Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Scams of David Viner, Part 1 - The Encounter

Living in Bangkok there is never a dull moment. All you have to do for entertainment is park yourself on the street, and observe the chaos that continually swirls around you. It never fails to provide amusement. But, on occasion, no matter how careful you are, that vortex turns in an unexpected direction, and suddenly envelopes you.

Walking up the street I spotted Mandalay Mike. Mandalay Mike was a point of curiosity in that he was not abnormal in any way. A congenial, good natured, intelligent American fellow, he seemed completely out of place amid the outrageous characters that populated that town. He had spent the previous year or two in Burma, eventually getting deported for political reasons, and was a fixture on our little soi.

The street was littered with tables on the sidewalk, each being serviced by the adjacent establishment. The foreigners, by some unconscious agreement, had chosen this particular table at which to gather. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact the the prettiest girl on the street served us.

As I sat down, Mike was just standing up, proclaiming some urgent business somewhere in town. I was left with his companion, who I had never met. I took a moment to look for character flaws or any obvious signs of derangement, you can never be too careful.

He was an elderly man with a dignified air. His white hair, gold rimmed glasses and neatly clipped beard gave the impression of class and intelligence. His use of the English language was masterly, and he spoke with a cultivated London accent. I was impressed by his demeanor and in the the first few minutes of conversation, found myself enjoying his company.

After the initial pleasantries and a few keen insights were exchanged, I asked him whether he was enjoying his time in Thailand. After a subtly vague, reluctant answer I was left with the idea that something was wrong, and I presented the question again, this time more firmly.

He took on a weary yet slightly embarrassed expression as if he was reluctant to burden me with his problems. He told me that he had been robbed at a Starbucks while turning for a moment to place the newspaper back. His bag, passport, wallet - everything had been taken. I was shocked and asked him how he had been getting by, noting the cold beer in front of him. He replied that he had spent the first three days at the airport, until the idea came upon him to pawn his wedding ring. That had provided the modest amount of money needed to stay at the shoddiest guesthouse on the street and the comfort of a cold beer in the heat of the tropics. But, he added, not to worry, his Japanese wife on Hokkaido was in the process of sending some money, and all would be rectified soon.

I was overwhelmed with concern for this poor old man, and immediately offered to help him financially, to get him by in relative comfort for the next couple of days, until his money arrived. He reluctantly allowed me to force a 500 baht bill into his hands, and spent the rest of our conversation in praise of my good nature.

For the next two days I would meet David at our table and delight in his conversation. He was intelligent, and well versed on a great number of topics. It was some of the most enjoyable conversation I've ever had. I offered him a book I had just bought to ease him through the duller moments before his money arrived.

David appeared to enjoy my company as well. For a further three days he would be waiting at the table, cold beer in front of him, eager to pick up where we had left off the previous evening. I started taking note of his beer consumption, and began to get suspicious. After asking when his his money would finally arrive, he told me there were no Western Unions on Hokkaido, so his wife had to travel quite a distance to get to one. I knew that Hokkaido was the most remote area of Japan, I even had an old friend who lived there, but I found it hard to believe there was no way to wire money from the island.

The next day, David was not there. I had been suspicious the night before, and I was sure he had picked up on it. A couple more days passed, there was no sign of him, he had vanished from the street. During that time I had called my friend in Japan and asked about the presence of Western Unions on Hokkaido. he told me Hokkaido was not the Canadian Arctic, and of course there were Western Unions there. Further investigation on the internet provided me with proof that indeed, Hokkaido was all but riddled with them.

I'm not a vengeful person, but it bothers me a great deal to be outsmarted. Besides, he had taken my book. I vowed to find this David Viner, and make him pay.

Click here for part two
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Often, in the Western world, I am confronted with a question. This is a question I've been asked so many times, by so many people, I've started to think about it a lot. I can't meet any friend or acquaintance here without this particular line of inquiry being directed at me. Worse yet, the more I'm asked it, the more I'm starting to think about it, and, in spite of knowing better, I'm beginning to feel dragged down by the sheer weight of this unrelenting consciousness being brought to bear upon me.

That question is "What are you going to do with your life?"

Sometimes, among friends it's distilled down to "So what are you going to do now?" But the underlying meaning behind these questions remains the same.

Here, in the Western World, I am considered a loser.

I am without a career, wife or children. I have no marketable skills. I have no education. I don't have a house or car. I have no plans for the future, and I lack ambition. All I have is an mp3 player, laptop, a bag full of ratty clothes that have nearly been worn through and an unregistered, broken old car, somewhere in Korea. I don't even have the key for it.

To the people who ask this question of me, it appears I have gone through a good portion of my life accomplishing absolutely nothing. These people see it as their duty to continually badger me until I can provide them an answer that is to their satisfaction. I try not to be upset, they mean well, and they're good people.

I have a hard time answering the question. So often, I just shrug it off and suffer the subsequent looks of pity that are directed at me.

It's very hard to stand alone. But my inquisitors don't see what I see.

I see people breathlessly scurry about, on solid, unrelenting routines. I see people sacrifice the majority of their lives working for money, only to pay it right back out. I watch as people collect immense stores of material wealth, only to have it sit, unused in their basements. Sometimes in a movie theatre, I turn around and watch the multitude of faces behind me, fascinated by the eerie, vapid stares. I encounter corporate, braying personalities, gushing excitement over total
abstractions. When I walk through the neighborhood, I see house after house emanating the sinister blue glow of the television set. I see hamsters, running on stationary wheels, with bits of lettuce they will never eat, dangling before their eyes.

I see cubicle slaves, who's only aspiration in life is to become mahogany desk slaves.

I feel I could very well turn the question back on them, but I refrain from doing this. They won't understand. Most people love their chains.

They make them feel secure.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Crows of Witch Mountain

There are some places in the world that seem to be a nexus for all sorts of odd activity. One such place, in a valley in Toronto has been nicknamed "Witch Mountain" for as long as I can remember.

Witch Mountain isn't really a mountain, but a high steep hill offering a decent vantage from which to observe a portion of the city. It's festooned by some fairly thick forest, and such, isn't the easiest place to discover, but there have been visitors on this lonely, secret hill.

A long time ago, some friends and I had braved the climb to the summit, only to be encountered with what can only be described as the rank smell of evil when reaching the top. A quick search for the source revealed a half buried military ammunition box, with its lid flung open and some mysterious items within.

Searching the box we uncovered what can only be described as a weird collection of artifacts. Pages of ripped and ancient pornography were present in abundance, in in among their tattered remains we dug out some Polaroid pictures and two wooden sticks we immediately nicknamed 'The Juju Sticks'

The pictures were from a 70's Halloween party, and I had never seen stranger shots in my life. Creepy, mustachioed men cutting cakes and drinking beer with a blond playboy bunny in attendance. There was something incredibly odd about them, and they creeped me out. I refused to even touch The Juju Sticks, and they were snatched up by my friend Jordon who claimed them immediately as his. I had no problem with this, and told him to keep them away from me.

The rest of the night was spent discussing the nature of these objects and the recently uncovered ammunition box. Who could have buried these things here? Had the been there since the 70s? Why such an odd assortment of objects? And why on the mysterious Witch Mountain? We left with these questions unresolved.

A few years later, we returned to Witch Mountain a couple hours before dusk. The smell was long gone, and all evidence of the strange time capsule had been removed. The sun was shining, and Witch Mountain did not seem a threatening place. I was with my friends Lee and Jordon, and we had hiked up to enjoy some cold beers and shoot our homemade slingshots.

We arranged some empty beer cans on the surrounding trees, and proceeded to improve our aim. We had a bit of a competition going to discover which of our slingshots were of the best quality. We had been shooting for awhile when I missed my can. The little stone went hurtling off into the trees and came within a foot of a crow sitting on a branch that I hadn't noticed.

The crow turned his head, looked me right in the eyes, and let out a "Squawk!". The meaning couldn't have been more clear if the crow had spoken in plain English. He was pissed off and he may as well have said "Fuck you!". He lifted his wings and flew off.

A few minutes passed by, we were relaxing in the diminishing sun when suddenly the crow came back, accompanied by about twenty of his friends. It couldn't have been more than five minutes since he left, and how he had managed to amass such an army was beyond me.

We stared at this murder of oncoming crows, frozen on the spot. The crows came rapidly towards us and suddenly started flying in a figure 8 pattern and squawking in a rhythmic chant. Our collective gaze was drawn ever deeper into this unlikely sight. We watched with vapid fascination as the crows continued their strange dance in the air. Some kind of pressure was building up, I felt a radiating thickness in the air, like I was being bathed in some deep throbbing energy. Fear came upon me. I looked over at Jordon "Let's go", I hissed quietly but forcefully. Jordan, his eyes still mesmerized by the dancing crows replied "yeeaaaahhhh" in a slow drawn out fashion.

Lee, who I had long known was a master of evil, seemed unaffected and asked "Why?"

We didn't bother to answer him, we turned, ran grabbed our bikes and ran down Witch Mountain as fast as our legs would carry us. Lee followed at a more leisurely pace. We drove on the forest paths a few kilometers away, and set ourselves up on another hill to continue our festivities.

Our fear had abated by this time, we were working on fresh beers, and our spirits were high. The ominous memory of the crows we all but forgotten. it was twilight, and we could just spot an abandoned bike at the bottom on the cliff's edge we were sitting on. Thinking it could be salvaged and its frame could be made into excellent slingshots, we started to climb down.

About half way down, I started getting pelted with stones that came flying out from the trees to our left. Suddenly remembering the crows, I couldn't help but wonder at this odd inversion of events. We abandoned our salvage of the bike and climbed back to the top. Upon sitting down, about a dozen young and very aggressive young guys came out of the trees to the left. It had been them throwing the stones.

We sat quietly with our legs over the cliff edge as they came out from the trees surrounding us from behind. Tension built up in the air. I could feel their violent aggression and we we each ready to defend ourselves against a dozen large, drunk and violent ruffians.

Eventually, after what seemed like ages, they walked off and disappeared into the trees to our right. After a few minutes, I could hear them shouting and fighting among themselves.

My friends were staring and me. "Did you see that?" They asked.

"No, What?"

One of the largest and most aggressive guys had been standing behind me holding a large heavy rock over my head. His friend had been repeatedly whispering in his ear "Do it! Do it! Do it!" Because of the tension I had been totally oblivious to all of this.

We packed up and got out of there immediately.

I couldn't help but think about the connection between the events of that evening. The crow pissed off at me for nearly hitting him with the rock. The sinister return with his friends. The weird and oppressive energy the crows gave off during their dance. And then myself being the target of rocks later in the evening. It seemed pretty clear.

Those crows had cursed me and had I barely escaped with my life.

Over a decade later, in Korea, I told this story to an older Australian friend over a pint.

"Witches!" was his immediate response.

"Tell me, did you ever find something buried on top of that mountain?"

I was stunned, as I had not told him about the ammunition box, nor mentioned the name "Witch Mountain". I filled him in.

It was his theory that this was the work of a coven of witches in the area, who used that spot for their rituals. It was them who buried the box, and placed a curse at that spot, according to him.

A short time after this I left Korea and returned home to meet up with my old friends.

During our reminiscing we touched upon the events of that night and I brought up what the Australian had told me. Jordon had told me The Juju Sticks had disappeared from his house, and he had searched long and hard for them but couldn't find them. And then he surprised me by asking "Don't you know who buried that stuff on Witch Mountain?"

I looked at him, Gobsmacked. Could the mystery have finally been solved after all this time?

"It was Lee. Lee buried that stuff up there when he was about 7 years old."

I looked over at Lee, Master of Evil, The Witch of Witch Mountain, who sat beside me with a big grin on his face.

Six Months in Korea, Temporary Escape

Tonight, I fly out to Bangkok. Six months in Korea have left me a broken shell of my former self, and I can hardly wait to struggle through my day, hop on a plane, and fly off this cursed rock for awhile.

Korea is easily the most annoying country I’ve ever had the opportunity to spend time in, however I’ll attempt to focus on the good points, which, bizarrely enough, generally involve near fanatic Christians.

These people have been so kind and attentive to me, that I hope some day I’ll have a chance to express my gratitude in return. Most of these Christians are my fellow co-workers, and they almost shower me with gifts on a daily basis, they are always sensitive to my moods, and will make a Herculean effort to ferret out what’s wrong in stuttering broken English if I appear less than my jovial, radiant best. They are easily some of the kindest, most selfless people I’ve ever met.

My experiences in Korea have been limited, but there have been interesting points to consider.

I’ve attended a Korean traditional wedding, which sadly, is fairly rare nowadays as the Korean youth attempt to mimic everything American. It was very interesting, and rather short, but it involved a great number of traditionally clad, costumed drummers madly dancing around the entire wedding party beating a great rhythm out on traditional Korean drums. They spun long tassels perched on their hats by rotating their heads to the beat.

The bride was Chinese, and she was not supposed to smile, but she couldn't help breaking out in laughter as she passed me and our eyes met, we were the only two foreigners there, and it must of seemed to her that any Westerner would have found her elaborate costume, and heavily painted face an amusing sight.

A chicken in a box was also somehow involved, and I was almost expecting a ritual slaughter, but it was merely presented to the new couple. On being taken from the box, the chicken promptly staged a daring escape and a long chase ensued, involving all the costumed drummers until she was finally run down and deposited, indignantly, back into her cage.

I’ve visited the Korean Folk village, where traditionally costumed Koreans, live in traditional Korean dwellings and engage in traditional Korean activities all day. I witnessed them making rope, candles, threshing grain, planting rice and mending fences. In the centre of all of this inexplicably stood a mini theme park and video game arcade, the noise emanating from here spoiled what would have been a very tranquil setting.

I’ve done my best to teach about one hundred and fifty Korean children, ranging from four to eighteen, with almost no resource materials in a terribly disorganized and chaotic setting. Some of them are incredibly snarky, some of them are really great kids. When I leave this place I’m really going to miss a few of my favourite students.

I’ve been lost in the mountains only to be rescued by passing Korean motorists upon finally descending to some unidentifiable road, in an unidentifiable town. Much of Korea looks exactly the same, and the roads are unnamed. My benefactor was so taken by my manner that she went out of her way to go to my school to tell Mrs. Lee what a nice person I was.

I’ve done all night pub crawls both here and in Seoul, stumbling back home, Korean style while the sun peeks over the mountains. One night in Seoul I was lost and hopelessly incapacitated by Korean traditional wine.

My state of mind was such that I couldn’t find the station where I was to wait for my bus. I had to take a thirty-dollar cab ride home. Usually these nights involve my fellow teachers in this area, but I’ve lately been going out with Koreans, my co-workers.

One, who is named Jin, is a nice guy that is trying his best to break his culturally ingrained programming. He keeps taking his accounting certification, and failing, but he has no real desire
to pursue the dreary life of a number cruncher, and I’m afraid I’ve kindled his imagination with stories of my exploits as well as radical ideas such as straw bale building. He comes from a wealthy family, and I suspect he is the ‘Black Sheep’. I like him, and I have some hope in rescuing him from his terrible, eventual fate. The Koreans are in awe of my drinking ability, modest as it is among standards in the West.

I’ve dined in traditional Korean restaurants, one under the shadow of the Korea's largest Buddha, whose giant visage peers benevolently down on you amid the mountains.

Some experiences, as minor as they are, will stay in my memory forever. I was walking home from dinner one night with Julia, a car’s headlights was illuminating the surface of the local river. Coils of mist were flowing down the river, offering a mystical, truly Asian scene. I managed to take my attention away from the neon lit internet cafes and restaurants, the identical condos, the car headlights, and for a moment I had a clear experience of ancient Asia, and a scene in which I saw clearly had inspired their art and philosophy through the long ages.

So it goes.

Now it’s back to the Kingdom for a couple of weeks, to wander amid the squalor, golden palaces, elephants and the constant shock that is Bangkok.

A Dull Weekend

I was thinking today that posts are reflecting only one side of my experience. You are only getting half the story, there is another, less exciting aspect to life overseas which will be the subject of this post.

This weekend was a bit of a disappointment, Emily is sick with something horrible like scarlet fever, so I didn't make the long awaited trip to Dae-Gu, in a small notion of compensation, I took another trip up to Suwon. I only stayed there for a few hours, but my suspicion that Suwon is far superior to my little village is confirmed. Drunken university students roam the streets, there is a shopping mall and a movie theatre and even a small red light district where stone faced prostitutes are sullenly showcased in brightly lit windows, watching with dread at the prospect of you entering their establishments. Trust South korea to make prostitution boring.

I was tempted to stay the night in Suwon, drinking in the pubs until the first bus was available to shuttle me back home, but I was with Julia and thought that it would probably be better to head back with her. I regret it now, as the remainder of the weekend was filled with a tedium I have rarely had to endure so far in my travels. My boredom was so complete, that I was forced to engage myself with the dreaded chores of cleaning my apartment, and washing clothes. I am now the proud new owner of a drying rack, and a cotton mat. Pictures adorn my walls - the long awaited moment in which I have hung my Naga picture, hauled all the way from Thailand has finally arrived. It now looks as if I'm fairly settled in, and I'm playing with the idea of spending more than the planned six months in Korea. If so, I need a computer, the initial investment will end up saving me money as I donate a weekly fortune to the local internet cafe here.

A good portion of my day was spent hand scrubbing my clothes. There was a week that went by awhile ago when I realized that my feet were getting stinky. I assumed that my shoes had simply trod too many miles amid the filth of the streets in Bangkok, and I cast my mind back to strolling through markets, with a mixture of fresh pig's blood and dirty water flowing beneath my feet. I reasoned that I probably needed new shoes. The true reason was far more horrifying. I was not cleaning my socks properly. One day I got out the old washer board I found in the corner and started running my socks along it, startled at the black water that was streaming out from the freshly washed socks. Surprised, I redid my entire load using this technique and apparently my lacklustre approach to washing was nowhere near adequate. Unfortunatlely, I managed to scrub right through a couple of socks rendering them useless. I have now settled in the happy medium of gentle scrubbing for long periods of time.

It's a terrible chore, and tonight I was idly entertaining the notion that once the science of genetic engineering came along far enough, I would turn myself into a sort of ape man thus negating the need for clothing. My reverie continued, imagining an entire class of ape men, freed at last from the drudgery of cleaning socks and able to devote their time to advancing the fields of art and science to previously unimagined heights.

Washing the kitchen floor was a surprising experience as well. Taking stock of the situation, I noticed that there was a drain in the centre of the floor, and all that was required of me was to dump a mixture of bleach and soap on the floor, proudly employ my new mop and simply push the dirty water directly down the drain.

I took a look at the floor. For some reason it was filthy enough to pass for a stretch of sidewalk in Klong-Toey. The reason for this was unclear, why would the entire apartment be spotless except for the kitchen floor? The unfathomable mysteries of Asia yield their secrets hesitantly, and after awhile you just get used to accepting situations that are created by a bizarre system of logic which is very likely you will never be privy to. Even if I had the owners present, and they spoke perfect English, there would be little point in asking about the situation, as they would probably give me an answer that was simply indecipherable to my poor western mind.

Armed with what seemed like a sound, logical plan, I went ahead and dumped the water on the floor which immediately turned black. That's when I first noticed that the mysterious logic of Asia was going to work against me in this endeavour. The drain appeared to be situated at the high point of the floor, neatly directing all the water sharply away from it and toward the low point which was conveniently located where a bundle of electrical conduit came up from the floor below, containing, of course, live wires.

I gaped in horror for a moment, and then embraced the insane faith that my three dollar, Bangkok special Teva knock offs would surely protect me from any lethal doses of electricity that was sure to stream across the floor at any moment. Leaping in front of the conduit I worked the mop to try and push the water into the drain, to no avail. Apparently a good portion of the apartment had to be entirely underwater before the drain would function as my first glimpse had promised. I took my chances and started to squeeze mopfulls of grimy water down the sink. Luckily, the conduit was well insulated, or waterproof, and the theory of my lifesaving Teva's remains untested.

On another day, after a shower, as I was getting dressed I heard two sharp cracks and then the horrible crash of shattering glass coming from the bathroom. I flung open the door only to see that the bathroom floor was entirely covered with broken glass. It took me a moment to realize where it had come from as the mirror was intact. It was the medicine cabinet door, which had inexplicably popped out of its housing and crashed down on the floor. I examined the housing, which appeared suited to the task of holding up some glass, but the evidence was before my eyes. I cleaned it up after work, leaving some glass on the drain to test an old theory of mine.

One night, as Jordon, Lee and I were sitting beside a horribly polluted stream in Toronto, which we call 'The Purple River', which on occasion turns purple downstream of the Coke plant, Jordon chastised me for throwing and breaking a beer bottle in the middle of this lethally contaminated stream. He informed me that for generations, men and dogs would be hobbled by crossing the river and I had now condemned all future dogs in the area lame by my thoughtless act. I told him that the running water would wear the glass into attractive little brown stones within a week, or less. I am happy to report, that after a mere week of showers, my glass has worn down enough to have now slipped through the drain and disappeared. So Jordan, you can rest easy.

These are some of the duller moments associated with life in small town Korea, but as I explore further, Korea is starting to seem a more attractive place to stay. After this month, I will decide whether to stay longer, but I have the feeling I may be here for a year. I've tossed away good jobs before, only to have suffered through some of the most miserable times of my life.

It's a mistake I'm not eager to repeat.

An Uncomfortable Entry into Japan

In Asia, people are quick to distrust anything outside of normal behaviour. Even in Asia's only first world country, Japan, appearing slightly abnormal is asking for unwanted attention. Immigration policies are tight in Japan, and they have a no nonsense attitude towards anyone breaking the law. There are more foreigners in Japan's immigration jails than anywhere else in the world.

So when Japanese airport security spotted me, with my long hair, cheap Sheik tailored suit and plastic multicoloured travel bags they stopped me and asked where I was coming from.

"Thailand" I said.

"Ohh" A thoughtful pause and appraising once over with their keen and penetrating eyes. "What do you have in your bags?" They asked gently, their gaze never leaving mine, waiting for my reflex reaction of guilt.

Now I am terrible dealing with authority. I feel guilty, even when I haven't done anything, and tend to get increasingly nervous which, of course, raises the suspicions of my inquisitors. It didn't help that I had no sleep, and was dealing with the kind of hangover only Chang beer can give you.

I answered casually, without pause. "A knife."

This took them back a bit. They weren't expecting this at all. For a moment they blinked in surprise, and then replied "Do you mind if we search your bags?"

"Sure!" I tried to appear casual and upbeat, immediately taking my old Uncle Henry folding knife, given to me by my uncle when I was seven years old, out of the side pocket of my knapsack and slapping it on the counter. Surely, I thought, they will realize that this knife had been with me all my life, and travelled all over the world with me, saving my life on many occasions. They have to note the worn leather sheath, partially chewed by an old dog of mine when she was a puppy. They must see all of this, and understand, I thought naively.

They started rummaging around in my knapsack, pulling out more contraband. My Opinel carbonate carving knife, and a switchblade lighter combo I had bought on Khao Sahn road in Thailand. I had packed in such a rush and been so hungover that I had totally forgotten about this stuff. A sinking feeling of despair came over me. I was in big trouble.

At this time they trotted out a laminated coloured book and presented it to me in that respectful Japanese way. I flipped through a couple pages of pictures of brightly coloured tablets before my mind finally engaged and I realized their intention was to inquire if I was muleing any illegal drugs.

Relief flooded over me. Here was something I could state with authority. With a slightly insulted air of disgust, I passed the book back and shook my head in the negative. How could they accuse me of this? With impeccable timing, they pulled a pill case out of my bag containing tablets of herbal medicine looking exactly like those I had seen in their book. Cold fear came over me, I was going to jail.

"What is this?" They asked gently but sternly.

"Uhhhhh, eyebright" I replied lamely.

"Eyebright!" They exclaimed with incredulity.

My mind was racing. How am I to explain western herbs, herbal medicine and their effects to increasingly suspicious Japanese security who's English was severely limited. My only hope was to be thrown in jail until the pills were analyzed and then perhaps, if I was lucky, released.

The Japanese system of justice is not like ours. If you stand accused of something, you are assumed to be guilty simply because you have been accused. It's not a good country in which to get in trouble.

As I stood wondering what to do one of the security officers was rummaging around in my cheap plastic bag. This bag was filled with junk, all sorts of odds and ends I had bought on impulse, and for some reason had decided to haul to Japan rather than just toss them out. He slowly raised two hands out of my bag, each one holding a slingshot.

There was an uncomfortable silence as they decided where exactly they were going to start with all of this. I had to do something, but what?

"Why do you have the knives?"

Why they chose to ask me this rather than about the pills was a bit of a surprise to me. I can only assume that since they were the first things that had been found, they were simply working in a linear fashion which is often the case in Asia.

An unbidden idea came to my mind, I started talking about Shoji. Shoji is Japanese woodworking, traditional construction and design. A subject which I found fascinating and luckily was well versed in. I waxed eloquently about my desire to learn Shoji, how I was impressed that it was all done by joinery, with no nails involved. Explaining that I was from Canada, where the Cedar trees needed for this type of construction were plentiful. I praised the beauty and simplicity of the design. By this time I had all but forgotten my predicament as I warmed to my topic. I eventually concluded that my trip to Japan was to study this fascinating art from the inventors and masters themselves, the Japanese.

I had not noticed, but during my speech they had repacked all my bags. I looked into their now friendly faces, warmed with proud smiles and they said "You're free to go, enjoy your stay in Japan, and good luck."

I could hardly bring myself to believe it. No further questions about the pills or slingshots. No detention or jail. No confiscation of my precious Uncle Henry. Just a friendly waves of dismissal.

They delay had cost me dearly. I caught the first train into Tokyo and by the time I got there I had seven minutes to navigate the enormous JAL terminal and catch the last bus to Osaka.

When I finally arrived and met my friend who had lived in Japan for a decade, I recounted my story.

"A knife!" He exclaimed. I can't believe they let you in with a knife, I've never heard of anything like this!"

"Three knives" I corrected him.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Objects over Africa

Takoradi harbour is not the most pleasant place in the world to live. It's a fairly filthy place, and while not the busiest harbour in the world, it still had enough merchant ship traffic that I would be occasionally called upon to move our sailing vessel so that some monstrosity could come in and dock in the spot we were occupying. On occasion, we had to anchor overnight while the ship unloaded her goods, or got loaded up with the produce of Ghana. Mostly cocoa beans, which are some of the best in the world.

It wasn't the most tranquil place to sleep. No matter how much I had drank or how little sleep I had the previous night, I was always awoken sharply at 5:30am. While the Captain was disgusted with any sort of sleep beyond this time, I was often able to force some leeway with him, but there was no arguing with The Gravel Cruncher.

At 5:30 every morning, immediately beside our position on the docks, The Gravel Cruncher would roar to life. After a few minutes of priming its ravenous belly, it would pour about 10 tonnes of gravel into a metal receptacle. The racket this created was impossibly loud and rendered sleep absolutely impossible. Even if I managed to sleep again in the interval between the motion of its insatiable jaws, I would be jarred awake on the next pour. Eventually, I would have to face the fact that I might as well drag myself out of my bunk, and face what the day brought me, no matter how hard my head was pounding.

So it was that I was relieved when we took to sea again. Our mission, sail in a back and forth pattern according to precise co-ordinates while taking depth soundings at regular intervals to create a 3d map of the sea floor. This required some precise handling of our overworked little sailing vessel, and, while the Captain had the last word, I was more or less his equal in matters of authority with regards to navigation.

It was a sunny day when we departed, I manoeuvred our beaten up little tub out of the harbour with care and said goodbye to the Gravel Cruncher and a welcoming hello to the silent West African coast.

We made good time getting to our coordinates taking only a few hours, and set to work immediately. It was monotonous work, but the sea has a way of casting a calming spell over your consciousness making just about anything bearable. In my off moments I would find myself with an empty mind, staring at the motion of the waves, with no memory of how long I had been in that state.

Darkness falls early and with great regularity in the tropics close to the equator, and at dusk we held a meeting to have to The Captain announce we would work daylight hours only. At night we were to "stall" against the current and wind. This involved keeping a night watch, and to raise just enough sail in an attempt to maintain our position. My hopes of getting a good night sleep were dashed, as I would have to stay up half the night with Peter, the Dive Master, showing him the ropes. We were assigned first watch and we were to wake The Captain and Jeff, the Dive Instructor halfway through the night for their turn.

After supper Peter and I sat in the cockpit. I had instructed him on the use of the GPS and our finiky Autohelm 4000, and on the basic handling of the vessel. I was satisfied he knew enough to watch alone the following night. Darkness had fallen and we were stalling well against the mighty Guinea current maintaining a more or less static position.

The unpopulated coast was visible as a dark shadow a few miles away. There were no lights or settlements in this area and we were treated to pitch blackness and utter silence apart from the glimmering stars and the gentle lapping of the waves. It was 9 o'clock pm and we we talking quietly about travel and diving. That's when things took a turn for the weird.

It was sudden and shocking. A blue light descended on us from above, starting gently and growing rapidly in intensity, all the more shocking because the silence remained uninterrupted. Peter had been in the middle of a sentence and cut himself off himself shouting "What the FUUUCCC...!". time seemed to slow down, and I sprang into action.

We could not see directly above. Sailing vessels equipped for bluewater have what's called a bimini over the cockpit. A canvas tarp that shields you from the sun, unfortunately it was blocking our view of the source of the steadily growing light. I glanced in the water to see the shattered reflection of the object and determined that it was directly above.

Peter was frozen in mid curse, and I acted unthinkingly. I dove in to the air towards the gunnel, twisting my body so that I was facing upwards, determined to see whatever it was. Time seemed to slow even more, flying through the air looking upward at the dimishing bimini and expanding view of the sky. I seemed to know exactly where it was and as the last inch or two of bimini retreated I remember thinking "this it it!".

As soon as my eyes came into contact with the source of the light, at that very instant, there was a flash. It was so bright, I remember seeing blue sky and white clouds. The night had turned to day. The next thing I remember I was sitting back in the cockpit facing Peter and seeing the daylight actually retreat over the horizon, as darkness enveloped us again. Apart from Peter's exclaimation, there had been dead silence all this time. I checked my watch, it was 9pm.

Peter was frozen in shock, staring off into space. I broke his trance by saying "What was that!". Peter's eyes rolled in his head, he shook himself back to consciousness, and replied forcefully "Nothing!".

"Nothing!" I replied in utter disbelief, knowing full well he had seen what I had. "What was that light?"

I could see his mind desperately searching for somehow to explain it to himself and remain sane. "It was....probably a helicopter or something" he ventured. Knowing how tightly the mind likes to grip its own version of reality, I didn't want to push him too far, and I was fascinated in watching the process of denying one's own senses in favour of long held beliefs and assumptions about what is possible. I tried one more time. "But Peter, there was no noise..". He didn't answer and the rest of our watch was spent in silence.

I didn't mention the incident to Jeff or the Captain upon waking them up, and took along time to fall asleep myself, thinking I almost preferred The Gravel Cruncher over these presented conundrums of reality.

The rest of the mission proceeded uneventfully, and after a week we had our data, which ended up providing a incredibly boring relief map of the sea floor. It's only feature was gently rolling sand dunes. A few days after landing I brought the incident up with Peter again. He had no memory of it anymore.

He had expunged it from his mind entirely.

I thought about this for a long time.

I still do.

One Night In Bangkok

There is just no telling where you're going to end up by making the simple decision to go out for a drink in Bangkok. The plan started off to hit Khao Sahn for a beer, I thought I'd phone Pom and Sun, a couple girls I had met the other night at Gulliver's and meet up with them. Sun is a beautiful girl with almost no English ability and Pom has a good personality. Decent enough company.

Before I left, I thought I'd get the energy level up and bit, and had a Red Bull with a couple pre-beers, I then enlisted my Canadian feminist friend Kat and a Japanese guy to tag along. This turned out to be a bit of a killjoy, as Kat was totally disgusted as soon as we walked into Gulliver's upon observing all the Western men having fun with Thai girls.

Taking some responsibility for their enjoyment, I walked them to one of my favourite outside bars on Rambutree, deposited them at a table, and promptly bailed back to Gulliver's. Pom and Sun were there, but had already engaged themselves with a bunch of English guys. It's not a disheartening prospect to be alone at Gulliver's, and it doesn't take long to find some company, I ended up at the table of a drunken Isaan girl who was waiting for her friend.

After a bit of dancing and drinking, as the bar was closing her friend returned from whatever mysterious errand she was on. A Chinese Thai, heavily made up, it wasn't hard to guess what she had been up to, turning a quick trick at a nearby guesthouse with some Foreigner. She reeked of sex.

They invited me to hit Sukhimvit, and I had nothing better to do, so I tagged along. Leaving the bar I spotted a young western guy with his hands all over a transvestite, oblivious to the fact that he was feeling up a man, I wasn't about to enlighten him, let him learn the hard way.
A quick taxi to the infamous Soi three, near Nana This is where all the prostitutes leaving the bars due to the early closing times collect themselves looking to freelance. A great number of foreigners are drawn here for the prospect of doing business without paying the bar fine. It's quite the scene.

We ended up hitting an Egyptian restaurant ordering Arabic tea and coffee. The Isaan girl, who had been eyeing me all night runs to the gutter and begins vomiting loudly and repeatedly. She's down for the count, and I'm left with Nani, the Chinese Thai freelance prostitute.

Nani had ordered while I was in the bathroom, and I'm surprised when the waiter carts a large water hookah out on the patio and throws some mysterious coals into it. I make a small attempt to inquire what exactly it is that I'm going to be smoking, but the booze is setting in pretty hard, and I'm up for just about anything. We take turns drawing from the pipe and sipping Arabic tea garnished with mint leaves. I start to get a mellow feeling.

Eventually some old fellow ambles by, notes the Isaan girls situation and tosses her into a taxi, Nani tells me it's her grandfather but he looked far too young. I use the moment to quickly duck inside pay the bill, and mumble an excuse to Nani before disappearing into the gloom.

I decide to take a stroll around and take in the atmosphere, a transvestite lurches out of the darkness and follows at my heels for half a block. I ignore the ungainly creature until it slinks away.
I sit briefly at a table of dancers from Nana disco, but I'm soon drawn away in search of water as the hookah has made my mouth incredibly dry. I pass table after table of prostitutes, some alone, some in groups and some with western guys. Another hideous transvestite grabs me and I have to deal with another proposition. I still can't find water.

Eventually I explain my situation to a couple of girls sitting alone, and they invite me to take their water, we get into a bizarre conversation that could only take place in Bangkok. They're prostitutes in Singapore, and consider themselves a cut above the riff raff that surrounds us. One of them is really annoying, and expects me to entertain her, I tell her that she's not doing anything for me, and that quite frankly I'm not going to put out the effort. She takes off in search of a more amiable foreigner, and I chat with her friend for awhile. Interesting girl, I like her, she was going to be married to an English guy, but his parents wisely put the kibosh on the arrangement, lucky for him.

The girl is cool, but my eyes are now getting heavy, I give her a friendly goodbye, flag a taxi and hop in only to note that the driver is far drunker than I am. I give him directions, he tries to charge me about 1000% more than it should be, I laugh and tell him in Thai he's not fooling me. The price is then dictated by the meter, as it should be, and we speed off into the night. I'm not sure if it's the smoke, the booze or my attitude at the moment, but when he stars puking out the window as he drives I feel nothing but amusement.

I tip him ten baht as he lets me off.

Night Walk Home

Teaching can be brutal, it had starting to wear me down a bit, and the continual chess games I was playing with Mrs. Lee were doing nothing to improve my nerves.

To alleviate some stress, I decided to stroll the few kilometres home. It was a pleasant walk, and totally incomprehensible to the Asians why I’d want to endure this kind of torture. When I mention walking for more than 15 minutes, most of them say ‘it’s impossible’. So I didn’t tell anyone to avoid the pleas of accepting a drive and warnings of my imminent death on the side of the road. I just skipped out and started, slinging my Korean schoolbag over my shoulder. After a kilometre or so, I was between towns on a charming country road, surrounded by rice paddies full of chirping frogs. The familiar smells of clover patches did a lot to improve my mood.

I had awoken today ready to quit because I was sure Mrs. Lee was delaying my pay for a week, but it turns out that I'd just lost track of time. It’s seemed like I’d been teaching years but apparently it’d only been two months – unless the two schools were working in tandem to manipulate me. It was possible, but I didn't have the energy those days to bother about a weeks pay. After this money came in on the weekend, I’ll be in a better position having enough cash to flee the country at anytime. I really wanted to stick it out at least six months, but I had a difficult job, and I was hoping that with habituation, it would get easier.

The countryside here is beautiful, it was so nice to spend an hour walking enveloped in a cloak of darkness, washing the memories of the day away. Packs of kids screaming and demanding, not listening, talking in class, interrupting. Teaching can be very difficult. Tomorrow will be worse, seven classes with no break, but then, thankfully it’s the weekend.

The outskirts of Toon-Jon consist of a shanty town, where poor Koreans scurry about in their aluminium roofed hovels, or squat in the dirt smoking cigarettes around piles of burning garbage. I pass through and a few curious eyes turn to follow me. I’m not in the least worried as even if there were trouble, I have enough pent up nervous energy after class to single handedly decimate a horde of emaciated, looting Koreans. But there is seldom any violence here, and I’d be in far more danger walking in downtown Toronto.

Over an ancient bridge spanning a sickly, trickling creek and into Toon-Jon proper, with it’s condos surrounded by budding tomato plants bursting up through plastic bags in neat little rows, tended by withered twisted old ladies. Into my house. I briefly considered lying down, attempting to finish Atlas Shrugged, but Ms. Rand starts a book far better than she finishes one, and I dropped my bag on the floor, changed into sandals and marched out the door to purchase some water, and come to the PC room here.

These Koreans towns are busy places, full of blinking signs of sharply contrasting colours displaying pictures of animals with huge smiles, looking absolutely delighted at the prospect of being butchered and eaten. Drunken Korean men lurch down the street holding each other up, spending their few brief moments away from work rapidly drinking themselves into submission with Soju, the national hooch. On occasion they take notice of me, and once in awhile aggressively demand conversation, which I try and avoid.

The weekend plan was into Seoul, I was planning on drinking and hopefully catching a friend's David Bowie act if he was playing on Saturday. I was too tired on Friday to do anything after the grueling schedule. I was hoping the following week I would have Internet and cable TV at home, So I could entertain myself there rather than spending money here at the internet cafe. I was also expecting my long awaited meeting with Mr. Han, who wanted me to write…something for him. It was a chance for extra cash. Mondays were inexplicably dropped from my schedule, which was fine with me. I could make more with private students anyway. And I didn’t mind the recovery time.

Road Trip Across Korea

Friday night we took a little trip to the East coast of Korea, after work. We started at about 11:30pm, luckily I had slept in until about 2:00. I was perfectly capable of staying up all night but I was worried about the Koreans since they had to work the next day. They assured me that they were young and strong and that I shouldn’t worry.

We were driving in a flashy Korean car (Koreans always buy Korean), with a speeding camera detector and all the racing extras. The Korean guys are really into their cars, and they can hardly be blamed. They’ve only had them for about 30 years, and the assistant director, who is my age, told me that when he was growing up only 1 in 20 families had one.

We stopped at a rest area, and I bought everyone expensive coffees, I ran into a pack of Irish teachers, and had a few words with them. Then we hung out in the car for a bit and talked. One of the Christians was really into ‘post modernism’ and had tried to read some Carl Jung. We were trying to have a conversation in this area, but it was frustrating for both of us because of the language barrier. We eventually gave up, and I told them some stories of my weird experiences, being dragged across the floor by an invisible force, intuition stories, and pre-cognative dreams. They were very receptive, and remarked that we can not be sure of what humans are really capable of. I was surprised that these Korean Christians were more open to this sort of thing than many people in the West.

We piled back into the cars, and continued our journey, it was a long drive for such a small country, as I saw on my way back the road twists and curves around many mountains, so it ends up being about twice the distance.

Finally we arrived at the beach, and was it ever cold. We did a little milling and walking, waiting for the sun to rise. There was a crisp clean pine smell in the air and it reminded me of a beloved Northern Ontario forest. We took refuge from the cold in a Family Mart, and I grabbed the chance to quiz the Julia on the quality of various food available there, as well as finding out just what certain products were, which, up until then, had been a mystery to me. Strangely and unexpectedly, Jethro Tull’s Bouree started playing through the speakers, probably about the last thing I had expected to hear, as most of the music I’ve heard is popular western mimic music.

We strolled to the beach again, posed for pictures, and hit a tofu restaurant for breakfast. It was quite delicious except for the Kimchie, which was “bad Kimchie”, meaning that it was old and sour. I was then informed that “bad Kimchie” is good, and cleans the blood. I proceeded to suffer through eating a great deal of the disgusting stuff for the health benefits, to the amusement of the Koreans, who wouldn’t touch it.

Next we hit what was apparently an old Korean hangout, a traditional Korean building built on a ‘mountain’. Anything that is not flat is a mountain to the Koreans, it was just a large hill by a little lake, but a very tranquil spot. I examined the construction technique, which is beautiful, but uses a lot of wood, and wandered through the grounds examining local wild plants, again to the amusement of the onlooking Koreans. The pine trees forests are beautiful and very Asian looking. The Bamboo stands have black trunks, opposed to the bright yellow I was used to in Thailand and Laos. I wanted to walk through the forest, but I hesitated, knowing the Koreans usually walk on paths, and there were no paths here.

Finally we started out journey back, and this time I got a chance to see some of the countryside, which I was quite enthralled with. Passing a section of wooded, endlessly folded land I remarked that I’d love to take a week to hike and camp in those mountains. The following conversation ensued.

K “Oh, you can’t climb there!”
Me “Why not?”
K “You can’t”
Me “But it looks beautiful, does no one hike there?”
K “No”
Me “Why, I’d love to hike there”
K “We have many famous mountains for climbing, you can’t climb there, it’s dangerous and there are no paths. You also can’t light fires in Korea, it’s dangerous.”

I had to bite my tongue at a response about what I’ve begun to call ‘Korean Konformity”. I don’t want to climb well trod mountains with hordes of Koreans, I want some solitude. Swimming is another point. The previous week I was taken to a small lake, very small. I remarked that I’d love to go swimming there sometime.

K “Oh, you can’t swim there!”
Me “Why?”
K “it’s deep, you’ll die”
Me “No, I can swim very well”
K “You can’t swim there, it’s too deep”
Me “Look, I’ve been swimming since I was about one year old, I swim 10 times that distance every year, I can swim across there easily.”

No response but a worried wrinkle appeared on her forehead. This was the wife of the owner of one of the schools, and I knew she was thinking that this insane foreigner may very well jump in there and kill himself, sinking like a stone to the bottom as soon as the water reached a depth of about 6 feet. I got the sense that she was partially worried about my well being and tenuous grip on sanity, but most of her concern was directed at the fact that she would have to go through the laborious process of acquiring another foreign teacher, with all the related expense, after this madman killed himself in his bizarre delusion that he could actually swim. We got out and I noted a sign by the shore. I asked what it said.

“It says you can’t swim here, the water is very deep and you will die.” she said, giving me a sidelong glance to assure herself that the authority of the sign would certainly put a halt to my suicidal notions. I feigned a wide eyed look, confirming to her that yes, the sign MUST be right, and after a life time of swimming this small lake would certainly be the death of me. Satisfied, we drove on to the school. If I had flung myself in and crossed the lake in the two minutes it would have taken, I’m sure she would have fainted from the shock of disbelief that a human could do the impossible in front of her very eyes. Koreans are not water people, some of them wade, but they don’t go in water above the head. One day, to the screaming horror of the onlooking Koreans, I’m going to fling myself into deep water and blow their minds.

I’ve also made up my mind that before I leave, I’m going to climb an unclimbable mountain, and light a fire, the consequences be damned!

Back in the car, the Koreans were getting tired by this point, so to my dismay they pulled into a rest area and announced that we were going to take a nap. I fidgeted in this cramped car, with the sun blaring in though the windows, thinking that I could never sleep here, and how long did the Koreans plan to rest? Finally I got out, wandered around and found a nice sunny little grassy hill with a local dog on top. The dog eyed me suspiciously until I sniffed the air, turned three times and curled up beside him. Satisfied that I was well familiar with the canine world, the dog relaxed and nodded off.

I hadn’t expected to sleep, but I did. When I awoke suddenly, over an hour had passed and I briefly worried that the Koreans had shrugged at my absence and taken off. I got back to the car in time to see Julia typing me a text phone message, intuition again, I woke up just when they were ready to go. I got back in the car and they enquired as to where I went. I told them I had slept outside in the sun. There was an uncomfortable silence as it went through their minds that there seemed to be no limit to the madness that this foreign barbarian was capable of. I smiled to myself. Finally we got back, to ‘beautiful Toonjon”. The Koreans were exhausted at this point, and I felt sorry for them that they had to work.
So that was my little trip across country, and there seems to be good possibilities for the individual to have a good time in nature if a few rules are broken. The Koreans would never consider it, if it’s not done, it’s not done. I, however, am of a slightly different attitude.

Pizza on the Mekong

“How happy would you like your pizza?”, the waitress asks.

I look up from my table in downtown Phnom Penh. Five kids are lurking near the gutter braving the security to run up and tout me books, motorcycles are veering crazily along the street. The most bizarre collection of ex-pats sits around me, one looking the spitting image of a Cuban military general, cigar, uniform and all, sitting authoritatively amongst his sharply contrasting comrades.

“We have Happy, Very Happy, and Super Happy..” She continues.

The fellow we are sitting with has given me some trouble, he seems friendly, but many guest house lurkers are. I’ve been eyeing him with suspicion all night, he’s keen on heading to Martini’s which has an infamous name in Phenom Penh.

He clams to have arrived from Wales a couple days ago, had bragged about his 1.3 million pounds in the bank and his successful pharmaceutical business. I’ve seen the type, and now I’m trying to figure out what he wants with us, what his game is. A few points in his story don’t check out.

He was a nice deep tan, more than two days worth – especially out of England. He has dry skin patches on his elbows, something a man who owns two drugstores would take care of on his own, promptly. His shirt was bought yesterday, he claimed, but it was easily over two days old, and his shoes looked too worn to have from straight from the UK.

No, he was feeding us a line, I’d already warned Clem, my travelling buddy on this trip, but he wasn’t convinced.

“Just lightly happy”, I tell the waitress giving the mysterious fellow across from me an appraising glance. I confirm “Light Ganja – No mushrooms”, “of course, sir..” she replies professionally, insulted that I should question her on the difference between ‘happy’ and ‘super happy’.

A stunning, European woman walks in, in an evening gown and an elegant black hat. She looks like something out of Paris in the 1930′s. I’m in love with this place already, this collection of bizarre freaks. I’m secure in my own ability to avoid notice at this point, I’m dressed like a typical two month circuit runner, with my Khao Sahn ‘Same same… but different shirt. Nobody suspects I’m on a spy mission to asses this town as a possible home for a year or more. I’m sold already.

I make it clear to the weirdo clinging to the respectability of my little group that we and not going to Martini’s with him. He starts bitching bitterly about the bill, as someone would when they’ve spent money on a bad investment, and he takes off. I was thinking of calling him on it, and demanding his passport, I would have even put a $50 on it, but such confrontation is not usually wise, I let him know subtly that he’s not outsmarting me, and chase him off with my attitude and demeanor.

I think I like this place, and I think I’ll be back, in six months…

Starving Raccoons

It was just another night, down in the park, drinking with friends. It’s a nice feature of Toronto that there are so many forested areas within the city. We always preferred to have a few beers in the company of nature rather than the awful bar scene.

On the way from the Beer Store, driving by a pet shop, I had noticed a free sample bag of dog food. I thought it might make a nice treat for my old terrier, so I put one in my knapsack.

I drove down the forested path into the valley, the beers clinking in my knapsack. As I descended the air got cooler and the light was fading. I was looking forward to having a few cold beers with some good friends.

We ended up sitting around a picnic table in the gloom at the valley bottom. We were sitting in a clearing surrounded by trees, quietly enjoying conversation. The silence of the valley was suddenly interrupted by terrible screeching and aggressive snarling.

The horrid noise was coming from a pack of raccoons. They were moving through a clearing from one grove of trees to another. I could see them nipping at each other and it instantly came to my mind that they were hungry.

Remembering the dog food, I stood up and brought it out of my bag. Somehow the raccoons were aware of my intentions, and immediately ceased their terrible racket. They approached our group quickly but cautiously, creeping along through the grass in that weird light the moon gives off deep in the forest.

I stood up and started throwing out handfuls of dog food pellets. The raccoons surrounded me, snuffling in the deep grass and making satisfied crunching noises. One of my friends took a handful, knelt down and held out his hand. A raccoon approached slowly, and finally placed a paw on his open hand. With the other paw, he took pellets, one by one, and ate in a dignified manner.

Eventually, my dog food bag was empty, and the crunching ceased. The raccoons started to peacefully disperse, and I turned toward my beer. After a sip or two, I suddenly felt something behind me. It was a sudden, sure feeling and I turned around without thinking.

Behind me was one of the larger raccoons, and for some reason I knew it was the matriarch. She sat alone on the grass, her companions having retreated into the forest. Our eyes met for a long moment and again a strange knowing came over me and it was if I could hear a clear “Thank You” from her. She then turned away and retreated back into the woods.

A few weeks later, we were in the same place on a similar night. I felt the same feeling from behind, and turned again. There in the grass was the same big female raccoon, looking up at me with those expressive eyes of hers. I had brought nothing but beer this time, and I felt badly about it.

“I’m sorry” I said, making an empty hand gesture.

She walked off alone into the woods. I never saw her again.

Penniless in Korea

Sometimes I briefly succumb to the urge to wonder just what the hell I think I’m doing.

This morning is one of those in which I am encumbered with feelings of doubt. It’s a grey, cloudy, cold day outside, and the bullhorn vendors have taken on a somewhat hostile tone, sounding like they are spewing out guttural, totalitarian propaganda even though they are just talking about vegetables. Buying a coffee this morning, I am astonished by the dwindling stack of Won in my wallet. Perhaps now is a good time to review my motivations for travelling.

I believe that in life, to merely collect things, objects, is falling into a sinister trap of materialism, and from that barren soil the spirit has a difficult time in flourishing to it’s natural end. I’ve always in life felt a sort of wild exultation after meeting and overcoming – or even failing at a challenge. As long as I’m in a new, different situation, far away from the ennui of the daily western routine, I get a sense as if I’m moving forward spiritually.

It seems to me that the focus of our lives should then be to collect experience, as if they were objects of great value. I know for a fact that after we die, we can not take our wealth, plasma televisions and clothing with us, but I have the sneaking suspicion that our soul is inseparable from our experience.

In a way I believe we must take pleasure from our doubts, fears and pains, as they are required points of growth for our spirits. Indeed, if everything were easy and there were no challenges, failures or disasters in life I doubt growth of the soul would be possible.

Perhaps it’s a universal confirmation to the thoughts I’m trying to express right now, but I just received a call from Mr Han, and he is quite insistent on my writing some textbooks for him, and would like me to start immediately.

The bullhorn vendors are taking on a sudden sweet tone to my ears.