Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.
Where we are: Jeju Island, South Korea, where it’s still rainy season. So. Much. Rain. I’m pretty sure there’s moss growing on my northern side.
It probably comes as no surprise that I’m a bookworm. I have a long history with books about travel. Back in my suburban soccer mom days, I favored titles like No Touch Monkey and Sand in My Bra and Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals (all actual books that I have actually read). They were all of a type: ‘I went on this really long backpacking trip on a shoestring budget and all these amusing/horrifying/eye-opening adventures changed me for life.’ It was escapism at its finest.
I don’t read those books anymore. My life (pre-Covid, anyway) pretty much looks like one of those books, when it doesn’t look like a tediously long day spent in front of the computer because #rainyseason.
Now I prefer location-specific books that teach me a little something about where we are. History, biography, memoir, and of course fiction—all can add texture and depth to our experience of a place. When we were in Panama, I read (listened to, actually) David McCullough’s massive volume about the building of the Panama Canal. Every afternoon Lee and I would walk back to our hotel after lunch, sweating in the sticky heat, and I’d yammer on about how yellow fever and malaria nearly derailed the construction, or how the workers struggled with sunburn and heat exhaustion, or how the French and American politicians who were clamoring for the canal, but had never been to Panama, had no earthly idea what they were getting into. When we went to the Canal visitor center, we were both absolutely fascinated by the extraordinary feats of engineering that had enabled massive ships to glide across that tiny, swampy, bug-infested spit of land. Thank you, Mr. Mccollough.
I do still, on occasion, revert to type and pick up one of those mildly humorous travel memoirs—there was one about an American who took his young child to Hong Kong, for reasons I can’t remember, and struggled with the food. That was reassuring; we went to Hong Kong very early in our travels, and this vegetarian-who-doesn’t-speak-Cantonese struggled mightily with the food. I really felt for the child in that scenario.
Eat, Pray, Love was a fun one, as well. I hated the book the first time I picked it up, back when it first came out, but when I finally got around to actually finishing it (and watching the movie), we were in Bali, and locals were able to point out filming locations, which is always mildly entertaining.
I’ve read several books about South Korea since we arrived in the country—about the war, about the fraught relationships with Japan and China, about the economic growth and cultural changes of the last fifty years.
But the book that’s going to stay with me is a novel by Lisa See, called The Island of Sea Women. It’s set here on Jeju Island; I got about halfway through the book, and checked the map, just out of curiosity. It turns out the majority of the story takes place in a village about 5 miles up the road from us.
A difficult fact that we’ve learned in our travels is that human history is littered with war and destruction. Jeju Island, it turns out, is no exception. Nowadays it’s a tourist hotspot. Lee read recently that the most heavily trafficked flight route in the world is Seoul to Jeju—now, but also pre-Covid. But for much of the twentieth century, it was either occupied or war-torn, or both. The manicured walking trails and abundant hotels present a tourism face that belies the tragic history of this beautiful spot.
The haenyo—the sea women of the title—still dive in the waters surrounding the island. The history of their female-only collectives, a stark contrast to South Korea’s historically patriarchal Confucian past, is beautifully portrayed in this book. See’s book follows one particular diver over the course of seventy eventful years, from 1938 to 2008.
It’s a beautiful, thought-provoking book, full of strong, earthy women engaging in dangerous work. There’s one particularly violent scene (the war and destruction I mentioned above), in roughly the middle of the book, so keep that in mind if you’re sensitive, but the violence is well-balanced with complex characters and relationships. It’s absolutely worth picking up if you’re looking for something that will transport you to a time and a place that have nothing to do with Covid-19.
Because ultimately, that’s the beauty of fiction, right? Call it armchair travel, or escapism, or whatever expresses the joy you get from stories. Fiction can take you places, or it can show you exactly where you already are.
I’m always looking for another good read (and given the way things are going in the world, that armchair travel is going to be back in rotation) —give a shout if you have any suggestions.
From my writer’s notebook: Fun fact—rare and antique books are even easier to steal/smuggle than paintings. The rare book trade is a tiny, fascinating corner of the world, filled with quirky characters and stories of unexpected bravery, as well as unexpected depravity.
Take, for instance, the rare books collection at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. A former archivist was recently convicted of stealing from the collection that he was meant to be protecting and caring for. Apparently he’d been nabbing one item at a time—sometimes even cutting pages out with an X-Acto knife—and walking out with them, for nearly twenty years. He had an ongoing agreement with a nearby rare book dealer, to whom he would sell the items. Over the years, the two stole over 300 items from the library, one of which was a 400-year-old Pilgrim-era Bible, which was traced to a museum in the Netherlands last year. The museum willingly returned it (wrapped in bubble wrap, which proves once again that you just never know when you’re going to need some bubble wrap, either to relieve quarantine boredom, or to solve a crime).
Anyway. The upshot of that long, rambling story is this: never underestimate a bookworm. 😜
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