Holiday Hello

Hello friends, family, and all my Coco Busan readers out there!

Wishing you all very Happy Holidays!  I hope this finds you relaxing with awesome people, sweet tunes, and something warm, cozy and fireplace-ish.  This week I was really craving a hangout around a crackling fire, and also remembering past seasonal festivities such as Boxing Day shenanigans in Victoria and chill-out time with my mom and bro.  Next year I will be back in my home-hood for Christmas 2012, but this year, the season is promising something a little different.

In five hours I’ll be boarding a plane to this island-filled country…

with my guy Joe…

Joe at the top of Busan Tower

where we’ll be spending a couple nights on the island of Bohol at a place called Nipa Hut Village

Nipa Hut Village, Bohol

and then catching a boat to Siquijor Island, where we’ve booked this rustic little number…

Hut #4: The Helen

for three days at a spot on the beach called Islander’s Paradise.

Needless to say, I’m stoked.  Aside from a 24-hour jaunt to Shanghai back in July 2010, this will be the first time I’ve left Korea since moving here almost two years ago.  This girl is ready for a change of scenery, especially one that involves two of my fav’s: jungles and beaches.

Sending love and holiday wishes to all of you, from me and my kiddies…

Reindeer ears and kindie kids

See you in 2012!

xo ~Coco


Dadaepo Birthday Sky

When I was a kid my birthday always fell somewhere around the first day of school.  No big deal, though I do remember a few tears in grade one: everybody more stoked about their fancy new pencil cases than the fact I was turning six.

Now I love September.  Before moving to Korea I spent a year in Edmonton, Alberta, and in the fall there I began to run through the river valley in the evenings, when there was still enough light to see the leaves scattered across the path in loose piles, red and yellow and the last bit of summer green hanging on.  Despite the trees shedding their colour, fall feels new.  And hopeful.

This year, I celebrated the birthday on a Busan beach called Dadaepo…

with great friends.

and a crazy sky.

Well hello, 33…

I’m ready for you.



In Busan? Want to know where you can camp with a fire?

Dadaepo Beach is on the west side of the city, and it’s beautiful.  You can find firewood in a treed area beside the beach.

Get there:

From Busan Stn: Bus # 2 or 98 for Dadaepo at the stop in front of the station.

From Nampodong Stn: Take Exit 3, Bus #11. The ride is about an hour and 20 mins from here.

Subway most of the way: Get off at Sinpyeong Stn or Geojeong Stn (Line 1) and transfer onto a bus to Dadaepo, # 2,11, 96, or 98.


Deokjeokdo Bliss: 41 Hours, 39 Pics

Any of you who have been following Coco Busan over the last year and a half (thanks, everyone!) have likely noticed my fondness for Korean islands.  I’ve visited six of them now, escaping the homogeny of the city buildings and immersing myself, temporarily, into the more traditional lifestyle and architecture that lingers on these slow-paced refuges. Bright rooftops and forests of fat green trees frame the small villages that make up this part of Korea’s culture.  Fishing boats glow in the night waters; narrow roads wind up toward silouhetted hills; the sound of families cooking dinner drifts into my minbak windows, unobstructed by cars.  Yep, I like these places. When I leave, six months from now, the islands will stay with me.

So of course I had to show one to my sister.

After three days trekking through Seoul, a journey that included hours poking around the vintage Hongdae boutiques, a sweaty jaunt to see the wooden houses of Bukcheon Village, an afternoon strolling through the art shops of Insadong, an hour at the 14th- century Gyeongbok Palace, which Abby thought would be “an awesome place for a music festival”, a cable-car trip up Namsan mountain to the bottom of Seoul Tower, and a rainy Han River Cruise–we took off for Deokjeokdo.  It’s an island an hour three hours from Incheon if you somehow miss the express boat and have to take the slow one, like we did.  Ah, well. What’s an extra couple hours on a boat with your sister in the Yellow Sea?

We arrived in the late, late afternoon on a Thursday. Our return boat was scheduled for Saturday morning. With only two evenings and one full day to enjoy a little beach time, we had one hopeful wish: sun.

The evening sky looked promising…

and after a couple hours sipping Cass while the tide rolled in…

we headed back to our luxury digs.

There are quite a few minbaks on the island, but in peak season, they were pricier than we’d hoped, so we settled on a minimalist barren room that fit our budget.

The real luxury was waking the next morning to clear sky, bright sun, and a stroll through the village…

past the ajummas and their carts…

and little houses tucked between trees…

to the beach.

Upon glimpsing the sand and the shore in its late morning-Deokjeokdo-sunny-August glory, Abby’s pace sped up.  Seriously, I think this was the fastest I saw her walk in Korea. Forget ancient palaces, traditional wooden houses, vintage boutiques, river cruises, and Namsan Mountain views…

My sister is a beach girl.

And the beach is where we stayed.  All day.

Well, we may have rented a couple inflatable yellow tubes for 5,000 won a piece from a nearby beachshop ajumma and floated on them in the Yellow Sea under the hot sun for an hour, discussing the particulars of Abby’s social scene as she stands on the precipice of Grade 12 (girlfriends, boys, basketball) while a swarm of fully-clothed Korean dudes splashed each other in the water nearby…

but other than that blissful sojourn, it was us, a striped blanket we borrowed from our minbak, the sand, which was a bright gold shade, a couple paper cups of sliced watermelon, and a copy of The New Yorker I’d tucked into my bag back in Busan. (Joe got me a surprise subscription a few months back–best gift ever.)

A beach, my sister, and The New Yorker?

This might be my new happy place. Definitely in the top ten…

Did I mention trees are one of my favourite things in nature?  Check out that green.  The whole island. That green.

I’d been eyeing up a long breakwater to our right since the evening before, so as the day dissolved into late afternoon, I dusted the sand from my bronzing reddening skin and went for a walk. Abby stayed, sprawled out and snoozing with her shades on.

A stream flowed out near the edge, the sand framing it windblown into long thin ridges that form what’s probably a sort of steep staircase to the local ants and sand flies…

And to the left of a few old Korean fishing boats perched on the wet shore.

Nets and ropes were piled along the edge of the break…

and graffitied bins…

and unidentified piles of stuff wrapped in blankets.

Close to the breakwater’s end, this little secluded spot appeared… 

And I thought, now that would be a sweet place to spend an afternoon!  If only we had another day…

Abby says I’m wistful.  Actually, I think I said it first, lamenting our limited time on Deokjeokdo the first night, when I saw how beautful it was.  “We have all day tomorrow,” she’d said.

“I know,” I said. “I just get wistful.”

“Ha! And where do you think you get that from?”


“Dad!” she said.

My dad finds new spots when they go on trips,  a quaint little neigbourhood in Southern California or a beach town on Vancouver Island, and starts to daydream.  “We could get a little place,” he says, “spend the summers, maybe come out for a few months in the winter.”  Traveling does that to you, to us. You think about staying for more than a day or two. You’re not ready to leave. You want this part, the discovering part, to last.  But my dad wants to see more, too, to get back in the car and keep driving. There’s only so much time, and more places along the way.  So that my sister and my stepmom have to convince him to park the car and just enjoy where he is.  I think he wants both–to stay and to go.  The idea of returning, perhaps, provides some kind of reconciliation between the dwindling time and the desire to find out what’s further up along the road.  Last May he went to Turkey with my brother.  Colleen, he wrote in an email to my stepmom, you wıll enjoy Anytalya when we come here.  The old cıty ıs very ınterestıng and wıth the cafes and promenades ıt has a European feel to ıt.

I ask my sister, “Do you think they’ll go?”

“Oh who knows,” she says. “Every time we go somewhere Dad says he wants to go back.  And then we go somewhere else.”

Back at the beach…

Abby was roasting herself.

A little dehydrated, we packed up and found a shaded patio…

with pajeon!

and this little visitor.

Late-day light on the stroll back…

turned to dusk.

The next day, we would return to Seoul, then ride the slow train back to Busan.

Eighteen months into my time in Korea, I’m homesick.  I miss Canada.  I miss my family and all the friends there who have also become my family.  When I hugged my sister goodbye at the Gimhae airport three days later, I thought, there goes my family–separated again, for what will be almost another year.

But, like the islands, she stays with me.

(Thanks Abby. xo)

17 in Korea: My Sister Came to Town

When I was 15 my dad and stepmom had a baby.  She was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1257 kms from where I lived with my mom and brother in Victoria, B.C.  “You have a sister,” my dad said, calling me minutes after from the hospital.  “Her name is Abby.” I was ecstatic.

Determined not to let geography prevent me from bonding with this new human,  I saved up a couple paycheques from my mall job at New York Fries and, two months later, bought a plane ticket to Saskatoon.

All three of them were waiting at the airport.  Abby’s hair was dark and her eyes were a grey-blue shade that my stepmom predicted would change to brown but never did.  I watched her little face look up at me in the backseat of the car, her hands balled into fists. A sister.  Fifteen years and two provinces between us.

We would see each other once or twice a year throughout her childhood, a week in the summer at Waskesiu Lake, and sometimes a week in Victoria in February.  At the lake we went for walks along the dirt trail behind the cabins, and ate fries at The Beach House across from the water, and when she was older we played tennis and carried our cameras to the field behind the gravel road and styled photo shoots starring ourselves.  The distance didn’t define our relationship, but rather created a framework that compelled us to spend every second together during the times we had a visit.  The first time I lived overseas she was four, and I’d call from Greece or Israel or England, and after my dad passed the phone over, would ask her what she did that day, hoping she’d remember my voice.  She always did.

Then last winter she sent me this picture of her and my dad…

And a facebook message with these words:

EnjoyClassic Dad.

My new idea is come to Korea this summer and spend a couple weeks with you if possible.  Pretty out there idea but I’m gonna start saving up for my plane ticket anyways. 

Miss you

I was ecstatic.

On July 28th, after departing from Saskatoon and changing planes in Calgary, Vancouver, and Seoul, she arrived. She’s 17 now.  It had been a year and eight months since we said goodbye. The plan: weekend in Busan, three days in Seoul, two days on an island called Deokjeokdo, and back to Busan for the last hurrah.

I had one teaching day left before vacation started, so Abby’s visit began with a trip to my kindergarten class the next morning…

where she fell in love with Albert, the one in front with the polka-dot shorts.

On Saturday Joe and I took her to the Jagalchi Fish Market along Busan’s port…

and to the top of Busan Tower

but Abby’s favourite part was the metal heart in the park…

where visitors “lock their love” on the gate behind.

She sampled her first taste of Korean street food in Nampodong…pajeon.  My favourite!

It was a winner.

Then we met Jin and Johnathan…

and escaped the heat with a few other friends.

That night, Haeundae Beach was calling…

to a few thousand people.

Let the Saturday festivities begin…

with a gathering of our crew.

Then it was off to Kyung Sung

Don’t worry Dad!

She was in good hands.

I promise.

At Thursday Party, it was time for Haven to celebrate his birthday…

shooter style.


Followed up with a little bromance…

and a lot of dancing.

But for the full Korean night-out experience, we had to end with…


Abby and Amanda bought down the house with…

none of us can remember.

But this smile I won’t forget!

Up next: Abby and I hit up Seoul and Deokjeokdo Island…

Johnathan, Sun Break

A couple weeks ago I went to an overnight beach party with a group of friends and a couple hundred other people somewhere along the east coast, an hour or two from Daegu.  It rained the whole day.  Monsoon-style fat drops, with only a few drizzle breaks. My umbrella went missing.  We drank too much beer.  And then, at sunset, it stopped.

Johnathan, the shoreline, the sky.

I was with Johnathan, my beautiful friend from South Africa.  He cooks curry and smokes skinny Korean cigarettes and in Busan invites people to his one-room apartment close to the Oncheonjang stream, where we sit in a circle on the floor with the windows open, bottles of Makgeolli and maybe a Korean chardonnay chilling in the door of the fridge; we talk about politics and Johnathan tells us that in South Africa giraffes aren’t that impressive, that it’s the lions you must see.  He says it that way, says must and points his finger into the air with conviction so you believe him whether its lions or politics–mostly it’s South African politics we talk about because I want to learn and the country, he says, is changing so quickly.  In South Africa he is a lawyer but here he teaches public school, and one day this kind man will lecture in a university somewhere, speaking to a room with a hundred pairs of ears but I can listen now, and learn.  He speaks perfect courteous English, says it is a pleasure, when we say goodbye, it is always such a pleasure.  

An Ajumma Stole My Firewood

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.

Spend the night? Okay, if I have to...

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.

Rock wall camp spot

Pension at the end of the beach

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.

Abandoned building between the beach and the town

Vines on the concrete

The scene on the street...


Bijindo house

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.

I'm telling you, they run this country

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.

Being a good sport

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.

Thinking about the other kind of fire...

Joe and the fire stick

But then it was sunset time…

And the fire didn’t matter so much.

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.

Waiting for the boat on the dock

Scene of the crime

I'm pretty sure we didn't disturb the starfish

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.

Green Water White Sand Bijindo Teaser


As usual, I should be asleep right now, and will be paying for this late-night post in the morning when my kindies are running circles around me because the coffee I’ve downed while applying mascara in the hopes it makes me eyes appear open isn’t boosting me anywhere close to their energy level, but I’ve been grading about 900 essays all night, well actually there’s only 28 students in the uni class I teach on Wednesday nights, but by the time you get to number 19 or so it might as well be 900, a stack that just seems to grow the more you grade it, and I miss my blog kind of terribly, and in just a few more weeks my evenings and weekends will be free again to write, and take photos, and edit photos, and write, and explore the city and the country, and did I mention writing?  And all the other things I love to do when I’m not juggling two jobs.  But for tonight, another glimpse of Bijindo, and the dock that greeted us on the camping trip that somehow already feels like a long time ago. More, more, of everything to come–thanks for reading, everybody!

~Coco xo