The best itineraries are the ones designed at 4am after a five-hour train ride across the country. Stranded at the train station, our group of sleep-deprived adventurers had eight hours to kill before check-in at our swanky rented apartment overlooking Haeundae Beach, Busan. And in that three bedroom apartment we expected to sleep 16 English teachers, give or take a few depending on how the night played out. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Back in Busan Station, a dozen young adults shivered and snacked under the moonlight while executing plan for the day (or rest of the night). Word spread about the Gamcheon Cultural Village, a hillside slum renovated with the magic of a fresh coat of paint. We didn’t know much about the area beyond the available opportunity to take worthy Instagram pics. So with our cameras in hand, we assembled into multiple cabs and let the sole Korean guy give direction.
Unfortunately, just because you can accurately pronounce a location doesn’t mean you can navigate it. With a flip of a flashlight app, we followed any street heading up, eventually leading us to a dirt trail. As we ascended up the mountain, the twinkling lights of the city multiplied below. It was quite romantic, but the slight fog within the darkness tainted the atmosphere with a weight of eeriness. Or perhaps the ominous feel spurred from the freshly-dug mounds we settled on to catch the sunrise. O, and are those tombstones? And over there, flowers? Well I’ll be damned, I had found myself surrounded by (nearly) strangers on a hilltop cemetery. What possibly could go wrong now?
Not a whole lot, as the next hour proved itself to be more National Geographic Documentary rather a Stephen King horror. The fog took its time to dissipate and our group waited patiently as the mountainous scenery revealed itself. After plenty of photos we carefully treaded down back to the Gamcheon Village in excitement despite the 6:40 time stamp.
Once on paved road, we faced another navigational challenge. The village looked much brighter in sunlight, beaming off a kaleidoscope of colors throughout the cliffs, resembling more of a Brazilian Favela than a Korean neighborhood. Lost in the rainbow, we spiraled down to find our pot of gold, if only we could be so lucky. We landed in an urban park along the industrial harbor, fitting in a work out amongst the local elderly. Blame it on the lack of sleep, but the senior citizens showed us up on the outdoor equipment.
After the “workout”, some of the crew had built up an appetite so naturally we headed to the Jagalchi market, an infamous fish market in Busan. Within 200 meters of overflowing tanks of squid, crab and a dozens of other species of fish swarming besides us, we were lured into a restaurant by an owner. By 8am, we removed our shoes, sat cross-legged on the floor and ordered meals both fried, grilled, and still moving.
“Start chewing right away”
Was the advice for the squirming octopus at the end of my chopsticks. And with that in mind, I tried my first live sannakji.
“It’s chewy, just like a gummy bear”
Was the comment a friend made. Maybe not like a gummy bear, but the sesame oil seasoning the tentacles made the bite tolerable.
Despite my lack of interest to eat fish (eel and octopus) for breakfast, I saved my appetite for a proper brunch sea-side near our B&B in Haeundae.
About an hour subway later, we landed at our anticipated location and I drooled over the American brunch menu from the trendy Fingers and Chat restaurant which resided within The Bay 101 Yacht Club. It was comforting to eat a recognizable meal amongst English-speakers, something I didn’t realize I missed until that meal.
It’s funny because usually Saturday brunch is served around 1pm to a group of hungover kids just waking up for the day. But for our clan, we had been up since 4am (considering those who slept on the train) and ready to nap. Those lucky enough scored a mattress in our chic apartment while others piled on comforters on the smooth wooden floor. Between 40 minutes to four hours, we rested up to take on the night. And to no surprise, I caught those mere 40 minutes and hit the beach for some soju. One bottle lead to the next and before midnight I called it quits. (That is after circling downtown Haeundae before finding our apartment building).
I woke up in exhaustion and confusion.
“Where did all these people come from?”
“Where did all this McDonalds come from?”
And when the others saw I had woken up they exclaimed:
“Jenny you’re alive! I accidentally sat on you last night and you didn’t budge!”
Apparently, I missed an entire viewing of a soccer (or futbol, to those non-North Americans) game throughout the night. I could have slept through a blow horn to the face for all I know. What I did know was that I was glad to get the rest, as Sunday was the reason for the whole trip: to celebrate Holi Hai.
Holi Hai, or the festival of colors, is a Hindu tradition welcoming the beginning of spring with colored powder. Copious amounts of colored powder. Paints may also be brought into the mix, so we dressed accordingly.
We collected amongst 1,500 others dressed in white and armed with powder. Some of the participants had already taken the liberty to decorate themselves, often finding a “paint me” request written on their back. I stood pale, exhausted, and a bit claustrophobic in the beginning, not sure what to expect once the clock struck twelve.
And then the countdown begun.
Close your eyes, fling your arms, watch your mouth and make sure the GoPro is ready…
Boom. Blastoff. The madness commenced. Bollywood music blasted over the clouds of color and the smiling partiers joined as one. Strangers everywhere threw pink on my face while slapping blue on my back, and I reciprocated. In any direction a micro-dance party begun and I joined in. It was one big high school dance, as I was sober and giddy and without a date. But unlike the high school I attended, Holi Hai was beautifully diverse. An even mix of Koreans, Indians, and foreigners joined as one to frolic on the beach. Such an alluring site to see, both visually and poetically.
The next two countdowns continued, turning my hair, skin and clothes into a blended-brown mess. I danced as much as my legs could handle and ordered a solo recess around 2pm. I joined 20 other women swarming the sinks in the public bathrooms to partially wash my face and headed for a warm cafe to enjoy some me-time. The staff judged me head-to-toe, examining my rugged appearance, but the worn look on my face must of given them sympathy towards my current state.
After a warm, silent meal I joined the others at a bar filled with others retreating from Holi Hai. The matter of debate was what we would do to fill our time before our train ride that night. Luckily, three others wanted a hot shower as bad as I did, and we headed to a Jimjibang.
“A what?” You ask? A Jimjibang, a traditional Korean spa and sauna. For less than $10, we showered and bathed fully-fleshed around a hundred of other Koreans in the gender-separated spas. After given a shapeless outfit we could head up to the communal saunas and sweat out our impurities. It was lush and relaxing, but still not enough to get the pink out of my hair.
Feeling refreshed, we met up with the rest of the gang for a Korean meal before yet another “red-eye” train ride. I arrived to my apartment around 3:00 AM, dreading the motion to set my alarm for 4 hours later. It was a miracle I survived school on Monday, but the lethargy was worth the trip. No one suspected anything from my painted hair and stained nails, so It’s safe to say the weekend of color was a success.