The Daegu Lantern Festival

After sprinting from my final class to a taxi parked before the school, my shoulders sagged in relief as I boarded a 5:30 bus to Daegu.  I had no choice but to relax, slowly melting into the wide-bodied luxury bus seat.  The chair felt sticky, not from a drink that missed the mark, but rather from frequent turnover.  But I couldn’t be bothered to care about cleanliness.  Four hours is a long time to stress out about germs.


One month earlier, I caught up with Sugar, Potato, and their friend Alphaville at a local charity beer pong event.  They suggested I join them for a lantern festival event in the Mideastern city of Daegu. Jumping at the opportunity for Misfit friendly adventures, I heartily accepted.

After an uneventful bus ride of soaking audiobooks and staring at my Kindle in a glazed state, I arrived at the massive East Daegu Bus Terminal.  I later found Potato and we mozied down an escalator toward Platform Five. We opted for a short train trip to our Airbnb over a 50-minute city bus or hourlong subway trip.


Meanwhile, I had a brief phone conversation with Sugar, who stood on the same platform but remained invisible to us.

“She’ll find us,” I reassured.

As Potato and I chatted and idly waited for the train, a kindly Korean man pointed toward the opposite side of the platform.  

There was our train, teasing us, ready to depart with a chortle.


We clumsily bolted down the platform and boarded the train with merely a minute to spare.  The next 10 minutes passed as we caught our breath and reflected on our social ineptitude.


After many more theatric-free minutes of trains and taxis, we found our Airbnb.  The door was comically small.  Apparently, Snow White’s dwarves own a vacation home.  But otherwise, Alphaville found a very comfortable and affordable lodging. We indulged in kimchi street dumplings as a late-night dinner (or fourth-meal to Taco Belleians).

“What time should we wake up tomorrow?”

“I was thinking 5:00 so we can leave at 5:30,” Potato replied.

What?  I thought.  I thought weekends were for rest.

“I don’t know how crowded it will be, so we should wait in line for tickets early.”

“What time can we buy tickets,” Alphaville queried.


Oh my god.

With nary another word, I slunk off to bed after a heavy slug of makkoli.  The clock struck midnight My bedtime had long come and gone.


Sleep did not come easy as a ticking clock goaded me into somnolent wakefulness.  Fortunately, I set an automatic alarm months ago 4:30.  I would wake up on-time regardless.


Wrong.  At 5:15, I scraped eye-cheese as I heard Potato and Alphaville idly chatting beyond my bedroom door.


My alarm only goes off on weekdays.

Without time to shower or shave, I changed my clothes, packed my backpack, and set out.  Sugar indulged in a little beauty sleep and agreed to meet us later.

After an hour of subway sitting, brief confusion, and several clueless questions aimed at Korean passersby, we finally found the “line.”  Or more accurately, we made the line.  We stood second in line behind an older yet robust Korean gentleman. He had returned to the festival because last year he took “unsatisfactory photos.”  We applauded his dedication and donated well-wishes to his photogenic cause.


So we waited.  Sugar arrived. And we waited.  More of Sugar and Potato’s orientation friends trickled into the park.  And we waited. Our group swelled to nine as we befriended a lone American expat from Suncheon.  And we waited. And waited. And waited a little bit more.


By 10:30, venue employees questioned us about what tickets we wanted to buy.  There were different kinds of tickets?

“If we want to make a lantern, we have to buy four tickets for 80,000 won.  We receive two lanterns.”

“What if we don’t want to do a lantern?”

“You can buy two tickets for 10,000.”

“What about that spot on the map?  It says waygoogin [foreigner].”

“Yeah, what is that?”

“It’s a discount.  You can buy 4 tickets for 30,000 won and get two lanterns.”

“Oh, let’s just do that.”

“But we have nine people.”

“How much for one ticket?”

“30,000 won.”


“Let’s just find a group of three and pair up.”

“Works for me.”

“Excuse me!  Is there a group of three who can join us?”

“I’m a group of three.”

“Cool, let’s go.”

This conversation devoured 30 minutes as we approached the ticket tent.  I volunteered to join the stranger’s “group”.

“Where are the other two guys?”

“They’re running late.  I was going to grab their tickets for them.”

“Oh.  I’m sorry, everyone has to be present to purchase the tickets.”


Meanwhile, Sugar, Potato, and Alphaville bought their tickets and began to wait.  Again.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “You can go. Just text me where you go and I’ll catch up.”

“No, it’s okay.  We can wait.”

Shit.  I hate it when people wait for me.  But what choice did I have? With nothing but time, I conversed with my Australian ticket partner until his friends strolled up to the ticket booth.


Wrist-banded up, I departed with Sugar and two of her friends to eat some kalbi-tang (a pork rib soup) while Potato, Alphaville, and others ventured to McDonald’s.  

The traditional Korean restaurant smelled of boiled meat and peppers.  We sat cross-legged on the floor sampling vegetable side dishes.  A Dodgers baseball game captured my attention and I cheered alongside a father-son duo as an L.A. batter drove in two runs.

“Well, that was tasty.”

“How’s Potato doing?”

“They went to Starbucks?”

One challenge of a big city is the proliferation of chain coffee shops.  While convenient, it can precipitate logistical hiccups in friend groups.  In Mokpo, there are two or three Starbucks that one can meet at. And they are far enough apart to easily distinguish over text.  But in Daegu, three Starbucks lay three blocks apart on the same street. Fortunately,  after more cardio than necessary, our group re-convened.


I sipped a comically large Americano at 2:00 as we planned our next move.

“When do we have to return?”

“Does 5:00 work?”

“Sure, why not?”

“So what now?”

We chose a noraebang.  There are few more satisfying ways to kill an afternoon than singing badly alongside friends.  Our large group had fragmented for afternoon rest. So Sugar, Potato, Alphaville, and I broke off to sing our brains out (except for Alpha, who was allegedly too old to know most songs).

90 minutes of stress release later, we departed for the park with hoarse voices and high hopes.  The evening fast-approached and the long-awaited event was set to begin.

But of course, disappointment loomed right around the corner.  Some friends informed us that there were no food vendors inside the festival.  No food? At a festival?  Who planned this?


To make matters worse, the streets became uncomfortably crowded.  Long lines of customers cleaned out convenience stores and restaurants were jam-packed.  Fortunately, one couple grabbed a smattering of snacks to share following their mid-afternoon nap. We indulged in various potato chips and jelly candies to dull our whetting pangs of hunger.

After four hours of camping in line followed by five more hours of waiting in restaurants and singing rooms, we entered the baseball stadium.  The clock struck five.


“What time do the lanterns begin?”

“Maybe around 8:30?”

Oh lord.  The boredom marathon wore on.  Fortunately, Potato found a paper lantern figure.  I became her faithful assistant as I separated perforated cardboard and struggled in vain to put some pieces together.  Fortunately, Potato’s hands are far more skilled than mine, and she finished the figure in spite of my help. That mercifully killed an hour.


I crushed another five minutes writing on one side of a lantern.  I wished everyone steady improvement and making every moment in life count – or some other woo-woo shit like that.  It felt good at the time.

But then the sun descended beneath the bleachers. Daylight curtains closed to reveal darkness.  And performances began.

I didn’t understand most of it.  But I surmised that the Lantern Festival served to celebrate Buddha’s birthday.  Monks performed chants, pounded traditional drums and wood blocks, shared Dharma talks, and sung songs.  


I drank water and peed freely throughout.  Through the ever-lengthening bathroom lines soon ruined this routine.

Finally, everyone rose to their feet.  The show was starting? Right?



Maybe.  Of course, six different people dressed in business suits had to give speeches – speeches that likely echoed the exact same sentiments.  Korean bureaucratic backscratching approached an ever-retreating climax.  Meanwhile, several rebels lit lanterns in premature, impatient protest.  Admonitions rained from the pulpit. 

“Wait!  Do not light the lanterns!”

After a brief fire safety video, the moment finally arrived.  One-by-one yet altogether, a stadium’s worth of lanterns climbed and transformed the night sky into a giant Christmas tree.  Some crashed into trees. Others drifted higher and higher until their light extinguished and disappeared from sight.  The ground became a Christmas tree itself as patrons pointed phones skyward.




Were those ten scenic minutes worth 14 hours of waiting?  The economics of time would suggest not.

But sometimes one must consider the “journey, not destination cliché.”  We didn’t wait 14 hours for a 10-minute light show.   No.  I was fortunate to spend 14 hours catching up with old friends, laughing, and swapping jokes and stories.  I visited a new city and sightsaw a large swath of its downtown.  I recaptured a sense of adventure – a sense of adventure that has waned since several Mokpo Misfits moved away six months ago.

Some say I waited for the adventure.

Others say that waiting is the adventure.




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