Post #100: Goodbye Coco Busan, Hello Free Bird

Coco Busan started as a little idea in my mind 2.5 years ago in Edmonton, Alberta, when I decided to leave Canada on my own and venture to Korea.

Once I published my first post (and received comments in a matter of minutes), I realized the power of connecting instantly to people through my writing.  In the two years I lived in Korea, this blog has been both an anchor to and expression of my creativity, and a continual link to my friends and family at home and around the world.

Thank you to all of you who read my posts and scrolled through my photos, whether it was once or every time I published.  Your views and comments inspired my to continue writing even during times when my Korea routine and teaching schedule felt stagnant.  The novelty of receiving instant feedback from both friends and strangers has never worn off; I still get excited when a new comment appears after I’ve stayed up way to late (again!) to publish a post.

I am writing this from Delhi, and tomorrow night will board a train to Rajasthan.  I hope you’ll join me at my brand-new blog, Free Bird, where I’ll be sharing words, images and video clips to document my 15-week journey through India, Indonesia, and Cambodia.

Korea: Thank you for two years of writing and photographic inspiration!

With Love,

Coco xo


Friends–the hardest thing to leave. Always.

These are a few…


of the people I’ll miss.

Above: Shane and Rose, Kent and Amanda, Sam and Jesse, Johnathan, Wooram, Jin, Haven and Ina, Gina, Tabitha, Amanda and Kyle. (Joe, too–but he’s coming with me.)

There are many more whose presence I will remember when I look back on the chapter of life I spent in Korea. (Hello to my original Busan Crew: Ashley and Jason, Leah, Bryan, and Dianna.  Also: Wonseop, Adi, Branden, Ashley, Kendra, Hena, Paul, Becky, Stephanie, Peter in Seoul, and all my co-teachers…)

Korea–you’ve blessed me with two years of new friendships.

Thank you. xx

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



Finding the Snow Fields: Road to Nari Basin

I realize it’s mid-April, and photos of snowy Korean fields on an island off the east coast might contradict the reality of bursting cherry blossoms along my neighbourhood stream in Busan (as well as trigger an unexpected chill in my Canadian readers who are enjoying the thaw of spring), but snowy fields is what I’ve got to show you.

They were taken in a place called the Nari Basin, which is the only flat stretch of land on Ulleungdo–yep, I’m still posting about Ulleungdo (the island was gorgeous, why stop now?)–and surrounded on all sides by volcanic mountains.

Like most places we ventured to during our off-season stay in early February, the Basin, we discovered, wasn’t accessible by local transport.

The coastal road bus

After a morning drive that wound up into Ulleungdo’s hills and cruised along its coast from Dodong, the bus dropped us in the village of Cheonbu, where, upon our mention of “Naribunji” the driver pointed to an uphill road in the distance and shook his head at our enquiry of another bus heading there.

Facing a long steep trek in already-damp boots that weren’t built for snowdrifts wasn’t making me the cheeriest foreigner on Korean soil, but we forged ahead anyway, with the exact time and distance the journey would take a vague notion in our minds of “a few hours.”


About 20 minutes in, we passed this grave, with the mountains climbing skyward behind it.

Soon after, a Korean family of three drove by, spotted us, slowed down, and picked us up.  We climbed into the backseat and the five of us spoke in broken English, with a few key Korean words thrown in by Joe, who far surpasses me in his ability to communicate with the locals in their native tongue.

They were headed to the Basin.  The drive was icy, steep and miles long; we never would have made it on foot.  Photos of the fields in fall show rust-coloured grass framed with red trees carpeting the mountains surrounding them.  But this day they were bright white, their wide banks shining under the sun.







Up next: More from the coastal road…

Squid Boats and Island Dusk

Squid fishing’s big on Ulleungdo.  It’s done at nighttime, when old Korean fisherman pull out in boats strung with long hanging bulbs that plunge light deep below the sea’s surface, luring the creatures toward their next-day destiny of drying out in the sun. 

I’m not drawn toward spending days out on an open ocean, but I love strolling through ports like this one in Jeodongni, the island’s second-biggest (but still village-like) settlement.  Old, rusty boats rock against the dock at dusk, waiting to set out for the evening’s catch.

Candlestick Rock--the village landmark

Ulleungdo's squid-boy mascot

Slow Train, New Year



On New Year’s Eve Day I pulled out of Busan Station on a slow train to Seoul called the Mugunghwa.  The route takes almost twice as long as Korea Rail’s KTX– five and a half hours versus two and a half– but with views like this, I was grateful for the stretch in time.  Perhaps one of the most peaceful ways to travel anywhere is sitting in a train car, listening to the wheels roll along the track.  The Mugunghwa‘s also close to half the price.  

This year I’m looking for ways to create more time in my life, which, when I pare the idea down, really means I want to do more of the things I love with the time I have.  With me on the train was a week-old Korea Herald and a just-begun copy of Anna Karenina, which my mom gave me the night before I left Canada almost 11 months ago.  Sun on snow lit up the window frame.  The mountains were dusted in white.  I would visit Seoul for 45 hours, ringing in the New Year with my friend Peter before returning to Busan the evening of January 2nd.  I’ll live in Korea another year, I had decided–staying on in Busan for at least seven months, if not longer.  

It’s a beautiful ride.