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Tracking down the women divers on Korea’s JeJu Island

JeJu is an island at the southwestern tip of S. Korea and is such a historical place that several of the attractions are now part of Unesco, the world heritage organization. Barbara and I chose to visit the island during our first visit to S. Korea to visit family living and working in Seoul.

We had planned the 4 day/3 night trip ourselves but there are many organized travel companies that offer trips and tours. Getting round the small island is fairly easy with regular bus services covering most areas including airport transportation to and from tourist areas. The one-hour flight was from Gimpo in Seoul, the domestic flight airport, to JeJu International airport. We had pre-booked our accommodation on the Internet at a hotel situated at the Teddy Valley Golf Club. As we regularly take these side trips we decided to rent a car at the airport to give us more time to travel around at our pace.

From the airport car rental desk you are taken to the pick up location for the vehicle just off site and there I was pleasantly surprised to find included was a large GPS navigation system. Great I thought, no problems finding all the attractions we wanted to see. Driving in Korea is the same as in N. America except that it felt like driving in England with the inconsistent driving manners there. Then, trying to load in the address for the hotel, I found out that the GPS language was all in Korean. OK, so it wasn’t going to be that much help. It did show the roads and combined with a tourist road map we’d be fine. One big advantage though was that it showed where all the speed cameras were, both with a visual as well as audio signal. I didn’t need to know Korean to understand that.

Teddies play piano in South Korea

Teddies, teddies everywhere

An hour later we arrived at the hotel which turned out to be rated 4* and was quite luxurious. The room was well appointed and the golf club had a restaurant where our included breakfast would be served. Both the hotel lobby and the dining room were full of huge teddy bears, some over 6’ tall and all dressed in costumes. There was one even sat at a grand piano “playing” along with taped popular music. We decided to eat our evening meal there and it was excellent, even if I wasn’t quite sure what I’d ordered. But we did get caught on the wine though. After the meal when we worked out the price conversion it came to almost $75 for the bottle. Thankfully we had saved enough wine for the next night’s meal. The bedroom’s large TV only provided Korean or Japanese programs so planning where we would go the next day was the option.

On our first full day, following breakfast, we visited a large Buddhist temple, Seondeoksa, set in the foothills of Mount Halla, an extinct volcano. The period known as Buddha’s birthday was approaching and the roads leading to the temple complex were festooned with many colored paper lanterns. This is the traditional method of celebrating the upcoming festivities and it certainly gave a different approach. The temple area was also bedecked with the lanterns and fairy lights were also being set up for some of the events to take place there. In the grounds were several outsized wooden painted figures depicting folklore heroes as well as many stone statues. In the ornately decorated temple the main focus was on three immense golden figures over 10’ tall and each in a different yoga pose. These were for prayers to be offered to. The original golden effigy was at the side of the altar in a glass case, but was of solid gold and maybe two feet high.

Seongeup Folklore Village

Seongeup Folklore Village

Our next stop was at Seongeup Folklore Village, a village still using some of the traditional stone buildings with thatched reed roofs originating from JeJu’s history. This is still a working village and home to many of the local population. But it was well presented and very clean. You could witness some of the work being conducted but only view the buildings and their grounds from the outside. The simplistic lifestyle and construction was a real eye opener for us. Many of the buildings were oval in structure with only the elders’ homes being more traditionally shaped. Most homes included hens and small farm animals roaming in and out of the buildings.

From there we moved on to the JeJu Folk Village Museum set in a coastal resort on JeJu’s southern shoreline. This museum gave the whole range of village life from all over JeJu showing many different aspects of the history of the island. There were mountain villages, fishing villages, religious areas and market places, all different and individual. There was a ‘mock’ wedding service taking place showing historical, traditional wear for the bride, groom and wedding party. Many artifacts from all sections of the population were on show. The area was so large that there was a free tramcar ride to take you between exhibits. As at many of the attractions we visited being a senior entitled you to free admission.

The journey back towards the hotel took us past a couple of spectacular waterfalls. The first was a 60’ high falls that fell directly into the sea. It was an amazing sight and is one of only a handful of waterfalls in the world that actually do this. The second falls was extremely busy when we arrived with several groups of school and college pupils. The 45’ falls though were well worth seeing as it was set at the end of a deep gorge with the river continuing on through the gorge. In the rock sides to the falls there was supposed to be an image of a face, which could only be seen in certain lights. It must have been the wrong time of day for us, as we never saw it.

Both the Folk Village Museum and the second waterfall had made us realize just how much of a visible minority we were. Each of these sites had many school children of varying ages visiting on school trips and we were stopped often to chat with them. They wanted to practice their English and we had many questions to answer. Invariably though one of the first questions asked of us was “How old are you?” This was not out of rudeness but in Korea the level of deference shown is judged by age. But it was fun and educational for both sides.

From the onset of planning our trip we had been told of the Women Haenyo divers of JeJu and we wanted to make a real effort to witness these amazing ladies. So Day 3 was the “hunt the divers” day. We had an idea where we might find them on the island’s east coast but it was a long drive across the island to reach the area. Touring around the impressive Mt. Halla on the way out was a perfect start. The roads were narrow and very twisting but the scenery was breathtaking. It gave us a good insight into rural life on JeJu as we were well off the beaten track. We would return along the quicker coastal drive on the way back.

Finally reaching the region where we thought the divers would be the GPS showed a narrow coastal road and the start of the hunt. Finding a statue erected in honor of the divers proved we could be right. Not knowing quite what to look for though made it a little difficult but all of a sudden we came across several divers in the sea. These women divers are capable of diving down to 20 metres for up to 2 minutes…without airtanks. Nowadays they wear a wetsuit but originally it was just swimwear. All they have is a facemask, flippers, a hook for prizing the abalone shells and other seafood from the rocks and a net to put the shells in. The net is usually suspended from a brightly colored float to show where they are diving. Most of the women we saw were in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and have been doing the diving all the lives, apart from the time they were having babies. The interior of the abalone shells is highly iridescent with very strong colors and is a basis for mother-of-pearl. The flesh of the abalone is a widely used source of food in Korea and can be eaten raw or cooked.

We watched in disbelief, as time and again, just taking a huge breath, they would dive under the waves before finally re-emerging about a minute later. The longest I saw one under the water for was about 95 seconds. I couldn’t have held my breath for that long just sitting watching them, let alone swimming down and collecting abalone shells. As we continued we came across a small restaurant close to the sea. We pulled in the parking area and started to get out of the car. One of the men sat outside got up and put his head through the doorway and then came and sat back down…visible minority time again!! Yes, when we walked in all eyes were on us. Ordering wasn’t too difficult; the entire menu was in pictures. But as we tried to decide everybody came to help us choose, pointing to various dishes and saying “good, good!” One man even gave Barbara some of his lunch to try. After deciding and ordering and while we waited for it to be cooked I looked on my camera at the photos I’d taken of the divers. The owner of the restaurant came passed and looked and said “Haenyo Divers” and I nodded. She then motioned to the kitchen area and in broken English explained that her mother, cooking our meal, used be a diver. But at the age of 80 had decided to stop. So now she works as a cook in her daughters restaurant.

The drive back was uneventful except for the number of speed cameras along the main highway. Our faithful Korean GPS was chiming every few minutes it seemed, but the real give away for the cameras locations were the other drivers. The speed limit was 50 mph but most drivers drove close to 70 until they almost reached the camera. Then they would brake hard until they passed the camera and then sped back up to 70 again.

On the last day for breakfast we decided to change from the American option on the menu and try the abalone porridge. Having seen the divers the day before we had to try this out. It was OK but would be an acquired taste I must say. But as they say, when in Korea do as the Koreans do.

An alternative route to return to the airport meant a chance to see along the western coast of JeJu. There were stunning views from a cliff top temple of the varied small islands that line the East China Sea shoreline with an interesting fishing village close by. In this village we met more of the Haenyo divers waiting to be taken by boat to their diving areas. The places they could dive from varied depending on the tides. There was a little shyness at first when I requested to take some pictures but they soon relented and allowed me the chance to snap a few shots. It all ended with ‘high fives’ all round. Continuing along the coast towards JeJu international airport we encountered a mixture of small fishing villages and fairly large industrial ports but some wonderful scenes. We even found a small coffee shop, not a Starbucks, and had cakes with coffee overlooking the sea by a cliff area.

Immortalised in stone: Korea's women diversAll too soon it was time to return the car and fly back to Seoul. JeJu is a fantastic island to visit and is well signposted for interesting places. Their history is well documented and the major tourist areas have many individual museums dedicated to numerous subjects. Apart from the many folklore variety there were options for vintage cars, teddy bears, chocolate and even sex museums. The JeJu Korean’s are polite and eager to welcome strangers and we were made welcome whenever we encountered them. The school children are being taught English in the schools and are eager to try to use it. But the adult population knows limited English but they will try to help.

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