The Day We Walked the Sea

• Dispatch #1 •

Each year in Jindo, at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, locals and tourists gather at a festival to witness a curious intersection of science and culture. 

An island that looks like the hat from The Little Prince, visible from the Jindo coast
An island that looks like the hat from The Little Prince, visible from the Jindo coast

1.

The chilly April morning bit into my sweater as I hopped on a bus in downtown Seoul. There were other buses waiting for what looked like the entire expat population of the city. Everyone, it seemed, was on his way to see a miracle.

It was a long five-hour bus ride to Jindo, the third largest island in South Korea, where we were eagerly waiting for a natural phenomenon that was once labeled as the Korean version of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea in the Old Testament.

A five-hour bus ride was not the best thing to do on a Saturday morning, but like the people on my bus, I was excited to see something unusual. The foreigners I encounter in Korea are usually English teachers. Many are in their early to mid-twenties with adventurous spirits, digital cameras, and time to kill on the weekends. When they ask me how I found myself in Korea and learn that I was an artist-in-residence at The National Art Studio (now MMCA Residency Changdong), they would remark on how I was something of an anomaly. Like a geek ostracized by the rowdy kids in high school, I would be silent at the back of the bus. It was usually how it was on these out of town trips.

A Korean festival is not complete without colorful hats.
A Korean festival is not complete without colorful hats.

2.

Finally off the bus, I stretched my legs and wandered to the crowd coalescing near the shore. Festivals in Korea are distinct because of the many tents that line the walkway, each either offering Korean cultural activities or hawking merchandise produced specifically for the event. In this case, it was brightly colored boots in yellow, orange, and green that went up to the thigh. Ingeniously, there were straps on each leg to secure them to your jeans, making the sea walk a dry, if not cold, one. These people think of everything, I thought.

Walking along the coast, I spotted another island that looked like the hat from the Little Prince, when he asked people to draw him a sheep. Up ahead, Korean cultural dances were in full swing, such as dances of Ganggangsuwollae—impressive because of women walking on each other’s backs. I have a fascination with traditional Korean hats, and colorful ones made of crepe paper adorned some people’s heads. International acts were visible, such as Ecuadorian musicians. There were even sad little theme park rides, lonely in their isolation.

Apart from the festival, Jindo is also famous for its breed of white dog, which is as beautiful as it is loyal. It is a national cultural legacy as has been protected since the war. On this festival, there were booths that allowed people to touch and cuddle the puppies, and a program ran to demonstrate the adults’ abilities, such as jumping through hoops and painting.

Today, I felt that the dogs were a bit sad and weary of the circus they had to go through and the suffocating indignity of having to be held by hundreds of hands that day. I wonder how I’d feel if I were one of those dogs. Just two people at a time, please. Ouch, enough, no more blinding photographs. This can’t be the first time you’ve seen a white dog.

People walk from the Jindo coast to Modo.
People walk from the Jindo coast to Modo.

3.

In modern times, humans usually bend nature to their will. In Asia, places like Jindo hold festivals around nature.

Each year, around late April to early May, the waters near Jindo recede dramatically due to a phenomenon known as tidal harmonics. When diverse factors line up, such as the rotation of the earth and its relation to the sun and moon, low tides can occur to expose the festival’s “Miracle Sea Road” from Jindo to the nearby island of Modo, allowing people to pass.

Like barnacles on rocks, legends cling to natural phenomena. In this story, it was a tiger (or tigers, depending on whom you ask). One used to terrorize the inhabitants of Jindo, who fled to Modo. Unfortunately, they left Grandmother Ppong behind. She prayed to the gods to see her family one last time. The gods answered her prayer by making a rainbow bridge appear, allowing her family to return to Jindo. Happily, she saw her family one last time before, unhappily, she breathed her last. Today there is a statue of Grandmother Ppong on her knees praying and the tiger beside her.

A paragliding photographer lit up the gloomy sky.
A paragliding photographer lit up the gloomy sky.

4.

You know an event is bound to be interesting if you spot a photographer paragliding over the crowds. Perhaps from that height, we looked like Damien Hirst dots, especially the Koreans whose color coordinated outfits made them look as though they stepped out of a catalog. I suppose I didn’t look too out of place in a red jacket, purple scarf, and bright yellow boots. Some people came only as spectators, armed with their tripods and DSLR cameras, ready to document the walk. There were many locals, mostly elderly ajumma and ajusshi, who stayed near the coastline and came prepared with pails and gloves. They squatted on the rocks, combing for clams and seaweed that were ripe for the taking.

At a signal by a local government official, the surge of people began. There were hundreds of people ahead of me who started the trek, and the only choice was to move forward. The pass is about 3 km long from the two islands, and like a mosaic activity in a kindergarten art class, slowly the moving sea of people in bright dots of color visualized the sea road.

The parade from Modo to Jindo. Behold those snazzy orange boots!
The parade from Modo to Jindo. Behold those snazzy orange boots!

The highlight of the festival is a parade of people with flags and drums walking from Modo to Jindo. As we came from Jindo’s side, we stepped aside to let them pass. The ones in the front were carrying ten-foot high bamboo flagpoles, each with a bright flag that matched everyone’s boots. There were some young men in military pants and white T-shirts—perhaps their military duty on this side of the peninsula, which really isn’t so bad considering what their colleagues had to do in the opposite side of the country.

The sea floor was as changeable as the weather. One moment I was walking on a carpet of pebbles, while the next, I was slipping in mud, and a few steps more, I stumbled in a pothole. At each step, the water receded, as though the ocean were a bathtub and someone unplugged it.

Hey Granny Ppong, I made it!
Hey Granny Ppong, I made it!

5.

A few minutes later, the parade was over and successfully reached its mission to cross from Modo to Jindo. I was halfway along the path when local officials on boats started blowing their whistles urgently. The tides were back. Sea walk over. Abort! It was a mad dash back to the shore on Jindo’s side. So much for a rainbow bridge. Back near Grandma Ppong’s statue, I pulled my soggy boots off and caught my breath. The ocean took over again there was no trace of a sea road ever existing, let alone thousands of people who tried to cross it.

I followed wet footsteps out of the boardwalk.

The sea road “opens” in late April and early May. 

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