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 for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. — Ed.

My date with 10,000 Crickets!

After my eviction I moved to the south side of the island.

From there I traveled back and forth over the high volcano via the 5.16 Road to my workplace in Jeju City. My frequent commute was neither a grind nor as boring as it may seem. In 1974 a one-way minibus from the south coast to the north coast took well over an hour, and cost something like 800 won, which at that time was a couple of dollars or so, American. If this sounds expensive, consider that included in this price was a white-knuckles adventure ride you might pay a fiver for at any quality amusement park in the U.S.

Standard-size highway buses were far too large to maneuver the narrow roadway and hairpin curves of the 5.16 Road back then. These big buses were restricted to circumnavigating the island at low elevations. If you were on a tight schedule and/or wanted to cross the high volcano in a timely fashion using public transport your options were minibus, taxi — or forget it. From November through March even these options were often either unavailable or narrowed considerably due to the fairly high frequency of hazardous snow and ice conditions along the 5.16 Road at the higher elevations. Sometimes the 5.16 Road shut down entirely due to snowstorms, perhaps for days at a time. It was a crap shoot. Sometimes when a storm threatened you just had to bet your life that your vehicle driver was experienced and sober.

Incidentally, the most beautiful sight I have ever seen was the view of Jeju City at 2 a.m. in the morning from high atop the 5.16 Road in the aftermath of a snowstorm. I was hiking down the roadway toward the city with my taxicab driver after he had hit a patch of black ice and spun his vehicle off the roadway into a pasture. We decided to abandon the vehicle and walk back to civilization. We were still above the snowline but the temperature was actually mild and a balmy wind was blowing. The setting was unnatural. The scene was vivid and unforgettable. Already the snow on the asphalt had melted away.  It was silent and moonless. The night sky was crystal clear with a multitude of stars flooding the firmament. Before us, beyond the city lights, hundreds of squid boats filled the inky sea. These boats were equipped with powerful squid lamps. They all blazed away as a spectacular star-like panorama in the distance both near and far off shore. Where the sky and ocean actually merged that night was imperceptible. There was simply no hint of a visible horizon: city lights on the land merged seamlessly into shrimp boat lights on the ocean then into countless points of stars drawn upon heaven’s blackboard. Words fail me here.  The moment was existential. Perhaps only those poetic terms uttered by Roy Batty in “Blade Runner” can begin to capture its profound and fleeting sensuality of that dramatic moment: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe: Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time …”.

As well as I recall fondly my romantic “night of the 10,000 stars” I also remember with a tad of horror my far from romantic “night of the 10,000 crickets” that occurred about six months later. I have a bit of a bad history with crickets that helps explain my dislike of them prior to my arrival on Jeju Island. Crickets in the wild, at least during some phases of their life cycle and under certain conditions of environmental stress, are swarming creatures.

I was once apprenticed part-time to a semi-itinerant bakery bowl and kitchen utensil repairman named Tom. For several months of each year we would drive through most states west of the Mississippi soliciting for work and repairing the bowls and utensils outside and on the premises of our customers. We often stayed in motels, but one night we decided to sleep in a dry, deserted roadside picnic area along a rural highway in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.

Tom decided he would sleep in the back of his big Ford station wagon. The picnic table under the stars looked comfortable to me. I threw my sleeping bag upon it, took off my shoes and socks, and promptly slept. In the middle of the night I suddenly awoke to discover that the surface of the entire picnic area, the roadway, and as far as I could see into the night, was in motion, undulating, and a shimmering iridescent black. Half-asleep, I panicked and leaped off the picnic table and onto the ground, which I discovered, was alive with immature Mormon crickets on the march. Scores of them instantly turned into liquid under my bare feet while others began to crawl up my legs. I leaped back upon the table top and swept them off. Meanwhile Tom had locked himself in the station wagon and was honking the horn like crazy. That was a bad night and a hell of a lot of crickets. I joined the Peace Corps shortly after that, expecting never to experience crickets running amok ever again.

A Jeju privy circa 1974. Photo courtesy David Nemeth

A Jeju privy circa 1974. Photo courtesy David Nemeth

I fast forward now to the middle of a hot, dark night on Jeju Island during the summer monsoon of 1974. Everything was damp. I was spending the night in a modest house occupied by a caretaker who lived on the remote grounds of a hillside tangerine plantation. I had been drinking rice wine with a few of the locals at a crude tavern near a bus stop earlier in the evening. I was suffering a bit of stomach distress and so reluctantly grabbed the umbrella and the flashlight stationed near the door, slipped on my outdoor sandals, stepped outside, and headed between trees along a crude path to the outhouse. I couldn’t get the flashlight or the umbrella to work, and so stumbled forward as best I could. The walk took about a minute. I could barely see the ground in front of me. The privy was crudely constructed of volcanic rocks piled high and had a tin roof and no door. It was as dark outside as it was inside, but I had used the privy previously and so knew where the hole was and parked myself over it and squatted. I put the umbrella down slowly and then switched the flashlight from one hand to the other. I lost my balance briefly and in that split second hit the flashlight hard against the inside wall of the privy.

Suddenly the flashlight beamed brightly. What happened next nearly gave me a heart attack! Unbeknownst to me all along the three interior walls of the outhouse was a multitude of densely-packed crickets that had parked themselves inside the privy to keep out of the rain. Startled by the flash of the light they all jumped in unison from their positions. I was pelted all at once from three directions by 10,000 crickets and my screams penetrated the darkness.

The following evening at the bus stop winehouse all the locals within range of my screams had a good laugh at my expense. They are probably still telling the story.

The safe and sane travel option for a south coast islander to the north coast in any season was around the volcano and not over it. Some south coast residents rarely traveled north. Why depart paradise, even for a day? I met an old grandma on the minibus one day headed for a hospital appointment in Jeju City. She was accompanied by her granddaughter who claimed that the old lady had never been to the north side of the island during her lifetime! Hard to believe.

The minibuses were on tight schedules, yet all of them were underpowered and crawled like turtles when they were headed uphill. But then they leaped like jackrabbits for the downhill stretch to make up for time lost. These minibuses shared the narrow roadway with speeding taxicabs and occasional trucks. Their drivers also seemed to be racing against time to keep to their schedules and perhaps save their jobs. In addition there was, come summer, a gaggle of overloaded small trucks on the 5.16 Road headed in one direction or the other to participate in periodic (five-day) markets. Especially in August it seemed that the 5.16 Road was paved with broken watermelons, grapes and berries. Enough of these overboard fruits and vegetable on a sharp curve could make the roadway there as slippery as winter’s black ice.

The 5.16 Road downhill, given its sinuosity, was even more treacherous than uphill: the overheated asbestos brake pads on the minibuses stunk up the fresh mountain air more often than not — but I never heard any passengers complaining about that; better to have stinky brakes than no brakes at all. All considered, the 5.16 in 1974 was a gut-wrenching carnival ride of a road; a seemingly haphazard chain of switchbacks galore. At high elevations were stretches of asphalt threading through the alpine forest of Halla that had all the sophisticated engineering required of a go-kart track. But there were no bales of hay strategically stationed at every curve. Instead there was nothing at all to keep overzealous and fatalistic taxi and bus drivers from taking their fares airborne when overshooting the hairpins. Guardrails would come much later to the 5.16, as would the ironing-out of its most dangerous curves and the widening of its narrow roadway.

Many minibuses eventually went astray or simply broke down along the 5.16 Road. Miraculously, none of mine ever took a tumble into the roadside bush or rolled over the brink and on down the mountainside. Front page photographs on the island newspapers captured the results of frequent vehicle disasters along the 5.16.

If there is truth to the claim that Jejudo is the “Hawaii of Korea,” the best evidence based on similarities in climate would be more likely encountered along the central portion of the well-sheltered south coast of Hallasan. This instead of anywhere along the unprotected north coast of the island that faces Manchuria and Siberia across the naked expanse of the Jeju Straits and Yellow Sea.

Sogwip’o “Town” (as we used to call it and spell it in the early seventies) was at that time still mostly a quiet, laid-back, portside community of fisher-folk, shopkeepers and petty agricultural entrepreneurs. The town occupied what was unquestionably the most pleasant and unique subtropical pockets of paradise on the Island. Spring-fed mountain streams burst from the mountainside to form the eastern and western boundaries of the town. These spilled over high cliffs to fall directly into the crystal clear waters of the East China Sea.  There the population of Sogwip’o Town has been hunkered down to productive lives for centuries, pinned between the southern flanks of the high volcano and a few, small steep-sided offshore islands that took the brunt of the force of summer typhoons and spared the port from all but the worst of them.

I’m not sure who were the original inhabitants of Sogwip’o Town but the Chinese dynastic histories report that Seo Bul, a Chinese explorer, was sent into the East China Sea from the Jiangsu shore by “The First Emperor” in search of the “Islands of the Immortals” and the “Plant of Immortality.” The histories claim he made one or more successful landfalls during his voyage. Jeju Island is most likely among these because it is the first major landfall due east from Jiangsu. Moreover, “Sogwip’o” translates into English to mean “Port of Return to the West.” The Chinese histories report that Seo Bul eventually returned “to the West” and to China to face the emperor. He had not found the “Immortal Plant” but was strongly encouraged to try again. This time he successfully requested to provision his expedition with “young women, tradesmen, artisans, and the seeds of the five grains.” He departs. No more mention is made of him in the historical record.

If I was Captain Seo Bul and lucky enough to sail ashore where Sogwip’o is located today, and if I had a shipload full of young women and the five seeds, and if I didn’t have the foggiest what the “Immortal Plant” looked like or where to find it, I would burn my ship and hunker down in paradise to sow and reap and sow some more. That sounds far more reasonable than returning “to the West” a second time, and again empty-handed, to face an angry emperor.

Next week: The China Smith of Cheju Island

Tagged with →