Busan Fireworks Festival (3)The Seoul International Fireworks Festival would have taken place last month, had it not been cancelled due to swine flu. Amy and I therefore braved the tedious journey down to Busan (부산) for the fifth annual Busan Fireworks Festival, which is not “international” and therefore not a flu transmission risk. I was quite eager to have a go at photographing fireworks, and it was with no small sense of acquisitiveness that I raided my local Canon store for a tripod and remote control (Amy and her family had very kindly sponsored my shopping trip as a birthday present), essential equipment to take longer exposures and avoid blur.

We arrived in good time, a fresh breeze blowing off the land out into the bay at Gwangalli (광안리), and checked in to our hotel (the price of which reflected a 225 % markup on normal rates). When making reservations, we had tried to get the price reduced to something more reasonable and were rebuffed with a curt, “We’ve been waiting for this weekend all year” – we were also told that check-in was 7 pm, and had to fight to be allowed in at 3. As we went in and out over the course of the evening, we noted that the room prices were being increased by W10,000 every hour.

Busan Fireworks Festival (2)As the fireworks began, I was still frantically searching for a place to put my tripod (there were supposedly 1.5 million people crowding the beach) – people would trip over and walk into it for the next hour, despite a clear path on the road in front of us. I located a patch of sky and started taking photographs, only to realise after a few minutes that the manual focus wasn’t set correctly. Once this had been (mostly) remedied, my camera decided to shut down with the non-specific error 99. With some rapid testing, I was able to determine that I could “reboot” the camera by switching it off, changing to an automatic mode, removing the lens, replacing the lens and switching it back on, and that the error occurred when I tried to take a photograph in manual mode when the exposure meter was off-chart below -2 stops. I’m really hoping that this kind of behaviour doesn’t repeat itself, but was able to take a few shots of the end of the display.

Busan Fireworks Festival (1)Busan Fireworks Festival (4)


Sand BuddhaLast weekend, a bunch of us took the bus down to Busan to enjoy the almost-summer temperatures and check out the annual sand festival. Quite a few professional sculptors were reported to be there, though we only saw one actually making something, and the range of distractions on the beach itself were quickly exhausted. We then found out that there was a separate sand sculpture competition open to the public, and immediately set to with shovel and hose to pack the loose sand down into a mound that we could carve something out of. There had been some heated discussion earlier as to what we’d make, but we settled on a dragon given that we’d come from Yongin (the Yong, 용/龍, means “dragon”) – it acquired a soju bottle, clouds and a mugunghwa (무궁화; Hibiscus syriacus) somewhere in the construction process. As we toiled away, a steady stream of well-wishers came and admired our handiwork (including a few event photographers) – but we didn’t end up winning any of the prizes.

Drinking dragon (1)Drinking dragon (2)

Drinking dragon (3)Drinking dragon (4)

Drinking dragon (5)Sand turtles

Sand RohPeace man

Sand O-TotoroSand ape

Haeundae kitesWith no events on Sunday (unless we felt like building another sculpture), we ventured underground to the Busan Aquarium – home to countless sea creatures and host to countless scampering kids. It turned out to be extremely difficult to take reasonable photographs due to a combination of low light, moving fish, dirty glass, curved tanks and harsh reflections, but I managed a few. We were mesmerised by the mudskippers for quite a while, watching them hop about their beach and defend their territories against wanderers, and distressed by the tiny enclosures for the seals and Pacific giant octopus. We had to cut our time in the shark/ray area a little short due to transport timetabling, but left pretty much as enriched as one can be having just visited a bunch of animals.

Haeundae jellyfishAquarium fine art

Haeundae anacondaHaeundae otters

Haeundae depressed fishHaeundae lobster

Haeundae coloured jellyfishHaeundae eel

Haeundae grouperHaeundae sharks

Cheonggyecheon by nightEven though Christmas is a national holiday and Christians outnumber Buddhists here, everyone knows that the really big fanfare happens in the spring, to celebrate the birth of the Buddha. The entire country is decked out in lanterns for a couple of weeks, and temples all over the peninsula open their doors to worshippers and revellers (often with free tea!). Exploring Seoul by lantern-light and watching the temple parades are generally reckoned to be one of the highlights of a stay in Korea.

JogyesaWe arrived at the Jongno area (right on the parade route) just in time to hear the drums and yells of the approaching marchers. Each temple had sent a contingent of followers equipped with lanterns and floats, and for the next few hours we shouted and waved at their efforts and tried to guess at the mythological figures depicted (once we had finished scurrying around the roads trying to puzzle out the constantly-changing route, that is). The photographs below (culled from a much larger set) should give you some idea of what we were shown – if you find yourself in Korea during May, I recommend you experience it too.

Buddhist lantern (1)Buddhist lantern (2)

Buddhist lantern (3)Buddhist lantern (4)

Dragon float (4)Dragon float (3)

Dragon float (1)Dragon float (2)

Peacock float (1)Peacock float (2)

Phoenix float (1)Phoenix float (2)

Dragon lantern (1)Dragon lantern (2)

Tiger lanternSnake hood Buddhist

Buddha plus bodyguardsReclining float

All-encompassing BuddhaBuddhist crew (3)

Buddhist crew (1)Buddhist crew (2)

Elephant floatDragon riding float

Eco-floatFish float

Baseball floatAccessibility float

Jongno TowerClimbing monk

Lotus-elephant-lotus-BuddhaBuddhist triffid-lotus

Zhang Gu (Crayon Shin-chan)Mascot lantern

Buddhist road tripTank engine float

Pimped-up Buddhist monster truckBuddhacopter

Pig lantern (1)Pig lantern (2)

Anseong snack vendorAmy and I had thought our festival season over after Andong, but events conspired to take us to one more. I ran into Sunny quite by accident on the bus out of Seoul, and he invited us along to the Anseong Namsadang Baudeogi Festival (안성 남사당 바우덕이 축제) – a traditional performing arts event held in a small city just to the south of Yongin.

To provide some background, a Namsadang is a wandering troupe of performers who specialise in a certain skill set (principally acrobatics, singing, playing music, puppetry and dancing). In ancient times they would have wandered from city to city plying their trade, but these days the centre of the Namsadang universe is Anseong (close enough to Seoul that members of the aristocracy could travel to see performances, but far enough away to retain the folksy roots). Baudeogi, or Kim Am-Deok (김암덕), was the most talented Namsadang performer ever to grace the festival squares – adopted into a troupe at the age of four, she excelled in all disciplines and was eventually elected kkokdusoe (꼭두쇠; troupe leader) – unheard of for a woman at that time. She died in 1870 at the age of 22, and the festival is held in her honour.

Stockbreeder's Ssireum (5)After fighting our way through crowd of people watching pungmul nori (풍물놀이; traditional music and dance), we made a beeline for the Ssireum (씨름) competition (something that I’d never seen, and was quite interested in). Ssireum is traditional Korean wrestling, with two opponents in a sand ring grappling via a fabric belt tied around the waist and thigh. A bout is won by forcing an opponent to the ground, which often makes for acrobatic throws and impressive feats of strength. As it turned out, we were watching the local stockbreeders – traditionally, Ssireum was practised mainly by farmers (plentiful in Korea’s agricultural society) and the prize for winning a contest was an ox.

Stockbreeder's Ssireum (1)Stockbreeder's Ssireum (2)Stockbreeder's Ssireum (3)

Anseong deolmiThe festival site contained the usual assortment of food stalls, local produce and traditional craft stalls, as well as several highly precarious bridges over the river which would never pass health and safety regulations back home. We wandered for a little while before settling down on the edge of a performance square to watch some deolmi (덜미; puppetry), predictably surrounded by children. Like the mask dances of Andong, deolmi satirises the ruling classes and religious orders and thus provides much relief and hilarity for the peasant farmers. We were possibly watching a shortened version as I didn’t see any monks, but considering the lack of high-tech gadgetry and subtitles it was quite entertaining.

Stockbreeder's Ssireum (4)Our next encounter was with a group of clown-esque students, who seamlessly blended traditional and modern influences to create a thoroughly confusing and chaotic atmosphere. After walking in a circle banging gongs and drums, some members sat down whilst others cavorted in the centre. I wasn’t quite sure if it was a spontaneous gathering or if it had required weeks of careful choreography and planning.

Anseong jultagiJust before nightfall, we came across a jultagi (줄타기; tightrope walking) performance that had been set up next to the puppet area. A tightrope walker, balanced by a fan, would go out onto the rope and perform some tricks (generally walking, kneeling or sitting astride) while exchanging witticisms with another performer on the ground. Most of the banter went over our heads, but we did get to see Korea’s top jultagi expert do a few spins, jumps and possibly painful drops-to-sitting-astride.

Anseong court musicFinally, with night upon us, we stopped to see a performance of drumming intended more for the noble courts than for the village squares. Surprisingly young women played a multitude of drums in a very soft and highly choreographed rhythm to give an almost relaxing impression. A traditional wedding dance followed, which we didn’t have time to stay for, but as we made our way out we caught from afar the climax of the international dance showcase – performers from all the nationalities involved doing a kind of global square dance with one person from each country in each group.

Andong Mask Dance statueKeeping up the habit of going to as many festivals as we can reasonably fit into our schedules (which has worked out to around one a season so far), Amy and I took a bus to the broad valleys of Andong (안동, in the centre-east of South Korea) for the beginning of the 2008 International Mask Dance Festival. This has grown out of the popularity and cultural significance of the local performances, and now showcases most of Korea’s traditional mask dances as well as a selection of international ones. We arrived in plenty of time for the opening ceremony, and caught a small slice of the action the following day due to having other commitments back in Seoul.

The foreign advantageUpon arrival at the festival site (having been thoroughly misdirected by the banners – all of them had “Mask Festival” written on them in large letters, but were actually pointing towards sponsors back in the city centre), we first had to run the gauntlet of hawkers selling the usual festival essentials – snack food, blankets, tools, weapons, household appliances, alternative therapy services and so on (none of those were made up). Once onto the site proper, the commercial offerings turned to more practical items such as food, alcohol and local products to take back as gifts.

Andong Mask Dance FestivalI had just enough time to sniff out a pumpkin pancake before the opening ceremony started, but the lack of a stage or tiered seating and presence of throngs of people jostling for a glimpse of the performers meant that we could only see the occasional banner waving above peoples’ heads. We took immediate action, and walked round the side of the floor area to where all the other acts in the ceremony were queuing up to take part. The queue meandered all through the festival site, eventually spilling out onto the road, and we saw several unfamiliar international troupes, some poorly-conceptualised mascots, more traditional gong- and drum-bashing groups than we could count and a flock of scantily-clad young women from Boryeong sneakily advertising the mud festival (thankfully not until next summer) and shivering in the chill autumn air.

Andong farmer's danceOnce we’d taken a look at all the performers (including a group from China who were sharing the same floor as us in our motel), we turned our attention to the stalls and were quickly attracted by free soju shots from a guy selling local liquor. While were were examining the production process display, we got chatting to a European couple who were on holiday, hit if off, repaired to a tent restaurant for some dinner (the opening ceremony being the only thing on that evening), wandered back into the city for something to drink, ran into another European couple (who had been accidentally following the others around on their route through Korea), had some drinks, got adopted by a Korean street bar owner and were entertained until the wee hours by him and his friends (including one highly questionable guy who insisted he was with the mafia).

Andong soju mascotsThe following morning, we wandered back into the festival a little tired and set about seeing what was viewable within the time we had. Our re-perusal of the stalls and other miscellaneous attractions was hampered by virtually every Korean person with a camera pausing to take pictures of us (there’s some kind of law over here that prevents people from taking photographs of Koreans without their express permission, but it apparently doesn’t apply to foreigners) – clearly, we were a far more exotic attraction than all the mask dancing they’d ostensibly come here to see. We dived into a global mask exhibit to shake the pursuit off, and then met up with our companions from the previous evening for some lunch. On the way back to the festival, we stumbled upon a stage in the middle of the city which was showing Andong’s traditional mask dance – Hahoe Pyolshin-Gut T’al-Nori, an ancient folk play praying for abundant rain and harvest whilst satirising the aristocracy and religious types. We stayed for the opening acts (a farmer killing a cow for magical internal organs, the lamentation of an old woman and a lecherous monk trying his luck with a young woman), and then had to scoot back to Seoul and leave the countryside and traditional culture behind for a little while.

Hahoe mask dance (1)Hahoe mask dance (2)

It looks like the new Generation Why team are a bit more picky about the kinds of things that get published – my seemingly innocuous report from the 2006 Wychwood Festival was subtly edited, so I’m posting the original as well as the link.

My piece on Wychwood 2006 for Oxfam’s Generation Why.

The original piece:

Wychwood 2006: And They’re Off!

For Oxfam volunteers, the Wychwood Folk Festival marks the beginning of the stewarding season. Located amid the rolling hills of the Gloucestershire countryside, it offers the best in contemporary folk music and an intimate, friendly vibe. Old hands and newbies alike found it the perfect start to the summer.

The weekend kicked off on Thursday evening with a typically informative and entertaining briefing session (who would have thought that fire extinguisher dry powder is a mild laxative?). Stewards received their day-glo tabards and work assignments, and then were left to their own devices. Most immediately checked their shifts against the list of performance times, and for me the rest of the first evening was spent with my co-campers accompanying a violin and two tin whistles using a frisbee as a percussion device.

Friday saw my first stewarding shift – I’d pulled “floating” duty, which means filling in where extra people are needed and (often) delivering tea and coffee to thirsty volunteers. Sent out to the farthest reaches of the site, our team enforced a laissez-faire one-way system, investigated several suspicious fires (mostly barbecues) and kept a weather eye on the campers. For some reason, we had a steady stream of people wanting to pitch tents on the racecourse (a strict no-no).

Saturday’s shift was more traffic management, this time at the opposite end of the site under a baking sun (but next to a field full of kites). Tour buses arrived, dropping off suspiciously clean-looking musicians, a steam train chugged by every hour or so, and crew vehicles zoomed around on patrol.

My final shift was the dreaded “graveyard” overnighter, but thankfully I was placed on the main campsite entrance – meaning that I saw and spoke to just about everyone coming back to their tent after a hard weekend’s partying. Everyone was uniformly tired, happy and trying not to think about starting work again. Once dawn broke, the festival started to wind down and it was all over for another year. Had it really been three days already?

This article gives a (very!) brief look at stewarding, but there was so much else going on it would take another few articles to get everything in. The standard of music was unbelievable (if you ever get the chance to see the Peatbog Faeries, go!), and the Silent Disco made a very welcome appearance. There were countless workshops (in things like poi and ocharina making), films, stand-up comedians, ethnic stalls and some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had.

For more stories and photographs from Wychwood 2006, check out the galleries on the Oxfam Stewards forums!

For the first time, Oxfam’s editor(s) have made their own alterations to my Generation Why piece. This is their perogative, but I’m going to post my original submission.

My piece on festival stewarding for Oxfam’s Generation Why.

The original piece:

Festival stewarding: More than just mud.

Like learning to ride a bike, going to your first music festival is a rite of passage. A long weekend of tripping over tent guys, investigating long-drop toilets and seeing the odd band makes you a more complete person. For the ultimate feel-good factor, though, you can steward for Oxfam and change the world while having the time of your life. I was at Leeds Festival last year (and Glastonbury the years before that), and make it a point to get at least one festival in every summer.

Typically, Oxfam stewards work three eight-hour shifts (one daytime, one evening and one overnight) – meaning that you usually miss one night’s entertainment. If there’s someone you really want to see, shifts can be shuffled about (I swapped mine one year so I could see Muse and as an added bonus miss Oasis). The rest of the time, you’re free to soak up the atmosphere.

Stewarding mostly involves checking tickets/wristbands or keeping an eye on an area, which is fairly straightforward and usually involves pointing out the toilets. At Leeds, my brother came through my gate and had to stand impatiently while I mused on whether to allow him through or not. Serious drama is fairly rare – but at Glastonbury a guy sprinted through our gate at about 30 m.p.h. before being rugby-tackled by six security guards!

A major perk of stewarding (aside from getting into the festival for free!) is the separate camping and catering area. Not only do you have a relatively quiet haven if you need to sleep after a night shift, but the workers’ canteen is usually the best on site with delicious hot meals 24 hours a day. There are also decent showers should you wish to forego the “real” festival experience of not washing for a week.

For me, stewarding opened up a door to a whole different festival. My tent was surrounded by nice people I immediately had something in common with (unlike one year not stewarding when the guy camped behind me was dealing speed). There were always people around who were happy to chill out, play guitar and cook dinner instead of set things on fire. I’d bump into people I’d met on demonstrations or through campaigns. I wasn’t at all bothered about going on my own, as I knew I’d make a few friends within an hour of arriving. Soya milk was easy to get hold of. I saw a propane cylinder explode. I stood in a marquee while lightning struck the stages. I never imagined that raising funds for Oxfam would be so much fun.

“But there’s no Glastonbury this year!” I hear you cry. Festival-goers secret #1: There’s more to a summer than Worthy Farm. 2006 is the perfect opportunity to check out all those small independent (less commercial?) festivals that get overshadowed. If your heart belongs to Glasto, though, stewarding is a guaranteed foot in the door for the 2007 rush. Convinced? I’ll see you at Wychwood.

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