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Friday, August 26, 2011

Back in the Ghetto

It has been more than a decade since I first arrived in Seoul, South Korea, knowing absolutely nothing about the country, its politics, its history, culture, food or people. In the interim, I have spoken to experts in their fields here and people in the street; watched; observed; sometimes listened, sometimes ranted; communicated with yesterday's and tomorrow's leaders; and been honored to work in the South Korean media with many brilliant and inquisitive colleagues.

One constant throughout that voyage, as for most other foreigners in Daehanminguk, has been the suburb of Itaewon. I was introduced to the foreign ghetto within days of my arrival and have spent all of my Seoul-time living within walking distance of this most non-Korean of suburbs. I have also been frustrated and irritated by the many  Westerners who come to South Korea for a year or two and never venture beyond Itaewon's borders. You're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy, and there's a whole wide world beyond the comfort zone of English-style pubs, familiar food choices and reliving your campus days with people who understand your language.

By the time of this current return, I'd not resided in my former home for about six years. I'd visited semi-regularly for much of that time so still had my finger on Itaewon's pulse intermittently, but I hadn't been paying this crazy place the attention I did in earlier days.

Now I'm back. And, as with a family member who hasn't seen a child for a long time, I see the immense growth that those who helped closely nurture that growth barely notice.

I've spent the last few days working on a feature article on Itaewon for the Yonhap news agency, for which I have written for the past year and for which I will soon be a full-time copy-editor. As happens, the story turned out very differently than I expected when I pitched it, but it has been fascinating and fun throughout. In the process, I have gained a deeper appreciation of this unique area that I am fortunate to know as one of my homes. Its residents have become ever-more diverse and I love that when I venture out, I never know what I am going to find.

I love being back in my ghetto!  

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


When I was asked to sail the Indian Ocean, I made it clear to the skipper that I wasn't going to warm his bed.

He wasn't overly bright, so I accepted that I would need to say that more than once.

What I did not expect, was to be woken every day with the (tired) line, "I suppose a fuck is out of the question?" I got bored more than annoyed. But I loved the sailing.

Night watches in the Indian Ocean where the sea is total phosphorensce.

Trading cans of coke for lobster in Thailand.

Hanging with the Sultan of Oman's crew in the Seychelles.

Walking a friend home in Mombasa because she was scared, then realizing we were in the worst ghetto around, and refusing to give my buddy my knife, because I might need it.

Watching a young black friend race MTX in Seth Effrica.

The village in the Maldives, which I had to talk my way out of . . .

BUT, back to the yacht. I flew into Thailand expecting to be taught to sail. The Skipper didn't think I needed to learn that particular skill, because HE knew it already. And it was a boat that could be sailed single-handed, therefore I didn't need to know. (I spent many hours with other sailors in Thai beachside cafes planning how to lose The Skipper at sea, and learning what I needed to know to 'single-hand' the boat)

Fast-forward a few weeks, to Nai Harn and a yachting regatta. The Skipper, trying to impress, came into our mooring under sail (note to non-sailors, NOT a wise idea if you have the option of a motor). We had a free boom, and the line caught on another boat's cleat. There we were, swinging around on a collision course, and The Skipper yells at me to get the fenders.

I, having been a roadie in a previous life, look around for electric guitars. Not seeing any, I wonder if these big squishy things might be useful.

I jumped ship in Sri Lanka, and signed on with someone who let me sail.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Essays On America

I'm not big on plans.

That is probably because every plan I have ever made has evolved into a creature very different from the one I first conceived. AND . . . because the most miserable times in my life have been when I tried to follow the preconceived plan, rather than taking whatever the universe tossed my way and running with it.

So . . . not surprisingly . . . the "Great American Adventure" took its own path. Or road. Or interstate.

BUT . . .

The trip is still worthy of a book, even if it's not the book I first had in mind. I have hours of interviews to listen to, thousands of miles to recall, and many friends to thank. The result will probably surprise me as much as my readers.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Back in the ROK

Following the latest version of the Great American Adventure, the Kiwi is back in the Land of Not-Quite Right (aka The Land of the Morning Calm or the Republic of Korea).

After an initial aborted attempt at leaving America last Friday, caused by mechanical problems with one of United Airlines's scheduled flights and not helped any by the company's incompetence and complete disregard for its customers, I arrived back in a soggy, stifling, sweaty Seoul on Sunday night. (If my characterization of United seems harsh, read the note at end.)

I made my way to my old neighborhood of Kyungidan, just down from the Hyatt Hotel on the side of Namsan, and quickly settled into my new apartment with a friend of long-standing. I realized on arrival that it is the same building where a couple who have also been good friends for many years lives - not bad odds in a city of 10 million plus.

On Tuesday I made my way to meet my prospective employers at Yonhap News Agency - South Korea's national news agency - and was delighted to be officially offered an editing position. My visa paperwork should be processed soon, after which I need to take a quick international trip (yes, another) to have the visa issued and the plan is to start work August 22. I'm tossing up between Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Jakarta for the visa run as flight prices are all similar. Hong Kong is winning out thus far as it has good friends to have dinner with, great stores that stock even Vegemite, the Stanley Market and nearby beach AND a New Zealand store that serves hokey pokey ice cream.

While I wait, I've been trying to reset my body clock by +14 hours and trying to adjust from VA's heatwave to the monsoon heatwave in Seoul, where flash-floods caused loss of life and landslides this past week. I've also been getting accustomed to my new kitchen and enjoying cooking in my own place. After eight months of being a guest in other people's homes, five months in Aotearoa and three in the U.S., it's wonderful to have my own space again. I am humbly grateful to all my hosts (thanks to come, both here and in other ways) but being a guest for such a long period was at times almost as tiring as the 6,000 miles I covered on the motorcycle.

Now it's time to start work again, not just at Yonhap but on my own writing (see next post) and back at the volunteer job I held and loved when last living in Seoul. I should find enough to keep me from getting bored in this dynamic, vibrant and often mixed-up place. It's time to enjoy another of my many homes.

NOTE ON UNITED: After confirming my flight the day before, I arrived at Norfolk International Airport two hours prior to departure on July 29 (0730) to find a long queue at the United check-in and only two staff on duty. One of the two appeared to be a trainee as she had to ask the other for help on almost every task. My flight, to Washington, Dulles, was canceled because of "mechanical problems" and there seemed to be trouble with a flight going to Chicago also, as many of those in line were complaining about the excessive wait they had to be assigned seats and checked in. Once checked in, many still had to wait for up to 30 minutes as the staff member was unable to print luggage labels so they could check their bags with security. This included a family with three young children, who were repeatedly asked how many tags they needed without actually been given them.

I noticed a gentleman near the front of the line when I arrived whom I saw again two hours later near the back of the line again. At this stage there was only one staff member at the counters and she advised those waiting that it was going to take her some time to process them and they could dial 1800-United for assistance instead. The gentleman replied that he had done so earlier and an agent had rebooked him on another carrier but when he went to check-in there, he had been told he had to return to the United counter. Shortly before I left the airport he made it to the counter again, where he was told that although the agent had booked him on the flight, a seat reservation had not been made.

I was initially told there was no alternative service available to me for at least the next two days. I explained that my US visa was about to expire and that I needed to be back in Korea for an important appointment and I was happy to take any routing on any carrier. After more than two hours, I was rebooked via a different routing and with my final two legs of the trip on a different carrier. I was offered a hotel room overnight but told it would not be available until after 3 p.m. I declined, having wonderful friends/family less than five minutes away, and was given a $10 meal voucher as compensation for the inconvenience. NOT redeemable for alcohol, which is what seemed most needed at the time. (I kept the voucher as a souvenir and a reminder to myself to avoid United Airlines whenever possible.)

The staff were pleasant and tried to be helpful BUT there were not enough of them rostered on to deal with the number of people and from my own experience and those of other disgruntled passengers in the queue, they were poorly trained. The company mindset, rather than being of trying to deliver a service well and gain customer loyalty, seemed to be that of "buyer-beware."

On returning to my friends' home on July 29, I e-mailed the United customer relations desk with the above concerns and some questions about their handling of the situations and their apparent lack of concern for any inconvenience caused by them.  I have still not received a reply, but will be happy to post it here if I ever do.