One of the reasons Ulleungdo is so pristine is that it’s hard to get to. The island is small and mountainous, and there’s no airport. The only way there is by boat.
From the port of Pohang, it’s about a two-and-a-half hour boat ride, assuming all goes well. Leading up to our trip, my Mom was worried that it wouldn’t. Rain was in the forecast, and the East Sea is notoriously fickle.
I was less concerned. I knew it was a large boat, and I figured that if the weather was good enough for us to go, we’d be okay. My sister, Jessica, in her usual ultra-organized fashion, had packed Dramamine and Sea-Bands, these mystical bracelets that were supposed to ward off seasickness. I declined both. Jessica and my Mom opted for the wrist-bands. The Kim family is hardy… and medicine-averse. We’d be fine.
The good news? My no-vomit streak of almost three years remains alive and well.
The bad news? About 200 people, including my Mom and Jessica, were not so lucky.
There was no sign of the horror that was to come when we arrived at the port early in the morning. Although the sky was gray, the sea looked calm. The boat itself was a large catamaran that carried about 400 people, and it looked strong and stable.
Boarding the boat, we got our first hints of the unpleasantness to come. The inside felt stuffy and crowded. Many of the passengers had brought floor mats, which they placed in the aisles and sat in picnic-style. There were large windows all along the walls, but most of them had been painted over with tacky images of the island.
Koreans are obsessed with television. There are widescreen televisions everywhere, playing a constant stream of weepy dramas and obnoxious reality television. Our ferry was no exception. There it was, planted in front of all of us, blocking the gorgeous view we would have had had the windows not been painted over.
We sat among a large tour group of middle-aged travelers, mostly women. You could barely hear yourself over the din of excited chatter, intermixed with the cacophony of silliness that was streaming from the television.
Although the sea had seemed calm, the boat was rocking from the start. At first, it seemed like a minor nuisance, like driving on a road with minor bumps here and there. Occasionally, the bumps turned to swells, eliciting screams of amusement, followed by a rise in excited chatter.
My own amusement soon became boredom, and I began to feel drowsy. My senses had been on full alert since arriving in Korea, and my weariness from travel and jetlag was finally getting the best of me.
I dozed off.
About an hour later, I stirred. Something strange was happening on the boat. I listened, still only half-conscious, and realized that the chattering had completely subsided, replaced by almost total stillness, interrupted by the occasional sound of yakking. My eyes were still closed, and my brain was unwilling to process this. I could not be hearing what I thought I was hearing. It must be a dream.
I opened my eyes and looked around. Silence. People were draped over their chairs and on the floors, their faces pale. I looked over at Jessica and my Mom. My Mom was leaning forward, with her head against the back of the chair in front of her, her face scrunched in deep concentration. Jessica just looked miserable.
“I threw up,” she said.
“Uh huh,” I responded. I leaned back again, still unable to process what was happening around me. “Wait, what?”
“I threw up. And Mom feels like throwing up.”
Jessica described what happened, and I listened, saddened by their misery, still unable to process the other sounds I was hearing throughout the boat.
“Drink some water,” I urged them. They drank some water, and I closed my eyes again.
Silence, yak, silence, yak, yak, yak. I opened my eyes again, this time fully conscious, and I finally realized what was happening. People were barfing all over the boat. It was a symphony of yaks, and I had an orchestra seat.
My Mom sooned joined the chorus, and I turned to help her. The boat had supplied everyone with these comically inadequate plastic barf bags. Jessica had taken things into her own hands, pulling out two large shopping bags, one of which my Mom was painfully filling with the remnants of that morning’s meal. Then Jessica rejoined the fray.
As I did my best to comfort my family members, I tried to tune out the sounds around me. All that did was shift attention away from the sound to the smell. Imagine 200 people on an unventilated boat retching continuously for an hour. The whole place reeked of regurgitated ramen and spicy 반찬. It was like the blueberry pie scene from Stand By Me, only with smell-o-vision.
The motion of the boat wasn’t bothering me, but the smell and the sound were starting to take its toll, and I began thinking nostalgically about my no-vomit streak. Trying to ignore what was happening around me was only making me more conscious, so I changed tactics and tried to soak (figuratively) everything in.
I scanned the boat, sympathetically observing my fellow passengers, as the boat staff ran around futilely with fistfuls of lilliputian barf bags. I cracked inappropriate jokes and avoided the subsequent glares from my Mom and sister, who were doing an impressive job of filling their shopping bags.
Thanks to the weather, our trip took an hour longer than expected. Watching 400 mostly seasick passengers disembark from a stuffy, smelly boat after three hours of continuous ralphing, I understood for the first time what true gratitude looked like.
As I helped my Mom and Jessica off the boat, grateful for the fresh air and stable land, we all thought the same thing: Ulleungdo had better be worth it.
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