For the entire 52-week account of Dr. Nemeth’s time on Jeju Island as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s, you can download his new e-book free of charge. JejuWorldWide would like to thank Dr. Nemeth again for his generous contribution. — Ed.


Off the northeast coast of Jeju Island is a six-square-kilometer exposed lava slab surrounded by sea named Udo (“Cow Island”). It is called Cow Island because when observed from a distance and from a certain perspective it supposedly resembles a “resting cow” in profile. I’ve viewed Udo from afar and from many perspectives on many occasions and attempted to “see” that resting cow: I have squinted my brow till it hurt, and screwed up my eyes considerably while cocking my head from side to side like a bobble-head doll. All in vain.

Meanwhile islanders and even mainland Koreans standing next to me have been able to make out that resting cow with no trouble whatsoever: “Look! There is its head” they would exclaim, pointing with extended arm and finger. “And there! Right there! See? That’s a cow leg” … and so these futile conversations degenerated as affirmation after affirmation piled high upon my frustration. There is one volcanic cone that rises up at the southern extreme of Udo and which everyone insisted was the hip of the cow. As many times as I had viewed that cone I had never seen a cow attached to it.

Then one day I came across a bird’s-eye view of Cow Island depicted on a 300-year-old geomantic (pungsu) map.

Left, a pungsu map of Udo. Courtesy David Nemeth. Right, topographical map courtesy OpenStreetMap.org

Left, a pungsu map of Udo. Courtesy the author. Right, topographical map courtesy OpenStreetMap.org

There was the cow! The head was obvious, as were the legs and a protruding hip. I was impressed that a geomancer 300 years in the past could without wings so clearly capture on his map the aerial view of the shape of the resting cow. The story of Cow Island grew more mysterious and mystical as I showed the map around on the island and asked questions about it. Several islanders believed the cow was alive and that islanders, generation after generation, were like so many ticks parading through its hide. Some believed their harvests of barley, sweet potatoes, garlic and peanuts might fail unless they killed every snake they found on the island that might otherwise disturb this resting cow; their resting cow.

At first I thought these irrational tales all amounted to a complex yarn invented to dupe impressionable outsiders like me. Especially when I heard that the island of Udo was uninhabited until designated as an official Joseon government cattle pasture. In that case the shape of the island would fit the function of the island merely by coincidence. But one of the most significant things I learned during my Peace Corps service on Jeju Island was that coincidences encountered there, when interpreted by its tradition-bound inhabitants, were always meaningful.

Udo is located 3.5 km off the Jeju coast. This distance is an easy swim for a pro I would guess, but I have never met anybody who had stroked it over there. “Why would anyone do that?” was the response when I asked a few of the local haenyeo. Besides, the currents there are treacherous — or so I’ve been told.

The author, aged 31, gazes at the sea from Udo in 1973. Photo courtesy David Nemeth

The author, aged 31, gazes at the sea from Udo in 1973. Photo courtesy David Nemeth

Anybody bound for Cow Island way back in 1973-4 could pay to be ferried over in a retired fishing boat that ran in and out of Seongsan Village harbor twice a day, in fair weather. I recall there were only eight or 10 passengers per trip each way during my numerous crossings. And these were mostly residents of Udo transporting their goods and supplies.

Few tourists ever bothered with a visit to Udo in the old days. The islet had few daytime amenities — and no reliable overnight public accommodations. However, if you were an American stranded on Udo while waiting out a storm, curious Cow Islanders would open up their hearts and doors for you, and you could teach their kids a little English in exchange for some hospitality. The majority of Udo Islanders were subsistence farmers and fisher-people with little in the larders to share. But garlic soup and seaweed is not that bad a supper, even when you are not famished.

I suppose more members of that robust breed of jaded “been there, done that” world travelers might have assigned an Udo visit into their itineraries if they had heard or read about the unique barefoot experience to be had on Popcorn Beach there. Here zillions of alabaster sand pebbles the size of grapes waited to lodge between one’s toes and where on close inspection they looked just like little monkey-brains. Seobin Baeksa (White-Sand Beach) is the bland official name of this surreal stretch of sand. The government claims the white pebbles are some sort of coral. I asked an Udo Islander about this and he said that the small white balls are all that is left of the bones of 10,000 butchered cows dumped on the shore there in times gone by. Great kidders, those islanders!

I met many kind-hearted, generous Udo Islanders during my Peace Corps days. That said, I will never forget the day I was suddenly set upon by an angry gang of Udo haenyeo who shared an intent to do me harm.


Next , the conclusion of this story: Close encounters of the haenyeo kind (Udo Island part 2)


Below is a collection of photographs of Udo taken by Jessica Sicard in 2011.

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