Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

31 December, 2006

Shamanist Yule

By Aaron
31 December, 2006

Taebaeksan, South Korea

After two years of city-bound winters, I managed to abandon the wife on a holiday weekend and - devoted husband that I am - head for the hills. Dr. Phil would be proud. No really, he would: I was back home, boots off and under spousal jurisdiction, by sundown Christmas Eve. That's more than I can say for you.

We - that is, Ian and I - were out on the eastern edge of the peninsula for a couple days, spikes on and clambering up the slopes of Taebaeksan (Taebaek Mountain, 1560m). Ed Viesturs would not be impressed, but in case you're wondering, yes, we did reach the summit without supplemental oxygen, artificial limbs or indentured porters.

This mountain is more of a hill, really, just a steady 4.5 km climb with an occasionally steep stretch, just to keep you honest about the condition of your heart, and as neither Ian nor I was in any hurry, we took two and a half hours on our way to the summit. Taebaeksan is considered to be - and here's a distinction for you - the second-most holy mountain in Korean shamanism, the first being Baekdusan on the border of North Korea and China which, for obvious reasons, is not the most accessible place for your morning incantations.

Taebaek was once the center of Korea's coal mining industry and there's now a great museum devoted to the period at the base of the mountain. Now, I know what you're saying - "Ooh, a coal museum. Can't wait." - but it really is worth a visit and a damn sight better than the Korean National Museum of Presidential Bunions. The first floor of the Taebaek museum is filled with one humdinger of a collection of gems, fossils and precious stones and metals. I've long thought that, were I to give up my career as East Asia's preeminent proctologist, I would pursue a career in geology and, as such, I left my fair share of nose prints on the display cases in this museum.

In the interest of financial solvency, Ian and I opted to share a hotel room just outside the entrance and, to our surprise, the room had a heated waterbed. Remember those? They went out of fashion fairly quickly because the human back isn't meant to rest on aquatic surfaces. Just ask Larry Bird - there's a reason he always used to lie on the court when he wasn't playing. Fortunately, the room also had a normal bed, which I got when Ian spoke too quickly for the waterbed. Ian abandoned the waterbed at about 2 am, not because of the evermoving surface but because he was overheating on the damn thing. And no, he didn't climb into my bed, nor did I offer to trade. Friend that I am, I made him sleep on the floor.

The next night found me back home in my own bed, with our pillow-top mattress, where I daresay I belong on a Christmas Eve. Of course, my wife probably appreciated having the bed to herself for a night.

28 December, 2006

Cocktails of Cattle Crap

By Aaron
28 December, 2006

Journal Entry
24 October, 2006
Ahmedabad, Gujarat

I've long thought of early morning as the best time to to see a city for the first time. The newsstands are stocked with fresh papers, the bakeries glow golden, the street sweepers have done their work and the city radiates promise and possibility with every fresh cup of coffee.

Ahmedabad, capital of the Indian state of Gujarat, is no such a city. At 8:00 AM, the sun - on its way to a high of 37 degrees centigrade - glares through a quilt of smog farted off the local factories; the holy bovines rummage and shit their way through the endless piles of trash; and with all the garbage and cow crap, the resident fly population flourishes and, hey, you're breakfast. Put simply, early morning Ahmedabad has all the charm of an itchy asshole.

If God were to give the earth an enema, he might well stick the tube in this city.

Stepping from the sleeper car of our overnight train from Mumbai, my second inclination - the first being to get back on the train and beg the engineer to keep going - was to hole up in the train station and and wait for the next train to anywhere. And trust me, I wouldn't have been picky.

"Mogadishu? Sign me up. Kandahar? Fine."

But train stations are usually a town's worst hemorrhoid and, anyway, we didn't have onward train tickets to Udaipur until the following night. Moreover, when travelling with someone else, especially my wife, I try not to piss in the punch by being the first to state the obvious: that this place looks like the barnyard from hell and not at all what I fancied for a honeymoon, least of all our honeymoon. The fact is, though, a couple honeymooning in India ought to expect a cocktail of detritus and cattle crap to go with their marital canoodling. If we'd wanted mimosas and handcuffs, we would have gone to Tahiti. We wanted stray dogs and beggars, so we came to India.

Ahmedabad, to its credit, is mercifully lacking in the touts that plague the more pleasant parts of India. Little wonder: tourists, on average, don't make a point of dropping into the city on their swing past the world's seven ancient wonders and, as such, any tout in Ahmedabad faces a life of abject thumb-twiddling and nose-picking. Not that a dearth of touts makes Ahmedabad a pleasant city - hell, even Gandhi had to get out eventually, if only for some salt - but at least you won't be distracted by them as you sidestep yet another cow patty.

Our thirty-six hour Gujarati experience was colored by Diwali - India's biggest Hindu holiday festival - when everything of interest to a traveler is closed. Ahmedabad, whatever its faults, supposedly has several remarkable museums related to the city's history as a center of the Indian textile industry. Now, on an average day in any other city the prospect of spending hours in a musty hall devoted to weavers and looms would excite me about as much as giving Henry Kissinger a sponge bath - riveting in its own way, I'm sure, but not how I'd prefer to spend my Sunday afternoon. But beggars, as the addage goes, can't be choosers and Ahmedabad turns everyone into a beggar, even if you're only pleading for diversion from the cows and flies.

Trying to get into an Indian museum on Diwali is like trying to get your heater fixed on Christmas in Minnesota. Nothing doing. We ended up sitting on a concrete slab in a vacant lot next to a closed museum - the third one we tried - for an hour or so, hiding from the rickshaws and cows and the beggar girl who grabbed my ass as we headed toward another shuttered attraction. Looking back on it, though, sitting there was an unexpectedly pleasant moment. After we'd sat there for a few moments, the local bird life started to appear, most conspicuously the flourescent green parakeets fluttering amongst the trees and peacocks strutting through the waist-high grass. And best of all: it was shady, secluded and not closed on Diwali.

Our time in Ahmedabad, of course, did eventually pass and we managed to catch a train out of there, and though I won't pretend to have fallen in love with the city, the people there were some of the friendliest we met in all of India. Again, I have no doubt that this stemmed from the city's absence on tourist itineraries and, as a result the folks in Ahmedabad were more interested in a chat than hard-selling us the mountains of useless crap on offer all over the Subcontinent. Even the rickshaw drivers, who could not but have noticed how lost and clueless we were amidst the foetid splendor, didn't try to burn us. Of course, they never seemed to understand where we wanted to go, but at least they charged appropriately for the confusion. At least, I think they did.

08 December, 2006

Remembering Milton Friedman: Becker, Lucas, Peltzman, Fama

By Aaron
08 December, 2006

The great economist and thinker Milton Friedman, who may well have been the most important economist of the 20th century, recently passed away at the age of 94. In the video below, a few of his former colleagues and friends - heavyweights such as Gary Becker, Robert Lucas, Sam Peltzman, and Gene Fama - share their memories of Friedman. This is a video very much worth watching.

I promise there's a video below, but it's a Quicktime file so just be patient and let it load. If you just can't contain your enthusiasm, you can always download the file by right-clicking here and selecting "save link as..."

01 December, 2006

Urine in the Afternoon

By Aaron
01 December, 2006

Journal Entry: 2 November, 2006
Somewhere in Rajasthan, India

As everyone warns you before you come to India, "Don't drink the water, don't brush your teeth with the water or wash vegetables with the water. Hell, don't even look at the water." So paranoid was I about the water, food and hygiene of India that I half expected to fall ill the instant Air India flight 310 from Hong Kong touched down at Chatrapati Shivaji Airport in Mumbai.

But we didn't get sick. Not in Mumbai, not in Ahmedebad and not, excepting matters of snot and phlegm, in Udaipur. We were doing well in ol' Jodhpur, too, and probably would have burned healthy right through India and back to Seoul if not for camels and their Rajput minders in the Great Thar Desert.

The Great Thar straddles India and Pakistan, covering a good portion of what was once Rajputana, a collection of 22 independent, princely states that became known as Rajasthan - "Land of Kings" - when the states congealed and united with India. Each of these states was ruled by a maharaja, essentially a local king, who had armies of Rajput warriors watching his back. And to say that these fellows, these warriors, were tough sonsabitches is like saying that General George Patton could get a bit touchy from time to time.

It was Rajasthan, afterall, that give birth to the practice of jauhar, wherein the queens, princesses and wives of the warriors would immolate themselves before a battle their men were almost certain to lose. The warriors then rode out to the battlefield, wearing saffron-colored turbans and knowing they had nothing for which to return home and that the enemy, even if victorious, at least wouldn't be getting into their wives and daughers. Small consolation if you ask me.

And here I was, in a land where men routinely burnt their wives just so no one else could nail them, worrying about whether my cauliflower would be washed properly.

The desecendents of these severe clans who live out in the Thar nowadays are tough, too - but they'd have to be, wouldn't they? The Great Thar Desert provides little more than subsistence farms of millet and meagre grazing for cattle, goats, sheep and camels. A child out here can reach seven years of age and never see a drop of rain, and even a wet year brings less than two inches. This is Marwar, "land of death," where precipitation is an abstraction.

The Rajasthanis live mostly in thatched-roof huts with walls made of sandstone slabs and patched with a mixture of straw and cattle dung. Electricity, except to the rural water-pumping stations built by the government in the 1990s, is non-existent. A toilet is the fresh cathole you just dug and dishes are cleaned with scraps of old newspaper and sand. Children attend primary school and then - if they don't join the army or become truck drivers - live out the rest of their days doing what countless generations before them have done: scratch a living out of the sand and scrub.

The highlight of life out here is when, at seventeen, you marry sight unseen through arrangement by the families a fourteen year-old girl from three dunes over. If you're lucky and she drinks her morning urine everyday this wife will live long and bear you a brood of four or five young sheepherders to follow in these dusty footsteps of yours.

Entertainment out here, like moisture, is scarce, but when it comes, it comes slowly. Walking out toward the path that runs through your hamlet, you watch it approach. One camel pulls a cart, laden with cookware, a propane tank, a burlap sack of vegetables and a couple of brand-name backpacks - Lowe, Gregory and the like. The other camels, led by beturbaned, mustachioed Rajputs, bear grimacing tourists who grit their teeth and swear to themselves because - jesus creeping shit and christ almighty - riding a camel feels for all the world like birthing a child. Pure hell on the loins.

This small caravan approaches and, as it passes, you say 'namaste' or 'tata' if you're a kid or, if an adult, you just stare distrustfully at the pale passersby in their designer sunglasses and Vibram soles. The group lumbers into the distance and you resume threshing the millet or milking the camel or impregnating the wife. Such is a party in the Great Thar.

Having forked over 1500 rupees a day to be just such a diversion - "like giraffes paying to sit their zoo cages," I told Na Young - we got trucked out to the village of Bhikamkore, 75 kilometres northwest of Jodhpur, by jeep and then a few more kilometres beyond that. We found ourselves at the home of our guide, Gemar Singh, which consisted of three huts fitting the above description: one for his wife and three year-old daughter, one for cooking and eating and one unfinished hut for guests. And as our hut, lacking plaster and window coverings, offered little resistance to the elements, we were to simply sleep outside in the elements. Good enough - you can't beat a desert night for stars. Or for sloth bears, jackals, scorpions and disgruntled camels. Sleep tight. As it happened, the silent clean air - coupled with my weekly dose of Larium - ensured one of the best nights of sleep since arriving in India.

On arriving, we immediately became the local attraction. Kids from nearby huts converged on Gemar's home to see what he had dragged in this time. In this case, he had dragged in an American who can't stand kids and a Korean girl who kept asking, just to clarify, "so, no toilet? Really?"

"The toilet," Gemar said, motioning off to the southeast, "is over there, where you don't see any huts. Choose a bush."

Now, unlike my wife, I'm not opposed to crapping in the underbrush, though given the choice, I certainly prefer an ivory white commode for my morning movements. But just as I don't need a toilet, neither do I need an audience. The part of the Thar desert we visited is not so sparsely populated that you won't have to wave good morning to the migratory shepherds in their red turbans as you squat in a briar patch. And so, our first morning in the desert found me calculating potential bowel movements and the hours remaining until we arrived at a hotel in Jodhpur. Could I hold it for 43 more hours?

After breakfast, we mounted camels and headed west, riding through and endless expanse of sand, scrub and thorny acacia trees, broken only occasionally by a small group of huts and a child or two tending the family flock, the bells around the goats' necks tinkling in the emptiness. Small herds of antelope, a peacock here and there and the local bird life - hupu woodpeckers, green bee-eaters - lent the only contrast to the stark lack of motion. Women in sarees of red and orange - their faces covered when outside the house - worked the millet fields and provided the only color beyond brown and olive green.

After two weeks of Indian cities, I was only too happy to be rid of the exhaust and noise and touts that come with travelling by rickshaw, bus and taxi. After cities like Ahmedabad and Mumbai, camels farting on a desert afternoon can sound positively lyrical. And goodness, do camels ever fart.

And they get sick once in a while, too, even the best of them. Stopping for lunch, the drivers unsaddled and hobbled the camels, two of which limped off to graze the greenery, such as it was. Na Young's mount, however, simply dropped to its knees beneath the nearest tree and sat, looking glum, with that whistling-lips face camels always wear. Seeking to perk the sick boy up, one of the drivers tried mixing some tire rubber and herbs, setting it on fire and wafting it about the camel's body, rather like smelling salts for a sacked quarterback. All this smoke in the camel's face, though, succeeded only in making the camel look more hangdog.

Plan One having failed, a second driver disappeared behind an acacia tree with an empty water bottle.

"Betcha that bottle ain't empty when he comes back," I said to Na Young.

Sure enough, next thing we knew, two other drivers - who had been chopping vegetables for lunch - were helping their friend wrestle a bottleful of urine down the camel's gullet. The goal here, as with the rubber smoke, was to get the camel moving. In that situation, urine might not make me feel any better, but someone manhandling it down my throat would sure get me on my feet. The camel, however, drank the urine and went back to whistling, but still didn't get up.

The drivers, dusting their hands on their britches, went back to preparing lunch. And a good lunch it was - two curries and chapati bread - but as I vomited and crapped my guts out into a Jodhpur hotel toilet, I had to wonder what that miserable camel contributed to my meal.

Last summer I read TE Lawrence's "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom," an account of his time spent fighting with the Arabs during the World War I years, much of which he spent atop a camel. A light day of riding for him and his compatriots was six hours, and they routinely made nine hours or more at a stretch, even while sick with malaria. All of which, combined with what I've written above, is only to say that I am a goddamn sissy and I know it. I have never spent more than three consecutive hours on a camel and never forced my own urine down one of the beasts' throats. No matter how worldly and hardboiled you think you are, you will never pass the Tough Bastard test until you've spent nine straight malarial hours on a camel under a hot desert sun. I haven't and that's fine by me and my loins.