▲ The day certainly gave the models something to chew on. Here Jeju Weekly photographer Douglas MacDonald mulls something over -- his tongue. Photo courtesy Korea Tourism Organization
There are some moments in life that come at you like a picture, frozen by their strangeness. I had one of those moments a couple of Sundays ago, as I found myself crouching in the sand below Mt. Sanbangsan in a baggy wetsuit, beside a Russian model, her boyfriend, and Jeju Weekly photographer Douglas MacDonald, eating raw sea urchin gonads off the dirty glove of a haenyeo while attempting to look photogenic for the Korea Tourism Organization camera crew.
I had met the camera crew that morning at the Shilla Hotel in Jungmun, where Douglas and I had been told we would work as models to accompany a professional model, Maria Nikitina, for a series of photo shoots advertising Jeju Island. The work was to promote the Jeju MICE industry, a growing sector of the local tourism industry comprising business meetings, incentive tours, conferences and events or exhibitions.
It was raining when the van dropped us off at the haenyeo building for our first shoot. We ducked through the rain to the changing rooms, where three “haenyeo” (diving women) chattered away as they dressed Maria and me in wetsuits. I stood there passively, holding out an arm or a leg as requested while the haenyeo used hot water to work the wetsuit up over my skin. Meanwhile I had the chance to chat with Maria, who I found to be genuinely kind and unassuming.
We picked up our green nets and orange buoys, or “taewak,” and walked down through the tide pools in pastel-colored slippers and black socks. The photographer followed us into the water, balancing his camera as he stumbled over shallow rocks.
It is, we soon learned, somewhat difficult to look photogenic with your face underwater.
▲ Tamara Lang gets the make-up treatment before being released around the island for modelling duties with the Korea Tourism Organization. Photo courtesy Tamara Lang
After some puttering about, we clambered back up on the rocks to take pictures with our catch. As I hadn’t known we were supposed to be pursuing a catch, my bag was depressingly empty – just two large whelks that a haenyeo had given me with a look of profound pity. Luckily, our guides were far more capable, and they plucked extra urchins and whelks their nets. The haenyeo closest to me cracked open the test of a sea urchin, then scooped out the bright orange gonads and held her finger to my mouth. The whelks soon met a similar fate.
Our photos captured, we drove to a holiday apartment where a makeup artist loaded my face with more cosmetics than I wear in a given year. Transformed, we headed to our final shoot: the Shilla Hotel, where we were to experience “glamping,” or glamour camping.
I expected no more than something several degrees removed from my own 10,000 won camping set-up, so I was completely taken by surprise when we walked into a glade of a dozen or so elegant canvas tents. Stepping inside, we were met by a table set with wine glasses, while a record player and an iPad rested on the mantle of a shimmering imitation fireplace.
The real treat, though, was still to come. After the photographer had taken a few shots of us chatting “naturally,” a waiter brought out bowls of abalone porridge, followed by hors d’oeuvres and some light salads that were almost too beautiful to eat. Meanwhile our own personal chef manned the grill outside, where we observed the saga of a hopeful lobster.
▲ Here author Tamara Lang studies an abalone as part of her duties as a haenyeo. Photo courtesy Korea Tourism Organization
Soon, though, the lobster visited our table along with his entourage of abalone, prawns, and whelks, all of which tasted exquisite with their accompaniment of champagne. Following closely came sausages, black pork, and the absolutely perfect steak. The red wine was, in my expert opinion, not Emart wine. Finally came pasta with scallops and shrimp, followed by a dessert plate of soufflés and a chocolate sea that welcomed us to Jeju in so many words.
At each course we were photographed looking very authentically pleased, staggered with several slow-motion cheers. At a few points we discussed “business” while looking at an iPad at the head of the table; the business consisted mostly of comments about the font.
After one last shoot of the four of us sampling sparkling wine in a lounge, Douglas and I changed back into street clothes for the trek back into Jeju City. De-glamorized, I said goodbye to Maria, then walked back out through the parking lot of the hotel the same way I had come – soaked to the knees from the rain, and ever so happy.
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