Spiders, Cows, and Anapji Pond: Gyeongju by Bike

Yep–one more post on Gyeongju.  It’s not every day I get to ride around on a fall afternoon in the Korean countryside…so I took a lot of pics.

Enjoy, and thanks for reading, everyone!

Hanging to dry

Amanda in the flower field

Joe and the rice farmer

The boys spotted something...

What could it be?

Well, hello there!

Looking at me, looking at them

A gate along the way

Hard at work

Trying to find the least-warped angle...

And ending up with a squished head

Last stop: Anapji Pond...

Reconstructed on former palace grounds of the Silla Dynasty, circa 674 AD


All-day nature, a bike ride with my peeps, and a little Korean history?

Thank you, Gyeongju.  And Joe, Kent, and Amanda.  I needed that!



Plant Life for Stu (And a Dip Into the Past)

One of my favourite people in the world is a guy called Stu.  

We met somewhere back in the Doc-Martened recesses of grade 10, circa 1994, in the parking lot or the multi-purpose room or the blue-lockered hallways of Stelly’s Secondary, the exact moment and location either erased or too far embedded in my memory to recall, but the friendship, wherever its beginning bud sprouted, destined to grow full bloom the following year, in a place where a now vague but once vivid artistic dream of mine flourished: Drama Class.

Stu and I were paired up for a two-person play called “Where Have All The Lightning Bugs Gone.”  Instead of restricting the class to the use of one room to create our budding works of art progress, our teacher, Mrs. Pires, let the students spread out to other areas of the school to run lines and block scenes.  Stu drove a Toyota Corolla, a used machine he took pride in, enhancing it with incense burning on the dashboard and a mexican blanket that covered the backseat.  We’d traipse out to the parking lot, scripts in hand, hop into the Corolla, light up a Du Maurier, and practice lines for an hour, plotting our performance between puffs.  I was 16 and had been visualizing my eventual move to New York to fulfill my acting destiny since the sixth grade.  Stu had the lead in “Anything Goes” that year; I bombed my audition for the part of Bonnie and wound up singing in the chorus. I still managed to snag the “Best Actress in Grade Eleven” award–probably the result of my attempts at improv and a minor role as a french maid called Eugenie in “A Flea in Her Ear.” The award was the crowning achievement of my performing arts career, which ended as soon as high school did.  Luckily I had started squirrelling away my restaurant tips for a post-high school jaunt through Europe, and figured out I wanted be a writer anyway–an equally arduous but ultimately more fitting pursuit.

Stu's Grad, 1995. From Left: Me, Stu, and our friends Candice and Melissa

The friendship stuck.  Stu and I shared a love for road trips and nature and night life. We ventured on day-long excursions to Salt Spring Island where we’d roam the forest, admiring the moss growing on the undersides of rocks and carpeting the trunks of cedars that line the coast.  We drank pints of draft at bars called The Limit and Rumours and went to raves with names like Frost and Temple–underground parties jammed with electronic music-loving teenagers and twenty-somethings dancing and sweating until daylight.  We made a loose plan to one day live in San Francisco, an idea likely sprung from one of our long spells listening to “I Am The Walrus” or “The End” or something sung by Simon and Garfunkel.  We loved The Cranberries, too, I remember, the insistent voice of Dolores O’Riordan echoing off the windows of the Corolla as we drove to Island View Beach or Dallas Road or Chemainus, the car and the music floating through Stu’s speakers creating a vacuum from the rest of the world.  Everything seemed possible and at the same time increasingly complicated then, the days that followed high school and preceded the rest of life like a fleeting, water-colour mirage.

Now I’m in Korea teaching kids and Stu’s in Victoria, channeling his skills with seeds and bulbs and all things leafy at a sprawling maze of flower life called Butchart Gardens. Every year he travels, has lived in Uruguay, roamed markets in Ethiopia, trekked to the furthest tip of North Western Gujarat to a town called Dwarka.  He speaks Spanish and cooks grains with colourful spices and if you are invited to his home, wherever it is, you will likely see tapestries hanging on the walls and smell incense in scents you’ve never smelled and hear music from Africa or India or somewhere else he dreams of going or has already seen, a melody rich with drums and distant chants that makes you want to find a spot on a floor cushion and settle in for the evening.

Since I started Coco Busan a year and a half ago, Stu has been one of its avid followers.  He writes enthusiastic comments on my posts like “I am Delighted by this journalism!” or “LOVING the Pics with the Agricultural vibe!”  When I stay up too late writing because I want to get a post out, and I wake with one eye refusing to open and my ears already burning with the imminent cries of kindergarten children, then check the blog to see who read the post and if anyone wrote a comment, often Stu’s words will appear, written in the night from Canada, something like: “Nice work, Lovebug. Yet another tear to my eye, after reading your sweet stories.”  And the full day of teaching on five or six hours of sleep will be worth it.

A while back, I wrote about Somaemuldo, an island Joe and I visited in July.  Stu responded with this: “Loving the photography! I caught glimpses of Flora and I must put in a request to see some portraitures of the biodiversity, especially of some of the textures in the backgrounds of the epic views in Somaemuldo. BIG Hugs!

Since a trip back to Somaemuldo wasn’t in the cards, I knew I had to shoot some close-up nature pics for Stu somewhere else, and soon.  So, during our bike ride through the farmland outside Gyeongju, I played around with my Canon’s macro setting, and, with Stu in mind, stopped to peer in closely at the Korean plant life, to note, with my lens, the lines in the petals, the curve and colour of the leaves.

Stu–these are for you.


(I miss you.)


Rice Paddy Chilli Peppers

Half the fun of renting bikes in Gyeongju

 Is getting lost in the rice paddy fields, crouching low to the peppers drying on the road, their red skins shining.


Gyeongju Tree Heaven

Back in the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries, Korea was ruled by a kingdom called Silla.  Its capital was Gyeongju–a city northeast of Busan and an hour and a half by train. It’s loaded with history: hilly tombs called Tumuli, a royal pond called Anapji, and a temple called Bulguksa are just a few of the sites that draw crowds in the thousands to explore.

So a couple weeks back, Joe and I and our friends Kent and Amanda hopped a Sunday-morning train to the Silla Kingdom capital, looking forward to kicking back with some snacks and taking in the coastal scenery along the way.  This would be Kent and Amanda’s first train trip in Korea, and Joe and I had talked up the views, mentioning its route along the sea. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the station, all the seats were sold out, with only standing-room tickets available. We hoped we’d be able to snag a sit-down for at least part of the ride, but as soon as we settled into a cozy grouping of four, a Korean family appeared in the aisle beside us pointing to, well, their seats.

But who needs chairs when you can crouch on the floor of the train’s hallway beside the bathrooms? And who needs big windows when you can wedge your body into the narrow space between cars and jam your nose up against the glass for a glimpse of track and sky?  And who needs anything else when Amanda’s homemade chocolate chip cookies are along for the ride?

It was good times.

Self-timer success! We rested the camera on the sink counter...

Our plan was to spend the day cruising around the city on bikes.  Kent and Amanda brought theirs along, and Joe and I rented a couple from a shop just outside the station in Gyeongju.  First stop: a forest that belongs in some sort of fairy tale. Seriously, these trees were mystical-gorgeous.

Branches above the roof of some sort of ancient mini-temple...

Fall, I love you.

I could have walked among these beauties all day. But the bikes were calling...

More Gyeongju highlights to come!


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)

Hanging out Hillside: The Somaemuldo Mission

After the mid-April trip to Bijindo island, during which our inspiration to camp on the beach with an open fire was half-squelched by the local ajummas (the beach camping was a success, the open fire vetoed in loud, vehement Korean ), Joe’s and my vision for Somaemuldo was somewhat simpler: we just wanted to camp, period.  A fire isn’t necessary in the night heat of July, and from the maps we’d skimmed, beach access on this small (population 50!), rocky ocean jem southwest of Tongyeong looked limited, if not non-existent.  All we wanted to pitch a tent was a flat plot of land, ideally with a little open space surrounding it.  This potential one-night nature haven had to exist somewhere on the island….right?

Or…not.  This is Somaemuldo’s port.  Note the gentle incline.  It continues to climb, culminating in a not-so-gentle mammoth of a hill…

with a few warning signs posted along the path.

There are no roads on the island, and just one main walking route to the other side.  Still, we held out hope a secluded, level spot would appear, and sweated it up the dirt trail with our gear, taking in this view of Deungdaesum Island after the descent.

This tiny island is considered the highlight of a Somaemuldo visit: linked by a strip of gravel that’s crossable only during low tide, the view of its lighthouse (built by the Japanese during the Colonial Period) and jagged rock formations has apparently been featured in many Korean movies and commercials.  A parade of Koreans wound up and down the path; we tread on, scanning the landscape.

After spotting a couple NO CAMPING signs en route, and still no glimpse of level land, the mission to tent it evolved into a mission to hide while searching for a spot to to tent it—no easy task with the crowd surrounding us.  Veering off course appeared challenging, as the path was roped off and our backpacks and visorless waygook faces failed to blend in with the people or the steep, grassy slope.  So, after a jaunt to the rocky beach that led to Deungdaesum (high tide blocked us from crossing) we just sort of hung around awhile, looking.  Which wasn’t bad, considering the scenery…

Over the rope, about 100 feet to our left, a carpet of trees cut across the hill.  They looked inviting.  “Maybe there’s a flat spot on the other side of those somewhere,” one of us said.  We looked up to the bodies moving along the ridge.  Surely we’d be spotted crossing the open space between the path and the trees.  But would anyone report it? Would we set up camp in a shaded grove, only to be shut down by an angry Somaemuldo ajumma?

We decided to risk it, and walked single file toward the trees, taking cover beneath their branches. Let me be clear–there was nothing flat about this location.  It was the side of a giant hill. One misguided step along its edge would result in a quick and unwelcome entry to the beach below…

but after climbing up, then down, the island in the heat for the bulk of our morning, and comparing the slope of the angle before us with that of the sharp ridge above us, we convinced ourselves it was flat enough.  We rolled out the mat and planted our bodies down, leaning against our packs…

and watching the view.

We’d brought some trail mix and a couple of books.  I saw an old man’s face in the shadows of the big rock infront of us like those shapes you see in clouds; Joe tried but the man eluded him. We read.  We napped. The sunlight pressed on toward the water.  The hill’s slant prevented us from ever getting too comfortable: we had to wedge our feet against the ground to combat the persistent motion of our bodies sliding forward.

Hours passed.  It was a beautiful place to spend an afternoon.  But was it a camp spot? Debatable…

After a couple discussions weighing our options (and a vision of waking in the morning, sweaty and slightly dehydrated, with a steep hike back to the nearest source of supplies), we decided a minbak at the port was the best call.  But first, a climb up the rock we’d been gazing at all day…

then back to the path, up the hill, past the peak, and down again…where we passed this corrugated shelter, where someone wakes each morning…

and after, rented this room from a minbak ajumma who seemed very unimpressed with the sight of both of us.  The hike back had been a little rough; we were low on water, and must have appeared sweaty and disheveled, because she pretty much ordered us to shower before settling into the room.

It wasn’t a tent, and it wasn’t secluded.  But the floor was flat, and the view was lovely…

and a restaurant serving pajeon and makgeolli was just a five-minute walk away, down through the concrete paths.  It had a patio facing the sea, and old fishermen grilling fish and shouting and drinking soju at the table beside us.  The fishing boats far out on the water thinned into silhouettes as the night turned black, a thick, deep black you can’t find in the city, that you forget exists.


*Somaemuldo is an hour boat ride from Tongyeong Harbour.  I recommend.