Monday, August 27, 2012

Life lessons learned from camping at a Buddhist temple

Seoul Korea, 1977
When I was 16, I had one of the most amazing camping trips of my life.  I had gone on lots of fun excursions with my family before, but this one sticks out in my mind as one of the highlights of my teenage years.

The background is, I was a missionary's daughter, born and raised in Korea, attending a school built by American missionaries for children of foreigners in Korea.  Most of my friends were other American missionary kids who had been born and raised with me there.  Every spring, our school took a break from normal classes had a week or two of extracurricular activities that were meant to be learning experiences.  There were cooking classes, Chinese calligraphy lessons, archery lessons, tours of ancient Korean burial grounds, sports activities, bike rides to the closest island, and all kinds of fun stuff we could choose from.  In my junior year, our girls P.E. coach, Miss Gustafson, was chaperoning a girls week-long camping trip somewhere in Korea.  Miss Gustafson was from Minnesota and recently employed in our school and had no idea that camping in Korea would be a challenge.  We who were familiar with the country knew it was going to be rough, and we all looked to her and her expertise and great enthusiasm for the outdoors to make it fun.  

We were teenagers, used to our parents planning everything.  If a grown-up said something was going to happen, we didn't really think much about how it would happen, because it always somehow did.  We met after school in the girls' locker room to decide what to bring, how we were going to cook, who had sleeping bags and tents and where our campground would be.  Poor Miss Gustafson was shocked to find out that camping supplies were basically nonexistent, few of us had tents, canned food was expensive, and Korea in 1977 had nothing remotely close to an American or European style campground, anywhere.

Korea had been destroyed during the Korean war, and so much overpopulation kept the country in a state of just trying to find space for everyone to live.  Many people lived in shacks and eked out a living selling seafood, trinkets, coals for cooking, and anything that would keep their families fed.  The first main highway connecting the two major cities had recently been built, and Korea was full of dirt and gravel roads that wound through hills and mountains that were either solid rock faces or terraced into rice paddies.  It was amazing to see how any plot of land could be taken and made habitable by people desperate for a place to live.

So since our fearless leader had no idea how to plan for a camping trip in this strange land, it was up to us girls to figure out where we should camp.  We asked our parents who laughed at the idea of camping in a country still a bit war torn, and with no structure whatsoever to accommodate camping foreigners.  Someone's dad came up with the Buddhist temple grounds that lay outside the city of Pusan, a five hour train ride from the capital of Seoul, where we lived.  "Are there campgrounds there?" asked our coach.  "No, but the Buddhist temple has a lot of land, we could probably find some place to pitch our tents..." Of course no thought was given to getting a permit, notifying anyone, even looking at a map to see where we might be going. Coach Gustafson was clueless, and so were we.   We knew we'd have to catch a train, ride for hours and hours, then find our way to the temple and that was about as far as we could figure.  But who cared - we were going camping!

The day dawned bright and early and we all had our backpacks loaded with cans of food, clothes, pans and plates and forks, flashlights, and everything we thought we'd need.  About 12 of us were meeting at the Seoul Train Station for our train to Pusan.  My dad helped hoist the backpack out of the trunk of the car and set it on my shoulders and gave me a hug good-bye.  I stood there and thought of how unbearably heavy this thing was and wondered how I was going to actually hike with it for the next week.  I had promised to borrow a US Army tent from a GI friend of my parents at the local military post.  Coach Gustafson was counting on that tent.  I didn't have the guts to tell her that the friend didn't come through with his promise.  My mom had taken me to the closest thing that our town had of a camping store and we found the worst looking bright orange tent I had ever seen.  The tent pegs were cheap quality, there was no floor to it, there were tiny aluminum stakes that bent at the slightest pressure, and it was small.  Real small.

"Hey Sansom (my maiden name) you got the tent?" asked Coach.

"Yeah, I got it right here in my backpack," I said as confidently as I could.

I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that when we opened up all of our tents at night, that I would be in big trouble.  But it was still morning and who knows, maybe something amazing would happen before then.  Maybe someone will see us in the train and just hand us a free tent.  Maybe my tent would transform into a beautiful all-weather, high quality piece of camping gear. Maybe everybody else's tents were just as lousy as mine and no one would know the difference.  Too late now, the train had pulled into the station and it was time to board.

More tomorrow...


Baithuti said...

Oh no! To be a teenager...sounds like you were about to learn a lesson, can't wait for the end of the story.

Anonymous said...

Ohhhh! What a great story, I couldn't help but laugh about the tent! LOL :)