I fondly remember my Peace Corps service experience on Jeju Island as my “Tangerine Years.” This is because I had immediate access to bejillions of them and they were free as could be. My middle school girl students were fully aware of my insatiable appetite for their island’s tangerines and were proud to embroider their image upon the right-front pocket of my blue jean jacket, in glorious orange, straight over my heart. They invented a ritual shortly after I was assigned a desk in the teachers’ room at their school. I had arrived at the height of tangerine season. They began at the outset to place four perfect Jeju tangerines in a perfect pyramid on top of my desk every morning before I arrived to work. The perfect start to what everyone hoped would be a perfect day for Teacher Nam.
My scientific knowledge of tangerines was zilch in 1973 when I first laid eyes on my first tangerine plantation in Seogwipo. Before then I just mindlessly ate as many as I could whenever the opportunity arrived. That day I first descended from the high flanks of Mt. Halla by minibus into the coastal enclave of Seogwipo Town via Route 11 that woke me up to the profound significance of the tangerine as a constant blessing in the tumultuous history of human civilization – which I won’t go into here.
As our bus began to pass from temperate high forest and pine into sub-tropical tangerine country I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Why? Perhaps my joy was because when I was a toddler during World War 2 and living in Ohio I would find a “Christmas Orange” (what Midwesterners in the U.S., called a tangerine at that time) or two in my stocking once a year. I was hooked and my addiction to their sweetness as a child turned me into a connoisseur and aficionado as an adult. Anyway, it was about the time my downhill bus swung through the picturesque village of Beophocheon that I had the epiphany just described:
The map above depicts where I lost my heart to tangerine lore in February of 1973. The arrow points to the name of the village and the little black squares represent the settlement. Note Route 11 threading the village. The heart symbol on the map is located at a rustic makgeolli place about 10 paces from the bus stop. The makgeolli served there came out of quart-size plastic containers with long necks and was served into stainless steel bowls. During the heat of summer, the plastic containers were each tethered to cords and submerged in the shallow waters of a cold stream that flowed adjacent to the wine house, where the highway traffic passed over a concrete bridge. That stream is visible as a thin blue line emerging from Beophocheon. Take my word for it: streams in this area flowed and disappeared right and left; so just imagine that happening as you analyze the map. Upstream from Beophocheon several thousand meters is a famous place named Donnaeko Resort (written in large orange Korean alphabet at the top center of the map). It was even a popular “resort” back in 1973, before the tourist boom. More than any other place on Jeju Island, Donnaeko was then and remains now famous for its spectacular therapeutic waterfalls and plunge pools.
I visited Donnaeko to test its icy waters several times in the summers of 1973 and 1974. There was always a crowd. The idea was to stand in the large plunge pool under the falls and pray no log or boulder drops on your head while the massage of the downpour heals your aches and pains. When it is raining, the falls can get heavy enough to do bodily harm. I visited once during a rainstorm and the falls thundered away into the plunge pool while a large crowd sat around and observed the event. Nobody ached enough to risk getting healed that day.
Upstream from Donnaeko where the elevation rises rapidly it is said that the stream emerges out of the steep mountain side fully formed, as if from the head of Zeus. I have never ventured there. Between Donnaeko and that sacred source are several Buddhist Temples and Animist shrines. What does this all add up to? A mighty fine bowl of makgeolli at that Beophocheon bus stop wine house: icy cold, delicious, inexpensive, inebriating — and perhaps of therapeutic value.
On late afternoons I used to emerge from the wine house into the shadows of surrounding towering oreums (volcanic cones) and stare up at the still-sunlit peak of Mt. Halla. From that perspective and under those conditions the mountaintop profile appears to be a beautiful maiden lying on her back. Just sayin’.
Those of my readers with a historical bent might be wondering if Magistrate Yi Hyong-sang in his tour of Jeju Island in 1702 was interested in visiting tangerine plantations in and around Seogwipo. Fortunately the artisan Kim Nam-kil in his entourage created illustrated maps of several occasions during the island tour when the magistrate inspected the orchards. Here Kim depicts a visit to a large tangerine plantation located somewhere just west of Cheonjeyeon Waterfall:
Readers are encouraged to zoom-in on the ceremonies and imagine they are on the spot and peeking over the protective walls that surround this remarkable tribute orchard.
Next Week: The Illustrated Peace Corps Man (Part 4)