Last Friday my Korean co-worker, Jade invited me to a sunflower festival with her and some of the other foreign teachers. Nicole and I met Ted, Patrick, Alyssa, and Jade at the bus terminal and caught a bus to Gochang, about an hour away from Gwangju. The ride was uneventful and the destination was even less eventful. This was perhaps the least interesting town in Korea, luckily we weren’t here for the town, we were here for the sunflowers.
The Cab Ride
Jade spoke to two cab drivers and asked them to drive all of us out to the sunflower field several miles away. By Korean standards, this was the most expensive cab ride we’d taken so far. Split 3 ways it was roughly $7 a piece. The ride was insane. Korean cabbies in Gwangju drive uncomfortably fast for being in heavy traffic but get them out in the countryside away from traffic and they really floor it. We were whizzing around turns and speeding past green blurs which I assume were farms. There were a few turns where I was shocked the tires were able to hold traction and keep us on the road. I thought for sure we would slide off the road and bounce down a mountainside like dice on a craps table, but we survived and made it to the sunflower field.
In Korea, the term festival is loosely applied to all events, things, ideas, and concepts. You’re never really certain what a “festival” will entail, but it almost never involves a Ferris wheel.
This sunflower festival happened to be a field of sunflowers many of which were dead. This was partly our fault for visiting the field on the very last day of sunflower season. Jade told us the pictures she saw from earlier in the season were beautiful. I was able to get a few good shots of sunflowers and the field was still mostly green so the pictures came out well.
We spent the next hour or so walking through the field taking photos and observing the majestic beauty of the partially decomposing sunflowers. I saw it as a metaphor for the fragility of life and the ever-looming specter that is death, but mostly I just took pictures. Many Korean couples wandered through the field in their hiking gear or high heels, some wearing a combination of the two.
There was a little pagoda in the center of the field and from all sides of it, you could see endless green and yellow sunflower plants. We hung out in the pagoda for a while just talking and recovering from the soul-crushing heat. In case I forgot to mention the temperature in previous posts, assume that it’s been at least 90 degrees outside in all of my posts.
After our well-deserved escape from the heat, we left the pagoda and ate lunch at a café/visitor center on the outskirts of the sunflower field. Nicole and I shared a squid pizza (more like an open-faced squid omelet) and bibimbap (rice, egg, and veggies in a bowl). It was delicious. Across from the restaurant was a sunflower gift shop selling various sunflower-related products such as a tea-like drink mix and some sunflower seeds in different size bags. Nicole and the other ladies on the trip got soft serve ice cream, vanilla since the swirl option was broken.
After lunch, we returned to where the cab drivers had dropped us off. The two drivers were milling around the parking lot doing cab driver things, probably discussing beaded seat cushions, awful car fragrances, or the best way to drift around turns and scare your passengers.
The Ride to the Beach
We all piled into the two cabs and drove to the beach. The drive was about 20 minutes and the cab drivers didn’t take their foot off the gas once. It was exhilarating and terrifying, but the fare was low so I can’t complain. About halfway through the ride the cab driver turned to Nicole in the backseat and handed her his business card and a paper fan sponsored by the police department condemning domestic violence. I don’t really know what to make of that gesture. Either Nicole happened to say something in English that sounded like Korean for “please give me a business card and information on domestic violence” or I still have lots to learn about Korean culture.
We arrived at a little town on the coast, I use the term town loosely, there were four to five buildings and a beach. We walked through town, all of it, and out to the beach. A concrete wall surrounded the beach on the coast side, immediately on the other side of it was a rocky outcropping where Koreans were sunbathing. We laid our towels out on the hot rocks and basked like lizards beneath a heat lamp. Once we were sufficiently heated on both sides, like lightly toasted English muffins, we walked down to the water. It was low tide so the water was about a half mile away. I expected to be cooled down by the water on such a hot day. However, I was in for a surprise. The water was hot, not just warm but hot. It was not refreshing.
The time in the water was relatively uneventful so I’ll take this time to tell you about Korean beach attire. Koreans fear the sun like vampires and cherish whiteness like Aryans. Consequently, it’s not unusual to see Koreans in either incredibly modest swimsuits or completely covered up head to toe with long sleeves, pants, and a hat. As a foreigner, I have been repeatedly warned to check for “whitening” in my sunscreen, because some sunscreen not only blocks the sun but also makes your skin whiter than when you left for the beach.
After our swim, we returned to Gwangju via a bus to a bus.