I should have packed a passport on that picnic
ONE of the first things I learned about picnics in South Korea is always to bring my passport. I had been invited along by a group of colleagues from the institute where I was working. My concept of such affairs was straightforward, involving Styrofoam coolers emblazoned with advertising slogans and bologna sandwiches tucked into Baggies. I was in for quite an education. The plan called for us to assemble early Sunday morning for the trip to Gang Hwa Do, an island not far from Seoul on the Yellow Sea. I thought my friend was joking when he told me to meet them at 7 a.m., but he was quite in earnest. I wondered aloud whether the buses would be running that early and was assured that they certainly would -- and they certainly were.
To my surprise, the entire city center was stirring when I arrived on the appointed morning. Construction sites were long in operation and tiny neighborhood grocery stands were opening up. I arrived carrying my swimsuit and towel and several other items which I thought might be necessary. Nobody had mentioned anything about passports, so I carried only my wallet.
``What do you mean, you don't have your identity card?'' asked one of my Korean friends as our bus rattled away from the curb. ``Everybody carries their identity card.''
I had to explain that identity cards are not a universal reality and that the closest I could come was my American passport -- which was safely stuffed away in a hiding place back in my room. It was too late for me to rush home, so we decided to press on and hope for the best.
As we reached the outskirts of Seoul, the intense crowding of the city gave way to clustered villages and open countryside. Each of the Koreans carried bags of food and several portable butane stoves. Most of the food, I learned, had been bought that morning in one of the city's many open-air markets. ``Otherwise it wouldn't be fresh,'' said one of the women as she cradled a bag of thinly sliced meat.
I quickly learned why my friends were concerned about identification. We were traveling in the region skirting the border between South and North Korea. We would be weaving in and out of military zones, some guarded by Americans, others by South Koreans.
Looking out at the expanses of rice paddies, I found it hard to believe that we were just a few miles from one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. The paddies were punctuated by farms where long, thatched huts shielded rows of tender, slow-growing ginseng plants. The heat of the day rose steadily, casting a cottony silence over the land and the occupants of our crowded intercity bus.
When we arrived at the first military checkpoint, a smartly dressed Korean soldier walked through the bus checking identification. Just before he reached my seat, a friend next to me told me to take out anything I had -- which turned out to be an expired library card with the name of my university boldly printed across the top. I showed the card and was relieved when he merely glanced at it and kept going. This process was repeated several times before we finally reached the tiny port where a boat waited to take us across to the island.
It was midday when we reached the island and I was quite ready to eat. But first, I was told, we needed to hike up one side of the low hill that dominated the island in order to have our picnic with a view looking out toward the Yellow Sea. This was the place, a century earlier, where troops loyal to the Korean monarch repelled the first efforts by Western ships to open the country to trade. My friends took special pride in showing me this place, and it was important that I see it the way they intended.
When we crested the low mountain, I was a bit disappointed to see that the shore below was no ocean beach, but rather an expanse of mud. Now I understood why my friends had laughed when they saw my swimming suit and towel.
The picnic spot was ideal, a grassy outcrop from where we could look out toward the ocean. Everyone seemed to know what to do as they rolled out mats and assembled the small stoves. After much consultation, a meal of grilled pork and beef was ready. The technique involved placing a piece of meat or cooked vegetable on a lettuce leaf, dabbing it with hot sauce, and then folding the whole thing into a bundle which made one comfortable mouthful. I called them Korean crepes.
Nestled in the trees below was the Bomun-Sa temple. While we ate, we could hear the steady chanting of the monks amplified through loudspeakers hidden in the branches. The temple is famous for its Stone Chamber and carries a legend about how a rock fell off the mountain and landed on this spot, forming a square cave. Later, a fisherman caught 12 Buddhas in his net but threw them back because they were so ugly. Then in a dream he was told to retrieve them and put them into the temple. All of this was carved into a plaque, in Korean and English, which stood near the entrance to the temple.
When we left, instead of climbing back over the mountain, we took a bus around the perimeter of the island to the place where we could take the boat back to port. The bus to Seoul, again overcrowded and friendly, wove through the same checkpoints we had passed earlier in the day, and once again I fumbled with my library card, much to the discomfort of my traveling companions. We pulled into the center of the city well after 11 p.m., my concept of an island picnic totally altered. I was tired but happy. And although I probably will not be going on any more Korean picnics, if I do, I will know enough to leave my swimsuit at home and take my passport instead. Tim Aeppel