I spent five days on the island with my good friend Tira. I usually like traveling alone but she was a great travel buddy and I was really blessed she was there. Jeju itself is actually quite big and while it is accommodating to foreigners, there is a lot of effort involved in getting around if you can't speak Korean. So, thanks to her, my time there was more of a vacation and less of a headache. We spent a lot of time on the palm-lined beaches, cooling off in the clear, emerald water when it got too hot. We snapped photos with the iconic harubong. We ate well. Really well. Jeju's famous black pork was almost worth the trip and I also got to try some new dishes, such as cold cactus naengmyeon (noodles) and raw fish bibimbap. We managed to get ourselves up at 4:30AM for a breathtaking sunrise on Seongsan Sunrise Peak. Yet, the highlight of my trip was learning about and getting the opportunity to meet real Korean mermaids- minus the gills and all- known to the locals as haenyeo.
The word haenyeo literally means "sea woman" and this title appropriately defines their lives. These women make a living by making daily diving trips into the sea to gather seaweed, clams, and abalone. Using no special diving equipment, they're able to hold their breaths for up two minutes while collecting the seafood. Maybe these sea women have gills after all. In the old days, it was common for haenyeo to begin this job at the tender age of 10 and even today, it is generally an occupation that runs in the family. Women worked for 6 or 7 hours a day, not including additional hours spent on the farm. Unlike on the mainland, families in Jeju desired baby girls, as they ensured livelihood. Despite the Confucius values of Korea, women were not only the heads of their families but they also held a special place in society. So much so that they were recognized for leading the anti-Japanese campaign and protecting the haenyo culture during the occupation.
Many haenyeo can be spotted diving just off the coast while walking on the Olle-gil.
Meeting these lovely "mermaids" was a highlight of my trip to Jeju.