The Haenyo: The Women Divers of Jeju.
Take a close look at the picture to your left. It is a Jeju cliche, having Tangerines, thatched Jeju House blah blah blah.
However there is a statue celebrating the Haenyo (Diving Women). The "Haenyo," or female divers, of Jeju Island are born, grow up and die near the sea. Their lives revolve around the water where they harvest abalone, conch and a myriad of other marine products. These women are a unique breed.
Many divers supplement their income from diving with other jobs, and when the tides are not right, the women busy themselves with household tasks and work in the fields. But as the peak tide approaches, Haenyo make their way to the rocky shores, and even in relatively rough water they will dive. I have seen them.
The divers usually can remain underwater for up to 2 minutes in water up to 20 meters-deep. When the Haenyo do rise to the surface they call that long breath of nitrogen which makes a whistling sound a "sumbi-sori." The Haenyos' job can be dangerous as well as difficult, because they are occasionally attacked by poisonous jellyfish, sharks and other ocean predators.
In the past, the divers worked for daily subsistence, but with the modernization of the Korean economy and the improvement of relations with Japan, the divers have been able to export many of their products, such as abalone and conches, to Japan, making a good cash income. Many of the Haenyo for Co-op restaurants, some of which lik ethe 'Ojo Haenyo Eui Jib' are quite renown. Even we ate there. However there is a down side to this additional income. Young Women from Jeju go to Scholl now, and even leave Jeju for the mailnland to study, and reject a life of diving. Thus, while there were up to 30,000 female divers on the island in the 1950s, by the beginning of the 1980s, this number dwindled to approximately 10,000, abd is expected to continue to decline until female divers of Jeju Island are little more than a footnote in the history of the island.
Ben lives in Hallim which is, unfortunately, an hour’s bus ride from Cheju city, so we got started rather late on Saturday. We’d just missed our connecting bus to the national park so had to kill an hour having breakfast. Turned out to be an interesting experience as Ben was served a vast array of seafood and I got a steaming bowl of rice, vegetables and raw beef. The man next to us introduced himself and, with the help of body language and business cards, we learned that he was 77 years old and was once the world champion jump-roper. He must’ve just come from a workout at the nearby stadium, as he was still wearing his official Olympic tank top from the middle of the last century, and he proudly showed us his very empty breakfast dishes; it was not yet 10am and this man had completely polished off two bowls of rice, a huge bowl of soup and at least 5 side dishes.
Then on to Halla mountain, in the center of the national park at the center of Cheju island. At 1950 meters, Halla is the tallest mountain in Korea, but the bus actually takes you halfway up and the last 200 meters are closed to the public so the vegetation can regenerate, so it was actually a pretty easy hike. We went up the Orimok trail, which is about 5 kilometers of lung-busting wooden stairs. After about an hour, though, the trail levels off a bit and widens out so you can take in some of the scenery that Cheju is so famous for. It took us about an hour and half to reach the summit (or as close to it as we were allowed to get) but we were disappointed by the heavy haze that blanketed the horizon. Not much of a view, unfortunately, and all my pictures are fuzzy. We went down the other side, on the Yongshil trail, which is about the same length but has far fewer stairs, and were at the bottom by 3pm.
We hitched a ride back to Cheju city (only in Korea would I feel perfectly safe doing this!) and then caught a cab to the middle of nowhere where we had yet another fascinating dining experience. Cheju is famous for food – seafood, horsemeat and, apparently, pheasant. Our chef took us out to the backyard and let us watch as he expertly caught and beheaded a large bird for our dinner. Our meal came in courses – or stages, as the owner’s son (a Japanese major at university) proudly explained. It started with all the usual side dishes, plus some raw pheasant heart (tough and pretty tasteless), and then strips of meat were brought out for us to cook ourselves on the table grill. We wrapped the meat in lettuce and ate it like samgypsal. Then a pot of salted water with onions and mushrooms was placed on the grill and we were given thin shavings of raw meat to dip into the boiling water to cook. Each piece only took a couple of seconds and then we were to dip it into a mustard sauce and eat it with lettuce. Our third course was probably the best. Suejebee (a kind of thick, glutinous rice noodle) and buckwheat noodles were added to our pot of water, as was any leftover meat from the previous two courses. We let it cook for a while and then ate it like soup. Yummy, yummy, exploding tummy!