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  • Writer's pictureSarah Carter

Jeju Island, South Korea

If you had asked me back in May if I knew anything about Jeju Island, South Korea, I would have looked at you with tilted-questioning-dog-face. No clue. I could not have picked it out on a map and I certainly had no aspirations of going there. Then I read a book, The Island of Sea Women, with a book club I am in and all of that changed. I learned about the matriarchal society that existed on Jeju, prior to World War II, and revolved around a very specific group of women known as Haenyeo. These women woke up before dawn everyday, dressed in their hand made diving gear, then carried their baskets, floats, and other gear to the sea shores where they met fellow divers to set off to gather treasures from the sea. They began learning their trade from the time they could walk and kept it up until well in their 80's in some cases. It truly was a cradle to grave occupation that they not only embraced but were fiercely proud of and wrapped their entire identity around.

The women formed groups they called collectives. There were several collectives all around the island and every collective worked a portion of the sea which they came to know intimately. From day one each diver was trained on their responsibilities to the group, to use of each piece of their dive gear, the intricacies of collecting sea life, the many dangers of the sea, and the rewards of their vocation. When I say dive gear, I do not mean tanks, fins, and wet suits like we wear now. I mean a crude weight belt, monocular face mask, a dive knife, and a web bag to store collected sea creatures. They were FREE DIVERS!

WWII brought outsiders to the island who had never experienced a society so different from their outside ways. The islanders received next to no support from their mainland counterparts so they ceded everything to the invading outsiders to include thousands of lives and their matriarchal way of life. It did not escape the new power that there was money to be made in the sea so they did not disband the Haenyeo entirely. They "restructured" the collectives so that all the profits from the sea life went to the pockets of those in power rather than to the families of the divers. Slowly the Haenyeo life style faded. Today, it can only be found in a museum and during twice-daily diving cultural demonstration when the tide is right.

My book club friends and I determined we had to see this place! The scenery described by author Lisa Lee was striking, the food sounded memorable beyond words, and we felt connected to these women at some base level. Just going site seeing on the island did not seem like it did these heroines justice. We decided to sign on for a challenge that felt like a worthy homage - a 10 kilometer trail run through land these women lived on, worked in, and fought for. It tested each one of us at every turn (especially the wrong ones and the ones that took us up steep stairs) but we all finished! The following days of the trip were filled with hiking (walking this time), site seeing, shopping, and tasting every version of local cuisine we could think of or had heard of. We even tried the famed black pigs from the book that I did not think I would sample given what they ate back in the day the book was set.

The laughs we shared and the memories made over those four days will make for stories I tell for years to come. The pictures capture pieces of it but to say "you had have to have been there to fully understand" is an understatement. I absolutely recommend that you read this book then take a trip to walk the village paths they walked, see the rocky shores they braved to feed their families, and yes try the pig. You do not have to be a history buff to appreciate this beautiful tropical island's story.

The next book we will be talking about here in this book corner is Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. If meditation has ever been a goal (or New Year's resolution) of yours, Bhante will undoubtedly inspire you with is expertise and insights. Pick up a copy today and join the conversation on Dec 6th. I would love to hear from you! Please comment below, reach out on my socials, or shoot me an email. Happy adventuring!

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