Saward Abroad

"I shall always be haunted by thoughts of a sundrenched elsewhere." Isabelle Eberhardt

Category: International

Trouble in Toronto

We’re barrelling down the I-95 North to catch a flight to Toronto when I feel the car swerve under us. Half an hour until check in closes, 45 minutes driving left and the back right tire is gone. Max, my host in Rhode Island is frantically making phone calls and I’m left in the passenger seat wondering why my father, a mechanic in the British Army for over 30 years, never taught me to change a tire. I’m pretty sure a jack and a tire iron are involved somehow? I can rewire a plug, skin a rabbit and gut a fish but weirdly tires have me stumped. Triple A tell us that they can’t get anyone to us in time for me to make the flight so we sit, in a parking lot somewhere in Providence and watch the minutes tick past.

“There’s no way we would have made it anyway.”

Max scowls at me. He’s feeling guilty that he made me miss my flight.

“I mean really it’s my fault because I got the time wrong.”

A disgruntled huff from the driver’s seat.

“I mean, I do have number dyslexia so honestly, I shouldn’t be trusted to read numbers unsupervised.”

That at least gets a laugh out of him. Thankfully my phone data plan works in the US and within a few minutes I’ve got myself on a later flight to Toronto covered by my travel insurance (pro tip guys: invest in decent insurance). It takes hours for the tire to get fixed. We have to wait for Triple A to come and switch out the busted one for the spare, then carefully drive to a garage and wait for someone to put a new one on. I’m tempted to ring my Dad and ask him to walk me through changing a tire over FaceTime but given the time difference, I’d doubt he’d appreciate it.

Skip forward 8 hours and I’m in another car, trying to explain where my Air BnB is to an overworked Indian taxi driver who doesn’t understand my accent. We spend a solid 20 minutes driving the wrong way up Dundas St West because he misheard what number I said. Once again numbers screw me over. He’s very sweet about the whole thing and gets very excited when he finds out I’m an ESL teacher back home. We have a good discussion about the difference between British, Canadian and Indian English. He tells me that he’s been in Canada for 10 years and he still finds the accent hard to understand. Everyone here talks too fast. He misses home. He misses his brothers and sisters and is sad that his daughters don’t want to go back and visit more. Our taxi drive turns into quite the heart to heart. When we finally find my Air BnB he looks dubious. I don’t think he believes that the dark warehouse is a good place to drop a young woman off by herself. He waits until my hosts answer the door and he’s had a good look at them before getting back in his cab.

I am not good at being alone. Even now, when I’m trying to get job applications and blogs and the next chapter of my novel done, I’m sat at my SO’s, just for the company. I’m the kind of person that needs another human around most of the time, just for the reassuring presence. I don’t need to talk to them, or interact other than sporadically. It’s why I travel so much alone. I’m very much of the face your fears persuasion. Afraid of flying? Go to Australia alone. Afraid of driving long distances in case your car spontaneously blows up? Drive to Cornwall single handedly. Afraid of being alone? Visit new, exciting places, make new friends, discover new distractions. And usually it works like a dream.

In Toronto, however, I feel awful. I don’t know what it was. But something about the city, where I’m staying, the weather makes me tip over into a depression fog. I can’t tell you much about where I stayed or what I got up to. I can’t remember much of it. I’m staying on Dundas Street West and the AirBnB is lovely, a tiny basement studio with an ensuite. I don’t have to talk to anyone. I spend my first morning curled in bed reading Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. It’s reassuring, to know I’m not alone in feeling crap. Come the afternoon though I have somewhere to be. I have to get on a bus to Niagara Falls.

The subway isn’t difficult in Toronto. There’s 3 lines and one of them is on the end of another. But somehow I manage to cock up buying a ticket, end up on the wrong platform and go to the wrong place. I end up wandering around a shopping mall trying to find the bus station. It is not in the shopping mall. I miss my bus and have to wait 2 hours for the next one. This is one of the things I never expected about depression. It fogs your brain and makes you so exhausted that simple things become almost impossible. People tell you this. But until it actually happens, it doesn’t really sink in. Me writing this now, it might not explain to you just how jarring this is. If you’ve read my other blogs, I’m fairly competent usually. I managed to get around Seoul alone, where I couldn’t even guess the alphabet but now I’m lost in Toronto.

The bus to Niagara Falls is one of my favourite parts of my trip. It’s peaceful, driving around Lake Ontario, watching the city get further and further north of us. It looks beautiful across the water, skyscrapers reflected in the lake. The skyscrapers still throw me. Nothing in England is like this. Seoul was similar but there were old buildings too, palaces and houses and museums cutting through the modernity. Toronto is my first big city, on a northern American scale. Seeing it from this distance makes the buildings even more awe inspiring. The CN Tower, which until last night I’d only seen on the cover of a Drake album, is colossal. I’m twisted in my seat, watching it disappear behind us as we travel further along Lake Ontario.

Niagara Falls is not like Toronto. There’s very few skyscrapers here. When we pull into the bus station it’s jarringly empty. Easter isn’t peak tourist time I feel. There’s a few backpackers loitering and we mill around, trying to figure out how to get down to the waterfalls. A small bus arrives and it’s completely packed. That’s where all the tourists are apparently. There’s no space for me on it so a guy who works for the Niagara Falls Parks Service gives me a lift in his minibus. He buys me a coffee too. So far Canadians seem to be living up to national stereotypes of being friendly. The coffee’s not great, slightly burnt and bitter but it’s warm and Canada has surprised me with its April climate. We talk about the UK and Canada and the weather because that’s what British people do when stuck in small talk. Apparently it’s quite warm for this time of year. Snuggling into my jumper and coat, I don’t really believe him.

We get to downtown Niagara and I can hear the falls before I leave the mini bus. It’s a world famous sound and can be infuriating for the locals. In fact, Robert Land who was one of the first Europeans to settle in the region, fled after 3 years because of the noise. I like it though. It’s loud enough to block out the city and makes me feel weirdly isolated while walking down the street, even though there’s hundreds of tourists here jostling against me. I’ve got a boat tour booked, which means finding yet another form of transport. I manage it this time and get a gorgeous red poncho ready for my ride under the falls.

I realise quickly, there’s a time and a place for wearing a full face of make-up. Going on a boat near where four million cubic feet of water falls is not it. We go past the American Falls and the combination of the noise and the water pounding into my face gets into my head. I’m here. Still foggy but I don’t feel like I’m behind a weird screen anymore. It’s gorgeous. The writer in me is left speechless because how in hell do you describe something as incredible as this. If a friend were here with me, I’d just be screaming, ‘Nature is so fucking cool’ at them over and over. So that’s what you’re going to get here. Nature is so fucking cool guys. We may have built bridges and boats and hydroelectric dams and power stations and zip wires around the Falls but at the heart of it, the draw of Niagara Falls is the sheer power of all that water.

The boat takes us right up close to all three falls, the American, Horseshoe and Bridal Veil. The Horseshoe Falls are possibly the most famous, mainly because of the amount of people who’ve tried to go over them and survive. Annie Edson Taylor became the first person in 1901 to go over the Falls in a barrel and survive. She was 63 at the time. 63 years old and she decided to go over a huge waterfall in a wooden barrel. At the bottom when she was fished out all she had is a few cuts. No such luck for Bobby Leach in 1911 who broke both knee caps and his jaw. People are still throwing themselves off the top of Niagara, both those who hope to survive it and those who don’t. In April 2017 Kirk Jones became the latest victim to the Falls, attempting to go over them in an inflatable ball. His body was recovered almost a month later.

I’m looking up at all that water. No matter how bad I get, or how reckless I feel, I’m never going to think that going down it in a barrel is a good idea. Salmon regularly make it down alive and one guy a few years back got hit in the face by one as it was flung out of the Bridal Veil. I don’t like my chances though.

Back in Toronto that evening I make plans to meet up with a Tinder date who drags me out and says that I can’t spend an evening inside in a new city. He drives me around for hours, showing me the different districts and we talk about what it is that draws people to travelling. Is it the discovery, meeting new people, running away from your problems back home? It gets me thinking. I think I travel to confront myself. Back home it’s all too easy to surround myself with friends, keep myself busy, always find a new distraction. But when you’re somewhere alone, you have to keep yourself company. You can’t just ring someone to come and pull you out of yourself. Even this situation, meeting a guy off Tinder, that requires a lot of putting yourself out there. Travel makes me push right up against my comfort zones and find out what and where they are. Which is pretty cool. If an expensive way to do it. And kind of pretentious.

I grew up on an army base where there were dozens of kids my age. I then moved to a boarding school where you’re with your friends constantly. Then university halls, where locking yourself in your room is frowned on – I was in a shared room there as well so it wasn’t like I had that option. Student housing for another two years. Come graduating and taking a job at a boarding school I realised that I was alone for probably the first time in my life. And it sucked. I cried a lot. And that’s when I started travelling solo.

It’s not a revelation really that we need to learn to be alone. As a product of the Internet Age, when we have friends and services and instant connection at our finger tips, millennials are used to having whoever and whatever we want, when we want it. Which isn’t really how the world works. It’s one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn. I’m still not there. I still find myself staring at my phone screen or pacing my kitchen waiting for someone to distract me from my thoughts. But I’m getting better. And Toronto helped with that.

 

This is the latest in a series about mental health and travelling. For other pieces, look at ‘Catch flights not feelings‘ and ‘Milkshakes in the Ocean State‘. 

Milkshakes in the Ocean State

Cabinets taste pretty good

What does the word cabinet put you in mind of? Wooden cupboards, fancy carving, dusty bottles of forgotten spirits that your parents got for Christmas 15 years ago? Milkshakes? Yeah, me neither. In Rhode Island, however, that’s what milkshakes are called. Apparently. This might all be a big joke on me. Maybe the folks in the Ocean State got together and decided to pull an epic prank on me. Whether it’s true or not, cabinets were a revelation to me, a flavour sensation. I tried my first one in Brickley’s Ice Cream on Boston Neck Road in Narragansett. It was so thick I couldn’t drink it through a straw and had to scoop it out of the Styrofoam cup drop by delicious peppermint drop. I’d expected it to be green, taste like cheap mint choc chip ice cream, all synthetic flavours and food colouring. Brickley’s have got cabinets right though. Their peppermint stick one is more like the inside of an after eight – slightly grainy, creamy and refreshing.

The basis for a good cabinet seems to be homemade ice cream. Rhode Island has a thing for this. In my week there, we drove past dozens of creameries, all selling their own versions of cabinets, milkshakes, thick shakes and a whole heap of other names. There’s Brickley’s, Nana’s, Moo Moos – and that’s just in Narragansett. Head out of town and you’ll find the Newport Creamery, home of the Awful Awful, so named because they’re awfully awfully good. With a promise like that, they were just begging to be compared to Brickley’s cabinets. For fairness, I went with another peppermint one. Awfully sweet and awfully good, it was impossible to choose between the two.

Awfully good milkshakes, awfully bad lighting

Why am I waxing lyrical about milkshakes? Is it the weird names which appeal so much to the English scholar in me? Or is it that I’m getting free ice cream for life in return for reviewing them? Neither (though free ice cream would be pretty rad). When I think back to my trip to Rhode Island, it’s the milkshakes that stick in my mind.

I’d ended up here after a chance meeting in a kebab shop in Berlin last summer. The friend I was travelling with at the time was ordering doner kebabs for us, a staple for any visit to Berlin, and offered to help the baffled looking American standing next to us in line. We weren’t in a particularly touristy area and the guy running the shop was insistent that we all practised our German with him. Not an issue for my friend and I but when you speak absolutely none of the language, it can sound quite intimidating. After successfully ordering for him, we discovered that we were all staying in the same hostel down the street. It was one of those friendships that only really happen when you’re travelling – a chance meeting with someone who you end up schlepping from hostel to hostel with for the foreseeable future. Max was 19, long haired, tattooed and at the end of his first year of college. He’d never left the US before and had just arrived in Berlin with no plan other than when he had to be on a plane home. That evening in the hostel over a few beers we compared tattoos, crazy stories about tattoos (he easily beats my nerd ones with the symbol for the rap group he and his friends formed while frying clam cakes) and managed to cram our life stories into a few hours. By the end of the night, we’d persuaded him to abandon his plans to go to Frankfurt and come to Prague with us the next day.

Another day, another beverage, yet another selfie

Fast forward to December 2016 and my depression and SAD reaching a new low. Max and I had continued talking after parting ways in Prague and he offered for me to come and stay with him to get away from work. The idea of travelling to destress isn’t revolutionary. People travel for various reasons: escape, adventure, romance. When I’m at my lowest, I book trips to keep me alive. Knowing that I’ve got a tangible, concrete event coming up, where I can get away from things, one where I have made a significant financial and temporal commitment that I can’t flake out of, that’s what keeps me going.

Rhode Island had never been on the top of destinations list. To be perfectly honest before I left I knew next to nothing about it. The limit of my knowledge was the one of the characters in Miss Congeniality was representing RI. When I arrived though, I instantly fell in love. I’m a water baby. I love any kind of water. Fountains, buckets, the ocean, rivers, puddles, anything wet, you name it, as a kid my parents had to pull me out of it. But we have oceans and beaches here. We’re an island. Go far enough in any direction and you’ll end up soggy. The difference is that the beaches in Rhode Island are gorgeous. There’s a distinct lack of rocks, pebbles, used condoms, hypodermic needles or used car parts. I mean, I’m sure that Rhode Island has its own delightful beach flora and fauna. But, not for nothing is Rhode Island called the Ocean State. 14% of its total area is made up of bays and inlets. That’s a lot of beach for this water baby to explore.

I’d picked totally the wrong time of year to visit, just when it’s sunny enough for the water to look inviting but nowhere near warm enough to swim. Max took me to Narragansett Beach, Point Judith and its lighthouse, Matunuck Beach and Hazard Rock. Every morning we’d head to Coffee Connection, local haunt of URI students, grab bagels and coffee and head off to drive along the coast.

I’m not a visual person. I struggle to remember people’s faces, places I’ve been to, clothes I own. It’s why I take so many photos, to help me out. Travelling for me, therefore, centres heavily around food – you just have to look at previous blog posts to know that. It’s what I remember most clearly. The first time I ate Dutch pannenkoeken was on a boat in Amsterdam. Now when I’m on a boat I can taste the apples that were baked into the pancakes, the cinnamon mixed into the batter, smell the burnt coffee of that trip. On this trip, it was a lot simpler. Milkshakes, coffee and bagels. The bitterness of filter coffee, the elastic chewiness of a good bagel with whatever the weirdest cream cheese I could see on the menu that morning, the sickly sweet cabinet or awful awful. Those are the taste of Rhode Island to me. Not a clam cake or bowl of chowder in sight.

The trip itself was a chance to pull my brain together, bring myself out of the fog that depression lays thick and dark over everything. Sometimes that requires a big adventure, like my trip to Australia and New Zealand in 2016. And sometimes all it takes is a little sunshine, some salt air and a cabinet or two.

This is the second in a series about mental health and travelling. For other pieces, look at ‘Catch flights not feelings‘ and ‘Trouble in Toronto‘. 

Seoul: Gyeongbokgung and Gogigui

I headed out alone to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, one of Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces. Gyeongbokgung was the first royal palace to be built by the Joseon Dynasty in 1395. It’s currently undergoing restoration after the Japanese occupation of Korea at the beginning of the 20th century when much of it was systematically destroyed. Until 1996 the Japanese Governor General Building stood on the site, having been built there during occupation in order to stop the Palace being a symbol of an independent Korea.

Walk up to palace

 

Before going anywhere in Seoul, check to make sure that it’s open as a lot of places are closed Monday or Tuesday – I guess this is so they can stay open over the weekend. Entering Gyeongbokgung Palace you go through a huge gate called Gwanghwamun. It’s a jarring experience, walking from the busy, crowded streets of Seoul, surrounded by skyscrapers through a gate and into a quiet, distinctly historical building complex. There were the traditional green and reds on the buildings, with gold detailing and huge sweeping curves to the roofs. Behind Gyeongbokgung is Bugaksan mountain, following the principle of baesanimsu (learn more about this in my Jeonju post).

I decided to take an English guided tour of the Palace, hoping to learn a little about the history of Gyeongbokgung rather than doing my usual wandering aimlessly and trying to translate Korean signposts. Our tour guide was an enthusiastic Korean woman and there was a relatively large group, mainly made up of Americans, a lot of whom had just moved to Seoul to start teaching English. They all seemed surprised that I’d come over for 10 days (admittedly I still can’t quite believe how far I went for such a short trip!). Gyeongbokgung was very similar to the shrine that I visited in Jeonju but on a much grander scale. The ongoing restoration project means that you can see up to 40% of the Palace complex as it was before Japanese occupation. It’s stunning, often said to be the grandest and most beautiful of the palaces within Seoul – I’ll get back to you on that when I do another trip to Korea! The gardens were incredibly peaceful, with my favourite spot being a little temple on an island in the middle of a lake. Korean Palaces are so unlike English castles and palaces. While we do have formal gardens, there’s nowhere near the same emphasis on outdoor spaces. Our climate isn’t exactly conducive to outdoor living!

Lily pond palace original

Gyeongbokgung Palace’s gardens

Gogigui

Korean BBQ

Every meal should look like this

After a day exploring Gyeongbokgung I headed back to Yongsan for another essentially Korean culinary experience: Korean barbecue (Gogigui in Korean). I’ve never had Korean barbeque before, despite it being one of the more popular foods that have made it over to the UK. If you’ve never had it, find the nearest place to you and go. Because there’s nothing more exciting than cooking your own food at your table. The place we went to was in the local market and was tiny, the kind of place that would be a super hipster pop-up joint if it was in London. Each table had a little coal pit that heated up a metal plate above, where you cooked the food. There was also a brass chimney that winched down over each hot plate to draw the smoke off. We were clearly not trusted to do it by ourselves as the woman who ran the place took one look at us and started cooking for us. One of my favourite things about meals in Korea is that you order your main dishes and then you automatically get kimchee and vegetables with it. We had pork, with onions and whole cloves of garlic and it was delicious.

After this we headed to the local bingsu place for some dessert. Patbingsu literally means red beans with ice and is finely shaved ice that is traditionally topped with, you guessed it, my old friend red bean paste! I steadfastly refused to be fooled against by red bean paste and we got one with fresh fruit on top. Unfortunately it was too tasty for me to take any photos as it was eaten inabout five minutes flat!

National Museum National museum atrium

My final day in Korea was spent in the National Museum of Korea. It’s recently moved to Yongsan, on land that used to be part of the US Garrison nearby (fun fact, construction was delayed for years as Seoul’s municipal government and the US Army apparently fought over the location of a helipad) and opened its new doors in 2005. The building itself is spectacular, light and airy, constructed around a central atrium with clever curation that leads you in a logical route around the entire museum in chronological order. Unless, like my friend when he visited, you manage to turn the wrong way at the entrance and so experience Korean history backwards. Apparently it was a unique way to learn about the country! I opted to start in Bronze Age Korea and work my way round to modern Korea. There’s various cafes and tea rooms dotted around on each floor and it took me about three hours to make my way round the main exhibitions – take into account here that I like reading all Iron Buddhathe signs on artefacts! There were also two temporary exhibitions, one on Afghan gold and one on Joseon period printing presses. I’m slightly obsessed with typography and old fashioned printing technology so I spent a good 45 minutes looking at all the printing blocks! One thing that really stood out to me were the iron Buddhas. I’ve not been anywhere in Asia before so I don’t know if this is a uniquely Korean style of devotional art or not but regardless the detail was astonishing.

Mandu

By far and away my favourite food of the trip was mandu (dumplings). I mean, what’s not to love? Tasty filings, boiled or fried dough, food you can eat with your hands? Obviously my last meal in Korea had to be mandu. We hit a local stall in the market for a mystery selection (I’m 99% sure my friend knew what he was ordering) and headed down to the Han to eat. 10 days was not enough time to spend in Korea. There’s so much I still want to see, so much more to learn about the culture and so much food I’ve yet to eat! This trip was a good introduction, dipping my toes into South Korea if you will. Expect more posts in the future when I make another trip. South Korea, I’m not finished with you yet!

Seoul: Disney Castles and Fried Chicken

I’ll be the first to admit, I had no idea what to expect when arriving in Seoul. I’ve become way more chilled out about travelling over the past year and didn’t really do much research about Korea before my trip. So arriving into Seoul and realising how huge a city it was came as a slight surprise. It really shouldn’t, it’s one of the biggest cities in the world, coming in the top 5 in terms of population and metropolitan area. What I wasn’t expecting was how green it was. South Korea in general is a beautifully green country, and it’s something that had surprised me before but I wasn’t expecting it in a huge sprawling city. I’m from England where our cities (think London, Birmingham, Manchester) are beautiful and vibrant and I love them but you could never describe them as natural wonders. They’re all thoroughly industrialised and built up with a few parks dotted throughout. The view from my friend’s apartment in Yongsan was kind of mind-blowing. I know it may seem that I’m overreacting but seriously, check it out. Being right next to the river was awesome and the fact that there’s no buildings along the Han was baffling. Again, think about English cities – you can’t even walk along the Thames for more than half an hour in central London without having to divert around buildings.

View over the Han original

Totally didn’t lean out of 23rd floor window for this shot 

After a super lazy start to the day recovering from Boryeong Mud Festival and eating traditional Parisian patisserie from Gontran Cherrier (who knew, fancy pastries are super popular in Korea) we headed out into Seoul. We were hoping to hit up a beer festival but turns out we’d missed it by a day. One thing I will say about South Korea. It might be one of the most connected places in the world in terms of wifi connectivity but the use of websites to give information about upcoming events is appalling – trying to find out when and where things are happening is a nightmare! We’d headed over to Sinchon, an area known for its nightlife and student population. So obviously we’d gone on a Sunday afternoon. Perfect time to check out some bars.

western-desserts

That classic and well loved advertising duo, Uncle Sam and Mary Poppins 

 

My Korean friend had insisted that while I was in Seoul I had to try Chimaek, Korean fried chicken. It’s one of those brilliant words created by smushing two other words together. You’re supposed to eat it with a beer and so the name is a fusion of ‘chicken’ and ‘maekju’ (Korean for beer). Isn’t language cool? As you’d expect, it’s a perfect combination, slightly
greasy fried chicken and beer being the basis of so many late night purchases around the world. I’m trying to find somewhere that does it back here in the UK (any suggestions welcomed) because it was delicious. As you can probably tell, the food was one of the highlights of Korea for me!

Lotte World

This essential Korean experience ticked off my list, it was time to visit Lotte World. This is a huge complex, made up of the world’s largest indoor amusement park, an outdoor theme park, huge shopping mall, Korean folk museum and hotel amongst other things. The indoor park is open late all year round and what better way to spend a Sunday evening than on teeny tiny rollercoasters?

None of the pictures I took fully convey just how huge it is. You walk in and I actually had to stop to try and take it all in. It is colossal. In the entrance hall you’re greeted by a fully sized ice rink under an atrium style glass ceiling that has a monorail and full sized hot-air balloon ride running around the edge of it. And that’s just the entrance. You go into the park itself and there’s a maze of levels, corridors and stairs to find your way around. There were a lot of couples in matching outfits there, taking adorable (and slightly awkward on the guys part) selfies with their matching totally not Mickey and Minnie mouse ears on. I’d kind of got used to sticking out like a sore thumb with my short red hair and piercings but I felt really out of place in the super cute atmosphere of Lotte World.

It was surreal how much merchandise there was ripped straight from Disney. Maybe Lotte has a franchise deal going but there was everything from Marvel toys, Minnie mouse costumes and even the famous castle from the various Disney Worlds (though no idea if there’s a cryogenically frozen Korean Walt Disney underneath it). A personal favourite was the inside of the castle complete with walls lined with shields and swords as well as a replica war horse and knight, both in full armour.

See why it's called Korean Disney World?

See why it’s called Korean Disney World?

Even though we went later on in the day, the queues to get on the most popular rides were 45 minutes long at their shortest. We really wanted to go on The French Revolution, mainly because of the name to be honest. Who doesn’t want to say they survived that?! Unfortunately the queue for that was surprisingly huge – guess everyone wanted a shot at liberté, égalité and fraternité. We also couldn’t get on the hot-air balloon ride which looked amazing. You got in a basket underneath a giant plastic balloon and were then lifted up to the ceiling of Lotte World before making your way along a track that ran around the entire roof. Obviously the queue for this was over an hour and a half long and I have the attention span of an amnesiac goldfish so wasn’t prepared to wait that long. We did manage to go on an Indiana Jones themed water ride with a Korean family and a very excited small kid. I may have over-played my reaction to the drops and spins of the track somewhat for their benefit.

Lotte world balloonsThe highlight of Lotte World, however, had to be the Haunted House. After wrestling with the ticket machine (the problem when two waegukin go out without a Korean speaking chaperone) we headed in. It was… Disappointing. Not scary. Not dark. We were kind of hurrying through when we heard some loud screaming coming from up ahead. Not a pre-recorded tinny scream but a proper terrified, real-life human scream. Maybe it got scarier the further in you got? Around the next corner we found two Korean girls on the floor, almost crying in terror, hugging each other for support. Standing over them was a guy in a black robe with a pretty unconvincing skull mask on. He was trying to lean down and offer them a hand up but every time he moved, the girls started screaming again. My friend and I were by this point clutching the walls in laughter, watching as he tried again and again to help them. After a good few minutes he gave up and went back into his little cubbyhole in the wall. The girls practically crawled out of the house and the guy came back out with his mask off, shrugging at us. We were still cracking up with laughter, having to hold each other up at this point. Who knew Haunted Houses could be such a source of hilarity?

Banpo Bridge

I talked at the beginning of this post about how green Seoul is and we spent the evening wandering down to Banpo Bridge in the park that runs along the Han River. There was so many people out, cycling, drinking, eating, listening to music. My friend had told me I needed to see Banpo Bridge and had only told me that it was a ‘dancing rainbow fountain bridge’. Now, I’m a creative writer but even I couldn’t quite picture what exactly that meant. Turns out a ‘dancing rainbow fountain bridge’ is a bridge that has horizontal jets set all along its sides, with rainbow coloured LEDs and speakers. The jets move and fire off in time to the music, with a light show going simultaneously. Koreans really love their dancing fountains. Yet another surreal musical experience to add to the list!

fountain-bridge-seoul

Boryeong Mud Festival

Of all the slightly bonkers things I did in South Korea, Boryeong Mud Festival has to be the most surreal. What is a mud festival? It’s exactly what it sounds like. Think Glastonbury but warmer and without the music. The aim is to get as covered in mud as physically possible. I was an outdoorsy kid – growing up on army bases means you always have amazing woods to get lost in. But I was never allowed to wear white. I was a pretty clumsy tree climber and mud and blood make for a lot of laundry. Naturally when I found out we were heading to Mudfest I picked out my whitest, cleanest outfit. I’m a responsible adult now and I’m going to use that power to get as dirty as physically possible.

I expected Mudfest to have some ancient and spiritual history stretching back to before records began. Boryeong Mud Festival has actually, however, only been going since the late 90s. As you’d expect for a country famed for its make-up and cosmetics industry, the festival started out as a marketing vehicle for Boryeong mud cosmetics. Apparently the mud itself has been famous for years for being good for your skin (mine did feel lovely and soft after a day being covered in it!) and for Mudfest they collect huge vats of it from nearby mud flats. These are then transported to the beach where the festival itself takes place.

Our day started out super early in Seoul. Turns out Boryeong is pretty much halfway between Seoul and Mokpo so I was retracing my steps from the week before (check out my adventures in the south of the Korean Peninsula here). On the way we drove over the Seohae Bridge which is over 7000m long. I’m slightly obsessed with bridges and tunnels, I think it comes from being an engineer’s daughter. We also tried these snacks called walnut balls that were walnut shaped cakes filled with red bean paste. I have a love hate relationship with red bean paste. If you’re expecting red bean paste, it’s a quite tasty addition to sweet dishes. If you’re a tired, blurry-eyed European who thinks what they’re eating is Nutella – not so nice. I made this mistake a surprising number of times during my trip.

MudFest 2k16

We arrived in Boryeong at lunch time. The Mud Festival has two breaks a day where they close for people to eat. We took the time to grab some drinks because another grand and venerable tradition of Mudfest is maintaining a steady level of drunkenness. Luckily the weather was kind of perfect – warm but overcast without ever raining. I’d have got supremely sunburn if it’d been better weather as mud isn’t the best sunscreen. We spent the lunch break sat on the beach with a few beers. Soon as Mudfest reopened, we headed in, ready to get mucky.

The first place we found was a big pool where you could go and splash mud at each other but it was disappointingly watery. It only stained rather than destroyed our clothes. Not good enough. After a bit of hunting I found a trough full of good, thick mud. And started a mud fight by throwing a load right in my friend’s face. Pro tip guys – if you wear contacts, come prepared with swim goggles so they don’t get messed up when you inevitably get a face full. Pretty quickly we were all filthy and my childhood dream of ruining a white shirt had been fulfilled. My mother would have been so proud.

 

Mud fest Johnny and I

Good thing someone remembered his GoPro!

 

There were various stalls around the edge of the mud zone (personal favourite was the Foreign Interpretation Assistance Unit – like SWAT for lost, drunk waegukin) and one was doing face painting with coloured mud. After queueing for about 45 minutes we realised we need numbers in order to actually get painted when we reached the front so one of our group dived into another queue while we waited in line. Then when we eventually made it to the front, my friend and I (the guy from the zorbing incident in New Zealand) were told we were too dirty to have mud painted on our faces. Another good idea that I should share here – have someone in your group that actually speaks Korean. Then when you’re frustrated and have no idea why someone won’t paint your face, you don’t have to just rely on increasingly abstract hand signals. Having to clean up meant another queue to wash the mud off our faces. This proved a bit much even for my British love of queueing but eventually we made it to the face painting station. Between the 3 of us there was a cat, an advert for Korea and a superhero. Being a comic book nerd, I was more than happy with this.

being-painted

 

Boryeong

After some ramen and a few more beers we wandered a bit further along the beach and heard some chanting. When we checked it out there was a man climbing a ladder of knives. Yep. You read that right. There was an old man climbing a ladder (more of a staircase really) of knives in time to chanting and drum beats. Then some women dressed all in white carried white globes down to the sea where they floated them away. We couldn’t work out what was going on beyond it being some form of ancestor worship and I still haven’t really got any idea. Any suggestions would be welcomed!

The weather was starting to turn at this point so we headed for showers before we got rained on. In England, unlike the rest of Europe, we’re not really big on communal, public nudity. If you go to a swimming pool in the UK, chances are everyone will keep their swimsuits on to shower afterwards. Go figure, we’re a famously repressed nation. Not in Korea. There was no swimsuits in the showers at Boryeong. Luckily the water was so freezing that it distracted me from my innate British awkwardness.

 

Mud fest colours

One thoroughly destroyed white shirt? Check

 

There was still a while to wait before the main event in the evening so we camped out in a coffee shop. In there with us were some girls who were taking selfies, showing them to their friends and then touching up their make-up to take more selfies. Apparently this is a popular past time in Korea. It was something that struck me while in Korea, and I’m definitely not the first to say it, how image conscious the whole country is. Even at Mudfest there were a lot of girls with full faces of make-up trying to not get dirty.

K-Pop in Korea

Finally it was time for the evening’s entertainment to kick off. What could possibly be better than spending a day throwing mud at your friends? PSY. That’s right, the K-pop star that smashed YouTube records with Gangnam Style back in 2012 and then seemingly disappeared in the UK music scene. He’s still massive in Korea and I had an awesome time listening to some of his big hits. It was one of those moments in life where you just look around you and think “Is this really happening right now?”. Dancing on a South Korean beach to Gangnam Style live just about topped listening to it with Mokpo’s dancing fountain (it’s a close run thing let me tell you).

 

PSY

 

Boryeong Mud Festival was utterly bonkers. I have told everyone who’s asked me about Korea about it. It seems such a uniquely Korean event, even down to its creation coming from the cosmetics industry. If you’re in the Peninsula at the beginning of July, or even anywhere near Korea, definitely check it out. It’s an experience that will stick with you. Even if you have to throw out the clothes you wore. 

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