Photos courtesy of RAKSO TRAVELS AND TOURS
For the longest time, my travels to other countries have followed the same pattern: my family would fly out over the holidays or in the summer, and take the trip day by day for two to three weeks. No plans, no routes. It helps that the city we’d visit would be ones where my diplomat aunt was currently staying, so there was no need to worry about hotel rooms. The strange cities would begin to feel lived in, like an extension of home. We could take our time.
All of this is to say that when I joined Rakso Travel’s springtime group tour on South Korea’s Jeju Island, everything about it was new territory. I had never been there, and I had never traveled alone before. We only had four days, and a packed itinerary to get through — and then there were the wakeup calls at 7 a.m., an hour that is usually ungodly to me. But I had a hotel room to myself, a plastic camera loaded with film, and another red pin to stick on a map of the world. I couldn’t really complain.
I made friends from the tour group immediately, both of them roughly my age and also traveling alone. There was an ease about it that I wasn’t used to — it wasn’t long before we were volunteering to take pictures of one another and doing selfies together.
Our first stop was the shopping district Chilseongro and the underground shopping street. The stores had all these cozy-looking knee-length coats for spring that I adored but couldn’t get, because what use would they be back home? Our attempts to use the phrases we’d learned on the bus backfired when we asked one of the shopkeepers “How much is this?” in Korean, and she gave us the price in the same language. (We hadn’t really brushed up on the numbers.) At dinner, they grouped all the solo travelers together — seven of us in total, now tablemates for the duration of the trip, something I quickly grew used to.
Nothing says “spring day” like cherry blossom trees and a nice walk across the canola fields.
On day two, we spent the morning being taught skincare techniques at a cosmetic shop and learning the health benefits of ginseng at a museum. Later that day we got ourselves lost and found our way again at the Gimnyeong Maze Park.
The highlight for me, though, was the hour-long drive to a UNESCO World Heritage site: the Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak, a volcanic crater that resembles a crown, formed about 5,000 years ago during a volcanic eruption underwater. I spent most of my time there standing on the edge of a field of grass that overlooks the sea, the wind whipping around me under overcast skies that soon delivered on the promise of rain.
There would often be talk of the possibility of seeing the haenyeo: Jeju’s female divers, some of them in their 80s, who make a living diving for fish and are known the world over for their independence and power. “If we’re lucky,” the tour guide told us, “we might catch them as they’re about to dive.”
I didn’t see them diving — but I spotted them just as they were bobbing up out of the water, fresh catches in tow. A near-mythical group of amazing women I’d once read about in Bust magazine, now here, before me.
You can’t leave the island without experiencing the uniquely sweet flavor of a fresh Jeju tangerine.
There are no trains on the island, no skyscrapers or giant billboards in the city. We could do whatever we wanted at night when we got back to the hotel, and I would take solitary walks, the air around me carrying the vague scent of pine and saltwater. There were tangerine trees everywhere, and a sense of community. It felt to me like the quaint seaside towns I’d only ever seen in books or movies, both familiar and all too surreal.
The next day was the coldest yet, and it rained harder than ever. I was running out of layers, wishing I’d bought one of those gorgeous coats after all. We visited a canola flower field, attended a comedy painting show, and had a great time at Jeju Glass Castle and Shinhwa Theme Park (even if we were shivering the whole time). My friend and I shared a vanilla latte at the cafe in Hello Kitty Island, where it was pink and smelled like candy pretty much everywhere.
Our last two stops for the four-day trip were a 3D and ice museum, and the teddy bear museum that reminded me of Princess Hours. And for the first time since I got to the island, I got to see some sun. Experiencing a real spring day, for once — something up there must have known this would be our last chance.
We had some free time in the morning, which we spent exploring side streets and taking advantage of the weather. The day was pleasant and cool yet somehow cozy and radiating warmth, and I celebrated with a summer latte, which is basically iced coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and easily the best thing ever.
The busy intersections and sights of the city made for dreamy views to admire out the bus window.
Out the bus window, I watched the clear skies bleed true-blue beyond the sprawling spring blooms and the pine forests, and this is the last snapshot of Jeju that I’ve kept in my mind.
Before I knew it, I was on a plane again, a whole row to myself, watching the stars as they led me back home. I thought of the friends I’d made, the conversations we’d have over our meals as we tended to the tabletop barbecue and passed each other the banchan. (I still think about the rice all the time.) The way the locals would light up as soon as you said “Gamsahamnida.” The unforgiving cold I already knew I would miss once I landed in summertime Manila. And then there was the endless picture-taking, which I never really tend to enjoy unless I’m behind the camera.
In the end, I was grateful and lucky I had companions who would always coax me into smiling for a few shots everywhere we went, leaving me with an album that allows me to say, over and over again, “I was here. I was here.”
Turns out you don’t really need a lot of time to make a place, or even a person, feel like home.