Ttangkkeut Maeul / Songji-myeon, Haenam-gun, Jeollanam-do, 19 May 2016, 6am.
Despite the calmness of the previous day, at the top of the hill it was quite breezy. During the night the wind had risen. Always in a strange bed you sleep lightly, and with the wind rustling in the trees and somehow seeping into the hotel building to bang a poorly-closed door I did not get much quality rest. At one point I got up to see if I could find which door was banging, but of course the wind died down as soon as I got up.
Fortuitously, I had got up just as the sun was rising, something that I had not intended. But despite the wind, the sea looked calm, and it seemed unlikely that there could be anything to prevent our trip to Bogildo that morning. I returned to my bed to try unsuccessfully to get a bit more sleep. Insoon and I meet at the car as agreed at 9am.
We are aiming for the 9:30am ferry. We were glad we had checked the timetable the previous evening. The timetable I had been sent by the Haenam County tourist department was out of date (not the only inaccurate piece of advice they had given me), and we had been pleased to discover that there were twice as many ferry sailings as I had been expecting. We drive back to the harbour, buy a ticket and proceed to the end of the quay. We are the first customer, which meant that I had to reverse into a tiny corner at the back of the boat. Despite my embarrassingly incompetent attempts at reversing (I found the visibility through the rear window close to zero, and couldn’t get the hang of navigating using the wing mirrors) Insoon remained remarkably placid. If she was squirming inside with embarrassment, she did not show it. My heart goes out to her in thanks.
The stevedores were less forgiving. “Change,” said one of them abruptly, increasingly despairing as to whether I would get anywhere near to the parking place he wanted. I was happy to do so, gladly playing the Incompetent Foreigner card. I got out, he got in, and proceeded to reverse expertly into the snug space at the back of the boat.
We went up on deck and watched the other vehicles loading up. The trucks are lashed down, and motorists instructed to engage hand brakes. If this ferry were to list to one side (unlikely, given its construction – this was no Sewol) the vehicles should stay in place.
The ferry departs on time for its one-hour, 12 km journey to our destination, and we walk happily round the deck finding the place for the best views away from the breeze. We get chatting to a Korean couple who were visiting from Canada. They don’t have much English and so Insoon is doing the talking. “What are you studying?” they ask me out of the blue. A little confused, I tell them I work in a bank.
I had just ruined Insoon’s cover story, which she had not briefed me about.
A natural assumption, when a man and a woman of a similar age are travelling together, is that they are an item, a couple. Insoon and I, though very contented in each other’s company, are not a couple. So, to avoid unnecessary conversation, she had developed a standard explanation of what we were doing together. I was a learned scholar visiting from England conducting some field research, and she was my secretary / personal assistant / interpreter. A little white lie never does any harm, she rightly reasoned, and maybe, she joked, the cover story might prompt a patriotic Korean to open a few doors for us to help me on my scholarly way: maybe a free ticket here, a snack there.
Not to worry. For future years, I will have a cover story prepared which is consistent with Insoon’s. Maybe, for the purposes of the current ferry ride, the object of my scholarly research should have been Scholars’ Gardens of the Joseon Dynasty. For, although I did not realise it at the time, I was to see two more during my sojourn in Jeollanam-do.
We draw in to Sanyang dock, the small harbour on the north side of Nohwado, and I gingerly ease the Kia off the ferry. We drive along largely empty rural roads through lovely, placid farmland. The road eventually arrives at the south side of the island where it weaves its way between the sea and a row of shops and cafes along the sea front and joins up with the bridge to Bogildo, the island that is our destination. Normally along a sea front you expect a bustle of activity. Here there is a lack of hurry, as if there is all the time in the world. And if you had all the time in the world, this feels like a very congenial place to spend it.