This is the first part of the travelogue I introduced in my post, Always Always Bring a Camera. Because I didn’t have a camera at the time, I am going to attempt to draw all the pictures in this series. I apologize in advance for my lack of artistic skill.
I was nearly faint with thirst. I had been wandering all night along mountain paths and my throat was swollen and raw. There was a rough track that went down into the valley in front of me and I took it immediately, thinking only of finding a house or a temple where I could beg some water before turning back. At this point, I did not think anything was out of the ordinary. It was true that I had never seen a golden dome like that in Korea, but I simply thought it was part of a Buddhist temple, even though Korean temples don’t have domes. It looked to be a few kilometers down the valley, so I thought I might go back and get my gear and come back for a better look.
About fifteen minutes down the trail, I came to a house with a low, earthen wall around it. The house was the first surprise I had. It had a thatched roof and rose to a high point in the middle, unlike anything I had seen before. The walls were made of reddish earth. I went through the narrow gate and saw an older woman in a light gray dress and cloak loading wood in her arms from a woodpile. She stopped and looked at me warily.
“May I have some water?” I asked in Korean. She didn’t respond and so I repeated it—the Korean word for “water” is a little hard to say correctly. When she still did not react, I resorted to miming drinking from a glass.
At last she said something to me, but I did not understand a word of it. Mountain dialects, I thought. She said it again and it sounded like a question, so I nodded slowly. After living abroad, I’ve gotten good at making assumptions about meaning based on the situation, or at least bluffing it.
The woman looked a little annoyed as she carried the wood into the house. The floor was raised as in traditional Korean houses and there were stone steps that led up to the door. I followed her to the door but did not go inside. She came out a moment later with an expensive-looking porcelain bottle in her hand, sealed with wax. She sat down and started to cut the wax off with a knife.
Oh no. It was probably alcohol and she was opening it for me, supposedly at my request. I understood now why she was annoyed. That’s why bluffing doesn’t always work. I moved to stop her and she started yelling at me, pointing to the bottle and the knife.
At that point, I just wanted to get away, but I hung on, looking around desperately for a well or some water I could show her. Finding none, I wrote the Korean word for water (물) in the dirt and then, because that had no effect, the Chinese character for it (水). She stopped then and pointed to it. I nodded and she got up and led me around to the back where there was a series of bamboo stalks tied together, all different heights, and with their tops open. It was for collecting rainwater, I saw and they had pieces of wood at the top to catch more water. The shortest one had a spigot sticking out of it, with a plug of something stuck in the end. The woman mimed taking out the plug and putting the spigot in my mouth and when when I hesitated in embarrassment, she stood next to it and bending almost double, with her head at the level of her knees, she twisted her head and put the spigot in her mouth.
I couldn’t physically do that, but I hunkered down and pulled out the stopper, which was made of some sort of hardened tree gum. Water gushed out immediately and soaked my pant leg before I could get my mouth in front of the stream. Even so, it was coming out so fast that a lot of it overflowed my mouth and splashed on the ground. The woman gave a short, unbelieving laugh, like you might make at someone who accidentally tied their own shoelaces together.
I didn’t care—the water was delicious. It was cool and had a wonderful taste that I can only describe as “light green”. After a nice long drink, I put the stopper back and stood up. I bowed in thanks, but the woman just waved it off and went back to the wood pile.
I had been planning on trying to find my way back to the sanjang where I had left my stuff, but now that I was much more refreshed, I thought I might just walk down and see what the golden dome was right away. And so I set off, going down along the forest track with birds chirping around me in the morning light and the faint smell of woodsmoke wafting through the air from the woman’s fire. I felt pretty good right about then. It was a feeling that was only going to last about six hours.