Funky Festivals

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Funky Festivals

by Joey Green

When my wife and I back-packed around the world on our honeymoon, we found ourselves in Singapore a few days before Thaipusam, a religious festival celebrating the Hindu deity Lord Subrahmanya (also known as Lord Murugan). The festival features hundreds of devout Hindus, some of whom pierce their tongues and cheeks with skewers and parade through the heart of the city carrying carafes of milk on their heads. We decided to stick around to see something we'd never seen before. That decision forever changed the way we travel.

On the morning of Thaipusam, Debbie and I woke at 4 a.m. and walked to colorful Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple to watch the participants, clad in yellow sarongs, shish kebab themselves. They wore huge, tiered, metal headdresses called kavadis that were adorned with flowers, mirrors and peacock feathers. We marched along with the human pincushions in the three-hour procession and celebrated with their families, who embraced us and invited us into their homes. We became a part of the local scene—travelers immersed in the culture rather than insulated tourists seeing the world from behind the windows of an air-conditioned bus.

From then on, we've planned our travels around unusual celebrations. We've participated in the Boryeong Mud Festival in South Korea, where 2.2 million people wrestle in the town's mineral-rich mud. We've partied at the World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade in Hot Springs, Ark., where leprechauns, marching bands, floats and Irish Elvis impersonators travel down a street a mere 98 feet long. We've experienced the Typewriter Toss (in Springfield, Mo.), the Bonnie and Clyde Festival (in Gibsland, La.) and the World Rock Paper Scissors Championships (in Toronto).

If those adventures sound bizarre, that's probably because they are. But by planning our travels around quirky, surreal and downright strange happenings, we've experienced some highly memorable events, such as:


We were among the more than 1,000 people who ran screaming from the restored Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pa., on a Friday night in July to re-enact the iconic scene from the 1958 science-fiction cult favorite The Blob. In the low-budget horror film, shot in Phoenixville and starring Steve McQueen, the gelatinous, amoebalike alien oozes through the projection booth. Launched in 2000, the annual Blobfest begins with a campy, 90-minute stage show that features movie-prop collector Wes Shank displaying the original Blob—a red silicone glob in a five-gallon drum. The celebration continues with the annual Blob Ball (a 1950s-style party), continuous screenings of The Blob and—my favorite—the Fire Extinguisher Parade honoring the fire-fighting equipment from the local high school that McQueen and the town's teenagers used to save the world by freezing the creature.
WEIRDNESS FACTOR (out of five): ★ ★ ★ ★

World Championship Punkin Chunkin
The weekend after Halloween, competitors launch leftover pumpkins from giant compressed-air cannons, catapults and treb­uchets that send the gourds hurtling thousands of feet through the air. The annual event, which is held in Bridgeville, Del., lasts three days and attracts crowds of more than 20,000 people. It began in 1986, when four Delaware men were inspired by a news story about physics students throwing pumpkins at nearby Salisbury University. They decided to compete to see who could hurl a pumpkin the longest distance. The winner used a catapult to launch his pumpkin 126 feet. In 2008, a team at the World Championship set the world record, flinging a pumpkin 4,483 feet. I loved the incredible engineering. Debbie loved the abundant pumpkin pie.

The Roadkill Cook-Off
In Marlinton, W.Va., we sampled such backcountry dishes as squirrel gravy over biscuits, teriyaki-marinated bear, deer sausage and porcupine stew. Begun in 1991, the annual Roadkill Cook-Off awards a $1,000 top prize, attracts more than 10,000 people and is host to the Little Miss Roadkill pageant ("Every girl's dream," says our daughter, Julia). The official cook-off rules specify, "All entries must have, as their main ingredient, any animal commonly found dead on the side of the road," although the judges urge contestants to refrain from procuring critters from the highway. With entries (and entrees) bearing names like Pothole Possum Stew, Fricasseed Wabbit Gumbo and Smeared Hog with Groundhog Gravy, it's no surprise the official rules declare, "All judges have been tested for cast-iron stomachs and have sworn under oath to have no vegetarian tendencies."

Outhouse Races
We were flush with excitement as teams of three, dressed in outlandish costumes, pushed decorated outhouses mounted on skis down snow-covered Main Street in Conconully, Wash. One team member sits inside the outhouse wearing a helmet while two others plunge the outhouse along the 100-yard track as spectators cheer. Launched in 1984, the annual January event is the longest-running outhouse race in the United States. The "head-to-head" races culminate with the Bucket Race (with pushers wearing five-gallon plastic buckets over their heads while the rider directs them).

Rubber Duck Regatta
At precisely 3 p.m. on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend in Cincinnati, two massive cranes tilt a cargo container over the Purple People Bridge and drop more than 100,000 rubber ducks into the Ohio River for a quarter-mile race. Founded in 1995, the annual Rubber Duck Regatta, the largest and longest-running rubber-duck race in the nation, has raised more than $5.5 million for The Freestore Foodbank, a charitable group that distributes food through pantries and soup kitchens. The group sells the rubber ducks for $5 each (or $25 for six). The owner of the first duck to cross the finish line wins a new car and possibly $1 million if the numbered rubber duck is the pre­selected "million-dollar duck." The downside? I couldn't get the Sesame Street song "Rubber Duckie" out of my head for weeks.

Superman Celebration
It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the Largest Gathering of People Dressed as Superman (currently set by 867 people during the July 2013 Kendall Calling festival in Cumbria, U.K.). Every June since 1979, the small town of Metropolis, Ill., welcomes thousands of Superman fans to celebrate the Man of Steel with four days of "truth, justice and the American way." You can have your picture taken next to the 15-foot-tall bronze statue of Superman standing in Superman Square, visit The Super Museum (housing the largest collection of Superman memorabilia outside the Fortress of Solitude), enjoy outdoor screenings of Superman cartoons (our kids loved that) and be officially sworn in by the mayor as "Honorary Citizens of Metropolis"—provided you leave your kryptonite at home.

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Copyright Ⓒ 2013 by Joey Green. All rights reserved. Reprinted from American Way magazine.