Saturday, February 4, 2012

Pumba Festival (28 May)

Pumbas are traditional Korean beggars.  Poor people would go from house to house and perform various tricks or perform in some way while begging.  Korea now has a Pumba Festival where you can dress up in costumes and participate in various activities.  It’s a big festival and there is a very popular photography competition attached to this festival.  As you can imagine, foreigners dressed as pumbas make for very interesting photographs and makes us very popular with the photographers.

As usual, AK trips leave from Seoul.  Catfish and I are uncertain as to how to get to the festival from Gunsan and so, as is increasingly the case, we decide it’s easier to travel to Seoul on Friday night after school.  We spend the night in the Central Spa jimjilbang at the Express Bus Terminal in Seoul, something we haven’t done since early December, because it’s cheap accommodation and convenient since one of the pick-up points for AK trips is the EBT. 

This is our first AK trip since the Booze Cruise in March, and we’re curious as to who will be staffing this particular trip.  We’re delighted to see ByungMin once again and Seokjin’s brother-in-law, YoungMin, who we met on the Booze Cruise, is also staffing this trip.  We’re soon heading to Eumseong in Chuncheongnam Province where the festival is taking place. 

Becoming Pumbas

Once at festival site, we quickly get costumes and head to the face painting section where we are transformed into pumbas.  We’ve barely finished having our faces painted and we’re surrounded by photographers eager to take our photos.  With her blonde hair and azure blue eyes, Catfish is a magnet for photographers who love her even more because she plays up to the cameras, obliging the photographers by posing and being playful.  We have an hour or so to walk around and enjoy the festival before lunch. 

The entire time, we’re pursued by photographers and we start to understand celebrities sometimes turn violent with the paparazzi: We quickly tire of being constantly followed and treated like performing monkeys and even non-professional photographers start pestering us for photos with us on their mobile phones.  We decide that the best course of action is to ignore the cameras and just enjoy ourselves come-what-may. 

Not the Smartest Choices...

We enjoy watching the professional pumbas and other performers.  We’re approached by a clown on stilts who makes a balloon flower in a heart and is accompanied by two still mimes painted in gold.  The mimes are particularly impressive and we reverse the roles by taking many photos of them too before heading to the restaurant area for a bibimbap lunch. 

After lunch, we decide to explore the other side of the festival which is across a small lake.  We see traditional Korean dances performed with incredible skill, strength and precision before discovering a very small fun-ride that kind of resembles a caged hamster wheel.  It turns round and round like a never-ending rollercoaster loop and Catfish and I decide that this looks like fun.  The Koreans around us are only to happy to let us go for a ride that is clearly built for very small people as we only just manage to secure the safety bar that is crushing our thighs. 

Catfish and I take up an entire row of seats and most of the kids seem to decide that they’d rather watch us from the outside than be in the cage with us.  There are two little girls in the seat behind us and one in the seat in front of us.  One of the little girls behind us keeps shouting for the operator to make the wheel turn faster as we are repeatedly thrown forward on what feels like an out of control ferris wheel ride.  I’m starting to realise that such a ride so soon after lunch is not one of my smarter decisions for the day but all I can do is close my eyes, clench the seatbelt straps across my chest and hope that I don’t throw up before the end of the ride.  Mercifully, my lunch stays down although I certainly feel a bit greener around the gills as I exit the ride.  As seems to be an ongoing trait with Catfish and I, however, we seem to have inspired a few other foreigners to also try out the ride although we don’t hang around to see the result.

All too soon, we’re heading back to the main festival area where we watch a taffy breaking competition.  Taffy is a hard type of nougat-like sweet that is popular in Korea.  We stand chatting to ByungMin and we soon find ourselves being roped into an all-waegook taffy breaking competition.  Each person is given a stick of taffy to break in half.  Inside of the taffy are air holes, which are obviously revealed when the taffy is broken.  The winner of the competition is the person with the biggest hole in their taffy.  Catfish and I are quickly eliminated and sent away with our taffy to eat. 

Undoing the Pumba

Sadly, the festival experience is coming to an end and we’re soon returning our costumes and facing the challenge of trying to remove our face paint and make-up.  Catfish opts for the “water-and-scrub” approach resulting in a comical effect.  Seeing the outcome of Catfish’s attempts, I decide to leave the make-up on and attempt to remove it on the bus with wet wipes and a mirror which, fortunately, is more successful.

The bus ride to Boryeong, specifically Daecheon Beach where our hotel is, is a long one – particularly since the mix of foreigners on this particular trip includes a significant number of very loud, very obnoxious and very inappropriate girls who discuss intimate topics at the top of their voices from their location in the centre of the bus.  We try to tune out the conversation by cranking up the volume on our ipods and, when that doesn’t work, we attempt to sleep.  By the time we finally get to the hotel, we’re slightly fed-up and just want to put our things in our room so that we can head down to the beach.  We’re a little miffed that YoungMin doesn’t step up and insist that a room that already has guys in it also take the guy who ends up in our room but so be it.  We can’t help making the comparison that Seokjin, the owner of AK, would never let such an arrangement happen – something that ByungMin knows but, being younger than YoungMin, cannot do anything about.

Beach Shenanigans

With our bags stored in our room, we immediately head to the beach that is a mere 100m away from our hotel.  We’re delighted by the view and relish the thought that the hot summer that is fast approaching also means that we can spend time on a great beach that is only an hour’s train ride from Gunsan.  We spend a few hours goofing around on the beach, playing in the sand, taking silly photos and watching the sunset before heading to a nearby Western-style restaurant (since most of the surrounding restaurants are seafood restaurants and I don’t know how to order dishes without shellfish), Orange, where we have pizza and the best chocolate-kalhua milkshakes ever!    Unfortunately, this is where many of the other foreigners in our group also go for dinner and, once again, we find ourselves shrinking in our seats in our desire not to be associated with their overbearing and obnoxious behaviour.

I'm Just an English Teacher

I must clarify:  I’m not anti-America!  I spent two fantastic summers working at a summer camp in the US, have several American friends, enjoyed travelling the in the US and Catfish, my best friend in Korea, is American.  I am, however, as is she, averse to obnoxious, loud, overbearing and inconsiderate behaviour regardless of where people come from.  Unfortunately, the US military in Korea tend to have a reputation for bad behaviour and we’re quick to distance ourselves from the US military by telling people that we’re English teachers.  Equally unfortunate is that often times large groups of North Americans tend to become a bit too loud and too overbearing in inappropriate places.  This is not to say that other nationalities are not also guilty of such behaviour though.  There have been many occasions where I have been equally embarrassed to be associated with other South Africans, Brits and Kiwis. 

Unfortunately, the two groups in Orange who are currently reinforcing these negative stereotypes are predominantly North American and some of them are with the military – both with the AK group and separate from our group.  This is something that has not escaped the observations of the restaurant staff, one of whom asks us if we know the other two groups when we pay our cheque.  Again, we quickly distance ourselves by stating that we (Catfish and I) are English teachers and we claim not to know the other two groups – one of which we genuinely do not know, the other being the annoying group on the bus ride.  We realise that there is a distinct cultural difference with certain behaviour but, sometimes, it would be great if foreigners would try to remember that many of us are judged based on the actions of one or two people.

More Beach Shenanigans

After dinner, it’s back to the beach to play with sparklers – something we can’t do in our home countries but that is freely done in Korea.  You can set off any fireworks, including rockets, on the beach which many people are currently doing.  When the sparklers are finished, we decide to go for a walk in the water as we reflect on a few experiences in Korea and what we would like to do in the months to come.  When ByungMin texts Catfish to come for a drink, he meets us at our hotel and escorts us to the restaurant where he, YoungMin and a couple of people from our group are sitting and drinking.  We have a drink with them and excuse ourselves from a late night of drinking when the party moves to outside of the GS25 convenience store.  Proving, once again, that we’re dorks at heart, we play a few card games in our room before calling it a night so that we can be up in time for sunrise on the beach.

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