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My next door neighbour is the landlord’s mother. Like most Korean ladies in their senior years she doesn’t like cats and I was told a few months ago not to let Soul out of my groundfloor window. Instead I take her for an hour each day to the mountainside next to my house. She is scared of strangers and so we go to the quiet grassy patch that is home to two buddhist style mound graves and overlooks the city. From there we can scramble up the wooded slope behind us. In earlier months it was a red world of dappled sunlight and raining leaves. These days even the big rocks have a carpet of thick white and brown which Soul sinks into as she gallops past my legs.

 For a little while it seemed as though we had these slopes to ourselves. I’d take up a flask of tea and my guitar and sing a very liberal interpretation of Folsom Prison Blues to the last of the dragonflies. This past month however, the slope has grown more popular.

 First I noticed an empty birdcage, tied to a tree in the middle of the woods. Then an ‘off the path’ hiker came meandering down into our territory, much to Soul’s miaow-filled distress. One afternoon I saw that, not far from the unofficial ‘entrance’ to the slope, some of the sticks and leaves that cover the earth had been disturbed, in a rough two metre circle. It wasn’t defined enough a shape to have an obvious purpose, but clearly either a human or another large animal had moved the surface of the forest floor. In the same place as this clearing there then appeared an empty hamster cage, also tied to a tree. 

 One day, as Soul played around the tombs, I looked up to see that we were being watched, by another black and white cat sitting on a rock up where Soul and I walk. It felt like a mirror themed déjà vu. She was gone by the time we climbed up to where she’d been sat, watching us instead from the undergrowth far away.

 The next find was a pig’s head. Again near the ‘circle clearing’, it was positioned snout up, and coming out of an orange plastic bag. And for some reason I wasn’t even very surprised. I read a little about Korean Shamanism when I first arrived here and found out that pig heads are often used in ‘good fortune’ ceremonies. I concluded then, pretty logically, that some modern shamans had chosen the same hidden yet accessible woodland for their night time magical rituals as I had our walks. 

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 It was a few days later that I discovered a message written in sticks on the grassy patch near the tombs… I took a photo and showed a Korean friend who couldn’t decipher it, and I think the sticks had already been muddled.

I wasn’t too perturbed by the stick message or the pigs head (the empty bird and hamster cages stuck me as more sinister), but when there was a loud rustling in the same area not long afterwards I stood, heart beating and still, until out of a pile of leaves jumped a black and white kitten. Realising their size difference Soul took chase after it, over branches and leaves and, not trusting her intentions, I chased after Soul. I got there first and took Soul to a different part of the mountain that day.

We’ve been watched by black and white kittens since, from a distance, the head has disappeared (I don’t miss it), and there hasn’t been anymore indecipherable messages yet. A friend suggested that perhaps I could go to a different place to walk the cat. I answered, true or not, that ‘we were there first’. But I realised that actually I just quite like being part of this motley collection of oddities, all drawn to the same small fragment of a big mountain. 

I wrote this title without thinking much about it, and just now noticed how un-British it is. Yes, I say ‘movies’ now. I also say ‘damn’ to mean ‘wow, great’ and have celebrated thanksgiving twice. Not only are 80% of the foreign people I know here American, American English is pretty entrenched in Korea. It’s easier to roll with it than insist, every time, that soccer is actually football and fall is a silly word for such a lovely season…

Back to the subject – movies.

There is a DVD rental store down the bottom of my road which I at first had to muster courage to even go into. My film-watching decreased over summer, but as winter creeps up again I have started to return: to peruse the DVD cover pictures and make an ‘in-the-dark’ decision about what to watch on a dark school night.

These days the couple who run the store advise me on movie selections and waiver the fee for late returns. Yesterday they also helped me position the ‘Cat House’ I’d made (a rather clever construction made from cardboard, polystyrene and old jumpers) for the feral mumcat and her young kittens living in a rubbish-filled alley next to their shop. The cultural difference in attitudes towards animals has been the hardest for me to accept and deal with since being here, and I was touched warmly by their help in my crazy cat lady task.

Korean cinema, by the way, is excellent. Perhaps to balance a real-life cynicism, I have a penchant for Romances: my favourite Korean movies so far are ‘Architecture 101’ and ‘Always’, both well-crafted and satisfyingly emotional. Yet choosing from covers alone sets me up for surprises sometimes. I can select what appears to be an escapist romance, only to be haunted for weeks by the twisted plot of a bloody crime thriller. Luckily there is a cat living in my (actual) house who would scare off any evil intruders by glaring at them from underneath the bed… So, no worries there.

It is one year ago that I flew to Korea, nervously practicing ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’ in my head and wondering how cold it would get. I now know how cold it gets (pretty chilly), have a slightly larger Korean vocabulary and I am not nervous anymore. 

This country has effected me in many ways. These days I brush my teeth after every meal, order extra kimchi like nobody’s business and have started asking people ‘where are you going ‘ as a casual greeting. I am addicted to avid skin scrubbing and dread the day when weekly spas are no longer in my life. I nod along to K-pop songs and answer ‘maybe’ at least twice as much as I used to. I am used to being surrounded by glorious, peaceful mountains with their many paths and colourful pagodas. My bowing anxiety has greatly diminished, making my daily photcopying trips to the communal teachers room a bit more relaxed: I now just bob away casually while watching the students on gate monitering duty chase the late girls for their name and class number. 

 
I re-signed my contract with this school which I know is the right move. The students and my co-teachers are wonderful and I love the freedom to plan my own lessons from scratch. Yet I can feel those year-long itchy feet tapping toes in my subconscious. For my life is good here – comfortable and rich and rewarding – but it is not new any longer, and it does not scare me. So I must delve into my own resources to find newness and challenge: writing, climbing, playing guitar; perhaps learning more Korean and teaching myself how to save save save for future adventures.
Belén Lobos

Photojournalist- Periodista independiente

Sophia Sheridan

en-route to something, somewhere, it began...

another side of the world

Teaching in Yangsan, South Korea. Travelling where the wind blows.

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