On Wednesday I met up with another Fulbright friend, Dave, in Gwangju. Our plan was to meet there, stare at the bus board and have a destination pop out at us. Well, we stood there, gaping up at a list of cities we’ve never heard of, trying to draw some sort of meaning from the name. We finally decided to head to Jinju. There’s kind of a funny story about Jinju: Gurye, Jinju and Suncheon make up what we in my province call the Bermuda Triangle. The cities are far away from other ETAs and only house one ETA. Therefore, the ETAs in Jinju, Gurye and Suncheon make up the Bermuda Triangle.
So, Dave and I set off for Jinju to surprise Josh, the lonely Jinju ETA. On the bus there we decided to make our way to Busan, the second largest city in Korea, the following day to meet more ETAs and then finally make our way to Gyeongju for the Fulbright conference. Our travel plan actually made a lot of sense. Over the three days of traveling, we gradually worked our way to Gyeongju.
Jinju was pretty fun. Josh was happy to see us and show us around. Jinju is really famous for this one fort used to thwart Japanese invasion plans. More importantly, there was this lady in Jinju (maybe a queen or princess or nobody, it was not very clear). Anyway, she got herself alone with this important Japanese guy in front of this fort. Well, I imagine that they were hugging or holding hands or something, because she threw herself and dragged him off the edge of the cliff to their deaths in the river below. Her death, a heroic sacrifice for Korea, made the temple really famous and very symbolic of all that Koreans want people to remember them as: brave and patriotic.
So, yeah. Dave and I saw this fort (and the shrine dedicated to this woman) while we waited for Josh to finish class. This was just the beginning of my historic weekend in Korea. It was when I began to realize how sad the country’s history actually is. The fort that Dave and I visited was destroyed a long time ago, but rebuilt in the 1990’s. I will come to find out that this is very much the norm. The 90’s must have been when Korea was getting back on her feet, because that seems to be when everything was reconstructed.
Anyways, that night Josh showed us the sights of his fair city: dinner, a light fountain and discarded lanterns from a cancelled lantern festival (due to swine flu scares. Oh gosh). The lanterns were really pretty, so it was sad to see them rotting under a bridge. The next day Dave and I said goodbye to Josh, only to see him in a few days, and made our way to Busan.
In Busan we met up with six other ETAs, three of which live there. Busan is known for their beautiful beaches and being a huge city. Our first stop was the largest department store in the world. It had an ice rink! I’m pretty sure Gurye could fit inside the thing with room to spare. Dave and I enjoyed the most delicious lunch in the world: Quiznos. It tasted like they made it in America and shipped it to our mouths. No characteristic Korean-isms like sweet corn, sugary bread, kimchee, Korean mayo or chili powder. Just straight-up American goodness.
Our next stop was Haeundae beach. Gorgeous. We just spent the afternoon people-watching, wave-chasing, sand-turtle-building and tossing the Frisbee with our new travel buddies. It just so happened that the Busan International Film Festival (PIFF for short) opening night was Thursday! And part of it takes place on Haeundae beach, so there was a huge bustle around us. We also drew quite a crowd. Koreans love watching Frisbee, but don’t really want to play. We were getting a little crazy with our tosses and dive-catches, fueled but the chorus of ohhh’s and ahhhh’s. What a perfect afternoon.
That night we went to the PIFF red carpet. It was crazy! People were screaming, there were celebrities everywhere and all for some fireworks! Yeah. It was kind of dream-like. We had dinner, did some sight-seeing (Busan has beautiful lights at night) and found ourselves back on a beach where we hung out, chased waves and enjoyed life for a good two hours. Yep. This was the life.
Meeting everyone at Gyeongju was like breathing after holding your breath for a really long time. Yeah. I think you get what I mean, so I’ll stop there. Boy, I missed my ETAs.
The Fulbright conference was actually only on Saturday. All of Saturday was workshops and discussions. I thought it was going to be long and boring, but it was actually really helpful and so much fun; the stories were incredible!.
Sunday was the day to write home about. We went on an 8.5-hour history tour of Gyeongju. Let me give you some background of what Gyeongju is. Gyeongju is the place where Korea started. The Silla dynasty, located in Gyeongju, brought together the three divided parts of the country. At one point in time, Gyeongju was the largest city in the world. Yeah. The world. It held over a million people before most major cities had 500,000. And, just like everything else in Korean history, nearly every single piece of historical evidence was destroyed by the time the Korean War ended. And, just like everything else in Korea, was rebuilt in the 1990’s to serve as historical reminders and cultural teachers.
We visited the palace where it all started, the temple that was connected to the palace, Korea’s National History museum, tombs of the kings, the park of the scholars, lotus ponds and the lost islands (not as cool as it sounds) and half a dozen little places along the way. Its tours like these that make me wish I spoke Korean. I feel like, even though I have a deep and humble respect for the places I went to, that I still do not fully understand their historical significance. By the end of the tour, we were all tired (for obvious reasons) and both angry and thankful. I’m not really a history buff. In fact, I kind of avoid that stuff. But seeing Korea’s history, knowing that none of it was actually the original, really made me “get” why our stuff is so cool. South Korea is only 50 years old, but Korean culture goes back much further than ours. But it’s all lost! They can only guess and assume! Everything that we saw was an ugly band aid, reminding us that these beautiful things are only here because someone destroyed the first average-looking ones. It really hit us when we found out that the tombs were replicas, not originals. The tombs! What’s sacred if even your tomb won’t survive!? So, yeah. Anyway. Next time you see an American historical monument, you don’t have to love it, but just stop and give credit to what it stands for; give credit to the fact that it tells a real story, not just an assumed one.
Now for a funny story to lighten the mood! I hung out a lot with Rachael on the tour. Rachael is a bright red red-head. Well, between the two of us, we grabbed attention. There was one point at the palace where this man with a camera cornered me on a balcony. Rachael, who was catching up to me, laughed and took a picture of this man filming me awkwardly gazing off a balcony. Well, the camera man’s jaw hit the floor when he saw two strange, exotic Americans and quickly pushed Rachael next to me. Together we pretended to be taken by the beauty of the palace. Pointing, gasping and laughing while the camera man (with the biggest smile on his face) anxiously recorded. It’s gonna be weird when I’m just normal again.
On Monday the 2009 Fulbright ETAs had to, once again, say goodbye to each other and begin making our treks home. I took the bus back to Gwangju with a solid gang of people, but went my own way back to Gurye. It was weird, sitting on the bus alone after being surrounded by people constantly for the past week. It got even weirder when I noticed that, while I was gone, Gurye added two more traffic lights! That brings the city total up to three! Holy cow, times are changing. Maybe next week we gonna get ourselves one of ‘em new high rises. Either way, I’ll be sure to keep you posted. Thanks for reading, and enjoy the short movie!