The Cursed Popsicle and the Lifesaving Lanterns

• Dispatch #8 •
It was my first close call in all my years of travel. Buddha and cheese bagels are involved. 

Lanterns. Perhaps it was an omen of how the 19th of May 2013 would end for me, but these pretty paper lanterns were the first thing I saw as I started the trail to Suraksan. It was my 27th mountain to climb in Seoul for a project that I think defined the trajectory of my work as an artist/designer henceforth.

Beautiful Korean patterns at the monastery
Beautiful Korean patterns at the monastery

I was late. Not to meet anyone, as I was dumb enough to do this alone, but I woke up later than usual, and I ran to the trail’s beginning as soon as I got off the bus. There was a nice traditional Korean pavilion on my right and a few meters ahead was a Buddhist temple that had rows and rows of paper lanterns strung from one hanok to another. Perhaps they were celebrating, and it was lovely to see families gather together, but I was in a hurry and left after a quick peek. There was no time to lose.

Lanterns case a shadow in the monastery.
Lanterns case a shadow in the monastery.

This was going to be easy, I tell myself. The early part of the trail was flat, and soon I was sauntering on it. Thirty minutes into the hike, I turn left at a fork in the trail, and soon I buy a popsicle from one of the many enterprising people. I think that popsicle eventually damned me.

The cursed popsicle. But it was good.
The cursed popsicle. But it was good.

I should have remembered that in Korea, mountains with the syllable “ak” in them were a force to be reckoned with. But the sun was shining and I was happily licking a popsicle and all danger was far from my mind. A few minutes later, I realize that I was on the wrong path. I should have turned right instead of left. I swore under my breath and went back, passing the popsicle man yet again. I resisted the urge to buy another one.

My well-worn hiking shoes. Oh the stories you can tell.
My well-worn hiking shoes. Oh the stories you can tell.

Soon after, the trail turned from easy to menacing, with several big boulders I had to navigate over. A few mammoth rocks after, I realize that this was the point of no return—descending at this point would be twice as difficult, and the ascent was challenging enough. I clutched a nearby tree trunk for leverage, and realized I was not alone—the trunk was smoothed down by hundreds of hikers that went before me. This was the hardest mountain in this project so far.

A tree that's been smoother down by hundreds of hands that have grasped it.
A tree that’s been smoother down by hundreds of hands that have grasped it.

Eventually, I was even more terrified of the smooth faces of the mountain I had to climb over, with nothing more than a rope to guide me. I tested the rope’s strength. It seemed ok, though not far ahead was another rope that had already ripped in two.. I wonder how these locals do it? I think, as I heave myself over another boulder. Even the old ones made it look so easy. And they look so great doing it. Life’s not fair.

Finally, after about 4 kilometers of hiking, I reach the peak. Hurray, there’s the Korean flag! I congratulate myself and eat the second of the three cheese bagels I got from Paris Baguette. This and a can of Georgia Coffee were snacks I usually took with me when hiking. They taste better when I am almost passed out from exhaustion. I take some photos when I look at the horizon and saw, with a sinking feeling, the one thing that I hoped I was not going to see at this point in the hike: the sun was setting.

The peak! Hurray!
The peak! Hurray!

I still had one or two hours to go for the descent, I had no flashlight to guide my way if the sun completely disappeared, and I was alone.

I swallowed hard, then sped down the mountain as fast as I could.

Trekking a mountain is different when you think your life is now on the line. I was so cautious about where I placed my feet before, but now I jumped over plants, crouched and leapt over rocks, and made decisions about which path to go on faster than I normally would. I was grateful I hadn’t sprained an ankle in what I felt was the most realistic capoeira circuit I had ever trained in.

This was the first time I did not like seeing a sunset.
This was the first time I did not like seeing a sunset.

The sun sank even further, and I was increasingly relieved the closer the Seoul’s buildings came to my sightline. I thought I was all alone now—who the hell was insane enough to be here?—and yet I encountered two middle-aged hikers separately. Each time, he was on his way up. I thought they were crazy to ascend at this point, when it must have been just the three of us in Suraksan.

And then finally, the sun gave out like a candle that flickered to its death. From my dying phone, my GPS showed that I was ten to fifteen minutes away from the trail’s exit. But it was pitch black and I could no longer see my hand when I waved it in front of my face. I panicked and ran—I didn’t care where. My hands were scratched by branches, and I realized that I lost the trail when I heard a stream hiss in front of me. I felt like I was in that scene in The Village when Bryce Dallas-Howard, who plays a blind girl who goes into the forest by herself, was running for her life.

Careful at breaking a bone, especially when the ground was wet, I gingerly felt my way across the stream and was relieved when I touched dry earth. For a few seconds, I was silent though my mind continued its descent into panic. Get it together, I chastise myself. This could be the difference between living or dying. I hated myself for waking up late, for stopping for a popsicle, for not climbing quicker, for eating my cheese f*cking bagels, and for all the minute points in the day that could have prevented this catastrophe.

I thought about my friends who were probably worried, as I usually called at this time, about the staff at the studio who probably never lost an artist before, about my taekwondo teachers and how all that training kept me alive so far—until now, holy crap—and that maybe I should spend my phone battery’s last breath by calling them up and asking them to come get me.

In the middle of berating myself and wondering how long a 5% battery life was in minutes, I realize that there was a flickering of light up ahead, and it wasn’t the moon (although it was there, as though trying to give me hope). The flicker turn into a series of lights, and I realize that I was looking at lanterns similar to the ones that greeted me at the beginning of the trail, but now lit inside, allowing me to see my surroundings and stumble to them. The lanterns lit my path until I reached a Buddhist monastery. I whooped with relief and ran to it. I was so incredibly happy to see it, and it must have shown for there was a dog and a few elderly people who stared at me, unknowing what caused my joy and perhaps surprised that there was someone coming out this late. I realized that the lanterns were out today, not for me or for other hikers who might have run into trouble, but because it was Buddha’s birthday so of course everyone celebrated.

A dog looked at me strangely.
A dog looked at me strangely.

It was Buddha’s birthday. I stared up at the lanterns, which, hours earlier just seemed like a nice decoration but now saved my life.

Lanterns!
Lanterns!
MOAR lanterns!
MOAR lanterns!
Happy birthday, Buddha.
Happy birthday, Buddha.

I am extremely grateful for well-kept traditions, modern technology, and friends who will come over once you’ve had your misadventure, scold you, and then give you ice cream.

Happy, happy birthday, Buddha. And many, many thanks.

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