Out with the new, in with the old

  • Published : Mar 29, 2010 - 23:21
  • Updated : Mar 29, 2010 - 23:21


Below the 38th parallel it could be said there are two Koreas. On the one hand there is urban Korea, represented in boisterous style by noise, neon, and numbers. On the other, there is the Korea of the countryside full of quiet, calm, and humility. Some would say this is the real Korea.
Unfortunately, it is also the side of Korea that too often goes unrecognized by international travelers.
The phenomenon known as "WWOOF-ing," however, gives travelers the opportunity to experience the Korean countryside first hand.
No, it has nothing to do with dogs. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Founded in the United Kingdom in 1971, WWOOF has been a pioneer of the ecotourism movement. It reached Korea in 1996 and has been operating successfully since.
"(WWOOF) is part of a world-wide effort to link volunteers with organic farmers," explains Jade Jo, the head of the Korea chapter. "Volunteers learn about organic food, farming, and ways of life in the countryside."
The idea is for travelers to live and work on organic Korean farms for a certain period of time. As well as learning the philosophy and practice of organic farming, volunteers embrace and experience a way of life absent in Korean cities.
The initiative draws travellers from a vast array of countries to the Korean countryside.
Frenchman Samuel Bimbot heard about the program through an enthusiastic friend. Last year he traveled from France to work at Sandeul, an organic sweet potato farm in Gyeonggi Province.
"I was planning to travel all over Korea and try different farms and learn different organic processes," he recalls. "But I ended up staying solely at Sandeul because I felt so well there."
He raves about his time at the farm. "It is always wonderful to meet real people and experience real life," he says.
But the main reason he decided to stay so long was his admiration for the owner of the farm, Kum Kyeong-nyong.
"He seems to me one in a million," says Bimbot. "Such a great mix of kindness, joy, and humility.
"In order to understand my stay there," Bimbot concludes, "just picture yourself working with such a positive man and family. It doesn`t seem like work at all."
Fellow travelers relay similarly rewarding experiences.
American Matt Bennett is currently working at Seoul Farm on picturesque Jeju Island. Located on a hillside overlooking the sea, Bennett lives with the Oh family, farming tangerines and hallabong.
He initially stumbled across WWOOF while trawling the internet, but he explains that the experience has since taken on a deeply emotional, quasi-spiritual aspect.
Bennett originally came to Korea with his grandfather, who was in the late stages of cancer. They were here to try an experimental stem-cell treatment, and although his grandfather passed away in August, the two grew extremely close in the two months they lived together in Korea.
"I got my love of travel from my grandfather," Bennett explains. "He was an agricultural scientist. He travelled around the world lecturing and consequently introduced me to many different cultures at a young age. Coming back to Korea and working on farms seemed like a fitting pursuit."
But it is far from your normal tourism. Volunteers are there to work, and the work is hard, even in winter when there is less than usual to do. Before his time with the Oh family, Bennett worked on the Kim family`s tangerine and hallabong farm, also on Jeju.
"When we worked, we worked hard," he recalls, "which I liked because I like to earn my way." His jobs included boxing and delivering fruit, weeding, and hauling carts. "At the end of the workday I was good and sore and slept better than I have in years." This week, he will help the Oh family harvest the hallabongs.
But despite what travelers learn about organic farming and organic living, perhaps the greater rewards are to be found in the lasting relationships that are formed.
"The Kim family were really nice to me," Bennett says. "They made me feel welcome - like an old friend coming to visit." The Oh family have been similarly welcoming. "Both families have a standing offer to come and stay with me in America."
Serbian Dag Kleva worked for four months on a farm in Gangwon province. He formed such a bond with the family that they keep in touch weekly. He is planning to return, this time for a much longer period of time.
But it is a two-way street.
"I believe the key word is `exchange,`" says Jo from WWOOF Korea. "Volunteers help hosts in exchange for food, accommodation and education while simultaneously exchanging their own cultures and views."
Remarkably, these cross-cultural bonds are often made even despite the fact that host families do not always speak English.
"Initially," Bennett recalls, "the language barrier was daunting because my Korean was limited to hello/goodbye, please/thankyou, and not much else. Mr. Kim spoke some English but much of our communication was accomplished nonverbally."
Indeed, some shared experiences do not require the spoken word. Living a rural life with a rural family regularly exposes volunteers to cultural rituals and activities they would never ordinarily encounter. Traditional weddings, funerals, and shamanist rituals are just a few, not to mention truly authentic, organic, home-made Korean cuisine.
"I enjoyed my time in Seoul," Bennett says, "but in many ways, cities are cities the world over. I wanted to experience the real Korea."
Frenchman Bimbot agrees. "I hate the idea that people could live here, maybe find an occupation here, but then leave and find they`ve just lived the way they used to live at home, with the same habits."
Indeed, many volunteers highlight the way their experience has changed them as people. Bennett sums it up perfectly.
"Anyone can visit a foreign land, see the sights, and take lots of pictures. These things can`t compare to making real connections with people. Cheoncheonhi. Again and again I have heard these words. Slowly - eat slowly, walk slowly, work slowly. Enjoy yourself. Live in the moment. Cheoncheonhi. And that has made all the difference."

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By Paddy Wood