▲ Young volunteers from NGO Global Inner Peace joined Sagye diving women for beach duties. Photo by Douglas Macdonald
“Yang! Maengshimhaeng hapseo,” said a septuagenarian diving woman, urging caution in the local language, spoken at its purist by her own haenyeo community on Jeju’s south coast.
Looking far from safe herself, she was bent double and reaching into the waves to liberate one more clump of hijiki seaweed with her sickle.
My part of the bargain was simple: lug the 30kg bags of seaweed back across the wet volcanic rocks, rock pools and slick patches of glistening algae to the van behind the sand dunes.
I had been at it for four hours, my muscles were aching and I considered it a miracle that I had not yet snapped an ankle or become more closely acquainted with the seabed of Sagye village.
I had more faith in the footing of the score or so haenyeo who skipped over the rocks in their 5,000 won plastic slipons, making light work of the wet and sagging algal loot.
I had arrived in the morning with young volunteers from NGO Global Inner Peace thinking it was a straightforward beach cleanup; when the Sagye diving women turned up in full diving gear and brandishing blades I knew things were somewhat amiss.
▲ A Sagye diving woman. Photo by Douglas Macdonald
“These are for collecting the tot seaweed,” said one haenyeo as she waved the steel tool in front of my face with a grin.
The haenyeo (and even one of Jeju’s rare “haenam” male divers) took with intent toward the rocks and crashing waves. We were thrown bags and told, “We will pick it. You fill these up and take them back to the truck.”
I bent to pick up the first bag, throwing it over my shoulder with a twist of my torso, prompting my intestines to poke my abdominal wall. As the sea water poured over my back, and then squelched down my pants and into my socks, I knew a hard day of labor was ahead of me.
After an hour or so, once the initial pain had become routine, I started to enjoy it. I had never worked so closely with Jeju’s diving women and they were clearly thankful we were helping the annual harvest of their marine commons.
▲ Volunteers joined haenyeo for the seaweed harvest at Sagye Photo by Douglas Macdonald
For almost five hours we lugged bag after bag from the coast to the truck. I began to treat it as a test of endurance. When my shoulders could take no more, I balanced the sacks on my head. When my neck muscles gave out, I clutched the bags to my chest.
Upon reaching the truck I would fling in the bag and turn back to the coast. Each time the number of bags waiting for my return seemed to double as the gang of haenyeo endlessly cut, sliced and tore seaweed from the rocks.
Recognizing our pain, the haenyeo would flash a smile or a “sokatsuda” in respectful thanks as they passed.
As the day finally ended, and we sat cramped in the truck on the way back to the harbor, one of the magisterial women turned to me with a smile. “This is the most seaweed the village has harvested in 70 years,” she said.
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