POINTED OUT BY monstrous penis structures, some that seem to have erupted out of the ground like huge mushrooms, and some, dressed in a bow tie, hanging from a chain like a signpost in a medieval village, I move past shapes of stone men and women—and occasionally animals—in various postures of copulation, beyond a ‘masturbation-cycle’ two women are daring each other to mount, to reach a shop at the edge of the park.
There is a gaggle of giggling girls and excitable men here. It is night. Outside, the dim lights seem more inclined to reveal sexual devices and structures than the park itself. Inside in the shop, amidst bright lights, is a museum of sex toys and figurines. There are ashtrays with men getting it on with women, blow up crotch dolls, key chains, fridge magnets, beer openers and pen stands of male and female private parts… and suddenly, I feel something large and tubular thrust into my hands. A middle- aged bespectacled woman, the shopkeeper, has pushed it. And she is switching something on. “Understanding, understanding,” she is saying. And even before I can resist, the thing comes alive. It glows a phosphorescent orange and shakes wildly, as if it has ingested a snake. The shopkeeper’s face is contorting into an expression, the most emotive I have so far encountered on a South Korean face not being framed for a cellphone photograph. She is smiling, I realise. “Understanding, understanding,” she continues to say. And then she pushes some hidden button. And the tubular thing shakes more wildly. It is a dildo, I realise. “You take,” the shopkeeper is saying in broken English, “and you put it, okay, you put it…” And I nod in embarrassment as she takes the next several minutes to animatedly explain to me the use of a dildo.
I am at a sex park in the South Korean island of Jeju. This one, called Loveland—there are two more on this island—spread out across an area that could easily fit two football stadiums, was once dubbed by Huffington Post as the kinkiest theme park in the world. And it’s evident why.
At the park entrance is a playpen where parents can drop their children so they can experience the park unencumbered. But tonight, at least one family has managed to smuggle their little ones in. They are climbing enormous sculptures of nude men and women as their goading parents ask them to hold this piece or that and pose for photographs.
Jeju is a beautiful semi-tropical island, some 714 sq m in all. Located at the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, it is about three times the size of Seoul, yet has an estimated population of only about 600,000 residents. I am here at the invitation of the Korea Tourism Organization. Some 480 km west is the Chinese coastline. Japan is even closer, just 177 km to the east.
Often called the Hawaii of Korea, much of the island is made of volcanic rock. Unlike Seoul, which is said to be like any other modern city, Jeju is full of natural attractions, from splendid hiking trails on coastal mountains to magnificent beaches. The island was recently crowned one of the new seven wonders of the natural world. There are several dormant volcanoes here with tourists milling around the crater rim to view, almost as though it were a modern circular stadium, a variety of flowers and trees. There are peaks that you climb endlessly only to discover at a sudden cliff that you have reached the eastern tip of South Korea. And throughout the island you will see small mountains, many of which have risen out of the sea because of underwater volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago, rising above the most verdant forests and pretty citrus orchards. The island has an immense extinct volcano, Mount Halla, at its centre, and the world’s longest lava tunnel, a Unesco World Heritage spot, that goes on for several kilometres. You know only bats live here, but it is so dark, cold and wet that when you walk alone, the myths of these being the homes of fire-breathing dragons appear distinctly possible.
Upon these natural beauties, men have built their own contributions. Everywhere, there appears to be a museum. There are museums dedicated to the weirdest fascinations—from sex, chocolates, Hello Kitty merchandise, seashells, Greek mythology, to even three museums dedicated to teddy bears. One popular venue is a K-Pop arena, where an entire building is dedicated to Korean pop culture. Here, inside a closed room with other visitors, a very real life-like concert with holograms of pop stars like Psy is recreated. Sometimes they will call you out on to the stage, select an image of your face and cast it on another dancing hologram.
The island has unsurprisingly been the most popular domestic holiday destination for mainland Koreans, especially those on a honeymoon. In all, it is about three times the size of Phuket, and rivals or perhaps even beats it in sheer beauty, but it is said to attract just one-sixth its number of international tourists. In the last few years, the government has tried to rectify that and begun to promote it as a holiday destination to the Chinese by allowing them to enter without a visa. With that push has come an influx of Chinese, and the growing fear of being overrun by them. There are now signs and posters in Mandarin asking people to follow traffic rules and not litter or piss in public.
The Koreans, at least the ones you come across in Jeju, are exceptionally polite. Bank tellers will rise from their seats to welcome visitors. Many will speak often with their hands folded behind their backs. A driver will choose to wait for the driver in front to lift his eyes from his cellphone to see that the traffic signal has turned green instead of alerting him by a honk. I heard a driver honk only once. And it had startled everyone, from fellow drivers at the traffic signal to pedestrians, all of whom turned to find behind the windshield of the offending car two hands raised in apology. The fellow’s hands had slipped on the car-honk by mistake, it appeared.
Couples often match their clothes here. At restaurants, everyone from the waiters to servers have bluetooth earpieces plugged into their ears, looking quite like unsmiling characters out of a Matrix film, so they can relay orders without jotting anything down. Faces are rarely expressive, unless they are smiling for a cellphone photograph. Many of them carry toothbrushes with them as they go about their day so they can brush after every meal. Cosmetic surgery is supposedly big here, like the rest of South Korea. One tour guide, examining a small scar in a traveller’s nose with practiced eyes, tells her, “I know a good doctor. Next visit, you call, he will wipe it out.”
JEJU IS MOST famous for its sea-women or haenyeo. For ages, women from the island have dived deep into the waters of the Korea Strait, wearing only flippers and goggles and without any breathing apparatus, to scour the sea bottom for abalone, conch and octopus. There are several stories about the origin of this tradition. Some say a significant number of men perished at sea centuries ago, either at wars or deep-sea fishing accidents, leaving only women to fend for themselves and their families. Others say, sometime in the 18th century, many men began to quit fishing after the monarchy in Korea began to impose high taxes on abalone fishing, leaving only the women to dive into the waters. The guide we are travelling with, whose mother herself was a haenyeo, has an easier explanation. He gestures with his hands and says, “Men only liked to sleep or drink.”
These sea women dive as much as 30 metres deep, and are said to be able to hold their breaths for as long as three minutes. They do this, it is said, till the last day of their pregnancy, and are back to work in less than three days after childbirth, earning them, in the Korean mainland, the reputation of being very tough women.
Trekking up the Seonsang Ilchulbong Peak at the eastern edge of the island, I notice along the waters below a group of five sea women preparing for work. Dressed in black rubber suits and goggles, and carrying with them fish-nets tied to a bright orange taewak or buoys, they walk over slippery rocks with a sure footedness missing in others, until they eventually disappear into the sea. It is a cold depressing day. Morning showers have cast the entire peak and the beautiful sea below into a sombre mood. At a distance, all you can see of the haenyeo are their bright orange taewaks, afloat on the surface like large Halloween pumpkins.
About an hour later, they return. Stout and short, some of them whistling, the five haenyeo emerge from the water, carrying in their nets what little they have been able to catch today. It is only when they remove their goggles that you realise that all of them are at well over 50 years old. One looks at least in her late sixties.
Turns out, this is a dying profession. With the tourism boom, younger women understandably prefer to work in hotels or tourism offices instead of plunging into icy cold waters. On tourist requests, some of the haenyeo break into an old ballad that one local translates as, ‘I dive with a coffin on the head’.
One of the haenyeo, the oldest among them, is now resting at the shack. There all sorts of fishes, octopuses and crabs now held captive in a small tank of water. Every few minutes, an order arrives from the cafe nearby, and the raw version of a requested delicacy is scooped out from the tank.
An order arrives, this one for a large octopus. When the two women try but fail to move it out, the old haenyeo rises, muttering something that sounds like a cuss word. She plunges her old wrinkled hand into the tank, and in less than a minute, brings out a large octopus, its eight tentacles tightly wrapped around her hand. The two women bring out tongs and other similar looking implements to wean the octopus off her hand.
But the ageing haenyeo is in no mood for indulgences today. Signalling for them to back away, she gives her hand a hard shake and a jerk, and the cephalopod is now magically transferred onto a steel plate. Scooping out octopuses is tricky. Plating, it appears, is a cakewalk.