We left Seoul on a rapid bus. The idea of camping was still fresh from our hike in southern Japan. This time we were going to a surf town that supposedly has good waves for beginners. We were not very impressed with Busan or Seoul so the decision to go camping was easy.

After a few hours of public bus roller coaster action we arrived in a small town called Mallipo. We had called a surf shop the day before that told us about a campsite nearby. We found the shop closed, but a girl came to the door to let us know they would be open the next day. We asked about camping and she pointed to the road and signaled “down there”. As we walked to the campsite we noticed the lack of waves and thought they’re not suitable for surfing. No problem, we can always go for a walk or maybe ask about paddle-boarding.

It was around 15:30 and I couldn’t see the horizon over the yellow sea. My first thought was that it’s because of the clouds, but on second thought I realized it was all pollution! The sky blends into the sea and we can’t see the horizon. The village seemed run down with garbage at every corner. The trash bins were empty but yet surrounded by garbage. Cats roamed free scavenging whatever food they could find in the garbage. It’s mid May and the breeze felt cold and a thick layer of bright yellow pollen covered the town. Instantly I worried about Selina’s allergies. We found a place to camp and slowly set up, contemplating, whether or not we wanted to stay. “There’re still buses going back to Seoul” we said to each other. But we decided to stay, at least for two nights versus the initial three that we had planned on.

There were some restaurants in town, mostly seafood, though they looked bland. We noticed school kids at the beach and stopped to look. They were playing some sort of flag races to see who’s fastest. Five contestants and only three flags; one grabbed two and gave one to the last person, which meant the second place was eliminated. Now there were three contestants and only one flag. The “two flag” kid from the previous round won easily. We kept walking to find there was no grocery store, only convenience stores to buy something for dinner. I felt depressed and wanted to leave. Sadly South Korea had not been that impressive. We reminded ourselves that traveling is not always about great food, stress-free days of relaxing or exploring, or postcard-perfect scenery with the “best” stories to share on social media. We decided to make light of the situation and simply enjoy each other’s companies: we got some canned sweet corn, cheese for the corn, some ramen and sausage for the ramen.

This time we didn’t get camping fuel and had rubbing alcohol instead. This way we could try using the alcohol stove we had brought and hadn’t used. It worked quite well: it boiled the canned corn in a few minutes and water for the dry ramen in about 15-20 minutes. And instead of having to spend a few dollars on fuel, we only needed a bottle of rubbing alcohol for a dollar. During dinner we had the company of a stray cat wandering around us and teaching us a new sound for “meowing”. This cat sounded like a five year old with bad whooping cough, or an old sailor that’s been smoking a pack of cigars a day his entire life. Without harming the cat we tried to scare it away with the hope it wouldn’t come back in the middle of the night to serenade us some more with its hoarse meowing.

After dinner we decided to watch the sunset. And funny enough, when the sun was below the pollution, the sky cleared up for a little bit, then we watched the sunset in a way I never thought possible; into a thick layer of pollution. [Looking back after all we’ve seen and learned in the last four months, I wonder if this ‘sunset’ will be normal in the future]. With daylight left we accepted the fact that the sun would not melt into the yellow sea and we went back to the tent, did some reading and fell asleep quickly.

Throughout the night the old sailor cat made sure to keep guard at the campsite. Luckily the slightest move inside the tent scared it away and it wasn’t a huge deal to sleep again. In the morning -still laying down and inside our sleeping bags- we decided to abandon our plans at the beach and went back to Seoul instead. At least in the city there were more things to do.

I felt bad that South Korea gets most of its pollution from China, and I wondered if we even want to go visit China on this trip. But it’s not all China’s fault; for the time we’re in South Korea, I noticed the abundance of buses and lack of electric powered cars, trucks, etc. ; all contributing to the pollution. There’s wealth and modernity and lots of smart people in the country, yet they rank as one of the lowest in air quality. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

Back to our failed surfing experience: at the bus station we waited an hour for the bus. Meanwhile I found us an affordable hostel in Seoul -in a neighborhood that’s supposed to be swanky- with free breakfast and bicycles! Maybe we could explore the city on two wheels! But if there’s one thing I’ve learned so far on this trip is to not have expectations and will wait to find out on the bicycle situation.

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