Having a ball on just one square centimeter

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Having a ball on just one square centimeter

600,000. It's not the number of people in Korea who saw "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" on its opening weekend. It's the number of people who typically cram themselves each day onto the 1.6-kilometer-long Haeundae beach in Busan during the peak summer season.

The Haeundae Beach Control Office claims the maximum capacity is supposed to be 12,000. But swimmers, waders and sunbathers will not be denied the most popular beach on the peninsula, regardless of how less-than-ideal the experience. Considering the beach is about 60,000 square meters, that means 10 individuals for each square meter. Fun!

Why do we Koreans do it? I confess that I was once one of those 600,000. I was 7 years old and dying to bake under the hot sun somewhere far from Seoul's soaring skyscrapers. "Any beach will do," I badgered my parents.

My father managed to arrange a three-day vacation from work and, with little time to think things through, he decided Haeundae would be the best choice. It was the fourth weekend of July and, as usual, the traffic jam began on the Hannam Bridge in Seoul and did not let up over the whole length of the Gyeongbu Expressway. It usually takes about five hours by car to go to Busan. That day, it took more than eight.

We started off from Seoul before noon and it was dark by the time we made it to the already-closed Haeundae. Even had it been open, my father would have never been able to enjoy the sand after eight hours of driving. So we went straight to the hotel. The following day was Sunday and the sun was shining brightly over the water. We studied the beach, but something was wrong. It was supposed to be covered with white sand, but instead it looked almost black. At 10:30 a.m., already the surging crowds blanketed the sand.

The first thing to do at any Korean beach is to rent a gaudy-colored umbrella and find a place to pitch it. That morning, however, they ran out of parasols, which meant we had to spend the whole afternoon getting direct sunburns. After much struggling, we found a small space, about as big as the bottom of a public phone booth.

The next step was to rent a black inner tube ideal for playing in the ocean. After we were all set up, it seemed like I was the only one ready to enjoy the sea. I threaded my way through the mob scene into the water. I wanted to play in the waves and splash about, but the water was already teeming with people in their own inner tubes. After being buffeted more by the waves of humanity than the waves of water, I gave up and went back. Mother bought some colas at double the regular price from street vendors. Obviously a rip-off, but that happens on Haeundae beach at its peak.

After about four hours competing for every square centimeter of space, we got tired and decided to go. The way back to Seoul on Sunday night had pretty much the same traffic jam as before, and my father had to drive until 4 a.m. He needed a vacation after his Haeundae vacation. But what can you do? It's a ritual that everyone on the peninsula must do at least once.

by Chun Su-jin

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