A few days later we set off eastward from Jeju City, at the center of the island’s northern coast, on one of Mr. Lee’s scooters. The main arterial 1132 highway, which runs around the perimeter, flows smoothly due to very few stoplights, no sharp turns and minimal traf- fic — just the free and open road. Heading clockwise, the endless coast envelops our left as thick foliage rolls upward on the right. Given that buses can be few and far between and many of the sites on the interior lack public transit options, traveling by scooter is un- doubtedly the best way to explore Jeju. Since the island is a mere 73 kilometers wide and 41 kilometers north to south, it didn’t take long to get to the northeastern end. This area boasts the main geological attractions that, coupled with Hallasan itself, have earned Jeju a coveted space among the New 7 Wonders of Nature. We swung off the main road toward the famed Manjanggul lava tubes. They were created by giant columns of lava burrowing their way out of the bowels of Hallasan in an eruption now in the distant past; the behemoth black tunnels are scoured out of the rock itself, and they’re the longest of their kind in the world. Along this side road is also the Gim- nyeong Maze Park, a hedge maze fashioned after the almond shape of Jeju itself. Groups of people without wheels lined the sides of the road leading inland to these attractions, poor souls trudging along in pedes- trian purgatory under the glaring sun. Slightly farther down the coast are perhaps the most visible ambassadors of Jeju’s indigenous culture: the haenyeo, or diving women. In contrast to the mainland, Jeju society is founded on matriarchy, due largely to centuries of women controlling the income and fami- ly’s livelihood while the men were at sea. This icono- clasm of Confucian culture led Seoul policymakers to attempt to ban them from diving, but tradition reigned. The haenyeo still dive to this day, plunging to depths of up to 20 meters to gather abalone, conch and other seafood by hand, without the aid of any equipment other than a mask. When they surface, the release of pressure from their lungs emits an audible whis- tle whistle. They are known in Korean folk culture as mermaids, and written records of them stretch back several hundred years. In the Joseon period (1392–1910), Jeju was a place of exile. Cho Kwan-bin — a nobleman who was ban- ished to Jeju in 1731 — described his fate as befitting “not an ordinary sinner, but one who just escapes the death sentence.” He also wrote that after witnessing the Herculean ordeals endured by the haenyeo to har- vest abalone, he couldn’t in good conscience eat the dish ever again. The haenyeo later made history when Jeju was un- der direct Japanese imperialist control (1910 through World War II). The island played its part in the Kore- an independence movement during this time, and the haenyeo led one of the most notable acts of resistance on the island: Spurred on by outrage over regulations from the Japanese Diver’s Association, they mobilized tens of thousands of people in protest against the co- lonial government before being subjugated in a brutal crackdown. As recently as the 1960s, over 20 percent of the island’s income and over 60 percent of its fishing in- dustry came from the divers. But due to modernization and changing lifestyles, only about 5,000 haenyeo remain working today, with the vast majority being over 60 years old. Like many tra- ditional cultures globally, the Korean mermaids are at real risk of dying off (UNESCO has added them to its Intan- gible Cultural Heritage list). The Haenyeo Museum is a great place to learn more about the details of their saga. Nearby is also Seong- san Ilchulbong, known as Sunrise Peak, a small crater islet barely connected to the main island. Between the museum and this tuft cone is a small pebbly beach where a group of haenyeo dive and sell the maritime delicacies they forage from the depths to tourists watching from the shore. You haven’t seen tough until you’ve seen an 80-year- old grandma trudging out of the rocky surf carrying a bag half her weight of shellfish she’s just hand-collect- ed from the ocean floor. We drank and talked to the women in their wetsuits, cracked open shells and ate our fill. Out in the water, the shrill sirens of the sur- facing haenyeo filled the air. The wind whipped as the waves crashed against the rocks, but they seemed as indomitable as the volcanic crag towering behind them. I. MerMaIds on the stony shore you haven’t seen tough untIl you’ve seen an 80-year-old grandMa trudgIng out of the rocky surf carryIng a bag of shellfIsh half her weIght that she’d just collected by hand off the ocean floor. www.groovekorea.com / August 2014 50 Edited by Shelley DeWees (shelley@groovekorea.com) COvER STORy