Chujado, an interview with the only foreigner living and working on the island, Jeju, South Korea
There is much hubbub at the Chujado passenger terminal as the 9:30 am Pink Dolphin arrives from Jeju. It is an unusually busy dockside as families reunite and part ways for the Seollal holiday. A collection of fishing boats bob calmly in their places sleeping off their previous night’s work. Across from them a thin strip of storefronts spread around the harbour with an unplanned morass of blue and red-roofed buildings. They give way to steeply rising hills, one of which is the location for Chujado lighthouse, unlit during these daylight hours. The sky is blue though partially cloudy. There is a fleeting warmth from the February sunshine above.
Visiting fishermen with serious looking equipment make their way towards the rich fishing grounds. Another visiting foreigner makes an introduction before boarding the solitary island bus service that has just arrived. From that arriving bus steps Calvin Rains, the first and only foreigner to be based here permanently, teaching English at the three schools. I immediately warm up to Calvin and his geniality as we fall into conversation about Chujado life.
We are in Daeseo, the largest of the villages and he’s pointing out the biggest supermarket, the only post office and smattering of fish restaurants. A short walk takes us to an overlooking bluff and we see how precariously close to the water Daeseo sits. With a population of about one thousand three hundred: “basically this island seems to consist of about five little villages,” Calvin details. “Cargo comes in at my end of the island… that’s Sinyang, somewhere over the hills” he says pointing.
Coming back to the dockside there’s a sudden stillness hanging in the air. With the Pink Dolphin gone the only sound is the irregular put-put of a scooter or rushing wind of a passing vehicle. The odd child sits on a wall here and there. However, from the community centre the continuous drone and banging of gongs begins celebrating the Seollal holiday. This is a rare disturbance in the otherwise tranquil air.
“The big thing about this island is fishing,” Calvin continues. “Whenever I mention it to Korean’s that’s what they say… best place in all of Korea.” And judging by the bait shops, accommodation logos and Korean tourist literature that is indeed true.
With minimal facilities on the island for residents I ask him if he finds himself getting bored. He answers with a straight “no”. “I watch TV, I do a lot of Internet like Skype. A lot of walks and hikes.” The school plays a large role in his social life too with clubs and dinners. Going to Jeju is always an option, when the ferry runs of course. “That’s the only way to get out of here… there’s a heliport. I’ve seen one helicopter but it’s really for medical emergencies. You can probably charter it too, but it probably costs a fortune… [The] first week of January I was stuck here for a week… I was supposed to be in China” Calvin says.
Following a visit to the lighthouse, we journey to Calvin’s end of the island, Sinyang, jumping on the bus as it stops for gas. Peering out through the window we’re precariously on the edge again A few of the five villages pass by and we notice that there is even less here – no chain convenience stores, perhaps one or two pension’s catering for fisherman. The school is the largest and most modern building around. We ask some locals about a beach but we’re unable to find the sand.
With the sun going down and darkness approaching we return to Daeseo for an evening meal, though due to the holiday choices are even more limited (a polite restaurant owner who should really be closed whipped up Kimchi-Jiggae). Now there is noise and commotion from the harbour front as groups of men move about the night between the sprinkling of bars. A piercing light emits from the lighthouse above.
We wait for the last bus that will take Calvin home. I move from foot to foot to keep warm as the temperature has dropped considerably. As it departs I turn to my Minbak, pulling up my collar up against the chill. And take time to admire the lone foreigner that chooses to live out here : “I could come here for six months or a year,” he had said earlier. With the six months almost over it seems as if he’ll be here six months more- on this fascinating, isolated, and overlooked edge of Korea.