Coming out of my shell in South Korea
I can’t pin-point the exact moment that I fell in love with travelling. The first six months of my time in South Korea had been packed with moments that might have been triggers along my road to wanderlust.
There were drunken nights out that only ended when the sun came up and the money ran out. There’d been visits to fog shrouded temples and wind-swept beaches. There’d been first kisses and drunken 4am KTX rides and my first brush with real snow.
But as I bobbed in the warm water of the Yellow Sea and marveled at the fireworks blossoming overhead like fiery flowers, I experienced my first real awareness of just how much I loved my life. It was one of those surreal moments in which you are completely aware of everything that is going on around you – yet at the same time you’re above it all marveling at the fact it’s happening to you.
The crowd of foreigners back on the beach had become a low murmur of noise punctuated occasionally by a crack overhead, and the lap of dark water around and below me was a soothing backdrop to it all.
It was at that moment that I realized just how far I’d come and just how lucky I’d been to be there. A year earlier I’d been in my cold bedroom in Glen Innes playing World of WarCraft while Channel [V] blasted generic pop into my room. The house outside of my room would be empty while my housemate was out drinking. I worked a job I basically slept through, had no social life, and couldn’t foresee a bright future ahead.
A year on I was on the other side of the world recovering from what I thought was heart-break but what was, in hindsight, little more than a mild bruising. Somewhere off in the darkness to my right, Dean and a few other foreigners were horsing around. The splashes of their drunken wrestling eventually brought me out of my mini coma and back into the moment.
I can’t think of the moment that sealed it for me or the moment that I realized this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life – but I do remember that moment well. The moment that I realized that all the break-ups, bad days at work, and financial worries didn’t matter. I was doing what I loved, and it would always be there for me to do.
Heartbroken Boy Arrives at Mud Festival… Cue Punchline
The sun was barely over the horizon and I shivered as I approached Gwangju’s bus terminal. It was the jumping off point for a great many adventures during my two years in South Korea, and on this particular morning I was met by Rebecca, Cass, Tracey, Brenda, Zaid, and Dean. I hadn’t told them I was coming – having only decided to ignore my cold and tag along at around 4am the night before.
“Stay away from me,” Rebecca, ever the sensitive soul, warned, “I don’t want what you’ve got”.
Zaid took charge as soon as all of us were there, leading us to the departure gate and guiding us onto the bus that would take us to the biggest party of the foreigner year. Boryeong’s Mud Festival, regardless of what it might have been founded for, had become the yearly equivalent to a drunken orgy for sex and sun starved foreigners across the Land of the Morning Calm. It would have been criminal to miss it.
Zaid’s ‘short cut’ proved to be anything but, and we stepped out of the bus four hours after we’d boarded it – seeing people who had left two hours after us. It was a scorching hot day, possibly one of the hottest of the year, and I was relieved to see I wasn’t the only one sweating like crazy by the time we had collected our bags and made our way out into the streets.
I imagine Boryeong is almost a ghost town most of the year. Its streets on this particular weekend were clogged with people making their way down to the festival. After six months of relatively cool Gwangju weather and modestly dressed Korean women, it was a veritable feast of flesh as girls from all over the country took the opportunity to squeeze into their bikinis and soak up some sun.
I was fresh off a break-up with a certain South African girl and, as fate would have it, her group of fellow South Africans was the first group of foreigners we encountered. In a city swarming with drunken merry-makers from across the peninsula, it seemed a tad cruel that we bump into her right away.
Still, I had good friends at my side and the entire beach to lose myself in, so I didn’t let it get to me as we began to search for a place to say in earnest. Minbaks are essentially rooms you rent to sleep on the floor. The good ones will offer up pillows and blankets and even a kitchen – the cheap ones it’s just a pillow and a sheet or two.
We looked at the good ones, decided that our money would be better spent on alcohol, and instead settled for a ramshackle shack not too far from the beach. The bigger and cleaner room had already been claimed by a Korean family, and so we six settled into a much smaller side room. We hadn’t come all this way to sleep though, and so we dropped off our stuff and changed into our swimming gear before heading out to tackle the city.
Rumbling stomachs warranted a pit-stop at a tent restaurant – the kind that seem to spring up in empty lots across the country. We gathered around a table and ordered a round of ice cold Hite and some BBQed eel. The waiters assured is, in broken English, that these were good for ‘men’s stamina’.
It wasn’t a fancy meal, but it hit the spot. BBQed eel wrapped in moist lettuce leaves and garnished with garlic, samcheong (bean paste), and various seasoned vegetables ensured we had the energy required for the day of drunken debauchery that lay ahead of us.
Our first stop of the day was a body painting stand. The Boryeong mud isn’t regular mud – but the kind women pay good money to have lathered onto their skin in hopes it will decrease signs of aging and all that jazz. Dean and I, not being particularly concerned with skin care, were far more interested in making muddy hand prints on the backsides and chests of our female traveling companions.
While Rebecca sunned herself on the beach, the rest of us got into an impromptu dance and drinking circle with a bunch of middle aged Korean men. Being a hairy and slightly chubby guy, I was a source of particular amusement to them – but by this point I’d already consumed 1.5 liters of watery Korean beer and my self esteem issues were a distant second to my rising urge to find a place to pee.
Dean and I soon discovered that the best place to relieve ourselves was the aptly named Yellow Sea, and so made our way out beyond the swimmers and found suitably isolated patches to do our business. Korean lifesavers, whose ability to swim I learned to seriously doubt, waved frantically at us to come back in lest we be swept out into the sea by the tame current and waist high waves. Maybe it’s just an Australian thing to be completely comfortable in the ocean – but neither of us was particularly intimidated by the conditions.
Our seedier business done, Dean and I returned to apply more mud to ourselves before the girls collected us to do some actual sight-seeing. This basically entailed pushing our way through the crowd choked foreshore street and glancing briefly at various market stalls ranging from completely out of place (farming supplies) to delightfully Korean (colored mud for girls to paint themselves with).
After six months of being excited to spot a glimpse of white skin in a crowded street, it was almost overwhelming to be so surrounded by fellow waygookin (Korean for foreigner or stranger). US servicemen on ATVs revved their way through the crowd while pasty English girls in bikinis teetered around on the slippery streets. A loud group of South African guys wrestled over a half full bottle of Cass, while a couple of Americans threw a pigskin around down on the beach.
Dean and I soon lost the rest of our group, but didn’t find it hard to make friends on a beach full of drunk people. After a quick game of touch football on the hot sand, we again hit the water and floated out beyond the breakers with a wonderfully buoyant bottle of beer by our sides. Before too long the sun was again beginning to bake our skin, and the sight of a few mud wrestling pits farther up the beach lured us back in to the shore.
We met up with the girls once again and headed back to our Minbak via Lotteria (a Korean burger chain that birthed my post drinks obsession – the European Frico Cheese). While the girls took turns cleaning their feet in the cold shower, a few of us were invited into the larger of the two rooms by the Korean man whose family was staying there. He had us sit in a circle and pass around soju to shot. Before too long we were well into our second bottle of the potent spirit and munching on his offerings of dried fish and prawn flavoured chips. It was a surreal, ‘I love Korea’ inspiring moment. All the while we drank and acted like idiots – his kids were locked in the back room and shouted at if they dared poke their heads out to sneak a peak at the half dressed and very inebriated foreigners.
After saying our goodbyes, it was time to once again hit the streets.
Of Kisses and Fireworks
On the way we met a chubby Canadian girl who we dubbed Irish (she had shamrocks on her bikini top) – who insisted we smear mud all over her. She then attempted to lure us back to her minbak by plying us with free beer, but we discretely lost her in the crowd and went off in search of less intimidating game.
We eventually came upon a pair of girls from Seoul who were to become our companions for the remainder of the day. The sun had gone down and the beach took second place to the main stage that dominated the foreshore. K-Pop bands began to play and a crowd began to form on the steps to dance and drink.
Not long after that the heat and the mud necessitated another visit to the ocean, and I was still out there when the fireworks began and the realization that life was pretty damn good settled over me.
The rest of the night was a pleasant blur. A kiss with a pretty new girl, chatting with new friends, and finally creeping back into our minbak in the wee hours to snatch what little shut-eye we could. In a room crowded with foreigners and without air conditioning, that proved to be very little. I was still a bleary eyed (and very hungover) mess the following morning when it was time to stagger back to the bus and ride back to Gwangju.
That afternoon was the afternoon of the greatest shower I ever had. You can read more about that one in my Ode to the Shower.
We tried to recapture the wild, crazy magic of the Mud Festival the very next weekend – Dean and I journeying back down to meet up with our new Scottish and American pals. There was more drinking; the invention of the Mudfest Mudslide (soju mixed with a cookies & cream milkshake in a bag); my vomiting out of a fifth floor window; an argument I don’t remember; a shower I definitely do; and a criminally expensive minbak that we didn’t even end up sleeping in after finding a more comfortable patch of carpet in somebody else’s room.
It was an eventful weekend. A fun one. But it wasn’t a patch on that first Mudfest weekend.
I’d had a great many adventures in Korea already that year, and the not too distant future held my trip to China and a slew of trips to Seoul. But Mudfest 2008, even two years on, still stands out as one of the best times I had in my life – and the first time I realized just how much I loved the randomness that only travel (and a healthy dose of alcohol and spontaneity) can bring.
Can you remember the moment or experience that prompted you to fall head over heels with travel?