This Saturday just gone was the main event of this year’s annual Whale Festival in Ulsan, and it was a really excellent day. Of course in the preceding weeks all the buzz and the build-up had centred around the dragon boating tournament – especially as training sessions had started in earnest – and with 15 or so teams of 18 foreigners signed up, bragging rights were well and truly at stake. Each team was named after a different whale and the Narwhals – having had one semi-successful practise under a monsoon a week prior, and having been given just the one day to prepare suitable matching outfits in the style of a “post-apocalyptic, Mad Max, barbarian, viking, neon, glitter bandit” – assembled in dribs and drabs, collectively a hotchpotch mishmash mess, shortly before 9 in the morning. Someone suggestively pulled a couple of six-packs of lager from a rucksack, everyone eyed everyone else with silent, superficial “should-we-shouldn’t-we?” stares, then someone else cracked one open and our preparations began.
Team captain Admiral Peter Musto – possibly the most ridiculously-dressed foreigner at the whole event in what seemed to be jet black cricket shin guards, short white shorts and a full-length scarlet and gold, shoulder-padded pirate jacket – brought the good news that our first race was to be at 9:30, so we hurriedly painted neon narwhal horns on our foreheads in a vauge attempt at aesthetic team cohesion, grabbed our lifejackets and paddles and took to the water for the very first race of the day. Now in practice we’d harboured a tendency to veer off-course mysteriously, and as our races were just 250m long we agreed that a similar aberration would probably see us finish last. However, as long as we could defeat that annoying team from Eonyang, dressed in matching t-shirts and lead by their over-keen drummer, we could be regarded as a success. We were a success! Like an arrow we sped straight down our lane, faster than ever before, paddlers not quite in sync but giving 110%, as the cliche goes. It was close, and to this day I don’t know whether we finished 2nd, 3rd or 4th out of five – but I do know who finished last: that drummer gave her team a very miffed, very serious dressing down on the ride from finish line to the landing pier.
I’d like to blame a satisfied general decline in effort and care for our next performance – but, truth be told, we were galvanised by the first and proclamations like “we could actually win this whole thing” were not just whispered or thought, but bandied about. After veering out of our own lane – although not so badly as a team in another heat that completed a full U-turn – we finished last. I was livid. As the free beer didn’t begin until sometime in the distant future – gone noon, at least – a troupe had braved the journey to a nearby newsagent, receiving even more stares than usual, for provisions, which we now consumed in solace, along with a free lunch. There was little else to do but drown our sorrows and attempt to enjoy the rest of the day.
The rest of the races were interrupted first by a horse that bucked off its rider and galloped, out of control, along the river, and then by a guy who flew around in a motorised chair attached to a bright pink parachute, but these only ramped up the entertainment. We were ushered away from our team tents in to an area that seemed to have been organised with foreigners specifically in mind – next to the beer taps, hot dog stand, DJs and grassy stretch for general messing about on under the glorious sunshine – and here we stayed until the beer needed restocking. A few of us ventured from our sanctuary to investigate what the rest of the festival had to offer. There was live music, a tunnel made out of umbrellas, teepees, fixed bicycles with fans attached to them, a children’s playground that I jealously wished was bigger, a vegetable-chopping and water bottle-banging show, stalls selling whale memorabilia and other crap, lights in the shapes of whales, giant whale balloons, and a giant food hall – selling whale.
We tried some. I wasn’t sure if I was acting entirely morally responsibly, but here’s not the place to ruminate and besides, everyone else was doing it and 8 goes far better in to 60,000 won than 7 does. We sat down with a plate between us all and swapped alcohols with the group of Koreans adjacent to us (their makgeolli for our impulse-bought Korean wine), who seemed genuinely please that white people were eating whale. There were three types of meat: one was just pure blubber, which tasted better than it sounds and didn’t actually make me chunder in my mouth; one was cooked and tasted a bit like pork; and the third – and tastiest – was raw and seasoned, and I could definitely eat again. I’d heard horror stories before – like meat from the same whale found to have been served at different restaurants in different countries two years apart – and most accounts I’d read mentioned terrible odours, but ours was luckily free from that. Not sure I’d do it again, but I did enjoy it at the time.
Honestly, the main attraction of the festival for many seemed to be back at the beer tent, so we returned and danced the rest of the evening away barefoot by the riverside, along with two older Korean men (one creepy one cool) and some of Elizabeth’s students. But all good things must come to an end, and as time the sun set and time passed people began to drift away off home or to town and eventually into bed. Luckily the next morning I woke up with a couple of physical keepsakes to supplement my memory: the first a medal for competing in the dragon boating; and the second a white narwhal horn, clear and bright against the deep red background of my sunburnt forehead.