Disillusioned on Dokdo: Part II

June 8, 2011

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I left the jjimjilbang around 7:00 and made my made to Mukho Port to meet the rest of the group. As I mentioned, I’m rather reluctant to sign with organized tours, so this first introduction would be key: would there be any douchebags who had the potential to ruin the trip for everyone? Any potential dates down the road in Seoul? Anyone with whom I clicked? New friends? All possibilities. Well, save one. I’ve been very bad about reaching out to people in Korea. It’s not so much that I’m trapped in a small town with only ten English speakers around (though that is a factor), it’s that I don’t see the point anymore.

I’ve talked about losing that traveler’s ambition by getting into the mindset of realizing everyone has access to the world, and it seems as though there’s no where you can go, nothing you can do, which hasn’t been done before. Of course, I should have realized this isn’t true: there’s always you. Your unique perspective. Thousands have visited Busan, but how many mes have been there? One. In that respect, and with my recent trips to Japan and Ulleungdo, I feel as though I’ve regained some of what was lost. But what’s missing is the people.

Despite learning that lands have yet to be seen and conquered, I still can’t get over the idea that friendships and relationships are always fleeting in the life of a traveler, so why start them at all? Why talk to someone on the bus, even if you do hit it off right away, if the only contact you’ll have for months or years may be Facebook wall posts and the occasional Skype chat? I don’t have a good answer to that, and my solution for now has been to simply take myself out of the equation. I’m hardly anti-social around my crowd in Uljin (e.g. monthly Texas Hold ‘Em games), but when I’m meeting someone new, I don’t put myself out there as often as I used to. Especially when meeting women. Why even try to ask someone out, kiss someone, when your time together has such limits? I’m leaving in four months. Should I honestly try to start a relationship with someone in Seoul when she’ll be staying past my departure date? And what if we live in different countries? Where could this possibly lead with such boundaries, cultural and contractual?

I know, I’m being cynical. And like my return to my old traveling ways, it’s going to take some time to realize the err of my ways. In the meantime, I just don’t want to try, for my sake and “hers”. This weekend was a prime example: I spent some time with a nice girl who shared a lot of my interests, someone who could keep up with me (just occurred to me she may find this blog, but oh well), and I didn’t even make a move. Primarily because I thought I knew all the possible outcomes:

1. We form a connection and fall madly, passionately, in love with each other… just go with it. My contract ends. I leave Korea. She stays. She decides to stay another year, or returns to a different place in the US (or another country). We can never work out the logistics of being together. I don’t believe long distance relationships can work; you’ve got to be able to see each other on a regular basis.

2. We form a connection, but due to the travel time and our differing contractual periods, we keep things casual. Another superficial relationship among expats. How exciting.

3. I reach out to her, and she rejects me. Simple, isn’t it? Ironically, this is probably the most preferable for me.

All this was going through my mind as I met up with 19-odd expats in Donghae. And I did get along with some more than others, spotting one or two I really did not want to be around – I’m sure the feeling was mutual – and learned about their perspectives on Korea and life in their home countries.

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In any case, the ferry from Mukho to Ulleungdo (울릉도) was pretty uneventful, save for one person suggesting “I’m on a boat” for noraebang that night. We arrived three hours later to a hazy little island filled with fresh squid and smiling pumpkins.

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With so little turnaround between the ferry from Mukho and the one to Dokdo (독도), the group barely had enough time to drop off bags and eat lunch before boarding the smaller boat to the disputed island.

One thing hit me right away, independent traveler that I am: the tendency to revert to a kind of childlike state. Maybe just high school. I can’t help but feel that gathering everyone together under a big sign while speaking to us in a loud commanding voice, while practical, is condescending to us as adults. Yet, there we were, following the leader and waiting to be told what to do. The only difference between us and elementary school students seemed to be the nightly beer run.

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The ferry to Dokdo advertised ninety minutes of travel with only the possibility of docking; there wasn’t much of a harbor, so the waves could be rather dangerous. At the time, it seemed like a worthwhile gamble. We were the only foreigners on board, and drew quite a few stares and questions from vacationing Koreans. It only took an hour for things to go horribly wrong. Foreigners and Koreans alike sat down on the floor and hugged their seats to get a bit more stability. There were lines waiting to go topside and breathe fresh air, stare at the horizon. I didn’t see a single person who wasn’t seasick or putting on a brave face. And this was before Dokdo was even in sight.

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There wasn’t much else to do but simply wait it out and hope we could step foot on land soon. Other than the outdoor deck and the store on board, little entertainment was available. I couldn’t even concentrate well enough to enjoy reading my Kindle. When we did finally approach the tiny clumping of rocks (yes, that’s ALL it is), there was at least some excitement from onlookers. Seagulls swarmed the ferry, trying to find a place to rest on the stern. The captain started spouting facts about the disputed island over the intercom. I won’t deny it was a great relief to finally see something amid the deep blue sea, but that was short lived:

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No sooner had we approached the dock and caught sight of what I assume was the only dog on Dokdo (hopefully not dinner), than the boat shoved off and continued its course around the northern shore. The waves were just too rough to handle. The coast guard was on patrol nearby. I’m only guessing, but it looks like they have teams working in 5-man shifts, “guarding” Dokdo from dangerous intruders. Almost laughable when you consider just how remote we were. I don’t think Korea is off for a minute posting a boat out there, but men on Dokdo itself? Why???

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I’ll save the discussion for the Japanese and Korean claims on the island for Part IV. For now, I’ll just say I threw up three times, nearly knocking myself overboard, and finished the evening with Korean BBQ on Ulleung.

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