Tag Archives: Travel Writing

Bored in Korea? Read a book!

Slide1Teakettle Mountain, the story of one loser English teacher’s quest to not be a loser, has been re-released on amazon.com. Check out the story reviewers are calling “a joy to read”—available now for $2.99, less than a third the cost of a cup of coffee in our adoptive homeland!

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Brawling In Luang Prabang

So I have this thing about traveling where I don’t really make any definite plans because I want to be free to go where I please and strike where I please. It fits the pattern of most of the things I do, as I don’t plot out my novels until I finish the first draft and prefer meandering wanderlust and flânerie over the doldrums of fact-packed guided tours. I should add that I am just fucking awesome.

Anyway, when my wife and I went to Southeast Asia, we still had at least one pair of airline tickets we needed to buy, from Luang Prabang to Bangkok, where we would “catch” our flight back to Korea. The touristy places we were visiting all possessed travel agents in abundance, and since their prices are usually better than the ones you find on the internet (or are they?) we just decided to very harmlessly buy the tickets while we were on the move, which I’ve actually done many times before for buses, boats, airplanes, and god knows what else, without a hitch.

It is a truism to say that trouble often comes from irresponsibility, or just plain stupidity, and my pre-baby spending habits consist of spending without caring how much money I have, since I have a steady if ridiculously pointless job and all I really buy these days are tickets to faraway countries, food, and books. I had developed the very philosophical notion that constantly checking one’s bank account leads to unhappiness. On top of that, I was convinced of the ineffectiveness of my wife’s Korean bank card, which we had to use because my own American card (its valor proven in countless strange locales), was left by my own braindamaged self (along with all the contents of my hallowed wallet) in a Gyeongju taxi cab some months ago.

The Korean card I currently possess belongs to a provincial bank which is so limited in scope that you cannot use the card outside of Korea or on any non-Korean website (read that again to see how ridiculous it is), so I assumed that my wife’s card was more or less the same, even though it belongs to a different bank and has a golden VISA stamped on its beautiful plastic face. But we tried the card in a few places, notably the airport in Shanghai, with success, and it worked in all the ATMs, until…

We had been sitting around for an hour or two at a nondescript sort of open-air office called Grace Travel Service on the the beautiful main street, Sisavangvong Road, of an exquisite city in Laos called Luang Prabang, wrestling (figuratively) with the purchase of our airline tickets to Bangkok, when the unthinkable happened. The card was declined.

How embarrassing!

Because the guy helping us get our tickets took his sweet time with this assistance, and because nothing seemed to work at his office—there was no internet, so he had to run into a few different internet cafes to buy our tickets for us (this being another sentence you must read over twice)—I assumed that it was a problem with the technology in the office or a problem with the inability of Korean things to work outside of Korea. I was also tired of waiting around in the middle of the afternoon in a beautiful city with a feckless man in a feckless office, so this was the last straw that broke the camel-made-out-of-needles’ back.

I shook my head, said we were leaving, the feckless fellow said we had to pay him $25 (without giving a reason, so far as I can remember), I said no, we didn’t, and walked out to put my shoes on outside—or tried to, for the man had seized the camera wrapped around my chest and was blocking my escape with a pair of white eyes that were suddenly bulging with fury.

The office had no doors, just a huge opening of some kind that led out onto the street, so we were both suddenly in public, shouting at each other. He tried to convince me to return to my seat and continue bargaining with him, a rather strange proposition under the circumstances, and I demanded that he take his hands off me and begged my wife to call the police. We attracted a crowd in the yellow heat of the Lao afternoon; it was the first time I have ever been the center of attention for so many curious gawkers, something I did not expect as I did not think I was shouting that loudly (though I was) and actually threatened once or twice to go out into the street and denounce him to the tourists and Laos who were then walking about, pleasantly minding their own business.

I write ceaselessly about how often people stare at me here in Korea, it is one of my many own personal cliches, but that was a new one for me there in Luang Prabang, a different flavor of gawking, as it’s a strange thing to be surrounded by people who are staring at you with the same cattle-like expression of disturbed concern painted on every face, everyone sort of leaning in from stage left and stage right, with each person asking the same mental question and drawing the same mental conclusion—Should I get involved?—No!—Never!—Don’t get involved!—Just don’t!

One man with a vague European accent decided to. He tried to convince the Lao to let me go, but his tan-legged wife (whose face was masked with Jennifer Anniston’s), another ardent non-interventionist, dragged him out of sight, and then there we were again, with my pregnant wife growling everyday Korean swears (“fucking dog bastard”) at the Lao and the Lao laughingly replying with his own language’s insults, uttered in her direction with the most repulsive confidence you could imagine, chuckling with one hand on his hip and the other on my camera strap. Just a moment before he had tried to level with her, saying something about how calm and rational Koreans are, trying to turn her against me, both moves being so weird they were certainly inspired by a rather deranged intellect; this after he insulted America (a sarcastic “you’re so powerful”), which didn’t really bother so much as confuse me.

He had a very dark, and very not underfed, sort of face. He was probably not so strong either, but fighting me is probably not too different from fighting a person-sized soggy noodle.

As to his character, this is what I know: he mentioned to me earlier, when we were buddies, that his family worked on a farm somewhere, then tried touting some of the travel opportunities available to us in Laos, hidden under the guise of smalltalk, all while we were attempting to buy our tickets from him, and watching in agonized awareness of how one of the last days of our honeymoon was fading away as he slowly, very slowly, spelled our names out on a sheet of paper, and refused to allow me to write them for him. He also sort of followed me out when I went to go double check his prices with the Bangkok Airlines office just a few minutes before our brawl, and this odd behavior of his should have sounded an alarm or two, but didn’t. It was like watching a bad movie—we’d been there so long we didn’t have the moral strength to turn the thing off until it got so outrageously bad we had no other choice. Thankfully movies do not try to steal your camera when you do this.

I myself never called him any names, and didn’t insult him or his country, at least with any words (my actions speaking somewhat more loudly), and just kept repeating different variations of the same theme—let me go, I want to call the police, mixed in with vague threats about how he’d surely lose his job, etc. I’m honestly surprised by this, but I’ve never been in a public altercation with a complete stranger so I guess this is just how I roll.

When the guy’s manager finally got on the phone to do my bidding, that is, to call the police of an undeveloped country in Southeast Asia run by a communist dictatorship to mediate in a petty tussle with one of the natives, I suddenly remembered a book I’d seen back in Thailand—the title flashed in my mind, very literally—Nightmare in Laos: The True Story of a Woman Imprisoned in a Communist Gulag—and realized that it was probably not a good idea to get the authorities involved, since the police in Korea, anyway, are notorious among the foreigners here for siding with the natives in any disagreement. Therefore we should just cut our losses and “bribe” him with his $25, though somewhere in the argument we realized that he had bought the airline tickets with his own money, without telling us, and needed $25 to cancel them, a fee that was perhaps astronomical to a man who came from a family of Lao farmers. When we paid him he let me and my camera go.

Because he didn’t tell us he was buying the tickets, and didn’t say there would be a $25 fee if we decided to cancel them, we weren’t really obligated to pay him; but, under the circumstances, we were.

This “brawl” left us both feeling miserable for a few hours, and although we had a great honeymoon this event is, probably, unfortunately, going to be the first thing we both think about when we remember our adventures together in Indochina.

The brutal idiocy of all of this is that it had nothing to do with problems with a Korean credit card or Lao technology; both were probably fine. What wasn’t fine was the fact that we had spent all our money, or someone had stolen all of it from us, without our knowing it.

When we talked to the Korean bank there was a communication error of some kind and the woman there told us we’d spent three million won, or something like twenty-six hundred dollars, while we were flying from Shanghai to Bangkok; since I could not precisely recall purchasing anything at the time (I was dreaming of all the wonderful things that awaited us in Thailand and Laos), I thought the claim somewhat alarming and immediately suspected identity theft. My grandfather had just been defrauded of five thousand dollars after he believed a man who called him, claimed he was me, and said I needed bail money because I’d been imprisoned in the Dominican Republic on drug charges. They probably got the information on him after I lost my wallet to that taxi cab in Gyeongju, which is really where all these problems began.

Much stress ensued, but eventually we calmed down, borrowed some money from my sister in law, got the tickets, and enjoyed the beauty of Luang Prabang, which is such that I hope to return as soon as possible to make up for all the horrible things that happened there.

Later we discovered the bank’s communication error and learned, to our mutual embarrassment, that we’d simply spent all our money. BUMMER.

So, next time we make plans and check our bank account before we travel. The end.

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The Farther One Travels, The Less One Knows

As I took this a random guy walking past me shouted: "The Empire State!"

Surely I smirk as I write this, surely I’m rather pleased with myself to show off how much I’ve traveled around our little planet in my pathetically short life—10 countries in Europe and Asia, but please hold your applause until after this post is finished—so I was not a little offended when I first heard this song by the Beatles, from the “Past Masters” album—a song I’d never heard before, which came as a bit of a surprise since I spent several years of my juventude listening to the Beatles with my gray cd-playing walkman almost without ever taking the headphones off, even as I slept—though I am said to say that that divine walkman has long since vanished into the netherworld where all things go when we no longer have any use for them.

This particularly exquisite tune seems to tell us to stay home and stay in our rooms rather than travel abroad and explore the brave new world lain out for us like a second Cleopatra unrolled from a second Egyptian carpet—and what lunacy is that! what silliness! everyone knows that only ignorant savages never leave their homes! 촌놈 시골에! my hometown in Maine seethes with them like BB gun-toting cockroaches!

And I was parodied by little children as I took picture after picture on Sand Beach near my family's home on Mount Desert Island, Maine.

Regardless, the lyrics are taken from the Tao Te Ching (and oh if only it had been Lao Tsu and not Confucius whose philosophy was suffocating and driving to insanity the jagged green little half-peninsula of South Korea!, that Punchinello!, that demi-paradise!)—

Without going out of my door
I can know all things on earth
Without looking out of my window
I can know the ways of heaven

The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows

Arrive without traveling
See all without looking
Do all without doing

Who but a hick could believe such rubbish as this! And we all know how well-versed those Tea Partiers are in ancient Chinese philosophy; practically every third sentence out of Sarah Palin’s voluptuously inviting lips is a quote from Mencius!

A door in Tbilisi.

So I focused on the sounds more than the meanings, but the subtle, devilish ideas penetrated my soul, and I began to think about them a bit more. I can remember resting from the broiling Cambodian heat at one of the many spectacular temples outside of Angkor Wat, and watching with disdain a pack of Korean ajumma tourists fanning themselves and wearing the same stupid head visors as always and continuously babbling the same word to themselves—Hanguk! Hanguk! Hanguk! Korea! Korea! Korea!

(when I later complained about them to my mom, she told me that they could have been talking about how there is absolutely nothing in Korea that can hold even the most infinitesimal candle up to the mind-rocking ecstasy of Angkor Wat; this is indeed possible, but still)

Some friendly nomads in Southeastern Turkey.

A different group of Korean tourists was making a racket at one of the temples that Coppola may have shot for the end sequence of Apocalypse Now, photographing themselves with the nubile nymphet Apsaras and generally acting just as idiotic as they always do at home; and yet another trio of youths was riding an elephant up to the top of the only mountain in the area, uttering perhaps the most common phrase in Korea—Hana! Dool! Set! One! Two! Three!—photographing themselves on their enslaved mount. I am a hypocrite but I obviously despise people who ceaselessly photograph themselves.

(Needless to say, after they got off at the top, this same mount charged back down the path rather angrily, roaring and growling and blasting its trumpet loud enough to knock down the trees!—and, naturally, scaring the shit out of me, as I was in its way and hiking up the mountain on foot. Getting the shit scared out of you in such a primeval way is definitely a unique experience and I highly recommend it, only, make sure to bring a change of pants, socks, and underwear)

The Korean Apartmentopolis

The same people were to be found in Turkey, photographing themselves jumping up and down on the top of Mount Nemrut—the camera was quite fancy and mounted on a tripod, as the sun was setting (they planned ahead so they could post the pictures on Cyworld and make their friends back home sad and envious, according to my fiance). A different group preoccupied itself at Ephesus by walking around without even looking at the ruins and telling idiotic jokes in Korean that I actually partly understood—“Mom, somethingsomething please; Mom, something different please.” And I bash the Koreans here but it should be noted that Ephesus in particular and Angkor Wat as well was crawling with hordes of idiotic tourists from all over the world; one essentially ensures that one’s mind will be degraded when one joins a tour group and does not travel alone or with very small groups of friends.

The point of all these mildly racist anecdotes is to illustrate how we take our worlds with us wherever we go. Those Koreans, surrounded by themselves, took Korea with them wherever they went, and acted just as if they were on any number of the stupid theme park excursions available to them within the borders of their great nation, their precious stone set within the silver sea. I only saw them in passing and I always find myself despising Korean tourists with a peculiarly inappropriate intensity when I travel outside of my new home, but I suspect their minds were not enlightened in the slightest by their ventures abroad. All of the young ones were still sitting around in their hagwons, cracking jokes and talking over their teachers; the ajummas were still selling baskets of tofu out on the disgusting sidewalks of Busan, sheltered from the viciousness of the sun by the hastily-erected cardboard walls of refrigerator boxes.

In beautiful Duchess County, upstate New York.

(as for that last detail, I do not exaggerate, that unfortunate halmoni can be found hawking her fruits and jalapenos in the afternoons outside one of the tech stores on the main stretch of Sasang between the subway station and the Nakdong river; I pass her every day on the way home from work)

The song is partly about this. What’s inside is the same as what’s outside. Obviously, very obviously, we cannot expect to learn about the world, and to be inspired to joy by the myriad wonders of the world, if we are not ready and open-minded. For an American to go abroad and seek out pizza and hamburgers is absolutely the height of stupidity and ignorance; Koreans apparently travel with ramen noodles and bags of kimchi safely tucked away in their luggage so they don’t have to sully their tongues with inferior foreign cuisines—and the barbarism of this somewhat notorious cultural practice is so outrageous I want to throw open my window and scream until my throat bleeds. Lauren Hill asks “How you gonna win if you ain’t right within? How you gonna win if you ain’t right within?”—and no one else could say it better.

Maine's savage beauty.

I still disagree with my favorite Beatle, Mr. George Harrison, as well as the Tao Te Ching, but I see where they’re coming from. I spent a little under two months of 2010 living the nomad life, darting from place to place once every day or two, often sleeping in a different bed every night, and I have to say that such a life beats the sedentary civilized one by far, and that mankind as a whole is quite insane to have given up the freedom of movement for the stagnation of being sedentary, so I cannot surrender myself to sitting in my little apartment for the rest of my days and dwelling on the vast oceanic labyrinths surging beneath my consciousness—but the idea itself is welcome to join the senate of notions forever jockeying for attention within the little bony congress that is my skull.

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When Video Games Saved My Life

Hasankeyf Re-Redux

In the arid gorge there was such absolute silence I found myself thinking I was the only person alive in the world; diagonal cliffs and mountains slashed away from me in every direction, and so forceful was the heat and the light of the summer day that I could not hear the wind.

Tonight as I write these words in Korea, listening to Afrocubism in the cozy warmth of my one-room apartment, a Turkish rug on the floor, an electric guitar in the corner, a camera on the table, stacks of unread books on the fridge, with the pale green lights of forty-story high-rises flickering on and off like little televisions outside my window, and the dim roar of engines seeping in through the walls and the glass—as I sit here in the midst of my civilized life—the quiet and the stillness of that moment in Hasankeyf still overwhelms me.

Where I was alone.

The ancient city is built into and hollowed out of several massive soaring cliffs, which look like enormous beehives from a distance thanks to the thousands of caves that people made there over thousands of years—most of the last inhabitants moved out about five decades ago, but I still found a few places here and there that were locked from the inside, with beautiful red carpets hanging on the rock walls and lining the floor which I could see through a rounded window or two.

Then there were whole villages built on top of the cliffs, out of sight of the tourist town below, and all of them were built entirely out of the mountain rock—some of the richer manors had at least two stories and several large rooms, but all of them were deserted, so far as I could tell. At one point I was scared off by a ghost or a homeless person who, in the terrible silence, was making the sound of one stone grinding against another in the depths of an enormous stone palace, which indeed is quite terrifying when you are alone and imaginative in a strange ancient place. Many rooms and homes were still charred black from when the Mongols came and destroyed the city hundreds of years ago; on the other side of the planet, at around the same time, Korea was occupied by the same people, and Busan was probably used as a base for the Mongols’ failed attempts to conquer Japan.

The vast cliffsides on the river.

I had worked my way up to these abandoned clifftop villages, which even possessed a large ancient Seljuk-style mosque (its rectangular minaret differing significantly from the typical rounded Ottoman spears you see poking at the sky everywhere in Turkey) and a vast ruined graveyard with beautiful Arabic inscriptions on the smashed tombstones, by squeezing inside a little hole in the bottom of the cliff that I found just by wandering along the riverside; I climbed quite a long while up a long stone stairway and was periodically plunged into absolute blackness; all of the stone steps were solid and worn out of the rock, but in some places there were windows opening out onto a steep drop several hundred feet down to the hungry rocks and pebbles clacking about like fish in the rapids; sometimes the stairs were so close to these windows that I had to do some serious maneuvering to keep moving forward; these might be called ‘birdshit acrobatics’, as they involved scraping my bare hands in huge piles of stale, stinking, barnacle-y guano. I was able to wash my hands when I got back to the hotel, but my dignity remained tarnished forever. Still, to use the favored English phrase in Turkey, it was no problem.

The way to the top---and this is looking up.

Incidentally, at this hotel, which was the only hotel in Hasankeyf, I found myself arguing with a random Frenchman about who could have the only single room in the place to himself; he wanted it, I wanted it, but by some rare and very atypical luck, I had the key, and no force on Heaven or Earth, not even the three-pronged lightning bolt of God himself, was going to deprive me of it; the Frenchman’s really amazing English philippic was lost on the ears of my Turkish host, whose comprehension of the language was best illustrated after both of us simply walked away from the Frenchman in the middle of his endless and very intellectual exploration of why he deserved the room and not me—striding through the last sun of the evening, the Turk said of the Frenchman, “He is many problem”, sighing and shaking his head. That night, after so many vicissitudes, I slept alone.

Near where I got myself trapped with two pups.

Speaking of keys, the adventure with the dogs has already been enumerated, but I should say that, along with my two canine companions, I was locked inside the ancient city and really unable to escape; the vast half-medieval / half-steel gate was surrounded by scaffolding and steep death drops on all sides, and the lock seemed to require a key that I did not have; after much shouting toward the deserted road and town of stone beneath, and a brief encounter with a helpless but very pretty Istanbulite, I was resigned to spending the rest of the (still) very early morning locked in Hasankeyf, parched, dying of thirst, but I wasted much of my youth playing video games, and didn’t bore my way through countless Tomb Raider-style door puzzles for no reason; the time indeed came when video games saved my life; eventually I somehow figured out that there were some latches or levers you had to pull or push to open the door; I pulled them, or pushed them, I don’t remember; something clanked, screeched, rolled; the door swung open; the dogs rushed free without thanking me for anything—like most people—and I was able to run back to the hotel and the annoying Frenchman and guzzle down enough water for ten Ians and ten rabid dogs.

Of course that same day I think I left for Van, and, eventually, Kars, where I would make the acquaintance of my first Nazi.

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Rabid Dogs And The Garden In The Desert

Remains of an Armenian village just outside Yuvacali, Southeastern Turkey.

The far southeast of Turkey largely consists of black rocks and endless plains of yellow scrub; it is so dry and dusty in the summer you cannot go more than thirty minutes without gorging yourself on a liter of water; thousands of years ago it was a garden, a paradise, soaking wet, lush, green, and populated with a veritable bestiary of exotic animals, but the coming of agriculture (which may have been invented here) hastened the destruction and exhaustion of the environment and reduced the place to a wasteland, which was nonetheless populated by plenty of human beings by the time I arrived—as our species’ tenaciousness is second only to that of the common cockroach.

My guide Mehmet and I drove back and forth through this place for a few days, visiting one amazing set of ruins after another, as well as a family of nomads and an enormous rabid dog—I swear this thing was the size of a lion—which attacked our car when we were driving very slowly over an unfinished road. Mehmet was pretty nonchalant about this and I had to shout like a fool for him to roll up his window, as the monster was trying to jump inside and tear his throat out—and when we met the nomads I kept my eye on this thing, as I could still make it out in the distance, a small vicious dot wandering around through the walls of rippling heat that were broiling up out of the earth like a furnace. The family wasn’t too concerned about the dog either.

Some of the nomads, who were very hospitable and perhaps unusually quiet, as I cannot remember any of them attempting to speak to me.

I encountered more than a few animals that seemed or actually were dangerous while I was out in eastern Turkey; once, while I was locked inside the ancient ruins of Hasankeyf, I almost had to do battle with what I thought was a rabid dog; to make a long story short, I climbed up a cliff to get inside these ruins, and didn’t want to climb back down again, as I nearly lost my life in the process (I’ll tell the whole story another time), and the only other way out was through a gate that seemed to be locked until the afternoon (this was early morning, thanks to my jetlag); there were two dogs who were also locked inside with me, waiting for the gate to open so they could go free; they started barking at me when they saw me, one started running over to me, and I had to pry up a heavy metal pipe lying on the ground, as I seriously thought it was going to attack; but both of them turned out to be very nice, and just desperate to leave; I probably got flees from petting them. Eventually we escaped—but again, another time.

Hasankeyf, slated to be inundated at some point in the future; here I almost lost my hotel room to a Frenchman, and almost caught rabies, and certainly got fleas.

As Mehmet and I wandered the wide plains and the half-desert we came to a manmade canal of rich blue water flowing like liquid crystal, like a stream of diaphanous ice, through the sand and the grass and the rocks; this was Turkey’s GAP Project, an effort on the government’s part to enrich the southeastern wastelands with water. And indeed in some places you could see farms of green towering corn extending over the hills and into the horizon, all from these cement canals of beautiful, magical water. Yet the people I saw still lived in the most abject poverty. Everyone was dusty and dressed in rags; in the cities it was a common site to see horsedrawn carriages, though the carriages had rubber wheels and all of the horses were thinner than fashion models; most of the people walking along the roads tried to hitch a ride with us, and in the small towns we passed through—most of which consisted of only a handful of houses—it truly did not seem as if anyone was doing, or had ever done, anything.

From The Garden In The Desert

There was absolute silence. At the historical sites there was invariably a pair of children asking for me to photograph them for money; they would pick up pieces of pottery, attempt to sell them to me, and then smash them on the ground in anger when I refused. Outside of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district and perhaps the tomb of Ataturk, which I did not bother to visit, the government does not appear to care about its immense wealth of antiquities—something other nations would die to have, as my current home, Korea, has already lost almost everything that belonged to its past, and lives in a sort of cultural twilight or purgatory, where no one really knows or cares at all about the thousands and thousands of people who came before them. This is a common trait of most nations, but it’s easier to have an awareness of the past when the wrecks of time literally surround you wherever you go—as in Istanbul, as in Rome—and it’s possible that even the most ignorant inhabitants of these places have a stronger historical consciousness than their fellows living here in the vast cement octopus that is Busan. Plus, there’s all the money from tourism, obviously.

One of the boys who volunteered to join us as we wandered a monastery that may have been visited by Jesus.

Despite all the complaints and criticisms, adventures in eastern Turkey were a dime a dozen; almost everything else I did on that trip could have been accomplished by a band of little old ladies, but upon venturing into the parched landscape surrounding the apartment complexes of Urfa—after an eighteen hour bus ride from Antalya!—I truly came to a place that had not yet been entirely consumed and themeparkified by tourism, perhaps the sole self-centered benefit of Turkey’s disdain for its own riches.

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The Way To Hasankeyf

The last seat in the dolmuş.

It was a packed dolmuş ride to Batman, and the unlucky barrage of disasters I experienced along the way seemed to indicate that I would never make alive it to that fabled place with a superhero’s name. In the hot rickety minivan I sat next to a young family of affable Turks or Kurds (whose eastern accents made it sound as if each was constantly hawking up phlegm) and helped them to pacify their baby in the bright, burning afternoon heat, earning their favor in the process. The father gave me his infant child and asked me to hold him up to the dry wind rushing in from the yellow open window, and I realized quite abruptly that this was the first time I had ever held a baby before, and that despite my disgust with this particularly ugly child and my nonstop efforts to keep it from shrieking in my ears at all costs, there was something elemental and primordial about holding someone so young, small, and helpless—someone largely unknown to the world and to himself, with infinite potential, the capability to do anything, despite the unluckiness of his fate to be born to a family of sheepherders near the besieged Kurdish stronghold of Diyarbakır.

The father interrogated me in bemused Turkish for maybe an hour, and the entire minivan looked on without shame at us for the entirety of the trip, with one maiden aunt glaring at me with the usual Eastern mixture of terror, boredom, and curiosity stretching out her pale rubbery face, every single time I moved—and I may exaggerate sometimes but I do not exaggerate here. Two younger school teachers, each of whom possessed a smattering of English, attempted to converse with me, and asked me to tell the world that the people there are not terrorists. They gave me what seems to be a collection of bookmarks that quote the Koran in Arabic and Turkish, and said that to read it, even if I didn’t understand it, would bring me luck—proving to me that there is little ultimate difference to the superstitious folk religions scattered across the world, and that most are primarily concerned with simple rituals that bring the believer fortune, as if the creator of the universe cares about such things. I can remember the scam in Luang Prabang, in Laos on the other side of the planet, at the foot of the beautiful green mountain called Phu Si, where tourists are asked to pay money to free baskets of sparrows—“it will be lucky for you!”—which are probably either caught again or simply trained to come back to roost as soon as the tourist skidaddles up to the top to see a giant Buddha footprint.

Near where the young family got out of the dolmuş---note the ubiquitous trash.

Let’s also just say a little about the mutual media manipulation going on in our two cultures, made obvious by the conversation with the two kindergarten teachers—everyone in the West thinks all Muslims are terrorists, everyone in the East thinks all Westerners think all Muslims are terrorists. Oh television! If only you didn’t keep people so scared and divided! If only these people didn’t elect politicians who freely dole out blank checks to the military! This is obviously unfortunate for everyone since I think most people could be friends regardless of the various ridiculous species of kookiness bouncing around in their heads.

I stuffed two cold water bottles in the baby’s shirt and was kissed on my forehead by the father after I told him that I would not be drinking any water in front of them since everyone in the minivan was observing Ramadan. They were all undoubtedly parched, exhausted, and irritable by midafternoon from drinking no water and eating no food in a vast, arid furnace, and for me to drink even a single drop would surely have infuriated them (though I think it would take a bit more to break their facade of hospitality). To be without water in such a place for even half an hour is intensely uncomfortable. Children are supposed to be exempt from taking part in the challenges of Ramadan, and the baby in the dolmuş certainly was, but on a different trip I later saw a young boy, maybe only six years old, sucking a few drops of water through the cap of a full bottle that his father—the driver, a suicidal asshole—refused to allow him to open.

The dolmuş broke down twice in the middle of the road, there were all kinds of other vicissitudes, but everything was worth Hasankeyf, where I soon, somehow, arrived…

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Eclipse in Sukhothai

I remember it started as a dazed question: can it be so late already? The colors outside were far darker than they should have been in the white colorless midafternoon blaze, the banisters on the building opposite my window were as yellow as a rich cream, and the drooping bougainvilleas were casting mauve-dyed shadows on the chipped paint. The sky was a heaving northern sea, deep and blue and rich enough for a pod of humpback whales. Then what was this…? Had I strayed inside a dream, were my eyes coated in a saharan mirage, or were they just somehow more sensitive to the light? I wandered around in a haze, still damp from a shower and scattered from another day of exploring ruins, and eventually I found myself out in the courtyard with the owner of the TR Guesthouse, who handed me a dark pane of glass, which I held up to the sky.

To my horror I discovered that a giant space monster was devouring the sun! As a baby eats a cookie, chomping crescent-shaped bites out one-by-one, so also the star-beast had gouged a terrifying portion of heat and fire and light from our life-giving deity, with its hunger still unsatiated, its saturn-sized nostrils flaring as they snorted whole solar flares, its lips sipping sunspots, rolling them around on its tongue like melting chunks of chocolate—and the baby squeals!

I never expected a solar eclipse to be like this. I had seen many lunar eclipses and was totally bored by them: the moon is embarrassed, so what? I’d thought a solar eclipse would be more dramatic: a vast shadow sweeps over the land and shakes the earth to its core, mobs scream, people throw televisions through store windows and then steal more televisions, etc. But this was a slow simple darkness, a simple deepness, a blazing dazing haze; one sits on porches in antebellum America in the same way, sipping lemonade in a creaking rocking chair, watching the sun go down.

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Gunboat Diplomacy

How long it’s been since I’ve written you! I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to neglect you, and actually a week ago I tried pumping out a paragraph or two on the thoughts of a North Korean guard I saw with my own eyes, but, as the story goes (or as I told it to a friend), I couldn’t drink very deeply from that stream of consciousness—beyond rabid boredom or rage at the sight of yet another jumble of foreigners—and gave up. It was something like one of my favorite short stories of Borges, Averroes’ Search, which annihilates itself two times over (once poetically and once philosophically), except my work was gobbled up by the mind’s invisible flames before anyone else could actually read it.

I don’t even remember what I was going to write here. It began a moment ago in the warm lamplight of my little room in Busan, where I, distracted with loneliness, began glancing through the poetry of Cavafy for some kind of solace. Ithaka has encouraged me to remain in motion before, and Ionic, which I just saw for the first time, I thought so exquisite that I wanted to write it down in my notebook. But before I could do that I had to report the situation, the state of the environment, you know, and that outpouring brought me here—why keep it private? Why not share?

I’m not surrounded by the terrible silence that comes sometimes after I stop talking with my friends on the other side of the world; through the window comes the windy sound of cars, a television murmurs in the ceiling, a bass beat climbs and falls. Nonetheless, night’s the time for company, and so many of the ones I miss are fast asleep.

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The Great HomePlus Adventure


Imagine yourself in my position: you’re on the other side of the planet and your wallet has really kicked off a few pounds in the last few weeks. You won’t be able to eat and you won’t be able to take the subway unless you get your hands on some cash, so you need to find an ATM before you get caught in a corner and just wither away like some dusty cobweb. But in Busan it’s not enough to find any ATM—many of them don’t speak English, and many more spit out your card if it’s from outside the country.

A desperate search begins. You become the wanderer lost in the desert, thirsty for the waters of a blue oasis, tricked everywhere by mirages and phantoms. You know where one good ATM is, but not exactly where—it sits happily blinking its screen in one of these giant fifteen-story rectangles planted on Sasang’s main stretch, but you don’t remember exactly which one.

Okay, wait, it’s the HomePlus building, marked by a giant red plastic sign reading HomePlus, and really nothing else, there being few architectural adornments of any kind to the buildings in this part of Busan. Flat windows, flat cement, straight up to the haze in the sky. If I ever meet an architrave I’ll drink its sculpture like wine, I’ll kiss the first gargoyle I see right on its stone lips, I’ll tangle myself up in the curving ivy of Art Nouveau and never let go.

You’d be just as mistaken as I was if you thought that the building marked HomePlus would contain HomePlus—yes, unfortunately, wearily, after eight hours of work, sweating in the stinking heat, you’d find yourself rising up and down escalators in a heavily air-conditioned department store cluttered with cheap dresses, horrifying mannequins, glittering necklaces, and toddlers wearing sneakers that make electronic beeping noises every time they strike the waxed linoleum floor. No HomePlus. No ATM. Just a lost American.


It’s time to bring out the big guns at this point. You leave the store, walk around for awhile, find nothing, and think of giving up—sustenance is required. The apples here are the size of your head, like skull-crushing coconuts—you packed one for lunch and thankfully didn’t eat it. You tear it out of your backpack and crush the foaming fruit between your molars and then, magically, finally, find the entrance to the underground HomePlus store, which was hidden behind some kind of miniature concert stage blasting KPOP from its black speakers, though the stage itself is empty and unoccupied. No one is dancing, no one is listening.

You eat the apple as you walk through the store, straight to your target. The minor infraction of chomping open-mouthed on an apple in a supermarket means that people will notice, but no one will stop you because no one wants to deal with the fact that your Korean is currently limited to yes, no, hello, thank you, and the numbers one through five. You’re too tired to care. To hell with it.

You find the ATM. Holding the last of the apple in your teeth, you type your secret code on the happily-blinking screen and stuff the bills in your plump wallet. Victory is yours, but you’re too tired to celebrate—indeed, an endless subway ride awaits you, but this post is so long that it’ll be a miracle if anyone reads it, so I’ll write about the typical Busanian subway trip another time.

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The Day’s Local Color

A megaphone blasts the garbled monotones of a fruit-seller, a fruit truck, driving by beneath my window; cats wail, cats scream, somewhere nearby; brown dragonflies dart through the air; a midget was on the subway standing beside an electric wheelchair, and although he soon sat down, his feet didn’t reach the floor; two young boys punched each other and laughed on the subway; two young women in very skimpy blue cheerleader outfits were dancing on raised platforms, almost on pillars like living (if lackadaisical) caryatids, near the entrance to a shopping center; they danced to roaring KPOP, which is the same as any kind of pop, except for the K; a girl declared in class that she planned to spend her summer dieting, though she was not in any way fat; the fruit truck is still making the rounds of the neighborhood in the time it’s taken me to write this, climbing the unimaginably steep streets and weaving around the cars parked near the wretched sewers, filling the air with its faint and unending advertisement.

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