▲ Trekkers participating in the 1st International Olle Festival. Photo courtesy Jeju Olle
Believe it or not, covering a festival is difficult.
They tend to span at least two days, many of the events are held concurrently requiring a great deal of running around and the organizers stick to their talking points when interviewed. For the 1st International Olle Festival, which ran from Nov. 9 to Nov. 13, I figured The Jeju Weekly’s team (consisting of only myself and Erin Ford and missing my trusty translator who was on vacation) would meet these road blocks which would then be compounded by our lack of conversational Korean.
In fact the festival was not only temporally long, but also geographically widespread with events and celebrations occurring along five Olle trails, a total of just under 100 kilometers. We decided to stakeout the end of Olle trail No. 5, near Seogwipo City on the last day of the festival, believing that this would be the location of closing ceremonies. Also we hoped to encounter trekkers who had walked all five trails for which they would receive a certificate.
Upon arriving at the scene on the overcast Saturday, we were soon to discover that the festival was far more organic and individual in nature. It lacked a cohesive concluding ceremony and the trails could be walked in any order and certificates were dispersed at all locations. There were less people than we expected and even fewer who spoke English. However it wasn’t long before we encountered a trio of trekkers who had received certificates for traversing all five trails.
▲ Olle founder Suh Myung Sook sings along with a quartet band on the last day of the festival. Photo by Darryl Coote
The male of the group declined to be interviewed but Joyce (she wished to stay anonymous) from Singapore and Ivy Siyao from China were more than eager to speak of their experiences.
“I like hiking,” said Joyce, who described the event as “awesome.” “From my country you can’t see the fall seasons so I thought it would be interesting to see what a temperate [climate] hike is like. When I hike in Malaysia or Vietnam it is always a tropical rainforest hike, so this is a really different ... for me.” She continued that, “There were some performances at every ending point and we tried traditional Korean pork, the black pig pork, it was good and we tried Korean wine as well, Jeju makgeolli,” she said while laughing.
“I really enjoyed this walking festival,” Siyao said. “Even though I came alone I met a lot of friends. I met [Joyce] yesterday and today I met her again so we have [had] a very enjoyable [conversation].”
After the short interview we scoured the crowd looking for other amicable bystanders, when fortune should have it that Olle founder and Jeju native Suh Myung Sook arrived with more energy than was right for a single person. I asked her for an interview and she accepted as long as it was short.
“Every day, in all the course, every day is [a] festival. Walk is festival,” said Suh explaining the purpose of the festival. “They cannot meet many village people, because village people work in field or sea so a few trekkers and few villagers meet, but many cannot, so we organized this festival,” to create the opportunity for Olle hikers and locals to intermingle.
She said that they expected more visitors but many were prevented from taking part in the festival due to a shortage of airline tickets and the fact that most of the festival occurred during the week while students were in school or adults were working.
However, Suh added that she was very happy with the turnout and that she wants to make the festival more available but doesn’t want it to necessarily become much larger. “We don’t like big program only small program. Small is beautiful,” she said.
As she was leaving in a hurried fashion, she practically grabbed Erin and myself and threw us into the back of her car which was being driven by her brother at great speed down the 1132 en route to the end of course No. 4 in Namwon. Erin cautiously and methodically buckled her seat belt.
When we arrived in record time, Suh bolted from the car and made her way to the makeshift stage and sat among the crowd as a group of very young elementary school children performed Moon River and other classics on ocarinas.
Suh sat, legs crossed, head bopping to the tune until overtaken with that energy referred to before, she stood among the children and tried to follow the choreography. It was truly interesting to watch. It was not as if she were trying to steal the spotlight, she just simply wanted to participate as much as possible. With the concluding of the performance a little after five, Suh was off again beckoning Erin and I to follow her to the car. Again, Erin’s seat belt clicked into place.
Suh told me that we were going to Pyoseon beach for a party to show gratitude to the 100 volunteers who made the event possible. Sixty percent of them were from outside of Jeju and had to purchase their own plane tickets for the event.
As the volunteers trickled in from their posts the black pig was roasting on a spit while makgeolli, soju and beer were liberally distributed and consumed. Night quickly fell and candles on the grass were the only source of light. Guitars were produced and the mood turned from a candle lit dinner by the sea to a dance party with several ladies moving to the music and central to all of the celebration was Suh. While taking pictures of the fray I kept asking myself, what was her motivation behind this festival? From a glance it would appear that she did this simply for herself, but that was not the case at all. The festival is her way of sharing what she finds truly beautiful with her close friends, which is anyone who has walked her trails.
This was the celebration of a community drawn together by the love of living slowly, which seems somewhat ironic considering that for the whole day she was the embodiment of its polar opposite. Maybe she wants others to live slowly, giving her the chance to speedily move from place to place to see as much and experience as much as possible. Five thousand people participated in the 1st International Olle Festival, whether that number grows next year, or shrinks to only a handful, I don’t think Suh would mind either way, as long as she can dive into Jeju and there is at least one other person to share the story that her slow living goal has been accomplished.
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