to be three extremely excited villagers calling to her from atop the overlook in an effort to welcome her with open arms – and zippers.
Of course, by the size of the creations in this park might just be the Asian response to being genetically slighted. I won’t speculate as to which is more true. But I just like calling a spade a spade, reporting the facts, posing inquiries and, of course, posting lots of photos.
And, speaking of that, please enjoy this gallery of just that.
Heading back to town, I plan to head to Gangneung and Jeongdongdin to check out the exotic gardens that are said to be religiously attended to and have the air of beauty unlike any place in the region.
But the more interesting thing for me is to investigate the 1996 incident where a 35-meter long North Korean sub containing 25 frightened commies and one pissed-off commander who destroyed the evidence of their espionage before it could be retrieved.
As the story goes, the sub ran aground on the rocky coast and made a break for it, heading northward in hopes of somehow making it back to their country. And, of the 26 men that planned to brave hundreds of miles of electric fences, minefields and wild, Asiatic bears through the DMZ or tempt fate through arctic waters, one escaped the South Korean army.
The South Koreans, on the other hand, were not so lucky in the skirmish. In the 49-day search-and-destroy mission by the SK Rangers, they lost 16 civilians and soldiers to enemy fire and another 26 were injured.
But things were not all roses and sunshine for the North Korean soldiers either. Eleven of the crew members, rather than be captured, committed murder-suicides, 13 were killed when entangled in firefights with the South and one lucky guy got captured, and even given a job as an advisor to the South Korean Naval Fleet Command. It is thought that the last member actually made it out of the country alive. But I am sure he didn’t head back to North Korea. They’d probably torture the poor guy in retribution for his buddy’s promotion.