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Sunday, March 05, 2017

Water, Fire, & Horse Racing

We've had lovely weather the last few days. On Friday I got up early enough to take a stroll down to the nearby park before work. It felt good to sit in the sun, in these still slightly cool temperatures, and watch the water, and listen to the water and the birds. I had wanted to get some fresh air, and there was no yellowish smog from China which blanketed the city the last weekend.

The water in the stream is so clear you can see down three and four feet to the depths of the mossy creekbed, while the small waterfall gurgles richly nearby and the birds twitter and trill overhead. The sun dances on the water's surface and the large stones beneath it look like they are shimmying too in the eddying ripples. A small breeze occasionally pushes the water into brisk uniform patterns. The rough edges of the creekside rocks are all polished smooth by generations of people kneeling and clambering on them, and they shine in the sun like oiled bronze. The big craggy rock behind me was twisted and pinched millennia ago by volcanic power and is now grey and specked with blue-green lichen. I look forward to playing on the creek when the weather gets warmer. The pools are delightful, and the rocks call for climbing. There are small pearly frogs eggs in one of the quiet shallows, a collection of crystal balls clinging to the rust-toned rocks in the trickling current. Spring is coming.

Saturday I decided to go out with some other teachers and one's local Korean friend. We five girls met at a horse racing track near Jeju City, where we had heard (erroneously, it turned out) that there were special events before the nearby evening Fire Festival.

The racetrack was almost entirely peopled by somber-faced middle-aged men clutching racing forms. Many looked to be grizzled veterans of chance, and some of those clearly long not in its favor. All were far more intent on the statistics on the betting boards than the actual animals in the race. There was a small collection of spectators at the fence by the ring where the horses to be run were being paraded counterclockwise by unspeaking grooms wearing protective helmets. There were only a handful of people in the observation stands. One of my friends remarked that the scene looked like North Korea, what with the barrenness of the grey brick plaza and the almost empty open gallery. There were hundreds more patrons indoors, though, crowding "Luckytown," as the betting pavilion was called. The "Happytown" pavilion next door was presumably geared toward libations--we didn't go in.

 Very few people at the track looked like they were actually enjoying themselves. The employees principally appeared bored, and the scattered other guests seemed either depressed or distressed. I saw several people grinding their crumpled betting slips under their heels after a loss. The horses would burst from the gate on the far side of the track, there would be a brief pounding of hooves on the sand, a small crescendo of shouts at the rail near the finish line, and then sighs, and the several dozen people who had emerged to watch the race drifted away from the rail.

I put 400 won (about 35 cents) on the sixth race, which was the first we saw, 200W on the eighth, and 100W on the ninth and last. And lost (as I had expected) every time; despite my compulsive nature, I figured that I could safely risk $0.65 given that I likely won't be at a racetrack again. The father of a friend of mine owned a small casino and told her that the only person who makes money at gambling is the casino owner, and this holds true at racetracks too. The Korean girl with us told us that Koreans are limited in their bids, and that the track was built to attract wealthy foreigners. Instead, there were us four English teachers and our local Korean acquaintance, who altogether cumulatively bet less than $6. But certainly someone was hazarding a lot: on the betting board, the total sum risked climbed to the equivalent of more than $3,000,000 on one race. The South African teacher in our group actually saw her horses show and place (she had bet 1000W, about 90 cents), and as we waited in line to collect her minuscule winnings (1600W) the man ahead of us brandished a sheaf of 100,000W betting receipts and furiously berated the cashier because he'd allegedly lost his winning ticket. Gosh, I would hate her job. The supervisor gave him a number to call. Other people in the neighboring lines were collecting large payouts. The woman behind us in line started laughing when she saw us happily gloating over our single bill and change.

For the last race, I figured out how to get to the infield, and we all walked over to see the horses loaded into the starting gate. It was a process! One animal threw its rider and took off the wrong way down the track, its tiny jockey limping to the nearby ambulance. The horses themselves were scruffy little beasts, not tall and graceful thoroughbreds. Most were not sleek, but patchy in their rough winter coats, and their manes were shorn short. They looked like Mongolian ponies, the sort of animal that would carry a barbarian across the steppes. They were beautiful when they ran, though. 

After the last race we went over to the children's area, where peculiar effigies of humanoid horses leered at small oblivious people. We speculated not only on the dubious character of the artist who had created the weird things, but also on the management which had approved them.

 Traffic was absolutely ghastly, two lanes bumper-to-bumper for the several miles between the race track and the site of the Fire Festival. It took an hour and a half to make what is usually a 10 minute trip. We could glimpse the ocean through the gaps in the highway-side hedge, and see smaller islands sitting just offshore in the flat sea. At the beginning of our trip, it was hours before sunset, and the sky and sea in the decline of the day looked like an Impressionistic painting. The reflection on the water was brighter than the light in the sky, as the sun was muffled by gentle foggy ribbons of lavender, peach, and baby blue clouds.

We didn't get to enjoy as much of the Fire Festival as we'd hoped, since we were starving by the time we found parking and the lines at the food trucks were extraordinary (we waited for 45 minutes to get fresh-made quesadillas--they had pickles in them, but were delicious). The festival was originally a pagan event to beseech the local gods for a bountiful harvest--as in Georgia, people used to burn off fields to get rid of stubble.

The festival featured a dance program accompanied by pictures of the island projected on an enormous screen and a laser show of a horse-headed bipedal figure gamboling on the hillside, a well-choreographed fireworks and spotlight program, and mercifully short greetings by local and national dignitaries who had been chosen to lead the parade of torch bearers onto the mountainside. There were tens of thousands of people in the crowd, most with their smartphones lifted to record the event, screens glowing in the darkness. Two-story pyres of logs stood stacked in squares at the bottom of the oreum. Drum beats sounded and hundreds of people carrying lighted torches trailed from in front of the stage to line the base of the hill. At the announcer's signal, they set the pyres and the grass alight. The entire hill quickly ran with red-gold fire, like Mount Doom in the Peter Jackson adaptation of the Lord of the Rings. The organizers had put the date and the name of the festival in a huge flammable pattern on the side of the hill, so the numbers and letters blazed out bright even under the thick smoke. We were hundreds of meters back from the fire and the warmth reached us. It felt good against the cold night.

As the intense heat and the crowd numbers subsided a bit, we decided to move forward to where a giant circle dance was in process led by ladies in hanbok singing traditional folk songs on the stage. Everyone in the undulating line was chorusing an echo, and my friends and I were quickly absorbed into the smiling group and found ourselves singing and dancing with everyone else, clutching the coats of complete strangers as we trotted in a rhythmic rotation in front of the stage. At one point I dropped my cell phone without having realized it, and someone came and brought it to me. So kind. We saw people we recognized from the church in Jeju city, and were called out by others. It was nice seeing Americans that were pleasant and well behaved, as opposed to the large drunk white guy who had been hollering in the crowd near us as we watched the fireworks. His type is the reason that I rarely associate with my compatriots abroad--many of them seem to be obnoxious blowhards intent on perpetuating the stereotype of the loud, uncultured, and boorish American at every opportunity. I always want to slink away silently, or sidle up and knife them in the ribs with my pointy elbow and give them a sharp admonition: "For God's sake, keep your voice down, you idiot." I generally just hide--but it's harder to do here!

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