BY TOM MCKEE
Having moved to Korea, my most difficult adjustment was getting used to the crowds. Sure, the food was a change of pace. Of course, the daily games of charades necessary to convey specific meanings required some practice. But battling through the disorganized hordes at Costco, having to punch and kick my way to that 6 pound block of sharp cheddar cheese nearly drove me insane. After a year and half of Saturday nights partying in Hongdae followed by Sunday afternoons shopping in Gangnam, I thought I finally knew what was up. Sadly, nothing could prepare me for Gwangalli beach during the Busan Fireworks Festival.
I’d heard the warnings. Students and co-teachers cautioned of the ridiculous crowds. Still my friends and I decided to go for it. We arrived around 2:00PM and chose a nice spot in front of a large speaker system. We figured that we would at least be protected from crowds walking behind us if our backs were against the speakers. Still having six hours until the first firework was to be shot, we relaxed and broke into our sizable stocks of beer and soju.
For the first few hours the mobs massed slowly. Almost imperceptibly. A family here. A group of teenagers there. The beach began to fill as it would on any of the warm summer days when it was open for swimming. There we sat, swigging down our Hite pitchers with reckless abandon, unaware of the hell that was about to descend upon us.
At 6pm they came. They charged onto Gwangalli beach like an invading army. As in an epic battle scene, where two opposing armies rush full speed into one another, they were seemingly trying to break through our lines and make it to the water. Failing this, they just packed into any little space that was available and sat down.
By 6:15, the beach was filled. I made what would prove to be my last easy trip to the bathroom. Already it was nearly impossible getting through the crowd to ascend the steps off of the beach. I waited about twenty-five minutes in line at a random fish restaurant that had been relegated into public restroom-hood. During this time, the entire street behind Gwangalli beach had filled nearly to capacity as well. It was a chore trying to weave through and find my friends again, even with over an hour to go before the fireworks.
Upon returning, I made the regrettable decision to continue drinking. Despite the lack of room, people continued to crowd the beach. Our seating plan backfired. The speaker became part of a major migration route in spite of our attempts to sit with our backs to it. Without that path, people just chose to walk over us until we relented and moved a few inches forward. Our blanket, likewise, became communal property. Stray family members made room. People walked across it. One particular loner or lost soul just plopped right down, practically in my lap, to enjoy the fireworks.
The fireworks began. They were amazing. I cheered and took a lot of pictures. Pictures of fireworks. Pictures of cute kids looking at fireworks. Even pictures of people taking pictures of fireworks because I’m meta like that. Unfortunately, as my awe grew greater, so did my alcohol consumption, which subsequently increased my need to pee as soon as possible.
It reached crisis level about forty minutes into the display. Something had to be done. Earlier I’d witnessed that bizarre Korean phenomenon of a child peeing into a bottle being held by his mother/grandmother, which was tempting. I was on the verge of just climbing under the speaker system and peeing into a bottle, when another friend stated that she absolutely had to go to the bathroom immediately. There was a good twenty minutes of fireworks left, so we decided to venture back into the street, in search of a bathroom. I should have opted for the bottle.
The steps presented the biggest challenge. There was literally not a single free spot on which to step up. At first I was trying to be polite about it. Kindly smiling in hopes that someone would move aside. That failed, so I thought I might be able to step over the first group. While I got one leg over them, the second couldn’t quite clear them. I fell face-first while accidentally kicking the people I’d tried to step over. I went down hard, but luckily there were plenty of people to cushion my fall. It took all my effort to not void my bladder right then. At that point I wisely opted for speed over civility. I scrambled on or around people until I reached the top. Unfortunately the road was every bit as crowded as the beach.
I joined in a mob that seemed to be pushing its way away from the beach area. I followed hoping for a quick exit, but this was a slow moving mob, and I noticed that the people behind me, instead of assisting the group effort, were just shoving by me. I decided to start pushing. I’m a pretty big guy and I can push hard. This turned out to be the best plan. Ten minutes and fifteen meters later I was at the fish restaurant bathroom. Amazingly there was no line. I entered and took the most glorious pee I’ve ever experienced.
Upon leaving the bathroom, there was clearly no chance of making it back to the beach. There were people as far as you could see, both toward the beach and back down the alley. Back on the street, the grand finale was in full force. It was pretty amazing. Lots of booms and crashes and shiny lights. Eventually the fireworks ended and the massive crowd dispersed, but my painful memories and possible kidney damage will live on forever.
The lesson I learned was never to underestimate a crowd in Korea. If Korean people are saying it’s too crowded, then it’s really freaking crowded. Also, always use good judgement and temperance where potential bathroom shortages may arise.