The one where I cover myself in mud, float in the Yellow Sea while fireworks explode overhead, kiss a pretty American girl, share soju with a Korean man, and dodge an ex. Did I mention there was mud?
Oh, and I fell head over heels in love with travel.
Visitors to South Korea might find it hard to believe that for one week every year, one of its idyllic seaside towns can be transformed from a sleepy little village into the closest to a hedonistic orgy you’ll find in the orient.
In a country where women stagger dangerously in their high heels rather than take them off to walk a beach and where grown men will wade into the tame surf as if it were life threatening – it’s hard to picture an entire town devolving into a mess of drunken revelers – foreigners and locals alike – painted in mud and stumbling around with pitchers of Hite or Cass in hand while K-Pop blares over the speakers.
The entire event is in stark contrast to the pinned down and proper way that Korea presents itself for the most part. Sure, there are the usual drunken antics on a Friday night and the sight of a pair of ajoshi nursing bottles of soju at the break of dawn is not uncommon – but this kind of exorbitant bingeing is not commonplace in the Land of the Morning Calm.
It was the summer of 2008 and I was fresh off the first heart-break of my not so young life. It was my first northern hemisphere summer and I was adapting to heart-break, ridiculous amounts of humidity, and my newfound social standing as ‘that guy who is always out’ all at once.
I remember hot nights spent drinking margaritas and listening to Turkish music in the cool confines of the Abey until the wee hours of the morning and hauling myself up out of bed just in time for my 1pm start at work the next day. It was the time of being ‘one of the girls’ while hanging out with Cass, Tracey, Brenda, and Rebecca. Being the guy in a group of four gorgeous, fun loving girls meant I was constantly out and about doing things – whether it was Friday night drinks at the German Bar or a random day trip to a muddy stretch of beach in the middle of nowhere.
The latest addition to our little posse provided a much needed dose of testosterone, as the irrepressible Dean arrived from Australia and provided me with my first real wingman. We shared a love of beer, pizza, and bad karaoke – and could often be heard murdering Maroon 5’s She Will be Loved until the early hours.
For a few short weeks we were inseparable, and it made sense that we form an undefeatable duo for the Mud Fest weekend. It was, looking back, my first bromance.
I was sick as a dog leading into the festival, and I’d gone to bed at the criminally early hour of midnight the night before battling dizzy spells and a head cold. I’d told the gang that I wouldn’t be in attendance, but something I’d seen earlier in the year pushed me to drag my sorry ass out of bed and down to the bus terminal at the ungodly hour of 6am.
When I’d first arrived in Korea, my co-worker had been kind enough to gift me a PC that had been left behind in his apartment. It had been left there by his predecessor, a Canadian girl who I never met or heard much about. And while the computer was a piece of crap and barely worked, I remember finding a bunch of photos in the My Pictures folder of her adventures at the Mud Festival.
Picture the scared country kid sitting with crossed legs at his barely knee high table, hunched over a prehistoric computer listening to its previous owners previous collection of Rihanna and KT Tunstall tracks because it’s better than the sounds of traffic and Korean TV. He’s alone a hell of a long way from home and hasn’t yet figured out the ins and outs of being a waygookin in Korea. He’s never been particularly popular or lived a particularly interesting life, and he’s clicking through these images and seeing pretty gals and drunk guys partying in the mud and realizing he’ll probably never get to do crazy stuff like that.
Flash forward to that same kid tossing and turning in bed feeling like death and realizing that he has a chance to do exactly what he was sure he wouldn’t participate in the revelry. How could I not drag my sorry carcass out of bed and participate?
Meeting my bleary eyed group of traveling companions at the bus terminal, I was warned by Rebecca to stay away from her lest I make her sick too. What are friends for if not to spread mildly inconvenient viruses?
Lead by Cassie’s then boyfriend Zaid, we snagged a bus and embarked on his four hour ‘short-cut’ that proved to be anything but. In fact, when we finally did emerge from the bus (after a needless stop over in Daejon where I discarded my intimidating Nazi style boots), we were met by people who had left two hours after us.
Life being life, fate ensured that in a town of a few thousand foreigners – the first we should encounter would be my ex-girlfriend and her posse of South African buddies. While my friends urged me to keep on walking as we continued to look for a place to crash, I did the mature thing and made awkward small talk before fleeing the scene.
We explored about half a dozen different hostels and minbaks (Korean sleeping rooms in which you sleep on the floor) before finally finding one cheap enough for our budgets. It’s not that we didn’t have a great deal of money on us – it was that we didn’t have a great deal of it that we didn’t intend on spending on alcohol and food.
Our minbak was quaint enough. There were two rooms in the place, one of them a large one with an ensuite bathroom and two different rooms for sleeping – and one which was little more than floor, a cupboard, and some blankets. We foreigners, of course, opted for the smaller of the two rooms. Still, we had little intention of spending much time there, so we dropped off our belongings and prepared to hit the beach.
It was a scorching hot day and the sun was high overhead as we changed into our swimming gear and made our way through the streets toward the beach.
The scene before me was unlike anything I’d seen so far in my travels. The beach, which seemed to stretch on forever, was crowded with hundreds of people. After the cold winter months, here was a veritable sea of bikini clad breasts and tan flesh for my eyes to feast upon!
Our first port of call that day was a body painting booth. With paint brushes in hand we set to work on decorating one another – drawing smiley faces on people’s backsides and putting hand prints on boobs seemed to be the main ambition of my group.
I’m sad to report my hand prints made it onto the bosom of no women that day.
With the summer sun beating down on us the mud didn’t take long to set, so my wingman Dean and I made a mad sprint for the water. I think I surprised the taller, leaner, and fitter Dean by beating him to the water. I belly flopped in and screamed girlishly at the cool of the water.
The rest of the afternoon was something of a drunken blur. Dean and I snatched up a couple of 1.5 liter pitchers of Hite and took them out into the ocean with us. We swam out by the kids wrestling and the people floating around in tubes to where we could float with our plastic bottles at our sides and just soak in the scene before us.
Then it was back into the shore for a dash through a muddy gauntlet. It was in the gauntlet, more water than mud by that late stage in the day, that Dean and I met ‘Irish’ – an American girl with no hint of an Irish accent, but massive… shamrocks. On her bikini, that is.
For a while she followed us around and even bought us a few beers, but neither of us was buying what she was selling, and we lost her at some point under the pretense of looking for our friends.
We did bump into them and, bellies rumbling, spent a half hour wolfing down greasy burgers at Lotteria before ducking back to our room. There was a Korean family checked into the room by ours, and damned if the father didn’t insist we all join him inside for a few shots of soju.
A few turned into a dozen each. Dean and I were staggering. We were drunk enough that we accepted the dried fish he thrust into our hands as we left. I think I even ate mine.
We staggered back to the beach in search of more debauchery.
What we found instead were a pretty Scottish lass and a saucy American gal. Dean hit it off immediately with the wee bonnie lass, and circumstance through me and the pretty cheerleader from Chico together.
We all hit it off and there were a few sparks flying, but the girls had to make tracks and soon we’d stumbled back into the company of other Gwangju residents.
Including my ex.
Feeling a little sore over the whole affair, I made a bee line for the ocean and swam out behind the breakers to stare up at the stars and generally feel sorry for myself.
“You ok, man?” Dean asked as he swam effortlessly out to join me. I can’t recall the details of our conversation – this was over three years ago now – but soon we were sipping on beers and floating around as fireworks began to go off over our heads.
It was a surreal moment.
It was a life changing moment.
In that moment, pyrotechnic flowers blossoming overhead and new friends somewhere back on the shore, I fell in love with travel. I fell in love with the newness of experience and unfamiliar faces.
The shy country kid who arrived in South Korea late the previous year was gone. In his place was the guy who now calls himself the Aussie on the Road.
Once the fireworks had ceased and the smoke had cleared, Dean and I stumbled back into shore and bumped into our Scottish-American duo again. Dutiful wingman that I was, I discretely distracted the American while Dean and his Scottish friend got friendly.
At some point our talk of dance and music and travel petered out. Kisses were had.
No freaky Korean beach sex was had that night, dear reader. In fact, this humble Aussie would remain a virgin for another two weeks or so. And no, the cheerleader didn’t capture my ‘V plates’.
That story, though, has no place on this blog.
I’ve spoken of the Mud Festival on two occasions. Hell, I’ve spoken of this particular edition of the Mud Festival before. But if any one event in my life forever changed me, it was that stinking hot summer day in July. Looking back on it, I find myself wishing to experience it for the first time all over again.
It was a defining moment for me. The moment where shy guy became ‘that guy’. I wasn’t just another guy in Korea – I belonged there. It was perhaps the first time in my entire life that I felt as if I belonged somewhere.
It’s a feeling I’ve been chasing ever since. And the only places I’ve found it? They aren’t here in Australia.
Lately I’ve been gripped by that familiar wanderlust. Digging up this entry that I started last September has only driven that home for me.
I need to get out there again.