It all began with a cancelled trip.
Like most things in Daegu, I found out about the Dalseong RED Festival on Facebook. Everyday Korea was advertising an organized day trip for foreigners to attend a Tomato festival one Saturday afternoon in May. I have always dreamed of going to La Tomatina in Spain, so it was an obvious ‘yes please!’ I immediately signed up. The trip cost 20,000 KRW for a return trip on a bus to the festival, a kimbap lunch and the chance to win a gold ring! On Friday afternoon I got a very apologetic email informing me that the trip had been cancelled due to a lack of registration – sad news.
My friend Cody and I were still keen to go, so I emailed the organizers back to ask how how we could get ourselves there on public transit. This was the response:
“There is a bus going there, and we can get you in the bus for free with some lunch included…”
Hold the phone… did that say FREE – it sure did! Apparently it pays to ask. We met the tour bus at a downtown subway on Saturday morning. We were the only foreigners on a coach bus with about ten Ajummas (middle aged Korean women) and Ajeossis (middle aged Korean men), a 14 year old girl who spoke excellent English and our fearless leader Geoff. It was a unique situation, and we were unsure of how the day would unfold, but it turned out to to be a wonderfully delightful day!
We arrived at the festival just after 11am. A female K-pop band was already rocking out the main stage. As we took it all in, two jet planes zoomed over head dropping hundreds of little plastic parachutes from above. Some parachutes failed to deploy and dropped instantly while others fell gently, drifted with the breeze quite far across the festival grounds. Children and adults alike ran in pursuit of the unknown packages, which turned out to be lollypops. Some of the parachutes got stuck in trees, where groups of children gathered reaching hopeful hands up, attempting to reach the candy as adults shook the trees and tried to knock the treasures out with sticks.
I was feeling a bit peckish so we wandered over to a cluster of food tents. Many of my expat friends have told me about the wonders of beondegi, but I hadn’t seen them in person until the Tomato festival. Beondegi are “steamed or boiled silkworm pupa that are seasoned and eaten as a snack” (at least that is the official Wikipedia explanation). They look a lot like potato bugs. When I discovered the massive steaming vat of beondegi at one of the food stalls, I knew my time had come. I was hoping to order one single bug, but ended up with a paper cup full of them for 3,000KWN. I am trying to recall the taste now weeks later, but I think my brain has tried to block out the memory, especially as I currently nibble on a kimbap roll for dinner. I wouldn’t say it was disgusting, but I would say it was unpleasant. I made sure to have two, just to make sure I wasn’t missing out on any hidden flavour, but I concluded that I do not like beondegi. I do not like it in a cup, I would not like it with syrup, I do not like beondegi ma’am, I do not like it Sam I am. Luckily, Cody is a beondegi fan (the only one I have met so far), so he made sure they didn’t go to waste.
The main event at the festival was called “Find a gold Ring!” In the middle of the street, a makeshift pool had ben constructed and filled with hundreds of tomatoes. The goal: find a tomato with a prize token stuffed inside. If you found a token, you could trade it in for one of sixty gold rings or a box of tomatoes. It was exceptionally well organized. To keep things safe, participants were not allowed to start looking for the tokens until everyone was in the pool. We had to jeep our hands out of the pool, but we began to squish the tomatoes, hoping to feel a token with our toes.
Once everyone was in the pool, we got the okay to start searching. Everyone had their own approach. Some searched timidly with their feet while others bent over and sifted through the tomatoes with their hands. We took the fully committed approach by getting down on all fours, sneaking between everyone’s legs hunting for the hidden treasures. No one in our group found a token, but it was blissful simply to exist in a pool of tomatoes. Of course, tomato fights ensued. On the rare occasion there was a clear path, the tomato on plastic was the perfect combination for some rather messy belly sliding. My eyes and ears were filled with tomato and my hair matted into tomato dreadlocks. I wish that I had goggles because my eyes were bright red on the way home. The hot sun heated the tomato much into a hot tub of soup broth and we were hesitant to get out when the time was up. I was as happy as ketchup.
After, we were sprayed down with a water hose and a group of kids sprayed us with water guns to clean some of the tomato off. We had a mini dance party in the “rain.” I still smelt like bruschetta the next day.
There were many other events at the festival including a tomato eating contest, a tomato tower staking contest, target practice with a gun that shoots cherry tomatoes, a massive pot of spaghetti to feed 500 people, lots of tomato themed snacks to buy and so much more.
There were very few other foreigners at the festival. I think I only saw about 10 others that day. As a result, the news photographers took about a million photos of us that day. We were even interviewed by a Korean TV show and made it onto the news! You can see the clip HERE (at 1:30 you can watch me attempt and fail miserably to speak Korean, and again at 3:50).
Everyday Korea also bought us lunch and took us to a traditional hanok village on the way home. What a wicked day it was!