Well, technically it was Joe’s firewood. He wrestled it from the brush on the hill behind the beach on Bijindo, the island we chose for our one-night camping trip in April mostly because I tracked down photos of it on a foreign dude’s blog, and in the photos foreigners were camping. On the beach. With a campfire. “Check these out,” I said to Joe. “Looks like you can have a fire on Bijindo.”
Anyone who’s traveled in Korea knows it’s tough to find seclusion. Forty-nine million people live here, in a country three times the size of Vancouver Island. Head to the beach or the mountains or a paved park on the edge of the city and prepare yourself for company: Koreans love a dose of fresh air, even if they are a little sun-shy, as their detachable arm sleeves and foot-long visors suggest.
So, when we arrived on Bijindo around 3 pm to a mile stretch of almost-white, almost footprint-free sand and NO ONE in sight, we were stoked.
The wind had picked up, so we carted our bags and the tent to the end of the beach, which was sheltered by a tall rock wall and bordered on one side by the sea, and on the other by a battered but oceanfront motel/pension that appeared to be closed.
On the way we passed an ajumma, squatting on the concrete looking out at the water. Her hair was grey and she was gripping a fistful of green onions. For my overseas readers, an ajumma is a Korean granny. Technically the term means “married woman”, but really it refers to members of the aging female population–a demographic that largely outnumbers that of the ajushi, or elderly Korean man, as so many from their generation were lost in the Korean War.
These grandma’s are tough. They push in front of you in the grocery line and stare you down on subways. Their hair is short and curly and they travel in packs. Most wear animal prints, and they like to hike. Often you can find them sitting on the sidewalk, selling socks or shellfish or root vegetables displayed in red plastic bowls. They also like to work their muscles on the outdoor exercise equipment parks scattered throughout the city. If you see one ajumma, you know there’s more nearby. They. Are. Everywhere.
Deciding to check out the town behind the beach and search for wood, we set our stuff down in front of the rock wall and cruised up the beach steps toward a narrow concrete path. It was quiet on Bijindo. Ghost-town quiet. Little houses with overgrown yards lined the alleyways, but no noise drifted from their windows, not even the buzz of a television or a barking dog. People must live in these dwellings, but we saw no one until stepping inside the nearest restaurant, where a middle-aged woman appeared and nodded yes to our request for dwinjang jiggae (spicy tofu soup). April was definitely still off-season on the islands.
After stocking up on essentials for the evening (beer and chips), we headed back to the beach…
collecting a few sticks for firewood along the way. Our evening plan: Pitch the tent. Build a fire. Sip on cups of wine and cans of Hite. Watch the sunset. We strolled back towards the bushes on the hill behind our camp spot and loaded up on branches, including one particularly hefty log that Joe dislodged from a stubborn tangle of brush and proudly added to the pile.
Back on the beach, we settled on the exact locations for tent and fire, and while Joe stacked the wood, I began collecting stones for a makeshift fire pit. Something about this task–brushing the sand from each stone, then placing it down, arranging it into the circle–started to infuse me with a kind of peace I can’t seem to access when I’m inside the walls of a fourth-floor classroom, looking out through the window bars at the neighbourhood rooftops while the kids ask me how to spell continent or mountain or Brazil, scribbling sentences in their little notebooks, forgetting or remembering where the period goes. The last time I sat in front of a fire was a year-and-a-half ago in Spring Lake, Alberta, with friends who had known me as far back as Australia and before, when I still played guitar and wore my hair in braids.
It was around this time when the ajumma approached. Not the one we passed upon arrival, but another, younger one in flowered pants and a pink vest. Her hair was short and curly. She called out in a loud voice, pointing at us. As she drew closer, her voice grew louder, yelling in Korean. We realized she was telling us we couldn’t make a fire, but with my embarrassingly-poor and Joe’s better-but-still-limited Korean skills, we couldn’t discern the details–namely, the WHY we couldn’t have a fire. Was it because of the wind? It was windy, but we had chosen a spot sheltered by a rock wall for that reason. Did the island not allow fires? But we had seen online photos of foreigners having a fire ON Bijindo, with no text alongside it reporting ajumma interception. Was there somewhere else on the beach we were allowed to have a fire? If so, where? We couldn’t ask, and the ajumma couldn’t explain, at least not in English, though she was definitely trying in Korean. I didn’t want to listen. I wanted to keep arranging my stones. It was only April, which meant the nights were still cold. The entire evening ahead revolved around THE FIRE. We had traveled an hour-and-a-half by bus and another 45 minutes by boat to be here, on the island where we had seen photographic evidence of flames at night. I guess you could say we were feeling a little determined. So we did what I feel confident saying many foreigners would do. We played dumb. Eventually the woman walked away, shaking her head, and we pitched our tent, shaking ours. Problem unresolved but solved, or so we hoped.
Twenty minutes later she returned, and had recruited an ajumma friend. The woman’s hair was short and curly. She wore pink pants, a flowered shirt, a blue vest, and a red baseball hat. The hat and vest, it seemed, were part of a uniform, because as she shouted at us, she kept pointing to the logo on each. At one point she even took the hat off to point to the logo, really reinforcing that she was in charge of something. Was she the Bijindo Island Park Service? A one-woman crew who monitored all island incidents? We couldn’t ask. We had to listen. She pointed to the firewood, then pointed to the ragged front yard of a shack next to the abandoned pension. There were a few boulders and a steel vat in the corner of the yard, with a small opening beneath for fire. After a lot of hand gesturing, we deduced they were telling us we could have a fire there. The second ajumma marched over to our wood pile, grabbed Joe’s prized branch, and started heading in the direction of the shack. All we could do was follow.
New fire location meant new tent location, so I hauled the already-pitched tent over while Joe flattened the sand in preparation. The ajummas sat on the concrete sidewalk, watching.
Once the tent was officially set up in the new spot, the ajummas seemed to trust we weren’t going to strike a match back near the rock wall, and left us alone. It was fire time. Not the crackling open fire we had envisioned back in my apartment in Busan, but the contained, covered-by-a-vat kind of fire you get when you’re in a foreign country that’s also kind of your home but you don’t speak the language and it’s run by old women who have lived through wars and who wonder why you’re there in the first place. That kind of fire.
But then it was sunset time…
I wish I could say we were left in peace for the rest of the trip. The truth is yet another ajumma emerged, and shouted at us about the fire, or the vat, or something to do with the fire and the vat, then walked away muttering and shaking her head, and re-appeared in the morning and yelled at us some more as we were waking up. Then, as we waited at the dock for the boat that afternoon (after some breakfast ramen on the other side of town), an ajushi who had clearly been informed about the waygooks (foreigners) on the island, pulled up on a bicycle and pointed to us, shouting a bunch of Korean, then pointed back at the beach. We didn’t know what we had done wrong. Did the ajummas not tell us we could make a fire where the vat-firepit was? Had we misunderstood? Had we let the fire burn too late into the night? Was there a fire shut-down time? Were we terrible people?
We didn’t mean to disturb anyone on Bijindo. We just wanted to camp, with a fire, on a beach. Which we did. Sort of.
We’ve made plans to visit another island called Somaemuldo in a couple weeks. We’re bringing the tent. But if the island ajummas say no fire, we’ll rent a room in a minbak.
I’ve lived here a year and three months. Korea is my home, for now. But the country belongs to the ajummas, the ajushis and the generations that have followed them. Mostly the ajummas. These ladies gut the fish the country eats and carry its heritage in their bones. They’re in charge. I’ll settle for candlelight.