Fishing for watermelons (Bonghwa sweet fish festival)

30 Jul

Loaded with my sunscreen, water and a pair of flops in my backpack, on Saturday morning at 12pm, I hopped on my bike and weaved through the city’s backstreets towards downtown. I was meeting Baden at the bus station and we were going fishing.

Bonghwa, a small country village 30 minutes from Yeongju, celebrates the sweet fish festival every July – where the fish are rumoured to taste as sweet as watermelon. After a short bus ride, we arrived in Bonghwa and made our way down to the river where the festivity had already begun. Sections of the river were dammed up and tiny fish were being released into the dam by massive fish-carrying trucks.

With humidity levels sky-high, it didn’t take long before we were perspiring tanks of our own water and needed a rest. We found a quiet looking restaurant; I ordered bibimbab and Baden ordered 5 barbecued fish. We were lucky enough to have front row seats to the sky divers landing strip and good seats to watch the festival. Unfortunately, this all came at a price and when it came time to pay, we were horrified to hear that a simple rice and vegetable dish with a few fish could cost 30 000won (over R200).

Next we made our way along the river and joined the groups running enthusiastically to the river’s edge. After a loud noise and explosion of blue and white balloons into the air, thousands of people raced into the water to hunt down the schools of fish. The Adventurer inside us couldn’t stand by so Baden and I quickly found the ticket office, paid 10 000won each, hired 1 net and bought a fish basket (which will now made a very nice sock holder). Into the river we went armed with a fishing net, competing with hundreds of Koreans for whatever was left. Within a few seconds Baden had netted his first fish – a small silver thing – and I was now the official fish carrier – which actually caused some distress as I knew its death was at my hands.  But caught up in the excitement, I took a turn at dragging the net through the water and my first fish followed soon after. We were soon included in the villagers fishing tactic which was to round up in a circle, push your net through the water towards each other and hope that one person would come up heavy netted. As the afternoon wore on, only the fastest and smartest fish were left and men were diving to cross the fish’s paths or throwing their bodies to send it into the net of someone else. I joined the band of women who spotted lone swimmers and would cry out “Yoggi yoggi” which means “there there” to help the men with nets. By the end of the day, we had a total of 4 fish (all dead: my futile attempts at keeping them alive in the water resulted in an unfortunate drowning of the panicked little fish. My only justification is that if I let them go, they would be caught by someone else anyway.)

The next step  was to take the fish to the basin, slit them open, gut them and slap them on the braai. With little desire to complete this part of the adventure, we gave our 4 little fish over to a Korean man, sure that they would be enjoyed more by him. Baden said they didn’t actually taste like watermelon but the Koreans believe that fish in this area are sweeter due to the clean water and country air. Who knows where these fish really came from in those big loaded tanks though.

Ready to return home to Yeongju’s watermelon festival, we returned by bus, boarded our bikes and road to the river. Some Koreans went fishing in our river and the size of the fish were incredibly big. We delighted in the story of a few middle school girls who explained in their limited English how they had caught a fish the size of my forearm with only their t-shirts. Baden and I threw darts at a watermelon in hopes that we’d win one (which we didn’t) and enjoyed drinking free watermelon juice after a long and busy day. The evening turned into a concert of famous Koreans (who we don’t know) and older women singing along to well-known songs.

On our way home, we were invited into the home of a little Korean woman and her middle school nephew because ‘they wanted to practice their English’. So over a table of homegrown watermelon, kiwi, tomato and  corn, we spoke English until 11.30pm by which time we were ready to retire home.

After a day like this it is hard to be anything but cheerful and happy.

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2 Responses to “Fishing for watermelons (Bonghwa sweet fish festival)”

  1. Trish Middlebrook July 30, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    Ha such a nice description again – you haven’t lost your sympathy for caught fish, I see!

  2. Ann Dowie August 1, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    Sounds like you had an excellent, exciting day. I understand you wanting to try and save the fish – I’m sure you would never have eaten them. Better to buy fish and chips when you get to London!

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