Sunday, August 15, 2010

Spontaneous Mongolia

Nothing like watching your taxi driver in the rearview mirror as he dozes off. Just as I’m about to yelp or poke him on the shoulder, his head jerks up and he steers us away from the ditch between the road and the pale green hills of Bogd Khan Uul National Park, Mongolia. I divide my time between keeping my eye on him and on the yurt, horse, cow and goat-scattered hills and shadowed valleys. My original plan was to hike from Manzushir Monastery, on the south side of the park, over the mountains where I’d camp one night, back north to Ulaanbaatar, the City of Chipped Paint and Cracked Concrete. I’ve been getting the ‘here’s-a-foolhardy-woman’ looks for at least twenty years, but the looks I got in Mongolia from the few folks to whom I revealed my plan seemed to have an element of ‘and she shall not be seen again’ to them. Furthermore, there were no trail maps of Bogd Khan Uul, the world’s oldest national park. I revised my plan. I would take a taxi to the monastery early in the morning, and hike across the park in one day. According to what I’d read, the hike would take about ten hours. According to more I read, the trail was easy to find, and was used frequently. I had a topo map of the area, and a compass, and all the info I’d found about the trail.
Rip van Taxi Driver drops me off at the monastery around 7:30am. Other than one shirtless man carrying a bucket across a field to his yurt, there’s not a soul around. The monastery stands on a hillside beneath a rock outcropping, close to a pine-and-larch-filled ravine, above a few yurts still in morning shadow. The taxi driver putters away. I walk up to the monastery, accompanied by ratcheting grasshoppers and a few flies, loud in the otherwise still and silent air. Silence. Wide-open space. Here it is, here I am. What ten months of living in South Korea, population density 1,300 people per square mile, had driven me to find. Only I wish there were someone to point out the trail….
I read my directions, look at my map. I’m not an idiot; this shouldn’t be difficult. I find a trail, and another trail. Both peter out. I start over. Where’s the stream? I see a streambed but no stream. Close enough? This trail isn’t very developed… shouldn’t there be markers or something? There’s horse poop, that’s a good sign, right? I find a stupa, draped in colorful fabrics, on a ridge, and am encouraged. I feel certain I’m not on the correct trail, but, checking the map and my compass frequently, am just as certain I’ll connect with the trail soon. An hour and a half later the trail ends on a ridge top. I look down and see, maybe 500 feet directly below, Manzushir Monastery. I have gone nowhere. Now I’m concerned, and more than a little frustrated. No people have arrived at the monastery to hike the supposedly popular trail, and the time frame for my hike is narrowing significantly. I’m quite literally in the middle of nowhere, which I have to say is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and not a soul knows where I am, other than the taxi driver, who’s probably unconscious in a ditch somewhere. I accept the fact that I’m not going to be able to hike across the park. But then I amend that plan. I will hike on the road back to Ulaanbaatar. It’s about 20 miles, I’m guessing, back to the main road, where I’ll be able to hop on a bus. I’m happy with this plan. It’s a gorgeous day. I sit on a rock and sketch in my journal, banishing frustration, making myself aware of where I am at this very moment.
Two hours later I’m walking contentedly along the road, having stocked up on water in the one small village between the monastery and Ulaanbaatar. I’d stopped by a group of men talking by the side of the road before I left the village. I said hello in Mongolian (sehn bannoh!) and asked one of them if he spoke English. “No,” he said. “Do you speak Russian?” Nope. I pointed to my map and he confirmed that I was headed in the right direction; there were a few small roads leading out of town and, not having foreseen this scenario, I hadn’t paid much attention to them when coming through this morning. “Bayar shlyaya!” I thanked him as I walked away. “I love you!” he said.
It’s warm out, and I can already feel the tan lines being seared onto my shoulders. I take pictures of hills, valleys, birds, yurts, cows, horses, and goats. A car stops beside me, and a man in full cammo, maybe in his 50s, missing a couple of teeth, rolls down his tinted passenger window. He expresses obvious concern for what he considers my plight, and gestures that I get in the car. I appreciate his concern, but decline, smiling, giving him the thumbs-up and thanking him. He persists with distress. I continue to amiably decline. He continues to implore. I begin to weaken. What dawns on me is that I’ve got a long stretch of pavement ahead of me. Yes, the pavement is surrounded by soul-soothing scenery, but on paper I’m just walking for a long time up the street to a city for which I feel no affection. In the thirty or so seconds I’ve been haggling with the guy, I’ve gotten no bad vibes. And, I have to admit, the double-failure of my hiking plans made me crave a worthy consolation prize, intrigue-wise. I get in the car.
He talks to me excitedly in Mongolian, and twice stops the car in what I come to learn is his habit when he is paying attention to something other than the road. Perhaps my taxi driver could learn from him. He seems eager to communicate something, something which involves his pointing to the west, off the road. I get my map out, and he points to a place in the hills, then touches one of my stubby ponytails, then indicates large breasts, then indicates whoosh! to Ulaanbaatar. Um. His face is so helpful, and it seems so important for him to communicate his plans with me, that I decide he isn’t taking me to some yurt where I’ll be a sex slave for only a short time before whoosh! to Ulaanbaatar. I shrug and am along for the ride. He points to his name, embroidered on a patch on the breast of his shirt. Bat Erlene. I tell him my name, and pull my list of Mongolian phrases out of my bag. He stops the car so he can look at it. He points to ‘where are you from?’ and I tell him USA. I ask him the same thing; he’s from the village we just left. As we bump and jolt over the dirt road, he tries to communicate more, pointing to himself, saying ‘military!’ and then listing many countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq. He pulls some South African money, obviously an important souvenir to him, from his front pocket and shows it to me. A little while later he stops again, to once again tell me something important. This involves the large breast gesture again, as well as one of giving himself a shot in the arm, pretending to sleep, and what sounded like the word ‘hospital.’ I look around us. Green and yellow treeless hills, our single dirt-and-rock road disappearing over one hill and reappearing on the next. Hospital? What can I do? What can I say? I can shrug and smile and say OK, which is what I do. He starts the car up again and we bump along. He takes a bottle of cologne from the console and squirts it into the fabric of the ceiling of the car.
Over another hill and there’s a one-story, U-shaped building, white and green, surrounded by a low fence and a couple of folks squatting in the shade. Bat Erlene drives around the fence and right to the front of the building. A few people come out, only mildly surprised to see me. They smile, and one man shakes my hand. A woman with large breasts, nicely dressed and made-up, is wheeled out in a wheelchair. She is cheerful and friendly, and speaks a couple of words of English. Bat Erlene and the handshaking man load her into the passenger seat. I help him load the wheelchair into the trunk. A woman about my age gets into the back, and a younger woman gestures that I get in the middle, so I do. She gets in beside me, and we’re off. The rest of the trip involves Bat Erlene enthusiastically narrating to the women, who laugh continuously and smile at me often, as I bounce along between them and grin.
An hour later we’re in Ulaanbaatar, supposedly one of the more dangerous cities in the world. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but I have my doubts, now, about the prevalence of danger in the time-worn hills of Mongolia. Naiveté, foolhardiness, trust in humanity, or a combination of all the above—I’m glad for whatever it is that got me into Bat Erlene’s car for a bumpy trip across the world’s oldest national park and a couple of hours shoulder to shoulder with people who showed me kindness—a human inclination as soul-soothing as the land.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Kitty Kitty Limbo

I am required to attend the weekly teachers’ meetings on Monday afternoons. The meeting starts when a woman stands up and speaks briefly, and then everyone stands up, looks at the Korean flag at the front of the room, smacks their hands on their hearts, and sits back down. After that, people proceed to speak in turns. I mostly just watch their mouths make sounds, wondering where precisely in the room between their mouths and my ears the meaning of those sounds dissolves. Sometimes I write down what it sounds like they’re saying. At a recent meeting, the Vice Principal stepped to the front of the room with a prepared rant. When he was not gesticulating, his hands gripped the sides of the podium. His speech was long and emphatic. “Kitty kitty limbo!” he shouted at one point, irate. “Cheeba wise hair?!” He leaned forward, knuckles white, forehead glistening, and cast his appalled eyes around the room. No one answered. The teachers all looked at the stapled pieces of paper in their hands. Long seconds passed. “Bang shuttle tampon,” the Vice Principal said quietly, in a tone that sounded to me exactly like “that’s what I thought.”
Afterwards, the Principal, a much gentler and softer-spoken man, swept his arm back and forth repeatedly, speaking of a princess who could yodel. He threw an imaginary something over his shoulder and cheerfully asked us not to chew the yellow book.

But what about the war? Here’s the latest (buried deep in the site) from “South Korea's defense ministry will show wreckage of a sunken ship to a group of Twitter users in an effort to dispel doubts among young skeptics about its investigation blaming North Korea for attacking the vessel….” Twitter. Huh. The article continued, “Twenty users of the microblogging site will have a chance to review the evidence Friday after applying through the defense ministry's Twitter page.…” Last week North Korea threatened “all-out-war” if provoked. I wonder if tweets are considered provocation. Koreans have to maneuver, it seems, as if they’re living in the eye of a hurricane. Any significant movement one way or another would have them out of the eerie calm and into certain destruction. And eerie it is, when the rhetoric from the north consists of phrases like “There is no need to show any mercy or patience for such confrontation maniacs, sycophants and traitors and wicked warmongers as the Lee Myung Bak group [whose] call for "resolute measure" is as foolish and ridiculous a suicidal act as jumping into fire with faggots on its back." Provocation, hurled insults, name-calling, and then silence. Maybe I didn’t misunderstand the Vice Principal’s words. Maybe this IS “kitty kitty limbo.”

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Strawberries For Sale and Exploding Brains

Thursday the soldiers and their tent were gone, as were the sandbags piled on the pedestrian walkway to the school (on the north side only, of course), though traces of spilled sand left the walkway looking more like a beach boardwalk. Also gone, at least from the home pages of CNN and BBC, were any articles about the ongoing name-calling and fist-shaking here on the peninsula. I often feel that I’m living on the set of someone else’s reality show, or am an unwitting actress in a foreign film with no subtitles. The constant fog of this life is both visual and audible. For whatever reason, the sky is perpetually hazy here, as if we’re in a dome someone clapped over a smoker-friendly AA meeting. Recently, on a very rare clear day when the sky was a cerulean backdrop to the leaves and azaleas instead of a yellowish-grey one, I found myself squinting, as if my eyeballs would shatter with the intensity of color. It’s the same with what I can hear. As rare as clear days are moments when I understand what people are saying around me. I went to a Mexican restaurant in Seoul several weeks ago and sat next to a table of Americans. Just as I squinted at the colors, I winced at the sounds, which were so intrusive to my ears, used to the white noise of incomprehensible Korean. How distracting to understand overheard conversations! I wonder if, when I go home and can see for miles and understand what everyone says, my brain will explode.
As I type, right now, there is a male voice shouting urgently on a loudspeaker from a moving vehicle, and already he’s out of hearing range. I’ve seen little blue pickup trucks cruise slowly through town with loudspeakers blaring, and what they’re shouting about is obviously the strawberries, or melons, or apples, they’re selling from the back of the truck. I’ll be blissfully ignorant on the day that those words become warnings and alarms about pending attack rather than descriptions of juiciness and sweetness. I wonder how I’ll know if we go to war. (“WE”??? What’s this “we” stuff, kemo sabe??)
But things seem to be settling down between the Koreas. Lee Myung-bak (the South Korean president) has what seems to be an unpopular aggressive attitude toward North Korea. The more I read and from the little I hear, South Koreans seem to view North Korea not as a hated foe, but as a wayward sibling, who maybe joined a motorcycle gang and robs gas stations and decapitates kittens. South Koreans, instead of hating that wayward sibling, seem to want him to come home and mend his ways and be forgiven. Maybe it’s about cultural solidarity, here in probably the most homogeneous culture in the world. Or maybe they just don’t want to irritate the wayward sibling, seeing that his motorcycle gang has over a million members, and they’re all armed and dangerous and led by the poster child for Weird and Whacked. But what do I know.
In other news, students were writing a sentence about what their best friends can and can’t do. My co-teacher for the class (there are four Korean co-teachers I work with) called me over to a desk, laughing. She said “I don’t remember the word! If we eat many things, we can (she made a gesture as if expelling something from her butt) put the gases into the air?” “Fart?!” I said. Yep. Apparently this student’s best friend can’t study but she can fart. I’m doing important work over here, people.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Soldiers and Vice Principals and Swimming Tigers

May 26, 2010 8:37am
Yesterday after my first class I glanced out the window and saw a helmeted soldier in green cammo walking across the dirt activities field of the school. At the southeast corner of the field, several more soldiers were erecting an army green tent. Two military vehicles sat beside the field. This on the day that the president of South Korea had severed ties with North Korea, or North Korea had severed ties with South Korea, or some antagonistic propaganda was flouted from one side of the peninsula to the other. I left my room for the school hallway, hoping to run across one of the few English-speaking teachers who might tell me what was happening, but came back to my room as uninformed as I’d left it. Now, though, a new gym class had started on the field, and the PE teacher stood blowing his whistle rhythmically at kids who ran back and forth kicking soccer balls. Behind them more soldiers walked, guns slung over their shoulders. Did they even belong to the same dimension?
I’ve felt more intrigued than fearful over the escalation of hostilities between the North and South, though I live only about 30 miles from the DMZ and can hear with increasing frequency helicopters thrumming low over the hills. The attitude seems to be one of complacency among the Koreans and expats I work and communicate with. Just more blusters and threats and chest-pounding and territory-marking; another day in the life in a country where, technically, the war never ended.
But my intrigue led me once again to the hallway, and into the main teachers’ office, where I found one of the English teachers at her computer. I asked her about the soldiers in the field, whom she hadn’t even noticed. She suggested we ask the Vice Principal, who sat at his desk by the window. The Vice Principal is the most emphatic and emotional person I’ve seen here, and I am consistently fascinated by his facial expressions, gesticulations, wild-eyed shouts and indignant questions. I have no idea what he’s saying, ever. He’s the kind of man whose jacket sleeves are too long on his suit, who wears a large gold ring with a green stone, and often has some sort of glittery decoration on his ties. When angry or thoughtful, he draws his chin into his neck. His hair always looks like it’s been through a tornado. I have learned from other teachers that the Vice Principal is obstinate, demanding, unreasonable, chauvinistic and sometimes unkind. But to me he always smiles and waves, and often attempts a greeting in English, just as I bow and wave to him and slaughter a Korean phrase or two to try and impress him. I’m almost as intrigued by him as I am by the conflict escalating around me.
The English teacher, who speaks English haltingly, incorrectly, and cheerfully, peered out the window by the Vice Principal’s desk and asked him something in Korean, then indicated me. The Vice Principal smiled and proceeded to speak at first in normal tones, but as he warmed up (he has been told that I thoroughly enjoy watching and listening to him talk) he began to rumble and emphasize and wave his hand around and nod his head, much to my pleasure. He spoke directly to me, while the English teacher stood nearby and smiled and nodded. I also smiled and nodded; we were as cheerful a bunch as if we were discussing yard gnomes at a garden party. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand what the Vice Principal was saying, and the English teacher seemed to realize that, since she made no effort to translate. Finally, the Vice Principal pointed skyward, made emphatic helicopter sounds and plucking motions, and with a final round of grins, nods, and bows, I left the office completely reassured.
The rest of the day I taught students ‘can’ and ‘can’t’. I played a video of trained tigers. The tigers can swim. The tigers can jump. Can the tigers play computer games? The tigers can’t play computer games. Can they drive a car? No, they can’t drive a car.
This morning dawned the clearest cloudy day I’ve seen. The air feels scrubbed, and while clouds cling to the low hilltops, they’re separated by bright blue patches, free of the usual filter of haziness. The sun shatters the leaves into sequins of yellow and green, and the breeze makes them shimmer. The tent in the school activities field is still there, draped in camouflage netting, as unobtrusive as a duck blind on a dance floor. One of the English teachers has two sons in the military, and, I’m told, wept on her drive here from Seoul this morning, in heavy convoy traffic full of young Korean men headed north. But the bell rings, and while mothers are weeping and dictators are threatening and vice principals in glittery ties are gesticulating, the students must be taught what is possible and what isn’t, for the tigers and other creatures of the world.
It’s lunchtime and the air is vibrating with helicopter sounds, as it has been all morning. During my first class, as I leaned over a desk to show a student where to write “She wants a big house with a garden. She is interested in gardening.” I saw, just outside the window, two soldiers with guns crouched behind a pile of construction materials. Workers are building an addition to the school, and cranes and cement trucks, loads of wood and scaffolding material have been part of the school scenery for a couple of months, now. I could see that the tips of the guns had orange plastic; they weren’t real. It was only a practice drill, and the Korean English teacher was visibly irritated with me for pointing them out. Before my next class started, five or six girls clustered around my desk, practicing small English phrases and giggling. I asked them if they were afraid about North Korea, thinking they were probably otherwise emotionally occupied as any 13-year-olds would be. But, surprisingly, they reacted. Kim Jong-il, he is crazy man! Her—her! (one of them pointed out a girl sitting at a nearby desk) Her cried last night! Very scary! Teacher! Teacher! (one of them open-handed smacked the USA map I have on the wall behind my desk with urgency) Go home! Too dangerous! I walk outside with my camera after class and zoom in on the two soldiers standing at the entrance of the school. Because I’m far away, and because they’re in shadow, I can’t tell if the tips of their guns are orange or black.

Blame and Repercussions and Your Favorite Sport

May 20, 2010
It’s an interesting time to live 30 miles from the DMZ. A two or three-hour bike ride would find me staring down the collected barrels of the world’s 4th largest standing army, headed by a deified dictator who is something like a paranoid 13-year-old Saddam Hussein in a Muppet costume. Today is a more-than-typically hazy and warm one. Newly-sprouted leaves and fading azaleas fidget in the breeze and filtered sunlight. Half an hour ago the results of a report by an international panel were released, blaming North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean ship on March 26th. Forty-six soldiers were lost or killed.
I live northeast of Seoul, in a valley considered rural though clusters of 30-storey high-rises dominate the view in every direction. A river runs through town, home to herons, egrets, broken umbrellas, rubber sandals and plastic bags. South Korea has the 22nd-highest population density in the world (USA comes in at 178th) so land is at a premium. With hardly enough space for the living, the dead have been relegated to the steep hillsides, beneath meticulously landscaped cemeteries they’re quite unable to appreciate. My apartment is a 20-minute walk from the school where I teach 800 uniform-clad middle-schoolers a week to repeat after me, that “Jaemin’s favorite sport is basketball. He plays it three times a week. Sujin can play piano. Sujin can’t play the violin” and so on. Once the soul-shatteringly cold winter ended, I explored some back alleys and paths in my neighborhood and found a trail along the ridgeline which I could use as a scenic route to school, adding only 25 more minutes to the walk. The trail climbs immediately up through the low terraces of a cemetery. Shiny black granite blocks stand next to weathered marble statues like mournful kings, and grass-covered burial mounds separate small monoliths on the backs of fierce-looking turtles. Gaudy plastic flowers stick out of small granite vases, and, in the beginning of this month, faded in comparison with the forsythia and azaleas bursting like carnival spirits from the ground.
Five minutes from my apartment, in the woods behind the cemetery, is a concrete bunker; an underground tunnel with a weed-choked entrance and a spiderweb-choked interior. A friend and I crouched through the entrance one cold night after a heavy, wet snow. With soju on our breaths and headlamps on our heads we entered the tunnel. About fifty feet long and three feet wide, the tunnel ended in a small square area with windows cut in the concrete at ground-level. War would be fought from insect-eye-view. Facing north, of course. There are, that I’ve seen, at least three of these bunkers within fifteen minutes of my apartment. The 75th infantry is about a mile away, and when I hike up Cheolmasan I can sometimes hear drilling and firing practice echoing up from the valley. There are often cammo-clad soldiers at the bus stop and payphones outside my building. They look hardly any older than my middle-school students. Jaemin can run. Jaemin can shoot. Jaemin can fight.
North Korea has emphatically denied any responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan, and has threatened “all out war” if punished. I’m not sure what this means exactly, but today the students passed notes and doodled on their textbooks and dozed and repeated after me just as they always do. One of the Korean teachers seems worried, because her two sons are currently serving their compulsory two years in the military. The others seem slightly worried, but in a back-of-their-minds, other-things-are-more-important (like conferences with parents, grading, discipline issues) kind of way. A lot of people seem to be brushing this aside as another instance of strutting and blustering which will fade as surely as the bright pinks and purples of the azaleas are doing. I’m not scared or worried; in fact I’m going camping tomorrow on Cheolmasan, from where I can see Kim Jong Il’s mountains. I’ll take my cues from the people around me, though without a shared language that might be difficult. For now it’s just another interesting moment in a country with many such interesting moments.