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.
Click here to read Part 1. — Ed.
Going mano-a-mano with a warrior spider
“How far is it from your yo (folding floor mattress) to your byeonso (latrine; outhouse)?” he asked me. “He” in this instance was a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who had also once served in Korea. His first name was Don but his surname now escapes me. His volunteer group had arrived in Korea in the late 1970s. My own had arrived in the early 1970s. We were in a sports bar at the Washington National Airport trading stories from our service days. It was 1988.
I had never met Don before, but every returned Peace Corps Volunteer could answer the particular question he posed with remarkable precision. It is one of several “proof-of-endurance” questions that returned Vols as strangers always ask each other in order to establish cred and bragging rights. The lead-in question is invariably “Where did you serve?” Don had served in Suwon near Seoul while I had served on Jeju Island. Ping! Point going to Nemeth!
Peace Corps headquarters in Seoul sent volunteers “down” to South Korean urban and rural destinations from 1966 through 1981. Few volunteers requested to serve “way down” on Jeju Island in the early days. There were rumors… For example, it was hardly a secret among volunteers in training that Jeju of all sites had more than its fair share of venomous snakes and spiders.
Before Peace Corps officially assigned me to serve on Jeju Island someone on the training staff pointedly asked me how I felt about centipedes, spiders and snakes, to wit, ”Do you have any phobias about living or working where their occasional distractions might discourage or prevent you from performing your assigned duties?”
“Just how bad could it be?” I asked myself before responding “No.” In truth, I was uncertain. I recall visiting my Uncle Fritz in south Florida at age eight. He told me a “true” story about a toilet and a spider that still makes me squirm. Does taking the simple precaution to lift a toilet seat in search of a spider before sitting down qualify as a phobia? As it turned out, living amidst spiders on Jeju Island all during my term of service was almost unremarkable. In 1973 there indeed were spiders galore, but no toilet seats. However, it was my sad experience that even one spider lurking in the wrong place at the wrong time can create a terrible distraction and leave a normal person teetering on the lip of lunacy.
“The short way, at a walk, was 65 steps or 35 seconds. The long way was 85 steps and 45 seconds” I replied to Don’s question, then added: “But I was usually on the run!” We laughed. Stomach disorders and intestinal parasites were the shared experience of all KPCVs in those days, no matter where they served. Don was duly impressed with my reply. I could almost read his mind: “This Nemeth has endured!” He continued to pursue the question: “Two paths to the outhouse, eh? Why didn’t you just take the shortcut all the time?” Suddenly swamped with many vivid memories I had long repressed, I paused, then replied.
“Well, Don, there was this spider…”
When I arrived on Jeju Island in February of 1973, I had a worksite but my place of residence had yet to be arranged. So I spent my first week on the island in a humble yeogwan (hotel) before Mr. Kim, my local on-site sponsor, walked me and my gear over to a hasukjib (boarding house) in Old Tapdong, near the seawall, where a small, single room awaited me.
The hasuk was an impressive old chogajib (grass-roofed residence) with spartan amenities located within a spacious lot surrounded by high lava block walls that formed a square perimeter. The owner, as I eventually discovered, was a businessman residing in Seoul. He rarely visited the island. His wife managed the boarding house. She had four children, all of school age. Imagine their joy in that day and age on Jejudo to hold captive a rare native English speaker!
There were eight rooms in the boarding house. Four of these faced the central entryway. The sliding rice-paper doors of these rooms opened onto a magnificent old hallway floor of well-worn wooden planks and polished with decades — perhaps centuries — of gentle wear and loving care. My room was one of two of these four rooms located innermost within the hasuk. It was a choice spot both winter and summer. The floor of my room was oiled paper over a clay ondol (under floor heating). Room furnishings comprised of a wall socket, a ceiling lamp and one tall bedding-storage cabinet with several drawers and a clothes-hanging rod within. Given my basic needs and few material wants, along with the simple proclivities of my temperament, my boarding house room was all considered quite splendid. It seemed heaven on earth — except when I had to journey outdoors to wash up and/or void my bowels.
The communal water pump for the boarding house was located at 10 paces from the hasuk entryway and in a cement circle about four feet in diameter. The pump was the principal feature in the courtyard. Beneath the cement circle, I assumed, the pump tapped into a well sunk into a freshwater spring. There was a pipe leading to a showerhead attached to the pump and rising above it.
From the courtyard I could glimpse above the eastern wall of the compound the smokestack of the closest public bath, well within walking distance. My habit once I had settled into boarding house life was to frequent the public bath adjacent to my workplace. Other occupants of my hasuk either used the most proximate neighborhood bathhouse or, in fair weather, used the pump and shower within the hasuk compound. Sometimes, and especially during the dog days of summer, I would return to my boarding house unexpected during mid-day, pull open the solid wood entry gate leading into the compound, and discover a half-naked woman boarder — or the manager herself — standing barefoot on the cement circle beneath the shower. On such occasions these women kept their towels within reach to drape over their shoulders until I crossed the courtyard and entered my room.
I bring this up mainly because in 1973 when a guy entered into a typical men’s public bath house locker-room, there invariably would be a vintage oil painting of a reclining semi-nude woman positioned prominently high on a wall facing the entrance. These paintings were not all that different from the semi-erotic saloon art nude paintings commonly nailed to the wall above the long bar facing a room full of cowboys in boisterous saloons throughout the 19th-century American West.
Men and boys from my hasuk patronized the local public bath in gangs, usually in the evenings. I rarely saw men at the courtyard pump for any purposes other than washing their hands and faces, or brushing their teeth.
Beyond this pump was another unoccupied choga, used as a communal storage shed by the owner as well as the occupants of the hasuk. I had nothing to store there, which gave everyone else more space for their own possessions. Located about 10 feet behind the storage choga was the northernmost long black wall of the compound, piled high with lava stones, with the gaps between the stones filled with clay so outsiders could not peer into the compound through the wall. Behind the high wall at a distance of perhaps 100 yards was the Jeju City seawall and breakwater, and beyond that the open sea. Between my hasuk and the shore, ranging away cheek to jowl, were numerous other chogas interspersed with a few tile-roofed residences.
Standing at the pump and facing the storage choga and the high wall behind it, were located 1) at the extreme right, where the northern and eastern compound walls converged, a single access gate into the hasuk grounds comprised of two massive wooden doors; and 2) at the extreme left where the northern and western compound walls converged, an enclosed squat toilet. Access into the outhouse entailed tugging on a short rope nailed to a plywood door that was hung on hinges.
“Dwitgan” (in Korean vernacular) was a common term used at that time for an outhouse. All the hasuk residents shared this single facility. The shortcut to the dwitgan from the boarding house was a straight shot out its entryway: 65 steps and 35 seconds. The final 30 steps before a boarder reached the dwitgan door was a narrow passageway between the western compound wall and the west-facing wall of the storage choga. The passage was a yard wide. I could begin to smell the outhouse at about step 25. Within the dwitgan door the stench rising from the pit was stifling on my first visit. By my hundredth visit I was entirely habituated to the odor.
The day I moved into the boarding house I was given a tour of the grounds by management. She walked me to the outhouse via the long route: 85 steps and 45 seconds. The following day, I discovered the shortcut on my own. That is when and where I first observed at eye level the enormous mudang geomi (sorceress spider) that I would go to war with on and off throughout the spring, summer, fall and into the following year.
Her orb-shaped and dramatically-engineered golden web straddled the pathway between the hasuk and the outhouse. She blocked my way entirely. She was insolence objectified. No wonder everybody in the boarding house took the long path to the outhouse.
Scientists, I soon learned, call her Nephila clavata (“golden orb web-weaver”). I took to calling her “Whore!” This was in fact the direct translation of Jorōgumo (harlot spider) from Japanese folklore, where her species is legend.
On our first meeting she occupied the very center of her web as I approached, and remained there defiantly. I was awestruck by her audacious shape, size, color and demeanor. She was a good two inches across at that time, dark blue, with yellow pin stripes running up and down her hairy legs, and she sported a shocking red beauty mark. She had spiny legs and claws arranged menacingly. She was disgusting… And yet…
Her golden orb was securely anchored to the stalks and branches of winter vegetation high and low, all hugging and clinging to the black stone walls on both sides of the narrow path. There was just no avoiding her giant web except to retreat back up the path and circle around the storage choga.
Retreat? Never! I picked up the nearest stick and entirely demolished the web within 10 seconds. I did not want to kill her. I was Peace Corps. I just wanted to teach her a lesson. My stick resembled a cone of cotton candy when I was finished with the web. This, I tossed it over the fence. Her highness was somewhere within the sticky ball. I felt pretty good. The path was mine. I had performed a public service. I marched triumphant to the privy.
Next time: Harlot’s web; the battle intensifies.