Week 32: Couchsurfing
As you may know, I spent the last week in Jeju feeling all the loneliness my little heart could handle. It was, and is, partly this phase in my life of navigating who I am, what I want in relationships, and how to make life work; partly being in a new country (on an island, no less) on my own; partly just the rhythms of life that we all cycle through.
I have been trying to feel it at its core when it comes, let it pass though me, and then let it go. Avoiding loneliness with food, busyness, or forced connections stifles *all the things.* When I allow it to have its moment, it eventually departs, giving space for true connection and joy to follow in its sad wake.
Last week, a friend told me about Couchsurfing, a popular company designed to help travelers connect with each other and with locals (and maybe sleep on their couches).
I'm skeptical about these things - and indeed Couchsurfing is full of people, mostly men, treating the app as Tinder 2.0 - but it sounds like I could also meet a lot of intriguing locals who want to share their culture with foreigners, as long as I’m careful about who I meet and what I do.
So I sign up and join a hiking event to climb Hallasan, the highest mountain in Korea. Hallasan is actually a volcano, and responsible for creating the southern island of Jeju thousands of years ago.
(Fun fact: ‘san’ means mountain in several East Asian languages, so Fujisan is Mt. Fuji, Hallasan is Mt. Halla, etc.)
The event is initiated by a Jeju local, Miya, who is actually from Seoul, and two English travelers she is hosting for two nights. I am the only other person to respond to the event, so I meet them at the bus stop, and off we go.
Sim and Nathan, the Bri’ish folks, are my age and are nomading it through Russia, Mongolia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Nepal, etc. I once had to cancel my 6-month study abroad plans in Mongolia because I was told I couldn’t be vegetarian there, but somehow these two spent a while roaming through the steppes as vegans.
Miya loves makgeolli (pronounced makkoli), a traditional Korean rice wine, and sneaks a bottle up the mountain to accompany lunch (no alcohol in national parks, which is kind of hilarious given the general national sentiment towards liquor).
She’s in her mid-forties, but she seems, acts, and looks like she’s in her early thirties. I feel much closer to her in age than I actually am, but she has a youthful, curious spirit. It’s not immature, it’s not her trying to act younger, it’s that she genuinely has some kind of je-ne-sais-quoi inner fountain that overflows with…life, perhaps.
She’s planning on walking El Camino de Santiago for the fourth time in September, this time the Portugal route.
After we’ve spent a sweaty three hours climbing Hallasan, we rest for twenty minutes at the top, admire the crater, encounter cicadas in an unpleasant way, and head down another trail. I’ve just booked an Airbnb for my remaining time in Jeju, but Miya invites me to stay with her for a whopping seven days.
Couchsurfing hosts usually host each surfer for a max of 3 days — probably due to not knowing the person beforehand — so I feel very fortunate that we met in person through hiking, and she extended her apartment on her own.
I cancel my Airbnb, #24hrcancellationFTW. When I move to her place in two days, she shows me the spare room. Over the next week, she takes me to a local market, introduces me to the enchanting magic of sikye and tteokbokki*, shows me how to cook Korean dishes without meat, takes me to a vegetarian traditional Korean restaurant, takes me to a high-quality Korean traditional medical spa where I receive moxibustion (look it up), cupping, acupuncture, and foot bath all for under $20, invites me to her friends house, and talks to me about surviving cancer, her experiences on the camino, and her feelings, as a well-traveled Korean, about Korean culture and sentiments towards other nations.
*sikhye and teokbokki are the most divine foods ever, don’t question it.
My experience of Jeju has changed with the company of one person.
I wonder: what is it that determines when a person’s difficult spell, or dry spell, or lonely spell - is over? The person herself? That most vague and enchanting of notions: destiny? A combination? Maybe not sheer will, but an acceptance of the current states of affairs - messy emotions and all - and a willingness to wait it out?
Is it more passive than waiting? Perhaps a willingness to explore them, to walk through that uncharted darkness that is waiting to be illumined…not by another person, but by loving attention to oneself? Is it simply taking steps to change an external situation, or is it an internal process alone, or is it an inner expedition that by its mere presence seeps out into external action?
I’m not as cleancut a human being as to ride off into the Jeju sunsets, happy as the clams that are still underwater, not yet sold as dinner in the traditional Dongmun Market. I experience waves of emotions on this trip, waves that ebb and flow with the stirrings of my sometimes hurting heart.
A few weeks later, in Seoul, I attend the MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, if you must know) and see a deeply moving exhibition by Korean abstract artist Hyong-keun. His paintings and words have not left my mind’s eye. He passed in 2007, but his art and insights are eternal. In a diary entry from 1980, he writes:
“When we get emotional, it’s because we’re feeling all emotions at once: joy, sorrow, grief, and happiness. Sorrow is the inverse of joy. In other words, the ultimate beauty is joy and sorrow, simultaneously. That’s why art — especially the most beautiful art — is always sad. Maybe that’s why our saddest moments and happiest moments both bring tears to our eyes.”
I cannot describe the way this hit my heartstrings; these words resonate in my inner core with impact and reach across the human experience — at least mine — in timeless reverberations.
*cue dramatic music*
Even according to ancient Indian teachings, the highest form of love is thought to be pure love in separation from the beloved (well, that beloved is THE Beloved). In other words, union in separation.
But let’s go back to Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing gives me the gift of company this week, and I bring all these deep things up to say that both connection with another and feeling one’s individuality -- sometimes aloneness, although I do not believe we are truly ever alone — are two components of the same experience. I use his painting - one of many that illustrate heaven, earth, and the gate between them — to embody this conception. (One day I’ll write a post on him - the man’s on a whole other level.)
It’s not that Miya becomes my best friend or that we share our deepest secrets with each other, but this opportunity affords me the gift of a real, genuine connection with another person that subverts the intricacies of culture while also providing insight into it…Korean for me, American for her.
At the time of writing, I have also met with locals, both women, in Seoul (for lunch) and in Chengdu (to see the city). These have been very enriching experiences and I feel the meaning of my travels has significantly deepened by the individuals who met with me. Thank you Miya, Bo, and Luyao.