I very rarely visit the beach.
“But who doesn’t go to the beach?!” you ask.
Because while (most) white people tan, (most) Indian people burn faster than you can say ‘sunblock’.
Or maybe it’s because I once got a fishing hook caught in my toe, which was pretty traumatic as a kid.
Or maybe it’s because I got stung by a blue bottle once (also traumatic), and now I’m convinced there’s an army of blue bottles waiting to eat my feet.
Whatever it is, I don’t like the beach.
But it was the beginning of the holidays and everyone I knew was soaking up the rays on the white sands of Thailand while I was stuck in icy Korea for my own reasons.
I was okay with this until day two of the holidays when I logged on to Facebook and saw my newsfeed clogged with this:
#Thailandfun #cocktails #beachbabe #beach #babe
#Summerforever #Thailand #beach #happiness #bliss #heaven #selfie
This annoyed me for these reasons:
- The only soaking up I was doing was that of my floor heating.
- I found myself getting oddly jealous despite my dislike for the beach.
And so, despite Korea having not-so-pretty beaches and despite it being very cold and despite me hating the beach, I decided to visit the beach.
I pulled my coat closer to me as I headed to the train station, about a fifteen-minute walk from my flat. The sun was deceiving; it touched everything, but warmed nothing. Gratitude filled me like a warm drink when I finally walked through the doors of the train station. I purchased a single ticket to Haeundae, Busan, the go-to place when people (except I) need a beach fix and at the incredibly precise time of 10:41 I boarded the impatient train and made my way to seat twenty-four.
It was occupied, a common occurrence in Korea, but an occurrence which always confuses me since taking one’s seat only requires reading numbers leaving hardly any room for mistakes. Still, mistakes happen. I tapped the old man lightly on the shoulder. He was completely kitted out in grey and green North Face gear, his wooden walking stick lay at his feet next to his grey and green backpack and he had his sunglasses on despite it being quite dull inside the train. Even through his glasses I could see his eyes bulge in fright at the sight of the foreigner in such close proximity to him. I smiled sweetly and pointed to the seat number above his head and then to my ticket.
“Ah! Jeh-song-ham-nida (sorry)!” he shouted about five times. He hurriedly grabbed his belongings, as if I had given him a time limit, and after triple-checking his ticket, collapsed into the correct seat one row in front. Every now and then he turned back and shot me furtive glances until he eventually stopped to tuck into his parcel of rice cakes instead.
In my rightful seat I was neighboured by an *ajumma dressed from head to toenail in pink. She kept her eyes trained on me until she grew accustomed to my presence, then poked around in her bag, pulled out a squashy foil-wrapped package and held it out to me. I politely declined. She laughed at a very private joke and then proceeded to unwrap her own parcel which turned out to be a clump of kimchi rice.
Noise wafted through the train as we chugged along to our destination two hours away: children laughed, babies wailed, mothers shouted, fathers snored, ajummas screeched, cameras clicked and packets crinkled. The empty sunlight slowly started creeping in. From the corner of my eye I saw the ajumma next to me fidget in her bag again. Her road food finished and chopsticks put away, she pulled out an umbrella. On. The. Train. (Okay, Indians also tend to pull out umbrellas in sunlight, but on a train, no.) After battling with it for a few seconds, she popped it open to shade herself. Her umbrella jutted out into the aisle blocking everyone walking up and down the aisle. One man pushed it away impatiently as he walked past, but she either failed to notice or failed to care.
At last I glimpsed the sea glittering in the afternoon sunshine. The ajumma finally closed her umbrella, put it away and next brought out her sun block. She immediately set to work, plastering the lotion on her face, neck and hands (even though they were going to be covered by her sleeves). Just as she finished lathering her last finger the train started slowing.
There is just something about Haeundae which makes you feel good the second you step off the train. It’s a sort of perpetual cheeriness which I only ever encountered in Cape Town. A melody sounded all around me: the bars and restaurants clinked and clanked, the cars hooted merrily, the ajummas tossed buckets of water out of their little shops and balloons popped at the colourful street-carnival games. Winding through the throngs of chatty people, I took a slow walk down to the edges of the city where the beach lay.
The beach was unexpectedly crowded considering the temperature. Up above, red, yellow and blue kites bumped along resembling paint smudges in the sky. Down below, a man with a slick ponytail, biker jacket and dark glasses blew smoke rings into the air while leaning against a sign in the shape of a huge, cartoon cigarette-man which commanded no smoking. Despite the sun being weak, the umbrellas were out in full force. From above it would have looked like a giant had stuck thousands of colourful lollipops in the sand. Sunblock-smothered ajummas huddled under the umbrellas while they watched the kids frolic in the sand. Some youngsters were burying their friends while others attempted building crumbling sand castles, slightly hindered by their awkward hands which were swallowed by their bloated swimming armbands. Past the sand castles walked couples, hand-in-hand, while picking up shells and taking selfies with the shells. Teenaged girls were playing a game with the waves, screaming and running away every time the waves came in. One guy was attempting sexy poses in his leopard-print swimming costume while snapping selfies. He managed seven different poses, one which involved his tongue sticking out, before he gave up and rolled over on his towel.
My face was suddenly attacked by the stinging sand and the slicing wind causing my eyes to stream. Somewhere through the howling wind I could hear high-pitched barking. He was a small white dog yapping at an alarmed seagull. His thin cochlea-tail was about to fall off from wagging in such ferocious excitement. Not taking any chances, the seagull hurriedly flew off, which stopped the dog’s barking as if someone pressed an off-switch on him. He turned to face me instead. I actually did a double-take. The dog, however, looked even more surprised to see me. It took me three incredibly confusing seconds to realise his owners had drawn black eyebrows over his eyes in perfect arches, making him look like he was perpetually surprised.
The surprised dog was my cue to go. I turned around to head back into the town for a steaming bowl of kimchi chiggae. Just then my right foot sank into something soft. The dog gave me that surprised look again as if he couldn’t believe what had just happened. I looked down at my shoe.
*Ajumma: A term used for an old Korean woman.