Transition Girl

Why transition girl?... Best answered by a quote from the Iliad....."The soul was not made to dwell in a thing; and when forced to it, there is no part of that soul but suffers violence."

Friday, July 14, 2006

notes from the korean peninsula

(Feb 06) I post this offering because it relates to travel to a place I would never have dreamed of travelling to as little as a year ago. And to add to the strangeness, I chose to travel there on the spur of the moment. I had taken many a spontaneous trip before but none ever so far a field. My most recent short break to Korea has certainly had less focus on extreme sports than my last overseas holiday although I did manage to venture into hostile territory.

...I stayed at a rather palatial residence which was very comfortable indeed. To say I had my own "wing" would not be far from the truth - an impressive suite with a bedroom about four times the size of my own place, separate dressing room and ensuite, with views over a small garden and parts of the city underneath Seoul Tower. Very nice indeed. To add flavour to the location, the residence is near many Hostess Bars on a street otherwise known as Hookers' Hill. There's a significant US Army presence in Korea so these bars are well frequented by military men and other international visitors seeking "comfort". Celebrious surrounds.

A highlight of my holiday was a day trip to the demilitarised zone (DMZ). The DMZ is a four kilometre wide stretch of land that runs the breadth of the country and separates North and South Korea. Spent some time in Panmunjeom village (55km north of Seoul) which, while US soldiers escorted us, was rather scary (this 'neutral' facility is located on the cease-fire line established at the end of the Korean War and where peace talks are still held to this day). There is nowhere where you can get so close to North Korean soldiers without being arrested or shot and the tension is palpable. I actually stood on North Korean soil during this visit. The village itself is the site for several chilling incidents that have occurred since 1953 including murders that almost led to another world war and the area has high wire barbed fences, landmines, anti-tank obstacles, and watchtowers.

As a precursor to my departure, I spoke of my "Operation Phoenix"…Here's the explanation of what the ranting was about. The DMZ itself, in the absence of any human contact, has become an incredible wildlife sanctuary - hence my coining the phrase "phoenix" which "rises from the ashes". Unfortunately a thick fog prevented viewing of this sanctuary on the day itself, but I did manage to see the odd pheasant that had braved crossing landmine infested hills to venture within sight of the south border. Not quite the "Alias style" covert operation implied by my pre-visit comments but visiting the sanctuary as a wildlife enthusiast was interesting.

To round out the exposure to North Korean issues during my stay, I also watched a documentary called "A State of Mind" about two gymnasts at the "Mass Games". While my viewing was distracted by messy long blonde locks of a tanned French dude sitting in front of me (oui oui), I found the film very thought-provoking - it left me wondering whether a lack of free will is truly de‑humanising. The circumstances in North Korea are sheer madness.

The rest of my time was spent shopping in a plethora of markets that filled the city alleys of Seoul (finding accessory heaven there) and a 14 storey department store, eating copious amounts of Korean food, and touring key sites such as Gyeongokgung Palace and the Korean War Memorial.

Cultural highlights of the trip were:
(1) "Polite" society - without a doubt, Koreans are generous in their willingness to assist even when language is a barrier. I was overwhelmed by the unsolicited offers of assistance when it looked like I didn't quite know what I was doing (which was a lot of the time). The first Korean word I learned was thank you.
(2) "Clean" society - I have never seen such a clean subway and clean city streets! Not a single scrap of rubbish or graffiti anywhere. The trains were so clean, they gleamed. Absolutely no chance of a bomb being left on one of these trains - it is a very safe city in which to travel. And the trains run on time (always). If cleanliness is next to godliness, the Koreans and God are joined at the hip. It was remarkable.
(3) "Blade-runner" society - cute toys, electronics, modern high-rises and giant video screens on city streets juxtaposed against monuments several hundred years old. The sort of place where videogame geeks are treated like rockstars! The voice-overs at the train stations were so melodic and soothing - the stuff for a good brainwashing. All very surreal.
(4) "Look at me" society - this self-consciousness came notably in two very different forms. First, the attention paid to looking good. I have never seen so many mirrors (including in subway stations) and people using them. Mirror, mirror, on the wall.... Second, protests are quite common (so much so that Riot police stand-by the ready in several parts of the city) but not just any sort of protest - Koreans are quite comfortable in optimizing being heard and seen through self-mutiliation (yes, chopping off fingers, setting themselves on fire and one person recently accidentally stabbed himself to death in a protest).
(5) "Healthy" society - talk about food for the soul. Korean food is delicious - tasty and nutritious and rather good value. One of the best meals I had (which included a seafood soup, BBQ pork strips, a large selection of side dishes, rice, and soju (Korean firewater!) was only 4000 won (about $7). My personal favourite was Hotteok (rice pancakes with cinnamon and honey paste). I didn't try any ppeondaegi (roasted silkworm larvae), which, along with squid jerky, is sold on many street corners. The latter is the equivalent of popcorn at the cinemas - I'd like to supersize my squid please. Also on offer was raw octopus - apparently you can feel the tentacle suckers in your throat as you swallow and some people have choked when the critters try to make their way back out in a desperate bid for freedom. Of the local beers I tried, Hite is an excellent lager and Cass beer is also rather good.

On a final note, despite excellent English signage, a decided lack of foreigners, and the best subway system on which I have ever traveled, not knowing the language did make it a little difficult as a destination. The Koreans treat foreigners as a bit of a novelty (as I discovered on a suburban train in Busan) but Australians are liked. The coach of the Korean soccer team that made the quarter finals in the last World Cup was an Australian and there is still goodwill flowing from that. I was treated very well when I explained I was "ho-ju" (my phonetic spelling of the word for Australian). I suggest, if you decide to travel to Korea, bring a selection of small trinkets (such as kangaroo pins) to give as gifts as you will get small gifts given to you (and it is polite to provide a small gift in return).

Saturday, July 08, 2006

notes from a south island

(Sept 05) My holiday notes of a trip I made to the south island of New Zealand in September 2005. I'll be disappointed if you read the following and don't believe I enjoy experiencing things that are sufficiently outside my comfort zone. In some ways, occasionally far enough outside to feel sick with fear.

The highlights of my trip were as follows:
(1) Learning to snowboard in “the Remarkables”. In case you are wondering, these mountains were so named as being one of only two true north-south mountain ranges (the other is in Chile). My instructor, Dustin, was a South African fellow who was well tanned and well jewelled (of the gold and diamond earring variety). I found his heavily accented instructions highly motivating (note that these instructions did NOT include phrases like “I will beat you with a big stick if you don’t get this right”). On the plus side, I was very quick to pick up technique and speed on my snowboard. On the minus side, I failed to master the art of stopping, which made for some spectacular stacks. Awesome.

(2) Interesting nightlife in a town that buzzed from 10pm each night. A personal favourite was viewing an entertaining bar “entrance” by some Christchurch footballers on their season end annual trip. Captain “star-striker” with vice captain “wingman” and the “goalie” strolled into “Surreal Bar” dressed in (op‑shop acquired) daggy tracksuits, mirrored sunglasses and headbands reminiscent of 1970s tennis players. They made a beeline for the dance floor where wingman proceeded to moon the crowd before they all carved up the floor with the hammiest of dance moves. The rest of the team (similarly attired) arrived shortly thereafter. The boys were a winner with the ladies although, being soccer players, some were more interested in touching up each other rather than the snow bunnies in the bar. As it turns out, there seemed to be a slight challenge for boys travelling to Queenstown. The boys in this town outnumbered the girls 3-to-1 and a fair chunk of the tourists were British lassies preferring to pick up party pills than partake in the sausage sizzle. The odds were shortened slightly as half the lads in town were spotty faced teenagers travelling in packs.

(3) Davey – a Scottish lad in his 11th month of a 12-month working visa (having travelled though Central America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand). Ohmygod! An automatic +2 on the talent rating scale for the thick accent. Sure, I struggled to understand half of what he said, but it sounded interesting. For anyone contemplating Scotland as part of their travels, apparently new years’ 200,000 plus crowd festivities outside of Edinburgh Castle are highly recommended particularly if you like being smashed and soaking wet at the same time (although he personally thought the 20,000 plus crowd in Glasgow was better for a much more intimate experience without the risk of cancellation if the weather was inclement). Scotland in the winter? Crowd festivities activity at somewhere like Carnivale in Brazil is far more appealing.

(4) A helicopter ride from Milford Sound back to Queenstown over the South Island mountain ranges. The pilot was a cowboy so the ride was fun because it was up and down and around these enormous mountains and included a landing atop a snowy peak some 4000 feet above the valley below. This trip went a hell of a long way towards helping me overcome my fear of “at height” snowdrifts.

(5) Doing tandem hang-gliding from 3700 feet. A truly amazing experience. Yes, I signed an insurance waiver. No, not every overseas trip I make involves a death wish on my part. I felt terrified, exhilarated and nauseous as I took off that mountain and time seemed to stop while I was in the air (it was about 20 minutes in real time). I was allowed to steer the hang-glider by myself about half way down. Scary (but not as much as I thought it might be). Spectacular views and a great way to wake up from any slumber. the picture at the start of this post is of that moment...