Last weekend, Habiba and I, and four other friends, went to Boryeong Mud Festival. The weekend was also special because it was Habiba’s birthday on Sunday – she was 30.
Having spent a few weeks wondering what on Earth I could buy her as a present, on Monday – taking advantage of a random day off work – I went to Insadong (an area of craft and souvenir shops) to look for inspiration. And inspiration came – if rather timidly. On Thursday I went back to buy what I wanted. Unfortunately, the rainy season is now upon us here in the Korean penninsula – and on Thursday it was bucketing down. I walked along the street, sodden from the knees down, getting depressed for reasons that are difficult to explain. I had some tea and chocolate in a Starbucks and went back home to change and go to work.
I ended up getting Habiba three presents – bought over two subsequent trips to Insadong. Three because I wanted to make it special, and because the central gift I had mind also gave me some doubts.
On Saturday morning I dropped the least portable of my gifts – a large bowl matching some other ceramics Habiba has – at her place and then headed off to meet her at Yongsan Station. From there we took the train to Boryeong (or to Daecheon, at least) – which was a trip of nearly three hours.
Although the weather had been decent in Seoul in the morning, by the time we reached Boryeong mid to late afternoon it was decidedly grey and showery. Things weren’t helped by the fact that the room we were shown to at our guesthouse wasn’t what our friend Ksan had reserved. Ksan is Canadian, but has been in Korea for several years and speaks the language very well. There was a long argument between her and the landlady; the landlord also joined in (although I’m not entirely sure on what side).
We ended up staying at another place – thereby losing half the cost of the other room. Ksan – extremely generously – paid the extra cost for us. The second guesthouse was closer to the beach, and similarly over-priced. Under-specced, too: we had two rooms, one for Habiba and me, one for Ksan, her boyfriend Jun-hong, Charlie and her ‘friend’ Ju (Charlie and Ju have a pretty fraught relationship); we had to ask for more towels and toilet roll, there was no drinking water, no toiletries other than soap, no futon-style mattresses, just sheets and pillows. It was by far the worst-value place I’ve stayed at in Korea.
I was obliged to buy some shorts and flip-flops at the convenience store on the ground floor – having not prepared for a beach holiday at all, having not done that sort of thing since I was a child. While freshening up in our room, I picked up a small Listerine bottle that Habiba had brought with her and mouthed a swig … only to realise it wasn’t mouthwash at all, but liquid soap. Bleurch.
In our beach get-up and in the grey weather we headed to the restaurant next door where we had a seafood barbecue – lots of clams and mussels. Ju told us that the Korean for clam, jogae, also refers to the female pudenda; he seemed to think it was a good pun to use in chat-up lines.
After that we walked down the beach to a stage constructed over the sand opposite the mudbath area. There were lots of foreigners wandering round – the Mud Festival is one of those things that English teachers have to go and do during their year or so here. We went swimming. It wasn’t freezing, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant, either. Habiba had fun doing underwater somersaults and handstands; I tried one and got water up my nose. The walk back to our accommodation seemed to take much longer than the walk out – especially being wet and cold.
Afterwards, we hooked up with Ksan’s boyfriend, Jun-hong and accompanied him to another restaurant so he could eat meat. It was dark by this time, and at some time after nine a fireworks display began. Everybody ran to the door out to the first floor balcony; I had a reasonable view from my seat, so I stayed where I was while the meat overcooked on the grill beside me. The fireworks were pretty impressive, actually – there were some huge ones that looked like exploding universes, others that formed peachy-red hearts or stars.
We bought a couple of carrier bags full of snacks from a convenience store. Inside I bumped into Su-Gyung, the woman I met on the hike to Inwangsan and subsequently had a date with. I’ll probably see her again this Saturday when I go on my second Korean Foundation Volunteer Network event – a pottery class.
We took our goodies back to the guesthouse and ate and played cards. When it turned midnight we sang happy birthday for Habiba and gave her presents. Earlier on, I’d already given her a pretty slate- or teal-coloured fabric bookmark (so she has no excuse not to fold pages in books). Now, I gave her a stamp with her name in Roman and Hangul lettering (which looks like 하비바). It was made out of some blonde wood and the handle was carved into a ram – being born in 1979, she’s year of the sheep. As I understand it, all Koreans have one of these stamps to use on official documents. Although I was worried it might be kind of a pointless gift, I also think it makes a nice keepsake for someone who’s lived in Korea.
Afterwards we went swimming naked in the sea. Charlie, having already done so (we left her and Ju behind to tend to a paralytic Londoner we found lying on the ground as we walked back to the guesthouse), kindly remained on the beach to take photos of us.
When we woke in the morning there was pretty much a full-on storm going on outside. However, by the time we’d got ready to go out (putting on our wet beach clothes from the previous day), the rain had died off leaving only the warm gale-force wind. We walked up the beach back to the mudbath area by the stage (we’d been too late to get muddy on Saturday); where the sand was dry enough we got sandblasted.
The mud facilities (all free) were limited to just three (or two, really), no doubt because of the bad weather. There was a mud prison cage, a mudbath and a pool for rinsing off. We went in the cage first. This was maybe three or four by two metres; people climbed in through the flexible bars front and back and were then pelted with buckets of mud. The mudbath was of a similar size and was filled to a depth of a foot or so with thick but smooth warm grey mud. As you can imagine, it was weird, but fun and quite satisfying. There were lots of people walking around looking like prehistoric relics.
We went swimming (or, more precisely, wading – there was a line of lifeguards posted in the water to prevent anyone going further than about thigh-deep into the crashing surf), then into the mud again before heading back to our accommodation to wash, change and check out. The wind was still blowing fiercely and I was really cold. I ended up wearing my England shirt and the long-sleeved top I’d lent to Habiba – both got rather dirty.
At the guesthouse, we snook in and snook out again hoping to avoid a confrontation with the landlady, who undoubtedly would have wanted more money because we checked out so late. Then it was off to the train station. We had a late lunch at a restaurant across the road from the station, petted the cute but nervous-looking little dog and tried to play cards (not such a clever idea when you have food to eat and a train to catch).
On the journey back, I told Habiba I loved her. That’s the first time I’ve ever said that to anyone. After what seems like a lifetime of loneliness I think it’s difficult for me to really appreciate what that means – it’s surprising and a little scary, but it makes me incredibly happy that I can say it – and mean it. Habiba’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
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