Seoul, July 2006

So it said in the brochure that i'd be living in the 'Paris End of Seoul'? Yeh... well, s'bout as Paris as my arse is black.

We live in what I've affectionately come to call the 'arse-crack' of Seoul. In an old part of town, in a valley. When it rains and it's usually raining, a lot, everything floods and there are no footpaths to speak of (or rather walk on), so you just have to kinda slide around and hope not to get flattened by one of their apparently-blind bus drivers. We are, admittedly, right underneath a beautiful mountain, which you can climb up on clear days, and look out over a view of a city which spreads out in all directions around a huge, looping river. The city itself is not highrise and forms in clusters around hundreds of small mountains, which are covered in low lying forest growth. Seoulites love to climb these mountains (they're not, like real mountains, just little ones) all dressed up in fancy-schmancy conquering-Mt.Everest-type climbing gear to enjoy the 'fresh air' and have a laugh at sloppily dressed westerners like we're the ones making a show of it.

They really do like to stare, do Koreans. It's kinda disconcerting. Like, they see a lot of us foreign-types on television and the movies and just, y'know, around the place, but it's not unusual to be stared at like you're some kind of apparition, like they've seen something like you on a screen and everything, but can't really believe that you ACTUALLY EXIST. and walk and talk and order food (let alone eat) and stuff. it's not unusual to be, for instance, scratching yer nose and minding yer own damn business at the bus stop, completely oblivious, only to glance around and bust some kid taking a photo of you with their goddamn cell phone. i've been eating in restaurants and had people doing a 'drive-by' with a camera to get a shot - y'know, undercover detective style, only they're not exactly discreet about it. This kind of thing gets annoying after a while.

Koreans have an almost symbiotic relationship with their cell phones - and in particular the camera function. they are constantly, con-stant-ly checking themselves out on their phones by taking photos of themselves, using it like a digital mirror. Seoul is a city of mirrors and preeners. it transcends vanity, really, it borders on obsessive-compulsive. like they're checking to see that they're actually there or something. i'm sitting in a PC room right now and there's a girl behind me using some karaoke program, singing away to her own image singing back to her on screen.

Koreans are quite shy and embarrassed, often, to speak with westerners, even though most of them can speak at least some english, especially the under thirty demographic. but try asking a group of teenagers or twentysomethings the time and all you'll get is an hysterical chorus of ambiguous mirth that leaves you feeling culturally perplexed and slightly irritated. shy about communicating through speech, they may be, communicating through the universal language that is the dancefloor they are not. dancin right up on ya is a favourite passtime of the korean male and unsuspecting westerners, beware. there's nothing really threatening about it, though it can get kinda disorientating when you're completely surrounded and have lost all sense of direction and can't find home - i swear one night i was actually air-borne on the dancefloor and not, sadly, due to my own hot dance moves. they're not shy on buses, either, come to think of it. i got totally felt up by an old geezer on the bus coming back from the beach the other weekend. he must have been at least seventy and reeked of soju (korean spirit kinda like really rough vodka), but he wasn't averse to demonstrating his still virile grip on my upper thigh until i poltely told him to "fuck right off" and i think the universality of that message got home. soju is like the national drink and a favourite passtime of Korean males and considered highly impolite to pass over when offered, even though the stuff can only be consumed in straight, petrol-like shots. it's completely acceptable for middle to elderly aged men to roll around at any time of the day or night completely and utterly stinking drunk on it as its consumption is considered a cultural activity. they talk to themselves on the subway and vomit all over the ground. like, not in garbage bins, because for some inexplicable reason there are none and i'm not kidding i mean none, just on the ground. blowing your nose on the bus is considered the height of rudeness, but hoiking up great gobs of mucus and spitting and vomiting wherever you stand is totally fine. Like, don't ask me.

i don't really know why, i've spent a lot of time discussing it with other foreigners here, there's like twelve million people in this city, but Seoul doesn't really have much of a big city feel about it. i kinda feel its got something to do with the homogeneity of it's population. y'know, you really don't see much physiological variation and even in terms of dressing, it's a conservative town and there's limited variation in the way people model their styles - it's all pretty much formula driven, if you know what i mean. another theory is the difference in the western uptown/downtown city model - with its associated and distinctive cultural districts (business district, cultural districts, etc) clearly defined and segregated from one another, as opposed to the asian 'blended city model', which is more 'island' like in structure - lots of small, satellite districts with no centre, as such.. i've seen quite a lot of Seoul now, and in a lot of ways, it's much of a muchness. The southern part of the city (south of the river), is different from the northern in that it's more affluent down there, the streets and buildings are cleaner, the cars are more expensive. but the shops are all the same, the food is all the same, it's hard to find much beyond the material factors that really define this city. I'm finding this a bit, well, soulless, i guess.

Summer and the typhoons are on their way now. most of the city leaves for vacations august through September, to escape the crushing humidity. I hope your part of the world, wherever you are, is treating you nice. And just remember, if you're somewhere you can drink a decent Gin and Tonic, then think of me, because thee are truly blessed.

Keep your tan up. Loving you loving me, Stephanie

Ran Away from a Monkey
Cambodia, October

- Tuk-tuk, lay-dee? - Where you goin', lay-dee? - Where's your boyfriend, lay-dee? - Korea. - Canada? - Kor-Ree-Ah. - Ohhh... Canada good country. - I'm not Canadian. - Where you from, lay-dee? - Australia. - Oor-Straa-Lee-Ah! Goowd-Aye, Mayte!! - Gday, mate. - Where's your boyfriend, lay-dee? - ...

And so on, and so forth... Welcome to south-east Asia world. Angkor Wat, in the middle of Cambodia, temple country. I set off to see 'em yesterday, into the heart of darkness on my white bicycle - a spectacle found endlessly entertaining by the locals, who had themselves a marvelous time trying to drag me off on their motos… I just smiled and waved them along, tra-la-la, silly foreigner lady...

Crikey, Moses, dey got some big, ole stones up dere, mate. Big, old and, well, to be frank, kinda creepy. Impressive these ancient temples certainly are, but there is definitely a place of discomfort in me that finds the spectacle of tourists clambering about all over them slightly, erm…oh, what's that word?... Sacreligious. That's it. There are functioning contemporary temples within the ancient ruins and this too, their country's spirituality put on display as part of the tourist spectacle, sits ill with me. Nevertheless, clamber i did and awe inspired and humbled was i.

Leaving the main temple, Angkor Wat, through the gardens, I came across a group of kids hanging out, so i stopped to chat with them for a bit. These kids were about the same age as the ones i've been teaching in Korea, but man, have they learnt some different lessons from the English speakers of the world... they told me about being chased off by the police for hustling tourists and that business was slow these days and how far they'd come on their bicycles today to sell their bracelets and stuff and we all agreed that somebody needs to do something about some decent bike paths around these parts. They told me i was a beeeoowdifool laydee, except for my hair, which apparently was a 'bit funny' (crissakes kids, gimme a break, it's the humidity - oh! the horror, the horror...) So i bought a coupla bracelets off em and wished them good trade and left them be.

On me bike, headed off down the road into the jungle, to the other temples and stuff. It had been raining earlier in the afternoon and the clouds were still low and dark in the sky, all thundery and ominous over the jungle. I came down the road to a temple and parked the bike and headed in. It was a fair distance in to the shrine and not many other tourist folk about. I've already mentioned about my discomfort with traipsing about in such ancient, holy places. I'm not gonna labour this point, but i can tell you i was feeling positively tomb-raider-like in here. It was giving me the creeps. It was dark in there and these temples, however taken by the elements, feel real airless. And old, so… god… damn… old. And then there's the jungle all around, silent and still and just kinda... breathing. Anyways, you get the picture. I was basically giving myself the creeps and letting my imagination (accursed imagination! thief of sleep! begone!) get the better - fun to a point. So i get the hell outta this temple and head off down a long, deserted path through the breathing jungle to another gate, step through and... gotcha!! On the other side i am instantly surrounded by the most insistent, persistent hawkers i've ever faced. All ages; girls, boys, men, women. Outta nowhere, outta the jungle and they just keep coming. So i do an about face (it's all way too much after the dream-trance of the temple) and start back up the path. There's a man shuffling along a bit behind me, muttering... "...boyfriend, Lay-dee? You all alone in Kampuchea, Laydee?..." And it's a long way back to that temple and now my heart's really pounding and i just keep on going up that path to the distant, spooky temple, not looking back until i hear his footsteps stop and turn back. I get back into the temple and there are a few people about and i'm a bit shaky, but I'm okay.

I start to walk back through the interior, but i just cannot bear being in that dark, airless place any longer. So i head out the other side, to a periphery path. By now the call of the jungle is calling me and i've really gotta pee. So, and talk about sacriligious, i clamber up onto a fallen temple stone (there's absolutely no-one else around) and let mother nature flow. I turn my head and jesus christ if there isn't a goddamn monkey sitting there eyeballing me. Not doin nothin, just sitting, watching, a few feet away. But he's got these kinda reddish eyes and he's really not doing anything, just staring at my bare ass. Anyways, long story short - i bolted. And no, friends, i'm not proud of it. And the monkey, he was probably just thinkin... "Tuk-tuk, Lay-dee? Where's your boyfriend, Lay-dee?" But he had me spooked. I never thought there'd be a day i was glad to see another tourist, but that was the one.

So. Spat out by the temple was i. And that was all the pushing i needed, i set off in the rain, back up the road, for the long, slow ride home. Temples, check.

Fell in Love with a Cow
Cambodia, October

There are lots of animals, roaming around and stuff, in Cambodia. As you'd expect, I s'pose.

Rangy wild dogs, hundreds of em, with malevolent ill-intent in their eyes, roaming in packs at night, howling like wild things. The vociferous curs rousing dread in my already precarious slumber. Sleep has progressively become more and more of a tight-rope walk over the last months. A precarious and unstable balancing act i perform nightly. A tremor, a murmur in my consciousness and down i go, headlong into the insomniac dog-crawl to the first light of day...

Where was i? Animals. Dirty snorting pigs, scratchy pecking fowl, skinny mewling cats, vengeful friggin monkeys... And lots of lovely, gentle, white(ish) cows. Wandering about by the roadsides, chewing interminably, tended by tiny little kids with great big sticks. Did you know some cows are distinctly prettier than others? I never knew it. I was out on my bicycle (another trusty steed! or should i say rusty shitheap!) the other morning, perusing the town, when i happened to pass a few grazing beasts. One raised her head all absent minded and i looked upon as lovely a face as ever i've seen. I cruised back past again to take another look at her. And then again, now raising the suspicions of the ever-watchful locals (who would've thought a girl in a yellow dress on a bicycle - harmless! - could rouse so much suspicion in this tough country full of genocidally-prone geriatrics...). I eventually stopped the bike and came close to the herd, to take a better look at my beauteous bovine friend.

I'd like to take a moment here to tell you that once upon a time, my younger brother went on a field trip with my father and spent the entire trip taking photographs of the local bovine population... so maybe it's, like, y'know, a family thing, or something...

Anyways, the notion came upon me that i'd like to touch this beautiful cow. To commune with her, somehow. A couple of months alone will do funny things to a girl, sometimes. I've never touched a cow in my life. Truth be told, i'm terrified of animals bigger than myself. Only natural, really, i guess. So i stood there for a bit, heart pounding like a nervous schoolgirl, completely ignored by the masticating cows. I shuffled in a bit closer, and closer again, and a bit more, until i was at but an arm's length from my bovine beloved. I reached out and lightly, gingerly brushed her flank. She slowly swung her head up and blinked her lovely eye at me. I placed my hand on her neck and she gave a gentle low and went right on back to her grass. We communed. And it was only small, but it was a moment, and it was lovely. The two kids tending her were having a moment too - of utter bewilderment at me in my inappropriately colourful dress, messing about with their cows. I nodded politely to them and stepped back on the bike and pedalled away, calmed and at peace with this small part of the world i had found myself in on this one sunny morning.

Dreamt a Cockroach Spoke to Me.
Bangkok, November

Two things, just quickly. Firstly, i really cannot abide cockroaches. Creepy, unnaturally speedy little suckers. Second, sometimes my mind plays strange tricks on me...

So i'm out carousing one night, paying my respects and bidding my final farewells to beloved Bangkok. Inevitably, from somewhere, at some point, my would-be-suitor for the evening rears his great ugly mug.

"My name is Pharoahe (!). I am half Egyptian. The other half is Italian. You understand me? Let me ask you a question, lady, as your good friend. Why you are alone? Where is your boyfriend? Tell me, you are happy?"

Dear Lord, give me strength.

These dudes never really want answers to their insufferable questions. Hell no. They've got it all figured out already while they've been eyeballing you across the bar for the last half hour (while i've been studiously avoiding any eye-contact with them, but they just never seem to get the GODDAM HINT). And really, he's just over here to foist upon my reluctant ears his own tedious theories on my life. That's My life,Mister. (btw, Pharoahe?, was it?, that was three questions, not one...). Whatever. The usual cat-and-mouse baloney ensues, at some point I manage to tear myself away from his scintillating conversation and make a break for it. I think maybe after he started to expound for me upon the finer points of difference between Korean and Japanese prostitutes. Or maybe it's after he starts frothing at the mouth when he buys me a single white rose (tack- ee, Phar-oahe) and i lightly mention that for the Chinese, white is the colour of death... Who knows? Anyways, i'm outta here, buddy. See you later, alligator...

Back at my hotel, inexplicably very drunk.... I love my hotel. It's in a quiet part of a local neighborhood. Big cool dark rooms - all marble floors and dark wood panelling and seventies fixtures. Just my style. But we've been having a spot of roach trouble of late. And that's Mr. Roach to you, lady. I mean, these guys got some serious obesity problems with their bugs over here or something... I never saw such monstrous, beastly insects. Yikes.

Stumble out of drunken stupor, not entirely sure of whereabouts, blunder into bathroom. And there's Mr. Roach, waiting patiently in the corner for me. Sitting on the loo in the dark, trying to stay upright and at the same time catch the roach, he starts talking to me… "No, no, lady! Thailand not same as Vietnam. You pay only little bit for hotel, I stay too." "But this is Thailand." "Noooo, lady.... Vietnam." "Look, i might be a bit drunk, but i think i still know where-" "Lay-dee, I stay too." "This room ain't big enough for the both of us, buddy..." "Lady, watchu gonna do abou-" I thumped him into oblivion, of course. Like i said, i simply cannot abide cockroaches. Creepy, unnaturally chatty little suckers.