Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Nonsan Strawberry Festival (논산 딸기 축제) April 6, 2013

                When my alarm rang at 7:00 I turned it off carelessly. In fifteen minutes the next alarm would wake me for good, as it always does, usually.
                When I next woke I was ominously refreshed. Sure enough, I checked the time on my phone and saw it was 8:05. The bus to Nonsan was scheduled to depart at 8:30. “Shoot,” I grumbled as I jumped up and went to the stairs, doing some quick estimates. If I could leave my apartment by 8:20 I could get to the bus with a couple minutes to spare. Fifteen minutes to shower, dress, and brush my teeth? Possible, but I hadn’t a moment to spare.
                It was the fastest I’d gotten ready in years, and even with the stroke of good luck of a taxi waiting directly in front of my building, I was running to the bus and boarded a few minutes after 8:30. Fortunately it was a charter bus, and the tour leaders were waiting on a few more people; we didn’t start moving until around 8:40, by which time I’d found a seat near Sarah, Rufus, and Lucy at the back of the bus. We were in for a cold and rainy day according to the forecasts, but, as I learned on our ski trip to Muju, those three are such great travel companions that I didn’t much mind the prospect of bad weather.
                We had somewhere between an hour and a half to three hours of bus ride between us and Nonsan. All I really knew was that it was somewhere north of Gwangju. Once Sarah had mentioned the trip I was sold immediately by the prospect of getting out of Gwangju for the first time since the trip to Muju and I didn’t do any more research. Nonsan is not Gwangju, and it has strawberries; that was more than enough for me. I could figure out the details whenever I woke up and we were there, so I put up the hood of my coat and leaned back in to the softly jittering rumble of the bus.
                We were about half an hour nearer our destination when the tour leader got on the microphone to end our naps and give us slightly more information about what we’d be doing that day. It would be cold, yes, but when we arrived at the strawberry farm we would be able to pick strawberries inside. For 10,000 won we could eat all the berries we wanted, and then either fill a small box with some to take home or take a jar of jam.
                And now, please tell us, what is your name, where are you from (which state if you’re from the states, please), and what is your job? I remembered doing a few of this sort of introduction from my first months here. In most circumstances, being in a place for eight months leaves you in a situation where you’re still very new. If this were school, I’d still be a freshman, after all. But in Korea, most of us work on one-year contracts, putting me closer to the end than I am to the beginning, with more farewells before me here than hellos. It’s not a great attitude to take up, I admit, but it’s basically the sense I had as I casually stated, “I’m Trevor, from Illinois, and I’m a hagwon teacher,” into a microphone for a bus full of strangers whose faces I couldn’t see. And then I heard a string of names with no faces and states and countries. It was a strange exercise. Our tour leader would have done better to just ask each of us conversationally as he collected our money.
                The next time I woke up I looked out the window as we crossed a bridge. On the banks of the placid grey river below, next to the expansive parking lot, sat a few figures encased in well-fluffed jackets. They huddled over their reels, watching the lines reaching beneath the surface.
                From a lightpole on the bridge a sign with one corner untethered flapped violently in the wind, with brief respites that were just long enough that my gradually-improving Korean-reading skills were able to make out the words “논산 딸기 축제” Nonsan Ddalgi Chukje. Nonsan Strawberry Festival. 논산 (Nonsan) is the name of the city. 딸기 –ddalgi – strawberry: I learned this word when I grabbed an appetizingly pink bottle from the cooler at 7-11 on my way to work one particularly bleary early afternoon last fall. When I sat down at my desk and unscrewed the cap, I slowly read the label: 딸기 라떼 – ddalgi latte – strawberry latte. 축제 –chukje – festival: I picked this one up during January intensives, when I was giving my class of middle schoolers a quiz of twenty vocabulary words every weekday morning at 10:10 a.m., and grading the quizzes over lunch. This was when I made most of my progress in reading Korean. Some of the words were given in Korean, and they’d write the English word, and some were the other way around. Festival was the other way around, so after reading over 13 quizzes to make sure 축제 was written correctly it stuck with me.
                The sign, with its crisp picture of a strawberry halved so that its white interior outlines the shape of a heart, suggested we were near our destination, though according to the clock we’d only been on the road for an hour and a half. The low estimate gladly proved to be accurate; we took the next right and came to a stop in the parking lot near the chilled fishermen.
                Alright, we’re here. Come back to the bus at 3 and we’ll go pick strawberries.
                Got it. 3 o’clock. So we have…5 hours. I forgot to bring an umbrella.
                We stepped off the bus and into the rain, and looked out toward the festival to see what the next five hours might have in store for us. I think we were all a bit underwhelmed. Somehow I’d imagined a sunny afternoon spent in some hilly fields among rows and rows of strawberry vines. Even when people warned me the weather wasn’t going to cooperate that weekend, the scene still played in my imagination as an afternoon of squinting in the bright sun while surveying vast stretches of rich green with luscious red blotches hanging out over the columns of recently-plowed soil, gently reflecting some of the warmth it had taken in from the intense sun.
                The bridge we’d crossed on the bus provided some relief from the rain, and we stopped underneath it for a few minutes to get a closer look of the setup. Beyond the concert stage set up near the edge of the river in front of the paved parking lot ran three columns of white tents, waiting for us to come peruse their contents while we strolled past in the rain, our feet pushing down the mesh the organizers had stretched over the ground so we wouldn’t sink into the mud but only into shallow puddles of murky grey water that formed around the soles of our feet at each step.
At the entrance to the festival
                Some of the vendors we passed called out to us with exhortations to come sample their wares, warming themselves up for a day of hard selling to try to mitigate the damage done to their business by the grey skies and cold winds. I did try a bit of jam, though I passed up the kimchi and some other concoctions I didn’t go close enough to identify. Most of the vendors paid us no special attention, watching us pass while saving their efforts for those who could understand what they would say and possibly buy what they sold. I spent enough hours standing damp and chilled in the pit of Harvard Square shouting to potential tour-takers to understand their resignation. I also gave enough hour-long tours to groups of Chinese tourists with minimal English skills to have some idea of the self-consciousness and futility one can feel while giving a pitch that’s doomed to incomprehensibility. I could empathize with the vendors’ reticence.
                We then came to a tent whose contents I hadn’t expected. We first noticed the snakes, mostly motionless in their bare, barely secured glass cases. Not far away a group of children leaned excitedly over plastic crates containing baby bunnies, mice, chicks, and hedgehogs. They hummed gleefully as they held the furry creatures or watched the tiny mice crawl over the sleeves of their coats, and I like to imagine the animals were thankful for the warmth offered them against the unseasonable chill by those miniature hands. We looked on from a distance for a few moments to discern what animals were there before moving along to the bigger cages.
                A larger enclosure surrounded a group of branches on which various tropical birds perched, including a parrot patiently enduring the persistent efforts of a young couple to teach it to say “Annyeong”. I listened intently, hoping they would succeed. Until then I hadn’t realized how much I’d like to hear a parrot mimic a language other than English. This parrot, however, seemed to content to show off only its listening skills, and we walked to the other side of the birdcage, deeper into the miniature zoo.
                Pressing against the far side of its cage was a skunk, stripped, we assumed, of its noxious potential. About a meter away was a brown raccoon, pacing back and forth, dipping its snout into the corner each time, involved completely in the business of looking busy checking for a way out.
                The porcupine in the next pen seemed to be making more progress. His pen was really more a loose affiliation of short wire fences without a covering on top. He repeatedly reared up and dove into the lower portion of the back side, sliding the fence back a few centimeters before he immediately commenced scraping away at the ground at its base. If the ground hadn’t been paved over with landscaping bricks he may have had some chance of escape that way. As it was we hoped he’d figure out that a strong pounce above the short fence’s center of gravity might tip it enough for him to make his way over it, and then perhaps under the loose back of the tent undulating slightly in the wind, and safely across the road and sidewalks, and maybe on to some semblance of a natural habitat somewhere, though I hadn’t had a good look at our surroundings on the drive in to know where that might be. I didn’t think that far ahead at the time. I just wanted for him to get out of that enclosure in what I was beginning to recognize was a bleak and likely miserable existence.
                The furry creature we saw in the next cage rushed frantically from the front to the back of its few square feet, ramming its head into the bars, its rapid breathing audible from a couple of meters away. I was beginning to feel guilty for looking, yet I kept a grin affixed to my face. ‘Who am I to frown?’ I thought. ‘I’m looking at this of my own volition, after all. And what good would it do to reflect the misery of these creatures back at them, only to walk away, having done nothing?’
                Near the end of the line was a monkey, sprawled out on his back on the floor of his cage, two of his long limbs reaching up and out, gripping the bars. He’d roll his head around from time to time to glance at his audience. I watched him in amusement, taking some comfort in the carefree and bored expression on his face. Among the rattle of skulls against metal bars coming from other parts of the tent, the monkey existed calmly in his miniscule space, patiently waiting for the end of the day when he’d be taken back to wherever they came from, warm and fed (I hope) before setting out for wherever was next.
                A moment later he sat up and reached outside the cage for a piece of straw, which he raised to his mouth and chewed a couple of times, then dropped it to the ground. With his expression unchanged he hopped up and down a few times, grabbing the bars and spinning himself around a bit in an effort to amuse himself.
                From the cage at the end of the line a domesticated cat looked on in complete stillness as though it were stationed on a living room windowsill looking out on the senseless commotion of the world outside. I’m not sure what the owners felt they were lacking to round out their collection of caged wildlife with a housecat. Goodness knows asking them would bring about no understanding. Not that I’d know who to ask, anyway. The whole exhibit seemed to be devoid of caretakers, of anyone to look upon with a disapproving glare.
                We made our way through mud puddles to the opposite row of tents, looking for a place to conquer our appetites. The line of open-air restaurants stretched out for a couple hundred meters, presenting us with no shortage of options. We briefly surveyed the whole length of it before deciding to return to the most enticing option we’d passed, which presented an animal in a much more palatable form than any we’d seen that day: a pig roasting on a spit in front of the tent. A labored perusal of their hanging menu suggested we could get a platter of roast pork for 25,000 won. We asked for that and sat down at a table, finally out of the rain.
                In my rush to get to the bus that morning I’d failed to eat anything. It was around 11 when we sat down to eat, around the time I’m finally getting out of bed on many mornings. Thus, while I wasn’t uncomfortably hungry, I eagerly scooped up some of the kimchi and other panjan once it was placed on the table. Even with the chilling effect of our ceasing to move around, having a dry place to sit out of the wind with a bit of kimchi in my stomach provided some sense of warmth.
                This cold! Shouldn’t it be warm here by now? It seemed like it was going to stay nice after the good weather we had during the week. Of course on the weekend it would decide to create a disturbance.
                I began to notice the disproportionate number of foreigners in the clumps of passers-by contemplating the array of lunch options. This wasn’t surprising; there were likely many foreigner-oriented groups like ours that had planned outings to the festival for that day. Since we’d already transferred funds to book seats on the bus we were much less likely to be dissuaded by the less-than-ideal conditions than Korean families who may have been considering a drive out to Nonsan to check out the festival. For most of them there’d be next year, anyway. It tends to be easy to spot foreigners in Korea, and several more groups of them sat down at tables near ours while we waited, perhaps having been drawn in by the presence of other foreigners and, of course, the pig on a spit. To ourselves, we commended the proprietor for her keen advertising.
                How nice it will be when it finally warms up for good. I’d like to try to visit Haeundae at some point in the small window I imagine exists between the first warm weekends and the rush of immense crowds that will pour over the sand when beach season begins. Doing so may cause me to miss out on the real spirit of Haeundae, however. But this cold! The warmth seems a remote dream that comes more slowly the more we ache for it.
                The pork was served over fresh onions and garlic on an iron skillet, heated so that we could hear that appetizing hiss and sizzle as we stirred up the contents, pushing the pork down against the bottom to heat it up for optimal enjoyment.
               I swear the temperature’s dropped since we sat down. It was cool this morning, but it’s getting downright cold now. I thought we were done with this. This should have been done weeks ago. What happened to global warming?
                The proprietor filled another platter with pork for another table of foreigners. Another worker was stripping meet from the mostly-emptied animal with gloved hands, her hair wrapped in a bandana and her mouth and nose covered by a surgical mask. Behind her sat two children, one a teenager and the other younger than ten, both visibly bored and impatient. The older one fidgeted on a phone while the other glanced frantically about with a frown. I assumed all the people working the food tent were family, and the kids had to come along for a cold day watching the adults run the business.
                As much as some of the kids I teach can drive me up a wall at times, you can’t help but develop some sympathy for them. Kids spend a lot of time in school and academy here, and I remember very clearly the strong desire to please and impress parents and teachers. For many of these kids, that task involves a huge time commitment, much greater than it ever did for me. So I did feel bad for these kids, sitting under a tent in the rain and cold –on a Saturday – and maybe Sunday as well, before going back to their routine of regular school in the morning and afternoon, and academy for a couple hours in the evening, and a few hours for homework. There are many challenging moments for me in teaching, but whenever I stop doing it I’ll miss those occasions when I know the kids are learning something, and they know it too, and smile.
                On the other side of the entrance another worker - an aunt, perhaps - had begun frying up some pajeon. On display next to her were some deep fried goodies we thought might be squid, so we ordered a plate. Once it reached our table we saw that it might actually be deep-fried ginger root. I grabbed one a took a bite, confirming this suspicion, to the chagrin of the lot of us. We worked on it for a while in order not to seem rude. Really, it wasn’t too bad, though it was not nearly as delicious as fried squid would have been. Still, it helps to have an affinity for fried ginger to work through such a large amount of it in the absence of considerable hunger, and we were already quite sated from the pork and the vegetable side dishes. That’s when the pajeon arrived.
                Pajeon is the first Korean food I remember trying. My neighbor made some using vegetables from her garden. Alexander ate it enthusiastically, having much more knowledge at the time of Korean cuisine than I did. Actually, at that time I knew nothing about Korean food, so I tried a bit with no real expectations, though I did find the idea of a vegetable pancake exotic. I loved it, and I try not to go too long over here without enjoying some variety of pajeon.
                In fact, I’ve been indulging even more frequently in the past couple of months in anticipation of the relative scarcity of Korean food that will confront me when I return to the states. But the plentitude of our meal at the food tent had pushed beyond our limits with a couple of ginger roots and a third of a pajeon left on the table. I continued to pick at the pajeon, breaking off sections of it with my chopsticks and lifting them to my mouth out of nostalgia and a desire to delay the hunger I’d begin to feel in a few hours, perhaps out of habit.
                I hate to harp on the cold. I’ve often heard others point out that the weather makes for dull conversation. But it’s there, and we can all feel it, and if it makes us uncomfortable or annoyed, isn’t it natural to commiserate with each other over that? Particularly since this cold seems so stubbornly persistent, so determined to get us to talk about it, to shiver in its wake, whereas if it had shown up in the dead of winter we’d have shrugged it off.
                One of the adults must have given the younger girl some money, because when I looked back up toward the spit she was standing in front of it with a grin on her face, presumably brought about by the cookie-like snack in her hands. A group of the workers went to the back of the tent. A few minutes later, the lumbered through the aisle alongside our table, hauling between the four of them a pig that must have been five feet long, wrapped loosely in a clear plastic bag. I was tickled to witness this, accepting the spectacle as an enhancement of the dining experience. I was also quite glad it was occurring after we’d finished eating, sa what I watched wasn’t exactly appetizing.
                They roughly lowered the carcass onto the surface of a table diagonally across from ours. Two of them lifted one end of the pig high enough for the others to slip off the plastic bag, so we could see the deep slit across the entire length of the animal’s underside, through which the organs had been removed. The first pig was little more than a well-cooked spine and ribcage now, so this new specimen was being prepared to draw in and feed more customers as the lunchtime rush continued. I wondered how many more they had waiting out of sight behind the tent to replace this one once it too had served its purpose. I imagined a truck bed covered with decapitated pig carcasses waiting to be paraded out to command the attention of the busloads of foreigners wandering by.
Pig being readied for the spit; pajeon in the foreground

                The four adults struggled to maintain solid grips as they hoisted up the pig and hauled it to the second spit. Three of them supported the weight as they lowered it, blocking the view of those passing by while they prepared the display. After a few moments, the pig was in place and spinning, and we rose to pay and return to the cold and rain.
                The level of activity had risen dramatically during our two-hour lunch. While we had grown colder, the festival had marched on. Plush strawberry mascots trudged through the muck with ecstatic smiles stitched onto their faces. Families crowded under the tarp overhangs sheltering strawberry rice cake vendors. Couples queued up to purchase pairs of fresh berries skewered and dipped in melted chocolate with a rainbow of sprinkles drizzled on top, one or the other holding two in his or her hand while turning around to pass off half of the sweet, juicy burden. Parents edged up beside their children as the little ones leaned heavily over large rounded pots, their gloved hands mashing masses of the blood red berries into jam, soaking up the warmth of the gooey pulp engulfing their fingers.
                With about an hour to kill before the departure of our bus for the strawberry fields, we came upon the tent of a couple of caricature artists. On display were some interpretations of Korean celebrities. Sarah suggested we sit for a caricature of our group, and we quickly agreed. It seemed a good way to pass the time out of the rain while we waited for the greatly-anticipated strawberry picking.
                The artist welcomed us when he had finished drawing a trio ahead of us, and we relaxed into the four chairs facing the back of his easel. I began to unzip my coat, the one I’d worn for our ski trip, the same one I’d bought last year to wear on the Mt. Washington hike, the one that had gotten me through the winter here and continued to ward off some of the cold still confronting me. I zipped it back up to the neck, figuring he wouldn’t draw our clothing anyway, and later realizing that if he did, I would want to be drawn in it anyway.
                I tried not to move too much when the artist signaled to me that he was beginning my caricature. He spoke a few words in Korean and studied me briefly but seriously. I bounced my legs up and down on my toes to generate some heat. Although I tried to keep my eyes open and facing in his general direction, I wasn’t comfortable looking at him for however long it might take, which wasn’t clear to me. He seemed hard at work and deep in concentration, his gaze moving carefully from me to his canvas, his pen or brush moving rapidly and smoothly. It was interesting to watch for a bit, but I almost felt as though I might disturb him if I seemed to be making eye contact, so my focus drifted across the activity outside the tent.
                Another Korean tour leader with an excellent American accent shepherded his foreigners around the grass between the rows of tents, taking pictures with some in front of a strawberry sculpture. Some schoolkids with backpacks, perhaps enjoying the outdoors after Saturday academy classes, stared at us in curiosity while walking by. The strawberry mascots approached the tent next to the artists’, pulling off their oversized heads as they entered, eager to be rid of them at the end of their shift.
                A young couple with a young child maybe three or four years old and a baby came up to the side of our artist, watching him work. The familiar beat of “Gangnam Style” found its way into the tent from the loudspeakers in the parking lot, introducing an adorably muted version of the horse dance from the couple’s older child, who bounced slightly up and down as though it were an involuntary reaction she was either fighting to suppress or struggling to develop. She and her father sat for the neighboring artist a few minutes later while the mother and baby watched. We sat mostly in stillness and silence, waiting patiently to discover what it was he and the more curious of the passers-by found notable, or at least noticeable, about us. Here's the result:
I think we look warm
We scurried to get to the bus at the scheduled meeting time once the caricature was complete, and I sank into my seat with a full stomach and a deep appreciation of the heater. At the strawberry farm about half an hour later we went into a greenhouse and had half an hour to eat berries straight from the vines and fill up a small container to take home with us. They were delicious and provided a sweet end to a refreshing day away from the city.

Inside the greenhouse

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