Monday, August 8, 2011

Sokcho and the DMZ, Part 1: My last minute vacation

My school's week-long summer break fell on the first week of August, my third week in Korea.  Just as a note, I've chosen to call the family-like group of the 16 foreign teachers that make up the English staff at school "the crew."  Most of the crew had made plans long ago to use their vacation for world traveling.  (Traveling's a big priority with this group.  Go figure.)  Some went to Thailand, others to Japan, and others to places I've never heard of in Korea.  The Friday before our vacation, sweet and gentle Marie asked if I'd be interested in going with her and some others to Sokcho.  We weren't sure if there would be a spot on the bus for me, but, if the logistics would work out, I said I'd love to go.

Sokcho is a tourist town on the northeastern coast of Korea.  The plan was to stay there for a couple nights after staying two nights in a more northern town that's further away from the business of the city.  When we were dropped off by the bus at this small town (we never did figure out its name), we thought we knew which direction we should walk in, but we stood around aimlessly for a while.  A friendly ajuma stepped up and said, "Minbak?  Minbak?"  This is how you call a place similar to a bed and breakfast without the breakfast.  From my understanding, it's a way to call accommodations, but it's not to describe a hotel or a hostel.  It essentially means "guest room."

Let me take a moment to introduce my group.  Besides myself and Marie, there is Todd who is Marie's husband, Jessica, and Jeremy.  When Jessica showed the ajuma the phone number we had for our reserved minbak, the ajuma whipped out her cell phone and started a very loud, very passionate conversation with the poor soul on the other side of the line.  Granted, we had no idea what this lady was saying, but I was really glad she wasn't saying it to me.  I do believe that this communication is pretty standard, especially with this age group, but I couldn't keep the looks of surprise from my eyes, especially when she started waving the phone away from her face and making interference sounds to us and into the speaker.

When she hung up, she looked at us as pleasantly as before and motioned for us to stay.  We didn't really have any other option.  We felt the same way when a mini van cab driver pulled up, beeped his horn, and motioned for us to get it.  We looked around for our ajuma, hoping to find some assurance this this was what we were supposed to do, but she was no where in sight, and the cab driver was impatient.  We got in the van.

Four grown adults in the backseat makes for an interesting time no matter where you're going, just wanted to get that out there, but we started noticing more interesting things pretty quickly.  Firstly, Todd noticed that the mileage reader hadn't been turned on.  Then, someone mentioned that we'd surely been on the road a lot longer than the five minutes of walking distance prescribed by the minbak's website directions.  The freakiest part was when we started seeing signs that said "6 km to the DMZ."  To top it all off, we passed through camouflage painted walls, not once, but twice.

Jeremy said it first.  "I've seen movies that start this way."  I couldn't tell if anyone was legitimately nervous, but kidnapping and human trafficking instantly became the topic of joking conversation.  Needless to say, we were very relieved when the cab driver dropped us off at a minbak instead of at the North Korean border.

The minbak was run by a caring ajuma who didn't speak a lick of English and who gave us some of her fresh corn within minutes of our arrival.  Not being able to speak Korean, we were very thankful for the other family staying at the minbak.  They spoke English and translated for us.  They also told us we were quite close to the DMZ, and they recommended us stopping by there.  Jessica had always wanted to go, and her contract's finished in a month, and the rest of us were at least moderately interested, so we booked a tour for the next day.

After going to a small store nearby to buy ramen for dinner and eggs and pastries for tomorrow's lunch, we set off in the mist toward the beach.  I had a beautiful chat with Marie on the way.  However, I think most chats one has with Marie are beautiful.

When we arrived, we were first struck by the presence of barbed wire.  We'd seen it along the coast as we got closer to the DMZ, but being up close to it and realizing it wasn't just for show but for protection should the North Korean decide to invade... it was eerie.  The persistent mist and the fading light added to the surrealism, but we still enjoyed a pleasant walk outside.

After splashing in the Sea of Japan (or the East Sea, if you're Korean) and drinking in the smell of the beach, we headed back for movies on Jeremy's laptop.  When things wound down, the boys settled on the two-person bed, and we three girls snuggled into our mats and blankets on the floor.

For these first two nights, I slept only 10 miles away from North Korea.  I think that's kind of cool.

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