Our journey to the airport was nice and relaxed; when we arrived, we indulged in hot chocolate and cake and bought some Jeju souvenirs for our new Korean friends. Once in Busan, we caught the bus to the nearby town of Changwon, where Son was waiting to collect us. It was so lovely to see him again; we really felt like we were meeting up with an old friend, even though we had only spent a few days together previously. He looked very well after his weeks of walking in Spain, and we set off for the Changwon street food market, catching up on each other’s adventures since we had parted in Irkutsk. We wandered the stalls and Son explained the different foods on offer, which we then sampled – topokki were fat cylinders of rice starch and slithers of fish cake served in sauce, kimbap is rather like sushi (rice, meat and veg rolled in seaweed) and hottok is a like a puffed up cross between a doughnut and pita bread, with a sweet syrupy centre. I have no idea how to spell the names, and we probably have remembered them wrong! The topokki were definitely the trickiest to eat, as despite my improvement in chopstick skills over the past few weeks, the rice cakes were slippery little beggars! It is also more common in Korea to have metal chopsticks at restaurants, which are harder to use as they have less grip than wooden or plastic chopsticks. Luke is good at using chopsticks – my technique is entirely my own, but it works for me! VERY occasionally someone will compliment me on my chopstick usage (Luke gets this all the time) and then I feel a little glow of pride, and I feel I have to check that Luke has registered it.
After the market, Son drove us out of town and into the countryside to his mother’s house. There were steep sided forested hills on all sides, and the little villages we passed were quite a contrast to the shiny high rises of the cities, the buildings often having traditional curved oriental roofs, a somewhat ramshackle appearance and their own vegetable patches. Son’s mother is a Buddhist monk (or whatever the female equivalent is; nun doesn’t sound quite right), and her house is annexed to the temple at the top of the village. The entrance to the driveway was flanked by large and fearsome looking stone protection gods, and there were other Buddhist statues scattered about the area outside the temple. There was also a not quite so fearsome looking small protection dog as well that barked and grumbled a greeting to us. The temple was quite small and newer than others we had visited, but pretty all the same, and the location was peaceful and secluded. Son’s mum came out to greet us – she was very smiley and welcoming. Like all Buddhist monks, her head was shaven and her clothes were simple and traditional. Son’s sister was also there, and we saw some of her beautiful flower paintings around the house. Son took us to see the inside of the temple, with its red drapery and golden Buddha statues, and showed us how to pray before the Buddha. Son is not Buddhist himself; his mother became a monk when they were younger, and from that time he and his sister lived with their father. Shortly after we arrived, a skinny and very noisy ginger and white cat turned up. She miaowed very loudly until Son’s mother gave her some dog biscuits. Apparently she had never seen the cat before! We suspected that she might decide to stay given the hospitality she was shown, and we certainly saw quite a lot of her over the next couple of days.
We ate dinner with the family sat cross-legged on the heated floor around a low table in the kitchen, and afterwards we all sat under the same blanket and watched Korean soaps, cookery shows and game shows! We had been told that Korean soaps all tend to have the same storyline – some sort of love triangle, with a pretty, hard-done by Cinderella type character, a dashing but undeserving man, a nicer but misunderstood man and a bitchy woman. That sounds more like a love square, but you get the idea. We weren’t disappointed. As we moved on through Korea, we saw the same soaps again and again and you didn’t need to speak Korean to get the gist of what was going on – they were pretty dreadful, but people really get hooked on them! My favourite characters were the manipulative women, whose every evil thought could be traced upon their faces; but only when the other characters’ backs were turned. The cookery programmes were equally entertaining – sometimes they show you how to cook a meal, but more often they visit restaurants where they might film enormous stacks of dishes being brought out, whose height they measure with a tape measure and you watch the public slurping and gasping and exclaiming how great it all is. One programme showed a seafood restaurant where octopus was the speciality. The poor octopus came out writhing on a plate, was dunked in boiling water and then had its legs snipped into pieces whilst it was still alive and wriggling. That really turned my stomach. I don’t eat octopus anyway, but if I did, that would have put a stop to it! It just seemed so mean. As for the game shows, we didn’t have a clue what was going on. They were very silly and strange!
The nearest sizeable town to the village was a famous hot spring resort. The next morning we went to the bath house – Luke went with Son, and I with his mother. It was much the same as the onsen we had visited in Japan, but this was our first time being escorted by another person. And I with a female monk! Luke and I were both a bit nervous about being naked in front of people we knew (albeit vaguely in my case), but we needn’t have worried. Son’s mum really looked after me. However, it was quite amusing as she had a very particular way of doing things which confused me somewhat, especially as we could only communicate by mime! She was emphatic about doing things right, but what right was, I couldn’t quite decipher. I was given two small towels on entry to the bath. One towel was left behind in my locker, the other I was to bring with me. We picked up the usual plastic bowls and then she told me to put my clean towel in the bowl of water and indicated for me to wash it. The towel was clean: I had no idea why I was washing a clean towel, but did it anyway. We cleaned ourselves and I went to go and wash my hair. And so, through the medium of mime:
Son’s mum: No, no! Not like that! You must first wash it with soap!
Me: With this?! (Holding up a bar of soap, somewhat uncertainly)
SM: Yes! Not one time, two times!
Me: Wash my hair two times with soap? What about the shampoo we brought?
SM: Shampoo, yes, but first wash hair two times with soap!
Me: Right, got it. (?!!)
I went and obediently washed my hair twice with a bar of soap and then (and only then) used the shampoo. With squeaky clean hair (literally), I proceeded to the baths. There were four large baths in total. The first was a pleasant 39°C, the second was quite hot at 42°C and was, in fact, a bath of green tea. As I gingerly eased myself into the steaming green water, I noticed my wedding ring was taking on a strange colour. It very quickly changed from silver to gold – I thought perhaps the acidity of the water had stripped it of its outer layer of palladium, exposing the gold underneath. I had known this would happen over time with wear, but had not expected it to be an instantaneous reaction in a green tea bath! I wondered if Luke’s ring had done the same thing. Interesting, I thought, and surreptitiously studied it to try and get used to the new appearance. The last two baths were cooler, and the final one had a massage jet in it, which was really powerful and gave my back a good pummelling, leaving it feeling a bit tingly and strangely itchy afterwards! After the steam room and the sauna, we returned to our shower stations, where we showered again, brushed our teeth and I washed my clean towel once more, feeling a little stupid. The towels were then wrung out and we used them to pat ourselves dry, so it made a little more sense in the end. Son’s mum tutted at my posture and gave me a quick and firm shoulder massage, pointing out that my muscles were really knotted – no doubt from weeks of hefting rucksacks around!
We met Luke and Son outside, and we all felt quite droopy and relaxed. The first thing Luke did was show me his wedding ring – his had also turned gold. We had thought the changes would be permanent, but over the course of the next few days, they gradually reverted to their original silver colour, so it must have been a staining effect rather than an erosion.
Back at the house, we went out into the garden to help chop down some dead trees for firewood. When we had finished, Son’s mum had fun dusting us all down with a cloth until Son had to put his arms over his head and run away! After working up an appetite, we had a feast of Korean dishes, including delicious pancakes made with batter and shredded pumpkin which we ate dipped in soy sauce whilst drowsily catching up on the Korean soaps.
The following day was our last, and Son’s mum had made us a rice cake soup for breakfast, which is traditionally eaten on Korean New Year’s Day. Son very kindly gave us a present of walking socks, something which he knew from his own experience would be greatly appreciated by us. We thanked his mum for her hospitality and Son drove us to the station. As usual, we were sad to be saying goodbye, but we really feel that he is someone we will see again at some point, and it will be easy to pick up where we left off.