Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dokdo Fail

Well, gosh – here I am more than a week after my last post. Truth is, I’ve been pretty sleepy.
I would love to give an update on all we did during our fateful trip down south last week, but as it’s past, I find going over events day-by-day to be tedious at best. If it’s tedious for me to write them, it would be exponentially so for you to read them.

One thing that came out of the trip is a new desire to be an iphone user. Johnny brought his along for the ride and it was key – not only in looking for places to stay and eat, but also simple navigation. Korea’s streets are rarely clearly marked, so dropping into a strange city, staying in some love motel down some back alleys, and wanting to wander was made much easier by opening up the iphone’s GPS, dropping a pin on the map, and having the ability to explore freely – always knowing where you are and where you’re going or going to return to. It was also nice to be able to check the NHL playoff scores while on the road. Even when we were on the rockiest ferry ride, we could see a blinking blue dot showing our location and progression through the swelling waves. Not that it did us much good at that point.

Anyway, back to the trip – to sum-up, our intent was to head out to the East Coast of the peninsula to eventually make our way toward Ulleung-do, a fair-sized island about 120KM off the coast. From there, we were to catch another ferry to Dokdo – two small rocky islets a further 87 kilometers East of Ulleung-do.

To anyone who sees a photo of Dokdo, they might wonder why it would be worth the trip, but to anyone who has lived here in Korea, they might understand the draw. Not getting into it too much (for those who want to know more, you can check here), I will say that I consider the Dokdo trip to be a bit of a pilgrimage of sorts for Koreans. What are internationally know as the Liancourt Rocks (or Dokdo to Koreans, or Takeshima to the Japanese) is a piece of land that has been disputed by the two nations for hundreds of years.

As with many things, Koreans are very passionate about these islets, and while it may be easy to mock the passion as misguided (they are, after-all, rocks), the meaning behind each country’s claim is tied to centuries of colonization and trade disputes. Anyway, I try to not be too quick to judge something I know very little about, and have no claim to, myself (though I fail in this regard when considering the French goevernement's decision to ban the wearing of burqas in public, but that's another story). Instead, I simply wanted to go see it for myself. If Korea has a metaphorical Mecca, Dokdo is likely it.

Sadly, the trip didn’t work out as expected. I had heard from a few people that getting to Dokdo is a challenge to say the least. A Korean friend here, when he heard we were going, said that “Dokdo only opens herself up a few days out of the year.” An interesting way to put it, but he was referring to the rough weather in the East Sea. As Dokdo is so bloody small, only smaller ferries make their way out to the islets. The result is often vomit-strewn, as we found out.

We really should have taken the clue from the first coastal town we visited (Dong Hae), which told us that all ferries to Ulleung-do had been cancelled until further notice. What do we do? We head further south to Po-Hang, where we spend the night and board the ferry in the AM. Long story short, we got ¾ of the way there when the ship decided the weather was too rough to go on, or to dock at Ulleung-do. For the 30 minutes leading-up to this point, we, along with most of the non-seasoned passengers, were starting to feel ill. There were a few points, after a handful of particularly violent lurches, that Korean passengers around me removed life vests from under their seats and started examining them with purpose.

The three of us were in the lowest level of the ferry without any windows. For the life of me, I can’t remember if it helps or hinders one’s attempts to not vomit if one can or can’t see the horizon. I guess it didn’t matter. Roxy first started feeling ill, and when I stood-up to get some garbage bags for her, I was falling all over the lower deck like a 1960s Captain Kirk under Klingon attack. By the time I got back to my seat, about 10 seconds later actually, I was up again and into the bathroom where I was met with a chorus of retching and an almost guilty sideways glance from a young boy with his face well-into a small black bag.

I found a stall, and that was my home for the next hour and a half.

There really isn’t a lot to be done with sea-sickness once it takes hold. Roxy and Johnny managed to hold-on – barely – but I think my excessive beer from the night before sent me over the edge. What made it worse was the violence with which my body was reacting to the sickness. I was vomiting so hard I started bleeding from the nose, sweating profusely, and pretty was pretty much readying myself for death. I have had this feeling twice before: once on 30-foot sail boats in the gulf off of Vancouver island in middle school, and once after getting off of the Body Wars simulation ride at EPCOT Centre in Disneyworld. I don’t recommend that ride.

On the Ulleung-do ferry though, it was 90 minutes of no reprieve. Stupidly, or perhaps because I didn’t have time, I didn’t get any water before heading into the bathroom. This meant 10 minutes of actual vomiting, and another 50 of dry-heaving. Let’s just call it an extreme cleanse. I saw stuff coming out of my stomach that didn’t look natural. I’m sure that I am now 99% toxin-free and my chances of stomach cancer were significantly decreased. Looking back on it though - I was, to quote a Princess Bride era Carey Elwes, "a miserable vomitous mass."

I finished-up with another 10 minutes of moaning. You do strange things to take your mind off the feeling during times of nausea, and with others spewing in stalls surrounding me, what did I have to lose? – I was likely a shade of pale green, soaked-through with sweat, vomit, and blood, and I really didn’t care what I sounded like.
It took a while to feel better.

Anyway, with the islands out of the question for this trip, we decided to head to Gyeong-ju, which was only 30 minutes away from where we were. Gyeong-ju is the cultural capital of the Silla Kingdom of ancient Korea, and though they are not really comparable, Gyeong-ju is kind of the Kyoto of Korea. Tons of tombs, temples, fields of flowers and other such sites for those looking for a little less concrete on the weekend.

It was kind of nice to be there as a bit of a surprise. We had no intention of going at the time, but rocky seas suggested it.

I’ll have a lot more to say about Gyeong-ju in a couple of weeks as I’m actually heading there again on the 20th for Buddha’s birthday with a few friends, but it was certainly a place I’d like to return to more than once.

The skies were clear and blue for our first day, and we decided to rent bikes. We headed about an hour or so out of town to a temple up in the hills, and on the way back, Roxy got hit by a car while on her bike. She’s quite lucky that she got turned-into instead of collided with head-on, but she was still hit hard enough to do some serious damage to her left arm, her ankles as they made contact with the pedals, and her DSLR camera which she had been carrying.

Yes, it could have been much worse, but it still put a serious damper on things for Roxy as this was the first leg of a long Asian vacation with her family who joined her a few days later here in Seoul.

The accident reminded me of a few things: buy travel insurance (Roxy had none), and that extreme circumstances can often bring out the worst in people. The driver who hit Roxy was clearly trying to fabricate a story to put Roxy at fault, when actual physical evidence clearly shows that the fault was solely with the driver. Just kind of makes you lose a little faith in people. Oh, and travel with someone who can speak the native language.Without Johnny, we would have been screwed.

In the end, after an ambulance ride, a scare that the arm might be broken, and a scare that Roxy would just have to swallow having a broken camera lens (a $600 cost to replace), things worked-out pretty well. Unfortunately, Roxy’s following days in Seoul were dominated by following-up with police and insurance people. Expenses (medical and material) were covered and Roxy’s intact, but due to the hassle, she wasn’t able to accompany her family on the Korean tour they had planned together. Also, just to prove that bad things happen in threes, Roxy left her wallet on the Seoul subway on our way back to my apartment from the trip - a wallet with approximately $300 and credit cards. Such is life.

I realize that in this post I focused mainly on the negative aspects of the trip. Isn’t that always the way? Negative stuff is simply more story-worthy. The other side of it is that I got to hang out with two friends who I would not have met had I not come to Korea. This sounds like an obvious point, but it goes beyond the geographical. This trip reminded me of how much we limit ourselves in familiar surroundings. I’m quite sure, for instance, that Johnny is one of my most different friends (different from myself, I mean) while I’m certainly one of his – yet there’s more than enough to feel like he’s become one of my better friends despite our differing tastes in headgear. To a lesser degree with Roxy as well, it’s likely that the three of us, had we grown-up in the same city, would have never had reason to give each other any kind of social chance. Yet, in Korea, when the chance is forced upon us through circumstance, you can make some very unique and worthwhile friendships that take very little to be re-kindled after a hiatus. Good people find each other, if I can include myself in that statement.

Even with all of the blood, bruising, and spurling, it was worth it and I’m hopeful the three of us will have an opportunity to travel together again. Roxy is considering another working stint in Korea soon. There’s just something about this place.
Looking forward to Gyeong-ju again in about a week, and I hope to post again before that.


Anonymous said...

What a trip! Sorry to hear about your troubles, but you're right: bad events do make for good stories.

Andrew said...

Hahaha! God I love Bodyworks... All that technology just to remove a splinter?

Good post Davey. I like the bit at the end about Korean friends.