After a month of a bad news fueled fug, I finally got back out. All due respect to the horrors, the death, the downward spiral of the election cycle, but nobody can stay in that headspace for long without going crazy. We all need a balance. It’s also important to remember why we are going through all the hardship, and why we have to keep fighting for what’s right. So I headed over to Boryeong for the big famous Mud Festival. This post is about 30% a report on the festival and the rest is focused on the great things that happened to me there to help me recharge all my joy batteries.
One of the tour groups here (Enjoy Korea) which had taken me to the Namhae Anchovy Festival decided to offer a trip to this muddy event and after some research I decided that it would be overall better to take their chartered bus and let them deal with the pension than to try to do it myself. I saw amazing pictures like this one all over their website, Facebook and the internet in general. It’s on the beach as well, which is always a winning proposition. So I got all packed up, bathing suit, all the sunscreen, extra clothes and of course my towel, and set off for an adventure.
It’s becoming stunningly clear to me that Korea has a subtle disconnect between expectation and reality. Historically, reality has shown me that if you read a great description, but show up and it’s not true that you’re in for a disappointing time. In Korea, however, I’ll read a great description, show up to find it isn’t true, expect to be disappointed, then actually have a great time and walk away wondering why they didn’t just describe the real awesomeness in the first place. This trip was no exception.
The Expectation vs The Reality
Boryeong is on the opposite side of the country, a little south on the coast of Taean, where we went to see the tulips. It took us about 5 hours to get there, but it was nice because we were on one bus the whole time and didn’t have to think about anything. We got there around 2pm, and quickly went to drop our stuff off in the room and change. We also had to go hunt down booze and waterproof pouches for our phones and wallets. So, it was probably after 3pm by the time we got TO the festival. This may be the only real complaint that I have about the tour trip. The main festival attractions closed down at 6pm, so we didn’t have a lot of time to try all the activities before they were done.
Our group (right) expectations were all pretty much the same. We had been led to believe that there would be a giant mud pit on the beach where people went crazy with mud wrestling and mud chicken, and mud races, and that off to the side there would be some pools and water slides. When we arrived, we kept looking past all the inflatable slides, trying to find the mud pit without success. Finally, I stopped a couple of caucasian dudes who were reasonably muddy and asked where it was. I was informed to my shock and dismay that people were basically getting muddy by going over to one of the large pots of mud and splashing it on each other. … Wut.
It turns out that the main festival is on Daecheon Beach, which is a beautiful sandy beach, and the mud has to be trucked in for the array of water slides and inflatable games. No wonder it was watered down. Several of the photos I’d seen online were not actually from Daecheon at all, but from the actual mud flats themselves in Namgok-dong, where smaller events, including a 5k mud run, are held. The mud festival lasts about 2 weeks and we were just arriving in town for the last weekend. I didn’t even learn about the mud flats until after we got back, but we wouldn’t have had enough time to visit them that day anyway. Don’t take this map as gospel, because all I could find was the name of the mud flats, so this is just a rough idea of how far the mud beaches are from where the big party is. And while the mud beach looks totally like everything I was promised, the Mud festival itself looks like this.
At Daecheon Beach, the only way to access the mud was to go inside the fenced in area, which also meant abandoning our booze and shoes. So we chugged our soju and headed in to see what there was to see. What there was to see were lines (or queues depending on where you’re from). Queues forever. As we selected a line to stand in, we looked around with a great deal of skepticism. The mud wasn’t mud, it was more like pottery slip (grayish brown water with some clay dissolved in it). All the activities were filled with this muddy water and people are mostly clean (if wet) because going into an activity means you wash off any of the thicker “mud” you may have acquired being splashed while in line.
The line we were in was for the football (soccer) arena. It was an inflated pool with inflated goals on either end. The muddy water was about mid-calf depth and the ball was an inflatable beach ball. It did look fun, but after the first 30 minutes of standing in line, we were seriously questioning our life decisions . We took turns holding the group place in the queue so people could get out and go pee, and finally it was our turn to get in the arena. We lined up against a group of Koreans and began to chase the beach ball around the pool.
So. Much. Fun.
Something magical happened in the moment we began to play. All of my adult cares suddenly drifted away and the whole world was splooshing through the slippery not-quite-mud with a bunch of other grown ups who were all busily engaged in reviving their inner children. I don’t know how many times I fell down, trying to take a kick at the ball and loosing my footing, but I couldn’t stop smiling. I don’t know what the rules were supposed to be, or how many points were scored, but eventually, a referee came by to stop the game and pronounced the Korean team the winner. We lined up across from each other and we bowed to them and promptly got splashed to oblivion by the winning team.
My jaw hurt from laughing and smiling so hard. I felt like the Joker (pre-Heath Ledger), a permanent huge grin stuck in place. All I wanted to do was get in line for every other game available, but my top goal was the giant slide. My friend described it later as “a dirty inflatable playground for drunk adults. It was all my dreams come true.” And the best part is that there was a dirty inflatable playground for kids in a separate area, so we didn’t have to worry about any rugrats underfoot!
The line for the tall slide wasn’t too bad, but we lost a few people to the short slide and to the bathroom line. Korea has figured out that women need more bathrooms than men, so there’s been a standard 3:1 portapotty ratio at nearly every festival I’ve been to. This has usually been successful, but for some reason, the lines for the men’s bathrooms here were awful.
The weather was also being (at least for me) amazing. I was expecting to spend a day blistering under the sun and worrying about my sunscreen washing off, while using mud like an African elephant to cool my head and shoulders. Instead it was cloudy and barely warm with a lovely breeze. I don’t think it could have been more than 24 C, and I was blissing out on the total absence of heat and humidity, but some people were cold. North Americans formed heat barriers around South Africans while standing in line in an attempt to keep them warm.
I was surprised to find that the giant slide dumped me outside the fenced in area, especially since my shoes were back on the other side at the entrance where I’d been asked to leave them. I reconnected with some of the group and managed to get back inside right before they closed down. We got in one more line for the floating hamster wheel (which is a serious upper body work out, by the way, especially when it’s slippery!) but alas when we got out, the other attractions were closing down.
This is not to say the festivities were over, just that the inflatable pools and slides were no longer open and we had to rely on the simple pleasures of booze, beach and interesting people. The cool weather was also accompanied by some rough seas, so the “no swimming” signs were up and we were limited to wading in the fierce waves. The sea water was surprisingly warm, however, and we lingered around the surf for quite a while.
Your Moment of (Femini)Zen
The girl I was hanging out with is quite pretty and was approached several times by very flirty guys. One very determined guy came over to us in the waves and started chatting. His body language was very much “hey baby” and she was clearly interested in return. It looked like they were off to a good start, but then it got neggy. For those of you who don’t know, “negging” is the tactic of using subtle insults to break down a woman’s self esteem and raise a man’s own social value by comparison, thus making her feel vulnerable and perceive him as desirable. It is widely advocated by pick up artists.
First, he started talking about his sister. How can this possibly go well? Because “you remind me of my sister” is already not a sexy pickup line and he decided to go with “My sister is hotter than you” instead. She was staring at him like, did you really just say that? But she was also doing the thing we’ve been trained to do as women, and not making a big deal about it. She did point out how weird it was, but in a kind of lighthearted “ha-ha” way. I flat up called him Jamie Lannister, but it didn’t even make a dent. He tried to deny saying it, but never actually retracted it even when we both insisted he had said it more than once.
At this point I was not happy about the situation, but I didn’t want to make her more uncomfortable, so I leaned over and whispered to her that if she wanted help ditching this guy to let me know. She was still into him, I guess because she wasn’t looking for a long term relationship here, she was willing to overlook some drunken weirdness. Then he busts out telling her she looks old! Now, I don’t think old people are necessarily unattractive, but in the patois of courtship, telling a woman she looks old is a crazy insult. I can tell she’s still trying to keep it all fun and funny even though it’s bothering her. Finally, she asked me what I thought about going back to this guy’s room. You don’t really want me to say, I told her. (because I’m going to drop a feminism bomb and generally people at parties don’t groove on that) But she insisted.
So, I let it go in the kindest way possible. I point out that he’s using these destructive techniques of insulting her to break down her self esteem and make her a more vulnerable target for the hook up. I also point out how crazy and unnecessary it was because she was into him before he started doing it. I even tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and told him he probably wasn’t even aware he was doing it, but had just been trained to treat women that way in order to fulfill the equally toxic version of masculinity he’d been taught he had to live up to. (the alternative being to accuse him of actively engaging in pick up chicanery) I told him I didn’t think it was his fault, but that he could start changing by being nice to the girls he wanted to be with instead of breaking them down.
I’m not telling this story to toot my own femism horn. I was really nervous to say these things out loud. I was scared the guy would get hostile. Worse, I was scared the girl I was trying to help would reject me, tell me I was overreacting or reading too much into it, or that it was “just a joke”. I’m telling this story because it was scary and hard. So if you think these things and are scared to say them out loud, know you aren’t alone, but also know this:
I watched her face as I was talking and it was like this gargantuan wave of relief that someone else was saying what she was thinking. She instantly agreed with me and after the guy gave up and wandered off (yay no agro), she thanked me for saying those things. And the nice part is, later in the evening, when she eventually found the guy she wanted to hook up with, I felt confident wishing her well because I believe that she’d been reminded of her own self worth and had found a guy that would make her feel good.
Oppan Gangnam Style
Returning from the beach to find the eerily abandoned mud park, it didn’t take me long to get to my other favorite travel activity: talking to new people! I ran into someone I’d met briefly in one of the lines who had also ended up separated from his group. We wandered around the waterfront chatting, and ended up having a great conversation about our lives and travels which was totally unmarred by any awkward flirting. Why I love A-spectrum folks: you can dive straight into a deep and meaningful conversation without all that useless weather-sports-job chit chat.
While we were talking, I found out that the K-pop sensation Psy was scheduled to perform on the beach. Which, again, just goes to highlight how bizzaro Korea is about promoting events, because there had been no mention in anything I read about this. In case you’ve been living under a box, Psy is the singer of the international sensation “Gangnam Style”, so he’s not just famous here in Korea, but nearly everywhere. I mean, imagine if you went to a festival and then halfway through someone was like oh yeah, Beyonce is gonna perform, too.
My newfound conversation buddy had a bus out that night, so was anxious about getting to see the show, and of course, whether or not the number one hit would be performed before he had to take off. When the music started, we were up on the street. The whole bluff overlooking the sea was packed with people, most of them holding up phones to see the stage. Maybe they were recording, but generally they were using the phone screen as a kind of remote lens so they could see over the heads of the crowd.
It was impossible to get close to the railing and get a view, but I noticed through the throng that the beach near the water was almost completely empty. The stage was set up on the beach as close to the bluffs as possible, but it’s not a deep beach and the performance area was less than 30 meters from the ocean. We started walking away from the stage to find a place to break through the crowds and get down onto the sand, and by following the shoreline back up, we got very close to the stage indeed.
I don’t get star-struck too much, but I have to say that it was a highly surreal and awesome experience to be standing in the sand with the waves crashing a few meters to my left and Psy performing a few meters to my right. There’s something intoxicating and fulfilling about a huge crowd of happy people, and I will never get tired of looking around and going, “This is really my life! Wow!” And, in case you were wondering, my conversation companion did get to see Gangnam Style and we danced like idiots in the sand.
After the music, I drifted back to the sea to do some more wading. It didn’t occur to me to take my shoes off since they were waterproof sandals. Unfortunately, the tide was dangerously strong, and in addition to taking the sand out from under my feet, one particularly intense wave took the shoe right off of my foot! After a few minutes of feeling around in the sand with my toes to see if it was buried there, I gave up on the shoe and headed inland where I promptly met some more friendly people who chatted with me and shared their beer, while I looked for a cheap pair of beach sandals to replace the ones I’d lost to the sea.
When they set off, i found myself alone once again with zero idea where any of my original group had gotten to, but I was entirely sanguine about it. As I walked up to the bathrooms before beginning a quest for food, I looked over and spotted my Busan Bestie standing in front of the convenience store chatting with a group of blondes. I can’t even tell you how many thousands of people were there that night, but we found each other without the aid of any social media. My bestie and went down to sit in the sand and one more of our starting troupe wandered up to join us. With our core group reassembled, we chatted about our experiences from the day and generally enjoyed ourselves. After a while of holding still on the waterfront, I finally started to feel the chill everyone was talking about and we got up to try to find food.
It’s not that food is absent from Korean festivals, but they don’t have food stalls the way we might see in the West which are full of food that’s meant to be eaten while walking. Korean food is a very social event, so even at festivals, they serve food alongside a place to sit down with big group and eat it. As a consequence, the mud festival did not have much food on offer because there was nowhere to sit and eat it. Most of us hadn’t eaten since before leaving Busan and had a hefty appetite by midnight.
We found a chicken and pizza shop on the main road, but then because there were no tables, we joined a couple more military guys at their booth and they promptly shared their chicken and beer with us. We had ordered the cheese chicken, which is not like chicken Parmesan, and is instead a sort of fried chicken coated in the kind of cheese powder more often associated with cheese flavored popcorn. It’s actually not bad, and when you’re starving from a long day of drinking and playing on the beach it’s practically food of the gods. Of course we shared back with the Army guys, and they left us most of a pitcher of beer when it was time for them to take off.
The chicken was really filling and the pizza took foreeeever. Just as I was starting to think it might be worth taking the loss just to get out of there, they finally brought it to us in a box. I figured I’d eat it for breakfast, but then we became the bearers of serendipity rather than the receivers. On the way back to our pension, I ran into some more revelers who were super eager to find out where we got the pizza. Since it was still hot and untouched, I offered to sell it to them for what I bought it for (no pizza profiteering). I think the Korean girlfriend was going to cry she was so happy, and just couldn’t believe that a pizza fell into their laps. It makes me happy to know that somewhere, someone is telling the story of how they were drunk and starving at the Mud Festival when this white chick came outta nowhere with a hot pizza for them.
Ondol Again, Off Again
Sleeping arrangements were sparse but adequate. At least this time, I knew I was going to be sleeping on the floor, so it wasn’t a shock. To cut down on costs, the tour group had assigned us all roomies, and we stumbled in sometime after 1am, waking ours up with many apologies. The Korean Ondol is the magical heated floor that I was so grateful for in February and March. However, this has led to adoption of a sleeping “mat” that is quickly becoming one of the great cultural mysteries to me. When I lived in China, I was struck by how hard the mattresses were, and one of my Chinese coworkers even complained about how the mattresses in American hotels were too soft for her to sleep on. In Japan, I had a futon on a tatami frame. The futon was thin, maybe 6-7cm, but it was cushy enough to take the edge off, and the tatami underneath was also a little springy. So, both of these Asian cultures certainly liked harder sleeping surfaces than we do in the West. Fair enough. But the Ondol mat is really just a blanket on the floor. Not even a thick blanket. You could almost imagine that being ok with like a squishy fluffy comforter, but no. It’s a thin quilt. In the winter I can understand not putting much between you and the heated floor, but in the summer all it does is protect you from sticking to the hardwood.
I like the notion of the pension, but the number of nights per year I’m willing to sleep on the floor is shrinking as I age. Just one more reason I really need a TARDIS. Anyway, thanks to alcohol and exhaustion, I did manage to sleep. And woke up the next day with only a mild hangover and several more hours to explore the festival grounds. I hadn’t known that we would still be at the festival for so long, and only had one set of clean clothes. It turned out that the water attractions were closed anyway, so while there were still people getting muddy, it was limited to the mud water jars placed around the plaza.
We managed to stay clean and took the time to better explore the area. As it turns out, the Boryeong mud is famous for it’s mineral composition and use in cosmetic products. The festival was once an advertising campaign for the cosmetics and has since become an epic party. There were several things that seemed to be permanent beachfront statues that were all about the mud, but since the mud itself is a major commercial export for the town, it wasn’t so surprising that they had statues devoted to it.
We also found the performing native Americans again. I feel like it’s starting to become some kind of David Lynch-esque running gag for my time in Korea that there are always guys dressed in intense and often highly mixed Native American garb playing flutes and pan pipes and selling dream catchers. One of them had bright neon fringe this time. And I saw more of them playing at a rest stop on our drive home! What is the deal Korea, seriously?
Overall, the Mud Festival was a stunning success for me. I still think it could more accurately be called the muddy waters festival, but once I got over the initial shock of how different it was from my expectations, I had an amazing, endorphin fueled, oxytocin generating, dopamine flooding time. (Which is big brain chemistry talk for “AMAZEBALLZ!”) If I go back next year, I’ll make an effort to arrive Friday night or at very least earlier on Saturday so that I have some more time to play on the mud toys before they close down, and I’ll try to find a group that is hitting up the mud flats proper as well. I might also recommend getting a camel pack for water in addition to the waterproof pack for your phone and money. There were convenience stores everywhere, but most of us didn’t drink enough water, and it took me a couple days to fully re-hydrate. As far as fun things to do in Korea, I wouldn’t make a special trip to the country just for this one, but it was definitely a great reminder of love, friendliness, and joy that I really needed. And since there’s no bad time for love friendliness and joy, I absolutely recommend the festival to anyone who happens to be in Korea in July.
As the first semester draws to a close, I find that I’m still completely enjoying myself in Korea and at this job. I’m looking forward to some more fun adventures this summer including a vacation to New Zealand! I’m being joined soon by a dear friend and fellow globetrotter Jane Meets World, who is finally moving to Asia for the first time, so I get to use her arrival as an excuse to do even more fun things in Busan. And I’m already planning our “Korean Thanksgiving” holiday weekend trip in September. As much as I hope that things in the US make a turnaround for the sane, and as hard as it is to watch my friends and family to live there endure the hatred and vitriol that is being propagated, it’s important for us.. for me to remember that most of the things in life have the potential to be great, and that most of the world (including large parts of the US where the cameras aren’t always pointing) is a beautiful place filled with amazing people who can be your friend for a minute or a lifetime if you just open your eyes and your heart. Love is quieter than gunshots, but there is more of it.