Discovery: Late autumn in Korea
I’d grown tired of it: tired of the jostle and hustle of countless faceless bodies colliding with mine from every direction. Weary of the endless streams of traffic fumes filling the empty spaces of my lungs that the Beijing breeze hadn’t already blown in. I’d dreamed of living in Seoul for years — and I do love this city — yet the constant warring for bus space, the car horns filling my waking hours, and the side-stepping, dodging and weaving between streams of slow-stepping smartphone-entranced commuters had started to grind me down. I needed out. Not OUT, out — just enough of an escape to keep me going. City life turns me on, no doubt about it. But after a countryside upbringing, this existence amongst the noise, haze and super-sized Lego bricks of apartments could only sustain my sanity for so long.
The timing of my breakdown was auspicious: late autumn in Korea is amazing, the time of year when the last few warm weekends beckon us to enjoy the outdoors. The air is kind, and a few day trips or weekends away are completely doable (that is, before most people start to hibernate). Alex Garland wrote that “escape through travel works,” and it does, because from the moment I left Seoul’s urban sprawl with my mom on her second visit to Korea, the sweeping views of rice paddies and small villages were instantly invigorating. Green replaced gray as I unplugged from Seoul’s matrix and saw Korea with fresh eyes.
The next day we found ourselves waiting for a local bus to take us to a green tea field plantation in the South Jeolla Province town of Boseong. As we sat among the weathered old folk with their life-worn faces, I wondered what was going through their heads — they just sat there, staring from tired eyes, looking like they’d lived a tough existence. Were they parents? Were they participants?
Once we arrived at the plantation, we decided to break away from the other foreign tourists — they said “like” far too often — veering up a hill to an unmarked path and a whole new world: one almighty view, a panoramic feast for the eyes. Not one voice pervaded the air; we heard only birdsong. No waddling foreign rumps in sight, no fluorescent Korean hiking gear to blot the landscape; just beautifully cultivated natural bliss.
As we stood gazing out at the most jaw-dropping vista I’d ever seen in Korea, where an amphitheater of green tea bushes primed an ocean laden with islands fading into the distance, there was a certain satisfaction at the extra effort we’d made to get here. This wasn’t in the guidebook. There was no “photo zone” sign or merchandise shop. There’s a good chance we might have been trespassing. It didn’t matter.
That evening we happened across one of the only places left open, a tiny but kitsch little cafe called Honey Pie. As the only two customers we were able to watch a three-piece band called Acoustic Dabang do their dress rehearsal, and two songs in, we were both on the verge of tears. We were swept away as the female singer, Sewon, her powerful voice, as sweet as bamboo wine, sang her cover version of 2NE1’s “Lonely.”
Then we watched the sunset over the bay. Although switching between a phone and reality isn’t a healthy thing to do when trying to immerse oneself in the natural environment, it has its advantages: A couple of phone-taps later, I discovered it was Parents’ Day in Korea. As my mom walked ahead of me down the boardwalk, silhouetted against the fading sun, I registered what a perfect moment it was.
Secretly passing a bottle of booze back and forth between us on the bus back to Gwangju, where we had a hostel to ourselves, I started thinking how relationships have a beautiful tendency to change as we age: Suddenly a parent isn’t just a person who raised us, sent us off to school, or someone we’re obliged to join for Christmas dinner every year or Skype with on a regular basis. Now they’re our friends, maybe our drinking buddies, our travel partners, someone more than just a parent. Like the life of a leaf, from a bud to a brightly colored ornament, my relationship with my mom had developed into something expressive and engaging, not just mom-and-kid stuff. Of all the discoveries I’ve made during my time here, this is the best: My own mother is one of the best travel partners I’ve ever had.