a tale of wood and stone

A Tale of Wood and Stone

We live on a rock bobbing gently in a dark sea, a rock swimming unceasingly around a ball of fire. The stone that our home is made of is enduring and mysterious. As it travels, we travel with it, even when we stand completely still. Some of us love our stone home, and appreciate its gifts by trying to give back as much as we take. Some of us use it simply for its resources and continue to ungraciously take more than it can offer.

ImageThings made of stone represent permanence. Something made of stone can be relied on. The reason I am thinking so much of rocks and stones is that our guide on our Dokdo trip (August 24-27, 2013) with Isabu Academy told us a story of rocks and stones that inspired me and changed my perspective about the Korean island of Dokdo. Our guide, Han Dongwan, is knowledgeable about foreign and international politics. He is also a cyclist and knows much about bicycle routes throughout Korea.

Our tour bus stopped at a site on the island of Ulleongdo near a pagoda and a few freestanding rocks. Throughout the trip we had been learning about igneous rocks, granite in particular—the kind of rock that could be found forming natural archways along the shore. We learned about how volcanic magma flows created the curious cliffs and various erratics surrounding us on our journey. Where we stopped, there were two important natural sculptures: Lion’s Rock and Helmet Summit.

This story begins with the people of Usan-guk, an area comprised of Ulleongdo and Dokdo. Their leader decided to lay siege to an island near Jeju-do. From this island, the king took off with a beautiful princess and returned from his victory, proud to have taken for a queen the most astounding beauty of the East Sea. Due to her dazzling desirability, the queen was able to acquire anything from the lascivious ruler whose passion for the queen, burning brighter with each day, bound him to being unable to refuse her a single gift. As the royal coffers emptied and the king’s army and citizens suffered, the king had no choice but to aggressively invade every kingdom within his reach. Driven to war by the queen’s endless requests and the king’s desire to fulfill them, the army became an aggressive force, though it is said they were not particularly intelligent. The queen died and the king fled to the hills to sing of his sorrow. This is the pretext of the region General Isabu came to annex in the 13th year of Silla King Jijeung, which we date AD 512.

General Isabu’s first conquest against the rowdy, uneducated followers of the lusty king was a failure. It was not until a second attempt that the general would set a precedent for future triumphs of cunning such as General Yi Sun Shin’s famous attack formation and invention of the Turtle Ship and King Sejong’s restructuring of Joseon’s cultural and innovative landscape by fostering technology, invention and the creation of the Hangul writing system.

The general planned his attack intelligently and creatively. He ordered his best carvers to create wooden statues of lions. He assumed the rough, starving warriors would be subject to the hallucination that the lions were real. He then sailed by Usan-guk, where he told the dumbfounded soldiers that he would release his lions if those brutish islanders failed to comply with Shilla’s demands for annexation. Whether the soldiers truly believed the general, or they were simply fed up with the lascivious king and his selfish excesses, the citizens of Usan-guk yielded to the ruse and Usan territory was now under the dominion of Silla.

ImageHelmet Summit represents the king’s pitched headgear, and Lion Rock represents General Isabu’s clever plot. Once the story was finished, there was talk in our tour group that another rock formed the likeness of the dead queen, but this remains unverified by the Koreans we have spoken to about this subject.

Let me tell you a little about our tour group. We came from Jeolla-do, where it is said that you can find some of Korea’s best food, including delicious dolsot bibimbap, which is served in a stone bowl. But the residents of Jeolla-do have not always been so fortunate to have an abundance of delicious food. There was a time in our region that many impoverished Jeolla residents embarked on an exodus to the former Usan territory. They named the small, beautiful island they found in the East Sea, Dokdo. In Jeolla satori, or dialect, stone was pronounced dok instead of dol, hence the name, Dokdo—the stone island. The Japanese, prior to calling the island Takeshima, called it an island of wood, Jukjo, from the word for bamboo.

On Monday, we saw the island with our own eyes. The only wood on the island is the wood that was brought to Dokdo to construct a narrow staircase to the top of the igneous slope. Wood is a natural resource, something to be harvested and used. This is another side to this tale of wood and stone.

For our entire trip I had the chance to see Dokdo as an island of stone—something enduring, reliable, and central to the foundation of Korea. I have seen the island portrayed as something unmovable, grave, and monumental through dozens of creative projects on this tour: stories, carved wooden lions, and a 3D animation of the whole island, to name only a few. I had forgotten that to some it might not be an island of permanence and monument, but a territory rich with resources and benefits such as fishing waters, passageways, national borders and regions for strategic military use.

If Dokdo is an island of wood, it is not representative of history, but convenient for the moment; it is not a site of traditions, stories and beauty, but a possession to be obtained. In my three years of living and teaching in Korea I have heard the voices of students, teachers, families and friends whose adoration was directed to the East Sea, to this pristine, beautiful island. But I have not heard the perspectives of those in nations who have recently decided they want to take control of the island for its resources. I do not know if they talk about it, construct museums dedicated to it or invest as much love and care into study and education about it as the Koreans I have spoken with do. I wonder if the kinds of pictures of Dokdo I see on billboards, in museums and framed in homes in Korea are, in another country, kept in offices, hidden in file folders marked “land acquisition”.

Finally, I wonder: Do you know Dokdo? For you, is it an island of wood, or an island of stone?


tea stories: waygookin tea


Sometime after the tah-do tea ceremony, and tea fields, and the tea master who was now studying the practice of Taoism in and around the hermitage areas of Jeonju and beyond, Summer began to fizzle and with it erupted the new school year. Halloween was upon us and our local mentor teachers were far busier planning lessons than their native-English-speaking counterparts. For the most part, we spent our days creating presentations, researching language and culture, and investing most of our time learning how to connect with students. Our Mission: to become fun foreign teachers.


So while the local teachers did things like drawing up assessments, responding to parent concerns, designing performance tasks and the like, we made Halloween costumes and terrorized the locals by pretending to be zombies and asking for brains in Korean (두뇌, or “dun-way”). There had to be a better way to immerse our waygookin (Korean for “foreigner”) group in Korean culture.

Enter: Tea.

If there’s anything you can count on finding in a typical Korean school, it’s a cupboard overflowing with tea and coffee. Korean Teachers would go out for hot beverages quite frequently, and invite along foreign English teachers for conversation clubs, incorporating lively chit-chat, conversations about books, and usually a dessert of cake, tarts or pat-bin-soo (frozen red bean).

After Halloween, I invited some friends over to join in the wonderful tea culture I had discovered. It seemed like a fleeting pastime, until the connections I made turned out to be a group of artists, philosophers, writers and travelers. The crowd were not your typical bar-going tourists. These were foreign teachers who had already seen much of the world, written about their experiences, and loved starting new projects.

We wrote, traveled, enjoyed festivals, took photographs, and had several cups of tea together. The group was ever-expanding, with our core of three-to-five regular tea-drinkers inviting more and more foreign English teachers to my little apartment in Sekyoung Tower.

Sitting in my Canadian prairie home, looking out at the freshly-fallen snow, I recollect those tea parties fondly, and wonder if there’s a home for such a vibrant tea-culture here…

travel: Five Flags in Korea

LAST FRIDAY,three Canadian expats in Korea, Steve, Alex and a weirdo who calls himself the flying fish cycled to Gyeonggi province, home of Seoul, the 11th most populated city on earth and home of the world’s biggest theme park

GET THIS. They left from a charming coastal rural town one hundred and seventy-seven kilometers (roughly a hundred and ten miles) away from Seoul thinking they could get to their destination in less than three days with next to no training.

Their friends tried to talk them out of it, but it was no use. Steve and Alex were sold on the idea. The flying fish just kept repeating the phrase: “Anything is possible.”  They had no idea how true that would be.

This Odyssey brought these three odd adventurers over mountains, across bridges, through orchards, inside dark tunnels, into an unrelenting storm and straight down into the seedy underworld of rural Korea. At times they feared for their sanity. At times they truly felt alive.

This is their story. STAY TUNED.

first episode:


From hopeful beginnings to being chased by police, diverted to the middle of nowhere and winding up at a house of ill-repute, nothing seems to turn out right… but anything is possible!

travel: 5Flags pt. 3



After a memorable night at the jimjilbang, it was now time to do what we thought would be impossible: cross the bridge into Gyeonggi province, home to Korea’s capital city. I didn’t even consider the possibility that I might not make it home in time for work the next day. All of our clothing was wet, but the sun was our dryer for a bit. Steve thought to dry his clothes at 5AM. I, on the other hand, wouldn’t have been able to wake at 5AM if the world were on fire.

Uphill riding, I like. Riding uphill sparks the flint inside this old body. My legs burn. I sweat. Everything from my toes to my nose radiate with heat. The human body is a nuclear reactor. Hack it correctly and you can do much more than you thought possible. My breathing teacher has a friend in his seventies who climbs a mountain twice a day and hasn’t had solid food in four years. Yes, it’s possible. Anything is possible.

Before entering the tiny township of Inju, where buses and trains waited to allow us an exit to our pain, we stopped and consulted. Alex, as I’ve mentioned, had the least training for this adventure. Steve and I stopped and talked about how much we admired him for taking on this suicide mission, and concluded that it would not be shameful to call it quits. Steve led the discussion.

“So, Alex, how yah feeling there, bud? I’ll bet your ass is killing you.”

I interjected, “Man, my ass is feeling pretty raw.”

He nodded with his cool disposition I had come to expect. “Naw, it’s not so much my ass but this knee.”

“Yeah, so if you like, we got this town here. Why don’t we catch a bite and think about getting home?”

“Well… let’s eat and talk about it.”


With our minds made up, we plugged on towards Yesan, and were pleasantly surprised. It turns out Yesan is filled with beautiful orchards, stretching out towards the horizon. We stopped to buy a few apples and continued our trek refreshed.

As sunset came, we approached the bridge.

Finally, we reached our destination. Cycling the bridge beside the traffic was harrowing, but by this time we’d all been through enough that it barely phased us.

Finally, we, entered the small Seoul suburb of Pyeongtaek, and took a bus to Nambu terminal in Central Seoul. The journey was at an end.

The Nambu terminal had no buses back to Gunsan. I would have to get to the other terminal. I frantically rode around, trying to find out how to get to the Express Bus terminal. I finally ended up up on a subway train with Alex and Steve. The two of them chilled out while I beamed a pair of crazy eyes. I would have to run up two giant sets of stairs with my bicycle on my shoulder and buy a tickets with only minutes to departure.

I finally felt it. I was as stressed as Alex had been the night before.

I’d asked for it. Be careful what you wish for, because anything is possible.

So concludes Five Flags. Tune in again soon for more wild stories of the flying fish!


travel: 5Flags pt 2


Hold up. You almost lost me… Let me think back and try to remember what led up to that happy elevator full of weary travelers.

In the last episode, we were hauled off by the cops to a random town. We had no idea where we were and we woke up in the only available place, which we assumed was a hooker motel on account of the provocatively dressed guest leaving at six AM and nudie wallpaper. Does that about sum it up?

Alex and Steve were still passed out cold when I threw on my riding duds and circled around town in search of coffee. I returned to base while a few telltale drops of water spat down.

I came in through a mist of shower steam and dropped my helmet on the bed. “Little rain out there.”

Thinking little of it, we set off in search of a gel seat for Alex’s plagued posterior and a bite to eat before setting off. The bicycle shop was of no help, and the restaurant we found was… unusual, to say the least. Before we could enjoy our meal, all heck broke loose.

Turns out this was no ordinary restaurant. For a moment we thought that our only menu option was boshintang (보신탕). Boshintang, known in the West as “dogmeat stew” is a controversial dish in Korea. Many young Koreans polled claimed they considered dogs to be pets, not food. Legally, dogmeat is not considered a food, so production of the meat is done under the radar. Some restaurants in small towns continue to sell it, however, and this is the cause of much protest and derision within Korea 2.

I was once asked by a Korean woman if I would like to visit her father’s place and eat dog soup. I had absolutely no opinion in the matter, so I nodded and told her it sounded fine, but we never ended up going.

Still, we talked about the possibility. I announced my vow, and we thought about leaving the restaurant. They had a lovely chicken stew, however, so we ate up and hit the road. Steve wanted to cross the bridge into Seoul’s province tonight.

I looked at him with a furrowed brow. “You mean, you want to get to Hong Seong.”

“Naw, I think we can cross the bridge.”

“Wait, where’s the bridge?”

He showed us where the bridge was. It was about twice the distance. It would mean covering about seventy kilometers in one day.

“You really think we can cross the bridge tonight?”

Steve looked at the two of us with a smile filled with all kinds of ungodly mischief. Alex gave an appreciative nod. “Well, if we set that goal, who knows, we might make it.”

By the time we got outside, the few drops of rain I felt that morning had ripened into a full-on tempest. The owner of the restaurant helped Steve put some bags on his feet. We got back on the road, this time at a much slower pace. We only stopped to do videos when the rain periodically subsided, which wasn’t often.

Our only respite from the rain was a tunnel. We stopped before it to adjust our gear and prepare for twenty-odd minutes of low lighting accompanied by rushing traffic with limited visibility. Bike-hiking the mountain under which the tunnel stretched might have been preferable.

We rode through the tunnel on a column roughly two meters wide over cement tiles loosely lining a deep gutter. We all took a deep sigh of relief once we had the privilege of getting back into the pouring rain.

It started to become dark. I rode until I couldn’t see bikelights behind me anymore. I parked my bike for a moment that turned into twenty minutes. They weren’t THAT far behind, were they? I turned around and biked like crazy. Had someone gotten into an accident? Had they stopped to rest?

I guess they saw a bike parked on the way that looked like mine, and waited. As soon as we met up, I suggested we find some food. Steve told us we were close to Hong Seong, where there would be plenty to eat.

If you live in Korea and have never stayed at a jimjilbang, a Korean-style bathhouse with saunas, hot tubs, cold dips, massages, sleeping quarters, internet cafes, restaurants and arcades, you’d better get on that. We ordered steamed pork at the bathhouse restaurant. Alex was looking pretty happy. “You know what would make this dinner just this much better? If we could order a pizza.”

Steve looked at him with a big smile. I pondered his idea skeptically. “We’re in Korea. They have a way of doing things. You don’t just order a pizza in a restaurant. You can’t even do that in Canada.”

“Yeah, but what if we could?”

“You know what, go ahead and ask. I doubt they’ll agree, but go ahead and try.”

No traveler in recorded history has been as happy as we were right then. After police sirens, a seedy hotel in the middle of nowhere, stormgods, the tunnel, and splitting up, this night was our reward.

Another day in the rain with already sopping clothes was a thought we had little desire to entertain.

Hong Seong has a bus terminal.
We don’t have to go all the way to Seoul.

Oh yeah, I forgot.
We’re obstinate.

Oh well.
There are worse things than pneumonia.

final episode:


Now that Steve, Alex and the flying fish have gotten some rest, they push on, past their limits, to cross the bridge into Gyeonggi-do. Will they make it? Don’t miss the surprising conclusion to this wild ride!

2 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/young-koreans-turn-their-noses-up-at-dog-dinners-460090.html



travel: 5Flags pt 1


Photos and videos by Stephen Wilcox, 2013. Words by Flying Fish.

We began at the Yellow Sea on a bridge tour on the west coast towards Boryeong, home of the internationally-renowned Mudfest, a summer festival that GPWT covered this year. To get to our first flag, a rural town called Seocheon, we rode through a coastal military museum park littered with dozens of machines ranging from tanks to helicopters and fighter jets.

It wasn’t until about 4:30 AM that this cakewalk was feeling more like a walk on the green mile. We were cold, tired, sore and ready to hit the hay. We crossed another coastal bridge, and still had two hours of road ahead of us. So we did what any sane cyclist would WARN YOU TO NEVER, EVER DO. We figured we’d shave an hour off our route by taking the highway for a few kilometers.

With our bellies full, we recited some mantras of “Wow, I can’t believe how far we’ve gotten,” and so on. Power of positive thinking, right? Self-deception can only do so much. We had been in Seocheon for hours. The town may be small, but its extensive farmlands stretch out across the province, beyond a horizon too dark to see. The town of Seocheon was hours behind us and Boryeong was a desert oasis, not fully real in our minds, just a symbol on a green sign reading “Boryeong 35 km”

We passed a toll booth and rode up onto the highway, cycling against traffic. We weren’t on it for thirty minutes before flashing lights and ear-shattering sirens descended upon us.

I met the police, who spoke no English. I explained that we were going to Boryeong and the officer simply repeated in simple Korean that we had to turn around. I told him that my friends an dI were very tired, and we just needed to get to the next exit. He informed me that the concrete barrier could not be traversed, and that my only option was to backtrack.

Steve arrived and I asked him to unearth his GPS system to show the officer that we only had a few kilometers before the highway turnoff. The man was unyielding. There was nothing left to do but return to the tollbooth.

Finally we reached the toll booth. Steve spent some time quizzing the officers about how to find a motel. Alex turned to us and mentioned, “Man, I’m glad we ate at that mart. I get angry when I’m hungry. I don’t know how I’d react to that if we hadn’t eaten.”

Already on the trip Alex had warned us that he hadn’t trained on a bike all that much, so we were prepared to pace ourselves. But I really wasn’t prepared for this: Alex’s stories. For instance, he told us about a guy who would spend a lot of time in the gym, teaching classes and working out. One day the guy had a terrible accident and sustained serious injuries. Alex told us all about this guy’s family responsibilities and all the people whose lives he’d helped. It occurred to me that Alex thinks deeply about other people and the good things they do.

The motel sat beside various lots of ornately carved stones and derelict buildings. We parked our bikes and walked into the motel. The motel’s door was wedged open, but it was dark inside and there was no clerk at the counter.

I opened a few doors. The rooms were all vacant. I called to Alex and Steve. “It’s possible this place is deserted. Happens all the time. Why don’t we pull our bikes in and squat for the night?” They had reservations, but the sleep god was beckoning. Just as we started out to get our bikes, an older woman crept out of the darkness and just started wailing, “ani ani ani ani!

She told us to get out, and I explained as best as I could that we were tired and needed a place to stay. She directed us to the next building over. I suspected two things: 1) this woman was squatting just as we intended to, and 2) this town doesn’t get a lot of visitors. The next building over may not have actually been a motel. I think the woman just wanted to get rid of us. It was guarded by unfriendly dogs and an older man who told us there was a sauna down the road.

The sauna was no better. It had showers, but after paying the fee we learned there was no sleeping space. The sauna owner was convinced that we had stolen five thousand won after the refund. It looked like we were going to meet the police for the second time that night.

Then our guardian angel flew in to rescue us. He came in the form of an ajashi (a middle-aged Korean man) who knew of a motel in town. He told the sauna owner that he saw the transaction and we didn’t steal any money. He walked briskly away and Steve and I struggled to keep up.

We followed our guardian angel down a dark alleyway to a poorly-lit, decrepit motel. The ajashi left and we were on our own to figure out what to do. The owners were asleep behind the window, so I rapped on the glass and awoke the woman who at first claimed to have no vacancy.

In the scramble to follow the ajashi we had abandoned Alex at the sauna. His phone battery was dead. I had no idea where he was. Considering the terrible experience he had just endured, he was the last person we should have left behind.

I wandered around the sauna, calling for Alex in a hoarse, sleepy voice. After a few minutes of this, he stepped out of the shadows. “You should have brought me with you.”

“I know. I’m sorry man, we’re all tired. We found a place.”

We approached the motel with the bicycles just as a woman wearing high boots, a short skirt and a short jacket sluggishly sauntered out of the motel. She let out a sailor’s cough and Alex raised an eyebrow. “Did you check us into a hooker motel?”


“Whatever, I just want to sleep.”

I didn’t even pause to think that we might end up on the wrong side of the law, again. The only thing running through my mind was, “I hope we don’t have to pay by the hour.


next episode


From tough decisions at the dogmeat stew restaurant to nearly losing the flying fish en route to Hong seong, “Battling the Stormgods” is one heck of a ride.
Honam Archaeological Society – Hoseo Archaeological Society (eds.) 2006. Geum-gang: Songguk-ri-hyeong Munhwa-ui Hyeongseong-gwa Baljeon (The Formation and Spread of Songguk-ri Culture in the Geum-gang River Area). Papers of the Joint Conference of the Honam and Hoseo Archaeological Societies, Gunsan.


travel: Loboc River, Philippines


As dusk hits, we are bussed to a small shack by a river. We drop off our things, don lifejackets, and get a quick lesson in kayaking. The woman asks if anyone has done this before. I reply yes, remembering the days when my family’s friend Wendell would take us out on Lake Okanagan for tours around Rattlesnake Island. The tour manager then proposes that I don’t need a guide, and I can go solo in a sea kayak. I am skirted up and we take off against the current under a darkening, star-filled sky.

The sea-kayak by comparison is much faster than the guide boats, but I am still responsible for powering myself, turning, obeying instructions quickly and keeping to whichever side of the river the guides request. My personal task is to dodge oncoming motorboat traffic and do my best not to collide with the river kayaks. I’m starting to wish I were relaxing in front of a strong-armed guide. I now see their trick. Get the guy who claims to have experience and you don’t need to send out a
guide. Hoisted upon my own ego yet again.

Nohyun and I question a guide and he is filled with information. He talks about the two combining phosphorescent chemicals in fireflies. He tells us they are poisonous to eat. I never planned on eating them, although I do come from the land of bon-dae-gee. We learn that they have an average lifespan of two weeks, and that they mate at night, using their lights to communicate with each other. He talks of the mangrove tree where they live, a tree that sends out a scent signaling to fireflies that there is abundant food beneath the tree in the claylike mud. Periodically as we paddle, some fireflies come out to meet us. Strings of brightly coloured plastic netting float by, but I might be the only one here with the night vision to see them.

I’ve been showing off. I’ve been going much faster than I ought to. I’ve been doing as I was instructed and pushing rather than pulling the water with the oars. My arms are spared, but my back is beginning to ache something fierce. We are two kilometers away from the shack, two kilometers that I am not ready to paddle. I need a rest, but I don’t want to voice my pain. The guide next to me whispers: Now we’ll really see something. We’re going to the firefly city.

We edge around the elbow, and there it is. After ten or so Mangrove trees we had seen swarming with fireflies, here is the city: a tree fully lit, looking like festive holiday decorations. The tree is shorter than most, but it is swarming with tiny lights. We sit quietly, spellbound.

Our guide whispers to me a few things about the fireflies passing by my cheek. He tells me they are males, for the females stay within the mangrove trees. Eggs are deposited in the mud beneath the trees, sometimes underwater. Another guide remarks that obnoxious motorboats disturb their habitats. We watch a motorboat putt through, its engine loud and sputtering. He laments that some tours run a motorboat straight onto the mud and up to the trees, destroying countless firefly spawn. Maybe they don’t know about that, I tell him. Maybe they don’t want to listen, replies the guide.

The guide informs us dinner is almost ready and asks us if we want to leave now. Don’t give them the option, I whisper. Nohyun laughs, understanding that this group is too polite to make a decision. Back in the shack we eat coconut rice bound in reeds alongside chicken and squares of pork. For dessert we have a stupid man game where we eat ridiculously spicy peppers no bigger than a pushpin.

A handicraft catches my eye. Most of the things here are woven reed, but this item is a colourful little change purse stitched with brightly coloured stars. It is made of plastic, probably from those colourful plastic strands of river refuse I saw in the night water. The tour manager explains to me that it has been woven by the local women. The woman who made it comes over to our table, combat-prepared and ready to bargain. I just pay her the price she has asked and her look softens into a smile.