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Saturday, November 14, 2009

It's because of the monsoon, silly

2 weeks of just hanging out and working
2 weeks of monsoons
1 week of bs computer issues
5ish weeks without posting.

So, those first two weeks were spent, if I recall correctly, working as a chef and then as a member of the hygiene team. Each were week-long positions that gave me the chance to delve a bit into the workings of the place. Chefs are responsible for 1 meal a day for 6 days of the week, which means that they have to plan a 3 or so course meal (porridges, fruit salads, rice, dahl, vegetables, treats, etc) for between 30 and 75 volunteers and then tell the cooking team what to do and how and when. It's not exactly easy, but since all the volunteers understand how hard it is, everyone is quite forgiving when stuff gets burned or just comes out bland. I wish I could remember what my major successes were, but honestly my chef gig was so long ago that the only thing I remember coordinating was a fantastic batch of mashed potatoes with tahini.

As a member of the hygiene team, I was allowed the privilege of walking around each restroom (read: 2 potty holes in the ground, 1 pee hole in the ground, 1 barrel of sawdust, 1 barrel of water), sticking 4-foot long poo-stirring sticks into the potty hole, and stirring the shite for 2 or 3 minutes (to mash up any pesky maggots and mix the poo with sawdust for maximum drying/composting action), then going around and mopping off the platforms. Also, if one of the potty units is full, it has to be emptied, which means using a tray on a stick like you might have by your fireplace to empty a 500 liter underground barrel of poo.

I actually really enjoyed the hygiene work. Poo is apparently not so disgusting if you take a few simple steps. Sawdust immediately neutralizes the odor and sliminess, and if you stir and compost it for just a few weeks, it quickly becomes a rich mixture that you don't at all mind running your hands through to combine dirt for planting. Of course, if you are at the point where you don't mind cleaning your bum with your hand, then you probably won't worry about touching composted poo either.

After both of those experiences, I took a week-long job as a firestarter, which means that I aided the chef in keeping fires going during cooking times and did some other kitchen upkeep work. This was not quite so intense as cheffing, except for the fact that because I had already cheffed with moderate success, I wound up helping the new chefs more than I had planned.

Then things got tough. The beginning of the rainy season, when mosquitoes get crazy and clothes get moldy, coincided with the beginning of the permaculture course. This meant that the 20 or so volunteers who had agreed to stay at Sadhana for 3 years to develop expertise for themselves and decrease Sadhana's dependence on outside food sources, i.e. the 20 most informed people around, stopped doing work and started studying all the time. This left just a small group of medium-term volunteers (people like me who had been around for a month and would be around for one or two more to pick up the slack) to take on the "management positions." I was chosen to train with and then replace the hygiene head, meaning I would continue to clean and empty toilets daily, and also instruct the weekly hygiene team on maintaining the showers, laundry area, and hand-washing stations.

All was going smoothly and I was happy with and even proud of the way I had "moved up" to a position of some importance and responsibility. Then the rains came and soaked the soil, increasing its weight so much that it cracked several underground poo canisters, allowing water to soak in and ruin the dry-composting system. Emergency toilet emptying sessions ensued, as did excavation of the damaged clay pots and their replacement.

Then, just as I had played my part in averting a total poo crisis, the two people who had been picked to replace the kitchen manager (who trains and supervises the chefs and firestarters, approves the meal plans, makes the food orders, attempts to maintain good hygiene practice,and in general staves off total kitchen chaos) left, one to study yoga and one to study meditation. I was then asked to step up and perform what I have only now come to understand is the single most difficult task in Sadhana. I've been at it for about 10 days now, spending at least 4 hours in the kitchen every day, more when chefs or firestarters are sick and I actually have to get my hands dirty. It was terribly stressful at first, but I've since learned to trust my chefs a bit more and worry about the quality of the food a bit less, and now I'm actually sort of enjoying it. The course ends this week, though, which means I get to return the position (along with the stress) to its rightful owner.

What else...I'm really enjoying the super-international atmosphere at Sadhana. Two Italians have passed through (one from Padova, where I lived for a few months back in the day), so I've had a chance to practice my much beloved fourth language, as well as hordes of Koreans, including one with a moustache on par with mine in terms of fantasticity. They were part of a traveling school, where the kids (13-17 years old) take a year off from public school and spend it instead in Nepal and various cities in India, studying music and dance and martial arts and foreign languages and all sort of useful stuff. Probably not so great from a carbon point of view, but probably really good in terms of the well-being and development of the kids. We have also had volunteers from: Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, France, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Canada, USA, Ireland, Scotland, UK, Australia, Colombia, Tibet, Israel, Algeria, Ukraine, and maybe others. It is amazing how easily everyone gets along, and how well most of them speak English. Unfortunately, most Europeans and each and every Indian speaks more languages than I do.

The BS computer issues probably are not that interesting. They stem either from excess humidity or dead ants inside, and result in the inability to type certain letters (including some in my email passwords :-() and the inability to stop my computer from typing others. This makes blogging feasible only when I am out using computers that draw their energy from the repulsive public power grid. Now that I've again become conscious of this fact, I think it may be time to sign out. Sorry, world!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Carrying On The Discussion Which Began In The Comments Section Of The Previous Post

Because Dave, Chris, and Jeff have all brought up things that I'd like to discuss.

First, the environmental cost of travel:

I totally get where you (Snowleopard) are coming from about the plane stuff. Actually, the guy who's running this place is working on starting a second/daughter project in Morocco so that Europeans can do the same sort of stuff only by using buses and ferries, and it's a frequent topic of discussion amongst the staff and volunteers. Are we doing any net good by coming here? Do we do more good living almost zero-impact lives for a while but flying to do it, or would it be more effective for us to just stay home and try to live as low-impact as is possible in our high-impact societies. If you know a website that can help with these sort of calculations, I'd love to see a link. I just checked one site that put my flight impact at 1.38 tons of CO2. Another says that the average American is responsible for 20 tons of C02 a year, and I doubt Koreans are far behind. So if those numbers are to be trusted, the flight is equivalent to living in the USA for a month, and my emissions here are far lower than the average Indian's, who already consumes only about 1/16 of what an American does. Those numbers are a little more encouraging than the ones Chris came across, but who knows which to trust?

(For what it's worth, which isn't much, lots of us use only bicycles to get around while we're here. I'm seriously toying with the idea of trying to bike all or part of the way back home, but I have no idea how long it would take or how safe it would be.)

Actually, there's a similar logic behind why the community here eats vegan. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to plant a forest and then eat meals that depend on razing other forests to make space to raise crops to feed animals, just like it doesn't makes sense to do water conservation work from 6:30-8:30 in the morning and then take long showers out of taps. We're doing our best to be conscientious, both in terms of the work we do and the lifestyles we choose.

Also, I like to think of my time here as a sort of investment. It may have an immediate carbon cost, but it's conceivable that it will be paid off in the long run. There's no such chance or even intention as far as meat is concerned. It reminds me a bit of our solar panels in the sense that there's an immediate environmental cost in producing them but that after a few years said cost will have been recouped. Sitting at home, or rather wherever you are, even if it's not home, might be the best way to keep low emissions, but it's also not proactive in any way and doesn't lead to sustainable solutions.

Another thing to keep in mind is that lots of the people who are in Sadhana didn't get a flight to India with us in mind. They found out about us after arriving, and are deciding to stay with us in lieu of traveling elsewhere in India, and not in lieu of staying at home. In their cases, the plane argument isn't relevant. In my case, though, since I came largely with farming and low-impact life in mind, it definitely is.

I didn't understand the Soccer Mom metaphor because I don't picture them as having much cognitive dissonance due to the environmental externalities of their lifestyle. That's why I only picked up on the fatalistic sentiment in what you wrote. I do see what you mean, though, about how I may in this case be choosing to pursue my travelicious lifestyle despite what I know about how it affects the environment and others. I think I've addressed this, somewhat, above. Also, it's worth mentioning that traveling and not eating meat is better, environmentally, than traveling and eating meat.

One more thing, just for the sake of arguing. I don't think that refusing to fly is the single best thing we can do. The single best thing, I'm guessing, is probably not to have children. This, of course, may or not not be a palatable option and may be another of those SUV-driving-soccer-mom issues where our thoughts about what things in life are desirable override our concern for larger, less immediate and tangible matters. But just imagine how little of an impact we'd have if we didn't exist at all.

I'll make another post about the reasons for my vegetarianism/veganism shortly.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Jonathan Safran Foer on Vegetarianism

A guy whose seemingly awesome works I have only read excerpts of has submitted an article to NYT about vegetarianism. It's called "Against Meat," but its tone is much less strident than its title. It is nice to read and fairly compelling without being stuck-up or aggressive. I heartily recommend it.

But, in case you don't feel like reading it, let me just pull out one quotation. I've heard arguments in this vein, but never put quite so clearly:

"...taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses. Why? Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals."

By the way, I've been eating about 95% vegan-style for the past two weeks (I had some Indian goat cheese on a pizza a while back, and there's milk in the awesome 9-cent chai tea on the street) and am not any scrawnier, weaker, or tired-er than usual. Try it one day a week! I may try to post a recipe or two, like mashed potatoes with tahini or Tzatziki with tofu or birthday treats made from bananas, dates, shaved coconut, palm sugar, cocoa powder, and spices. Not to mention pumpkin and dahl soup. It is indeed possible to be considerate and well-fed at the same time!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What Sadhana Forest is like

Well, I have been here at Sadhana (stress on the Sa, schwa on the da n na) for going on two weeks now, and have yet to write a word about it. There is a reason for this.

The first is that there's a website, http://sadhanaforest.org, which has a lot of stuff about the layout and the mission and the methods.

The second is that I'm extremely skeptical of my ability to write anything useful about this place, whether that means "India" or "Tamil Nadu" (the province) or "Sadhana Forest." I have lately been reading a book called Shantaram, which is the kind of "must-read" international best seller that lets you know what it's really like to be in (insert name of exotic place here). There are several copies lying around the main hut here, and quite a few of the volunteers have read the book and told me that it's good. I find, though, that the author mostly skips all the banal junk that you have to put up with no matter what country you're in, describes things with the old philosophical-sounding-adjective-I-found-in-my-thesaurus + abstract noun combo (e.g. peripatetic comprehension, soporific slump). Also, characters speak in paragraph-long discourses filled with unnatural, impossible word play and italicized zingers. All of this is quite unfortunate, because the author has led a pretty wild life, including robbing banks with toy guns, breaking out of a maximum-security prison, and living and hiding in Bombay for 8 years, living in a slum and working for the mafia and fighting in an army and establishing a charity and lots of other amazing stuff.

The result is that I am feeling a real need for objectivity and honesty in writing and am not sure that I can deliver anything that's any less trite or self-serving or loath-inducing than Shantaram. Of course, I'm also thinking that any endeavor to cover all the banal details of just about any experience will probably be pretty terrible to read. Unless you're a fan of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Which you should be. For the record.

But, anyway, feel free to ignore all that stuff. Here are a few facts about this place.

There are two groups of people here: long-term volunteers and short-term ones. Long-term ones have signed on to stay for three years, the idea being that after that much time here they'll be able to write a manual and also start a similar community in Morocco. The short-term volunteers stay a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of as long as they want. There are 16 long-term volunteers, plus the two founders, their two daughters (ages 8 and 1.5), and one Indian couple with a 4ish year-old daughter. The number of short-term volunteers varies, but since I've been here it's been about 30, plus or minus 5.

We cook and eat vegan meals together. No meat, no eggs, no dairy, no honey. We also don't purchase any processed food. We get lots of fruits (bananas, papayas, pomegranates, mandarins, sweet lemons, pineapples, "chicos") vegetables (cukes, carrots, red onions, garlic, eggplants, potatoes, tomatoes, "chow chows," squash, pumpkins, celery, cabbage, chinese cabbage), nuts, rice, dhal, soybeans, chickpeas, seeds, and various powdered grains. Most of it's local and organic, but not all of it. Now that there are some long-term staff, they're also trying to grow their own food. We're working now on bananas, pomegranates, jackfruit, papaya, mango, and various herbs, all inside the village. We compost all of the skins, shavings, and leftovers, except for the heads of pineapples, which we plant, and the husks of coconuts, which we save for some project that will later sequester lots of carbon. Or so someone has heard.

We live in huts made of biodegradable, natural materials like leaves, bamboo, and twine, which I think is made from coconut fibers. No nails. The huts don't have electricity.

We have a pooing system that seems intricate at first but in actuality is much simpler than a flush toilet. We poo into ceramic chambers which are buried into the ground. When pooing, we catch our pee in a little pail. We empty the pail into a (sealed) container, dump sawdust all over our poo, rinse our left hands and both bums, then go to a hand-washing station and wash off with all-natural soap that won't pollute our drinking water. Later, we collect the humanure, compost it, and then use it to fertilize our fruit trees and reforestation trees. The pee can also be used as fertilizer. None of it goes anywhere useless or harmful.

What electricity we do use is solar. We have 2 big panels, each the size of 2 single beds, and maybe one other, smaller one. They generate excess power from 10AM to 5PM, which is when we can charge our laptops and ipods and other stuff. We have lights in the kitchen, two of the bathroom stalls, and the main hut.

There's no running water. There's one pump, which we use to fill buckets for showers, for washing dishes, and for filling the hand-washing stations. The H-WS's consist of a big vat of water, a small pot with a hole in the bottom, a cup, and some natural liquid soap in a bottle. You pop the lid off the big vat, pour some water into the pot, let it stream out of the hole, and wash your hands in it. The runoff goes into a banana pit and feeds the trees. Same with the showers. Dishes are dunked in a bucket of water, scrubbed with loofas which grow on trees and ash collected from our kitchen fires, then dunked three in three more buckets, sprayed with vinegar, and left on racks to dry.

I suppose I'll limit this post to the immediate physical environment, and I'll try to describe the reforestation effort (which is not immediate) and the vibe (which is not physical) in later posts.

I only want to add that it feels great to know that my current lifestyle is not harming anybody in my vicinity, or anywhere else, or anytime else. I don't feel like I have to ignore the ramifications of what I do or the processes that led to making what I'm doing possible. In the First World, no matter how hard you try, you can't avoid products of unknown provenance, advertised with attractive but dubious claims, and entire systems and institutions and habits that make it impossible to live fairly and responsibly. It's not perfect here - as I mentioned, we're not self-sufficient as far as food is concerned, and we have not choice but to support some non-organic farms, and we still produce medical trash from time to time - but it's hard to imagine that it's better anywhere else.

Monday, September 28, 2009

There's another post below this one, and it's better, so don't miss it!

I spent yesterday taking a hop-on hop-off bus tour from Chennai to Mamallapuram (it took me 2 days to be able to consistently say that word), and have spent most of today, so far, on a bus from Chennai to Pondicherry. It's hot outside and I'm stuffed from a giant $2.20 plate of cauliflower masala that I just had for a late lunch, so I'm going to go ahead and start typing up another post. Actually, the one I just put up was from a whole 2 days ago, so it's about time for an update anyway.

So, here are some things recently added to the list of Things I Have Seen:

- A huge bus running over a mid-sized watermelon, causing it to blow up awesomely.
- A guy trying to contain a mass of chickens between his legs while driving on a scooter. Of course, a few fall out, land between his wheels, and he runs them over, then picks them back up and puts them back where they were.
- A healthy-if-old looking guy who takes a spit. It comes out a dirty orange. He was not carrying any sort of fruit or drink, and I don't think he came out of a restaurant.
- A pretty old man blows a snotrocket. It's deep red/brown and cakier than the mud it lands in.
- A little kid (2 years oldish) on his father's lap combing his father's hair and moustache.
- A completely unnecessary police officer acting as the middleman at a toll booth. He stands in between the driver and the toll booth operator, tells the driver the total, takes the money, turns around, gives it to the operator, waits for change, turns around, and gives it back. WHY, MAN? Actually there is probably a very good reason. I hope so, anyway.
- A Nissan SUV cruises by blasting some impressively loud Hindi (or other language, I have no way of discerning them at this point) hip-hop. They park (at the crocodile farm). 3 guys get out of the front, 3 out of the middle, and 4 out of the trunk.
- A guy with a sweet arm-pedal bike. You can put flowers or fruits or whatever on the platform in back.
- People having picnics in awesome forests under awesome trees between the East Coast Road and the Bay of Bengal. The trees are seriously perfectly shaped for picnics, with big thick leaves that extend 10 or 15 feet out but don't droop down too low.
- Also, trash (bags, bottles, wrappers, etc) spread out pretty evenly, covering about 25% of the ground of the forest.
- The front gate to a government-run "School of Management." Moss and such had grown all over the sign, the paint was peeling, and the gate was rusty and locked shut.
- Watermelons for sale at roadside stands with cute little vampirey-faces painted onto them.
- Cows crossing the alley. Cows crossing the highway. Buses stopping for cows. Cows pulling hay on carts. Why don't they just turn around and eat it?. Cows eating trash. A dead cow on the side of the road.
- A lady seated on the concrete island that formed the barrier for a triangle-rotary intersection. Kept on grabbing her head, twisting it, slapping the ground, rocking back and forth, splaying her arms out, stretching and trying to scratch her back, then pausing and staring blankly in one direction or another.

Sorry to end on that note. There's one more thing on my list (there are all things I jotted down while on the bus or at bus stops or just meandering), but I can't read it. Looks like "Bob's picnic."

News-wise, I left the crushing poverty of Chennai (families, including children, sleeping on flooded streets with trash floating around) and am making my way towards the farm. I'm in Pondicherry now, which used to be a French colony, but haven't gone snooping around yet. It's way calmer, cleaner, and less intimidating. Unforunately, it's hotter. Will report back.

The Morning After (my arrival)

Wake up. My big(ger) backpack and small(er) backpack are on the (single) bed with me, just as I left them. Good. My adventure bag/man purse is under my head, being used as a pillow. I am probably squishing the last Ferrero Rocher chocolate from the plane last night. Double good. My feet are also on a pillow. I must not have noticed it when I was ushered into the room at who-knows-when. There were no lights and I couldn't even tell how many people or beds were in the room. Now I know that there were 3 and 7, respectively. I have been sleeping in the same jeans, shirt, and socks that I was wearing on the plane. Also like on the plane, I've got my sweater/jacket on backwards, arms through the wrong sleeves, the hood over my face, though this time I'm not trying to block out the light and jets of cold air. Rather, I'm trying to muffle the sound of the dark lump next to me scratching himself. It's worse than and totally out of proportion with the buzzing and biting of the mosquitoes. I can only think of long, thick, leper fingernails picking on crumbling scaly flesh. Somehow I fall asleep anyway.

Check my mp3 player clock. It's 9:15. Checkout time was 9. Crud. Quick shower (cool), check out, decide to walk, cave and take an "auto rickshaw", which looks like a bike with some sort of yellow shell around it so 2 people can ride behind the driver), realize I was going in the wrong direction, and use Chris's guideboook to explain that I want to switch to another guesthouse closer to the center of town. The sun is up, the heat is still bearable, and there are people everywhere. Women are walking with their daughters in nice silky-looking attire, and some men are wearing long, thin skirts that look like sarongs. Most dudes, though, are wearing jeans or khakis and collared or button-down shirts. Some people are busy carrying things, serving food, or chopping coconuts, but most seem to be just loitering, milling, and chatting, uninterested in the buses and taxis and bikes that are zipping around. I wonder how many will spend the whole day like that. The driver is friendly and tells me to call him again if I want a tour. He apologizes for speaking bad English but explains that he is "uneducated" and so he can't really read or write. I give him credit for being a decent driver, though, since he managed to avoid the cow sauntering around the middle of the road and got me to my new hotel pretty quickly.

I check into the hotel. "Paradise Hotel." 7 bucks isn't bad, though the book said 4. I assumed Paradise to have toilent paper, but no such luck. Maybe those who make it to paradise are liberated from the shackles of defecation? After some Aquinas-style reflection I decide that defecation can actually be a pleasant experience and that I'd still like to be able to do it in heaven. That decided, there was still no toilet paper. Like my previous hostel (run by the Salvation Army) there are no other foreigners here. I'm confused. The guidebook says these are popular spots. Ah well. The man at the front desk writes my arrival time down in the ledger - 7:45 AM. Huh? I wonder why he would fudge the arrival time. Is he going to charge me for an extra day? So far I've managed 2 taxi rides and one hotel check-in and check-out without extortions. I point it out and ask why he wrote the time wrong. He says it's the time. I look at the digital clock behind him. It says 7:42. What? I think back to the clock on the wall of the salvation army, which said something like 7:10 when I checked out, and which of course must have been off, because who do I trust, my portable media player or India?. Is it possible that I am wrong? Come to think of it, yeah. It was 9:15 in Kuala Lumpur. Duh. Someone forgot to change the time on my gizmo. I am awake way too early after a few days of sleeping too little, and fitfully at that. I am also slightly terrified of going back outside, what with the heat and the unmarked roads and the food of ill-repute and that feeling of "hrm, welcome to the next five months." The best course of action is clearly to sleep and lounge until I'm so stir-crazy that I have no choice but to force myself out. After all, I have time. It's still 20 minutes before I woke up.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Not the last post from Korea, not the first from India

But rather the first and last (until next February, presumably) from Kuala Lumpur. My layover here lasts another 3 hours (16 hours on the way back!), and then a short hop to India which will put me in just around 11pm. I very much anticipate the first night, what with leaving the airport after midnight and trying to get a hotel in town, to be the most stressful and hassly part of the trip. This probably means that I'm incredibly naive and ignoring the peskiness of touts, stomach bugs, mosquitoes, bumpy roads, and broken-down buses. Nonetheless, it's nice to think that I'll be able to get the hard stuff done with pretty quickly. Anyhow, I managed to get some money from the exchange bank in Daegu and I have Chris's travel guide, so all should be good.

The last few days have been somewhat ridiculous. I did my best to see most of my friends one more time before leaving Daegu and Seoul, which led to several busy days involving lots of busing and subwaying back and forth to various places. This culminated yesterday when I woke up, went to the Korean medicine clinic to get some heating pad, acupuncture, suction cup, and electric massage action on my lower back. This was necessary because of my and Chris's capers involving a motorcycle, a helmet, and 3 wigs.

The point I want to make is that the suction cup therapy (부항 Bu-hang, I believe it's called) is really freaky, though unfortunately, as it was done on my lower back, I couldn't see it directly and I can only report on what I surmise must have happened giving all the weird sensations. First, they prick your skin with a relatively thick needle or something, enough to pierce you and get you bleeding. Then they stick a little cup, the rim of which is coated with some cold jelly lubricant substance, probably to prevent skin abrasion, over the wound. They turn on the suction and at this point, all I can say is that my skin felt all floppy and slimy and the sensation made me think of blowing bubbles underwater or an octopus hopping around, and I am pretty sure a bunch of blood rushes up into the cup and into a tube. A chilly, sloppy, bubbly skin eruption is how I'd have to describe it. If I ever do it again, I'll try to give a more helpful account.

I spent the afternoon with my friend Dylan/Seokjune at Seoul National Univeristy (he's a lackey in a genetics lab), had lunch at one of the school cafeterias, hung out in the computer lounge printing out insurance documents, and chilled out at a campus picnic table. Then I headed back to my hostel, chatted for a while with the staff, and headed out again for a joint goodbye party with Belinda, one of my roommates/coworkers from the summer camp that ended 5 weeks ago. We happened to both be leaving today, her for Shanghai and me for, as you all have heard a million times by now, India. We invited some of our friends from around town and a few of the Korean co-teachers from the camp, and then we managed to do exactly what I knew I should have avoided, namely, staying out until 4AM on the night before a long day of flying. We went to an allegedly famous Japanese noodle restaurant, which, in all fairness, did serve some pretty awesome noodles. There was even a Korean celebrity in the shop (at 3AM), but nobody could remember what she was famous for, so I didn't even bother trying to talk to her or ask for an autograph.

I headed back to the hostel, napped on the couch for about 90 minutes (I am pretty sure they changed the keycode for my room), then got up at 6, cleaned up, ate some of the granola that Chris made me as a goodbye present, and got on the airport bus. The next several hours were a daze and I pretty much only remember using all of my remaining change to purchase a bottle of organic brown rice green tea, eating some airplane food including a nice celery, corn, lettuce, and kidney bean salad(and thinking about how airplane food, at least on trans-continental Asian flights, is generally fairly delicious) and waking up in Malaysia.

All in all, given the blood suction and lack of sleep and hectic last few days and long, disorienting flight, I am in remarkably good shape and may actually manage to survive my first night in Madras.

Did I mention the current temperature there is 38 celsius?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Two things

Usually, to my ears, Korean doesn't sound anything like the stereotypes of Asian languages I heard as a child. I'm talking about ching-chang-chong talk. This was even true when I first arrived and wasn't able to make sense of anything I heard.

But, check out this tongue twister that Chris just taught me:

간장 공장 공장장은 강 공장장이고
된장 공장 공장장은 장 공장장이다.

(a makes an "ah" sound, o makes an "oh" sound, i is like ee in "see," "eu" is like oo in "book", and "oi" sounds like "way" (including the w). The consonants are straightforward.)

Ganjang gongjang gongjangjangeun Kang gongjangjang-igo
Doinjang gongjang gongjangjangeun Jang gongjangjang-ida.

Word-by-word translation:
Soysauce factory factoryboss Kang factoryboss-isand
Soybeanpaste factory factoryboss Jang factoryboss-is.

The soy sauce factory factoryboss is Factoryboss Kang, and
the soybean paste factory factoryboss is Factoryboss Jang.

In other news, my India visa came in the mail today. Now all I need is some work clothes, malaria tablets, and a bucket of sunscreen.

The Price of Travel, part 2

The previous installment recounted my pecuniary exploits between the months of December 2008 and July 2009. Now for the more interesting, less useful, more reflective, less objective installment.

Astute observers will recall that I have tried to do something like this before in a post entitled "Anniversary," which I wrote long after I had returned from Italy and shortly before I came to Korea. If you have 4.25 paragraphs' worth of extra time, read it and see for yourself whether or not I succeeded. [The post is also interesting for more introspective reasons - it to some degree prefigures my current writing style and it is, as a blog ought to be, I suppose, thoroughly revealing of my mindset at the time: the writing is so annoying and self-absorbed/referential that one can immediately see why I was unable, at that point, to even consider getting a "real job."] (I had read "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” just a few months before and was as enamored with Dave Eggers then as I am with David Foster Wallace now. Would any amateur psychologists out there who know the name of my earliest childhood friend care to make some conjectures?) I am not the only one who views the aforementioned post in such a despairing light. I hereby quote Adam's scathing response. Woe, such cynical wisdom for a lad of 23 sun-orbitations!

"I can't really blame you though [for failing in my attempt to create a meaningful account of my time in Italy], trying to say meaningful things is mainly a waste of time and if you actually succeed in doing so you are probably committing some sort of plaigarism[sic]." (Winner, "Paella, Flamenco, y Tapas." 02 August 2006. Sufficiently cited. This is not plagiarism and therefore does not, in and of itself, prove your point, Past-Adam.)

Though the task I have set myself may be impossible, I hope you’ll indulge me while I quote David Foster Wallace again, this time from his essay "Consider the Lobster" (from the book of the same name). The context: DFW is asked by Gourmet magazine to report on the Maine Lobster Festival and, eclectic genius that he is, winds up writing an essay on the ethics of eating lobsters, with some digressions on the meaning of intranational travel. Clearly, both are issues related to ones I think about and deal with frequently. [End Preface, Begin Post]

"As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it's only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let's look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way - hostile to my fantasy of being a true individual, of living somehow outside and above it all...To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is an inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing."

Doubtless, one may take issue with the rhetorical excesses of the passage and question the aptness of some of the metaphors – I wonder, in particular, what the “dead thing” he mentions is supposed to be. Cities, even ones full of zombietourists, are alive, are they not? It should also be pointed out that Wallace is talking about intranational (read: specifically contiguous-48 American) tourism, whereas my limited experience lies elsewhere. [staggered alliteration, booya]. Actually, I suppose that every time I mention tourism, tourists, and travelers, I am thinking of my experiences in Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand, and not about Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, or Western Europe.

Nonetheless, I (masochistically?) love the way DFW’s paragraph skewers the (paradoxically?) indie-yet-standard image of the tourist who heads off to exotic lands (cf. above list) in order to experience a radically different type of life, enlightening and being enlightened by the natives he encounters along the way. This preconception of what a traveler is and does may seem like a straw man, but I promise you, many people do think this way. I frequently heard 20-something American, Canadian, and Western Europeans boast about how they had managed to “get off the tourist track” and how they pitied all those lame tourist-types with their noses stuck in their guidebooks who would have nothing to show at the end of their trip except for a mostly crossed-off checklist. I myself, not immune to peer pressure, and not wanting to argue with people I hardly knew, must certainly have participated in and even encouraged such scornful commentary, though I hate to admit it. Such conversations took place in restaurants in Phnom Penh with menus printed in English, over milkshakes, before hitting the hip-hop club and then heading back to the hostels. And they took place in a longhouse in a Hmong village in Northern Laos, over bottles of beer that some villager had lugged over our “trekking” terrain, and which he would carry back to town (or maybe just toss them into the woods), empty, sometime after we had had our fill. And so on.

Of course, one can’t blame travelers for searching out some sort of authenticity while on the road. Nobody wants to spend thousands of dollars on tickets and luggage and special water-wicking pants just to wind up at a McDonald’s ten thousand miles away. And yet, when a good number of people with a decent amount of money go looking for “authenticity,” surprise, a market springs up. People are willing to provide it for you. Food just like villagers eat. Tree-huts with zip lines that give you an exhilarating, if previously unavailable, view of the highest canopies of the forest. Traditional pants with elephant designs. Treks to see the Long-necks. Shuttles from the train station to your hotel, with AC and a bath tub and a mini-fridge and TV channels in 11 languages and a travel agent at the front desk for your convenience. Nevermind that “authenticity” is exactly what can’t be pre-packaged and provided at pre-determined places and prices (Incidental Ps, I swear.), exaggerated and molded to be exactly the sort of thing the traveler was hoping to see. “Authenticity” can only exist when nobody is looking for it, when it’s on nobody’s mind, when nobody cares whether it exists or not. This is what I take DFW to mean when he talks about how traveling ontologically spoils itself.

One can also view said elusive “authenticity” in another light – that is, everything that one comes across is equally authentic, simply because it is. If the ontologically self-spoiling conception of authenticity were to be depicted, I think it would look like Escher’s ants on a Mobius strip, walking endlessly, never able to corner what they’re after. On the other hand, the notion that everything in the (traveling) world is indeed authentic, in the sense that it is actual, reminds me of an Ouroboros, consuming itself until some event horizon where all logic breaks down. If this is the case – if everything is authentic, because it’s there and people made it and people are using it – then the concept implodes on itself, there are no distinctions to be made, nothing to open one’s eyes onto, other than the bare factual present of a place far away.

For rhetorical reasons, it’s tempting to say that the traveler is bound to confront these and other contradictions, or paradoxes, or apparent paradoxes, or at least twists and turns and snags, but the truth of it is, one can easily sidestep them. If one thinks of travel as another form of leisure, not too different from heading to a new restaurant that opened up on the other side of town, then such concerns vanish. This isn’t exactly “disillusioned” travel, but it does seem to me to be devoid of the hope and urgency that, for some reason, seem such an integral part of traveling in the less-developed world.

This is all on my mind, clearly, because I’m about to head to India for a while and I want, kind of, to be in the optimal mindset. Shall I, DFW-style, take the grim and steely-eyed approach of not expecting anything earth-shattering, life-changing, or perspective-shifting? Think of it just as an extended period of consumption of services in an unfamiliar place? Isn’t that a bit drab?

An alternate title for this post: Why would one go to India just to plant trees?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

How to spot a fauxbo

On the left: visa photo taken in November, 2008, just before my wandering around Southeast Asia began. Stamped by the Laotian embassy in Ho Chi Minh city, booya!

On the right: visa photo taken in Seoul in late July, '09, while preparing for my Korean work visa, which of course will not be issued until...

In the future: photo taken in February, 2010, after I return from 5 months of farming and fauxboing in India. What will future Mike look like then? Does anyone have photoshop skills?

That's right, preparations have (mostly) been made and I have every intention (yes, all of them, collected over a few weeks or so) of leaving Korea for India in about 10 days, provided my visa arrives in the mail tomorrow, as the embassy just promised me.

I'm going to start my journey in Chennai (formely Madras), which is located near the Southern tip of India in Tamil Nadu province. A little south of there is an old French town called Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry), a few kilometers from which one can find the Sadhana reforestation project. In addition to reforestation, there are also ongoing efforts to improve the water, grow organic vegetables, and live quiet and sustainable lives. The minimum stay is two weeks, but I might stay longer depending on how great it is.

After that, there is a whole network of other farms and volunteer opportunities, in addition to all the normal travel options. New Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Sri Lanka. Food. Diarrhoea.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Future Quotations

Dude! Check out this BBC news article. The first part is written almost entirely in the future tense. I suppose that's not terribly weird, but don't future quotations like like

""No matter what you want to do with your life - I guarantee you'll need an education to do it," he will say."

strike you as a little bit awkward? Or

"Being successful is hard," Mr Obama will say - and he will point to figures such as JK Rowling and Michael Jordan, who he will say overcame initial failures in order to find success."

Couldn't the author have taken the indirect quotation route,, saying something like "Obama will say that studying is important" rather than quoting something that hasn't actually been said yet?

Also, allow me one SNOOT moment: "But even before President Obama had delivered his speech, it was attracting criticism from conservatives." Does the author not innately know that the pluperfect tense is used to show the temporal relation between two events in the past? Why would he possibly use it to try to describe a future event? Maybe he's just planning to use the line again next week.

I guess the real question is why I continue to read BBC news briefs despite how frequently the grammar frustates me. Is it possible to be a linguo-masochist?

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Price of Travel, part 1.1

A small update:

In addition to costing over $1000 a month, traveling also causes you to lose between 5 and 7 kilos and reduces your pullup skills by 30-50 percent. I think I am now officially scrawnier than I was in high school - a feat which I had previously assumed impossible.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Price of Travel, part 1

Quite a long time ago, I think in July, I wrote that I would make a post regarding both the cost of travel and maybe some reflections on the experience as a whole. Then I got caught up preparing for the move to Korea, and I didn't get around to it. Here it is.

I left Korea on December 1st and did my bumming until February 9, at which point I started the CELTA course. The cost of those 9ish weeks was $2863.98. That's about $318 a week, or $45 a day. (That's a lot more than I remember spending, actually, but I think about 5% of it was bank fees: $5 every time I withdrew at an ATM or used the card to buy a plane ticket or something). I didn't realize I spent that much, but included in that amount are a flight from mainland Malaysia to Borneo (no boats during the monsoon season), some flights around Borneo to caving sites (accessible only by plane), a flight back to the mainland, a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap/Angkor Wat, Cambodia (Thai visa wasn't ready), visas for Cambodia and Laos, innumerable bus tickets, and of course breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, drinks, and acommodation. It does not include the tickets from Seoul to Taipei, Taipei to Singapore, or Bangkok back to Seoul, which I bought in advance for about 1 million won, or $750 at that time.

After the CELTA course, another week and a half in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, and 10 days or so in Korea, I headed back to the states. The bosses were obligated to pay for my ticket, which they did. Between 28 March and 13 July (let's call it 14 weeks), I spent approximately $3312, or $236 a week, or $33 a day. This included bus tickets in California and Nevada, one massive Amtrak ride from Reno to Boston, and flights from Boston to Virginia and Virginia back to Wisconsin. Plus a rental car for one week. It only half-included food (since I spent a good amount of time with family) and included less that $100 worth of hotel/hostel fees (incurred during the Zehornide holy matrimony).

So, if you are wondering what it costs to be unemployed for 8ish months, there you go. About $6000, in my case. This doesn't take into account, of course, the "opportunity cost," i.e. amount of money I could have made during that time had I been working. Then again, to be fair, when you're working, your paycheck doens't reflect the opportunity cost of all those experiences you missed by doing the same crud in the same place day in and day out.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A Modicum of Progress

With reference to the previous post, I have ruled out option number 1 (staying in Korea). As is standard with contracts here, schools are supposed to provide the teachers with apartments, so when I visited 영진 (the school I agreed to work for), I got a tour of my future apartment, and it was pretty sweet. Unfortuntely, I can't start living there until February, though I even asked if I could just pay rent to stay in the meantime, since it's going to be empty. The answer was no. Thus: No place to stay, plenty of places to go.

I also had a few other opportunities to work here, but it occurred to me that I've been teaching English in Korea for just over 2 years now and will be doing it again in 5 or 6 months, and there's nothing other than inertia compelling me to do it in the interim as well. Time to do something. Something that fulfills the following Criterions:

1) Must take place in an exotic/exotified foreign land.
2) Must not cost too much money.
3a) Must be more fulfilling than last winter in Southeast Asia. (see future post with another DFW quotation for elaboration and elucidation, perhaps with a counter-post from my temporary host Chris, a "fellow traveler" over on the left there, unless you're reading this upside-down, in which case I guess he's on the right).
3b) Must do somebody, or the environment/everybody, some good.
4) Must somehow contribute to "my development," not that I know what that means.
5) Must be conducive to vegetarianism.

What magic contraption can do all of these things while still being enjoyable? One answer, it appears, is WWOOFing, which stands for WorldWide Opportunity on Organic Farms. It's an organization that facilities communication between fauxbauxs like myself (I suppose realbauxs are also eligible, or perhaps WWOOFing is itself one path to realbauxhood) and hosts, who generally provide accomodation and sustenance in exchange for 4-6 hours of labor each day, either on a farm or some other kind of project.

Over the past few years, thanks to authors like Michael Pollan and Peter Singer and recently betrothed friends like Justin and Anna Horn-Zeide or Zeide-Horn or Zehornide or Hozeidern or whatever surname they have finally settled on, I've become a lot more interested in the processes by which we produce and obtain food nowadays. This probably also has something to do with the widening of my culinary horizon forced upon me by my impromptu move to Korea way back in '06 [3 years in December! Indubitable yet incomprehensible!}. I always used to be a little freaked out that I knew how to use a TV but really had no idea about how iti worked. And even when I started learning to play around with computers in middle and high school, it eventually dawned on me that though I was capable of reinstalling operating systems and installing new hardware, I really knew very little about how stuff worked at more basic levels.

It wasn't until a little more recently, though, that I realized that I face a similar sort of bewilderment about most, if not all, the food I eat. I have no idea where it came from, who caught it or grew it, how they did so, how long they've been doing so, whos' subsidizing them, what they think about what they produce and how they produce it, what they think about their customers, what their goals are, etc. Not to mention conditions on meat farms/CAFOs. I'm sure most people would be equally perplexed if they were in the habit of trying to think thoroughly about their food.

So, at this point, heading to a farm somewhere - maybe even one with solar-powered water heaters and human waste composting toilets - to plant trees and dig ditches and pick fruit and build huts and eat vegan (not vegans) seems like a good way to spend the winter. I don't think I'm particularly compelled by concepts like living in harmony with mother nature or treating the world with respect, but I'm defiinitely interested in trying something a little simpler, a little more self-sufficient, and also, hopefully, delicious.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Well, due to some issues totally beyond my control and in fact completely unrelated to me, the school mentioned in the previous post will be unable to provide me with a work visa for the upcoming semester. They have said, however, that they will keep my position open until next semester (which starts in March) and would be happy to employ me then. They'll even let me start my contract with a month of paid vacation as an apology.

What does this mean?

It seems to me that I have two choices. Actually, I have a multitude of choices, but I will organize the attractive ones into the following two groups:

1) Chill out in Korea for a few months, maybe taking classes and just hanging out with friends.

2) Take the chance to travel again to, say, Burma (1 friend there), Indonesia (1 friend there), Taiwan (1 friendly family there), Japan (1 set of parents' friends there), Thailand (several friends), Italy (1 friend), India (just sweet), or China (also sweet?). I still have Korean money to burn and, knowing that I'll have a job in the near future, it doesn't seem over-the-top to extend my fauxbauxing even more. You know what I'm sayin?

Monday, August 03, 2009

A word I am probably not the first to have coined:

Fauxbo (n.): one who likes to imagine that he is living the derelict, and therefore romantic, life of a vagabond or wandering street urchin, but who was by age of eight earning more for picking up pinecones in the back yard than millions of others earned through backbreaking labor, who has a lifetime of more or less stable employment guaranteed to him merely by virtue of being born a certain color in a certain place and time, and who still has an undeniable need for conveniences and creature comforts such as food that doesn’t look funny, periodic or even frequent warm showers, deodorant, gmail, and blogging.

That definition was written in order that you might understand the following statement: my 7-month-ish period of being a fauxbo has come to an end. This is not because I have given away my money and successfully shed my upper-middle class desires and prejudices, but rather because I have at long last become employed as a white guy who can dress up and speak English in front of pupils (who could probably care more or less) at an educational institution (which itself could probably also care more or less [insofar as institutions may be said to be capable of caring or not caring in the first place]).

The institution in question is 영진전문대학(Yeungjin Specialty University, or Yeungjin College), which happens to be located in Daegu, within about 15 kilometers of my previous job. As far as I can tell, Yeungjin is pretty much a junior college or vocational school. It hast departments of tourism, business, engineering, beauty, etc, and places little emphasis on the humanities. Which is fine, because if everyone were a fauxbo like me, there’d be nobody to actually accomplish anything. Though, of course, whether anything is actually worth accomplishing is a question only the humanities can pretend to be the only one to be able to answer. No, that wasn't a typo.

I wasn’t intending to come back so close to where I had been working and probably only about 5% of the positions I applied for were in the area. Nonetheless, of the 10 or so interviews I did, and the 5 or so positions I was offered, this one seems to have the longest non-teaching time (4 or 5 months!), though I’m not allowed to go abroad for all or even most of it. The kicker, though, is that THERE ARE NO FRIDAY CLASSES. 3-day weekends for an entire year. I am going to read so many linguistics books hat I’ll probably go totally solipsistic and get lost in minute self-analysis every time I attempt an utterance. Which will mean the end of the blog as you know it. But by that point, I won't care, now will I?

Last weekend, I met a {Scottish} fellow who’s been teaching at Yeungjin for a semester and he took me on a mini-tour of the campus. Everything seems pretty nice. The buildings have smooth, shiny, marbly floors with corridors that are creepily wide when bandoned, as during the summer months. One (Korean) friend has told me that the flower blooms brought on by spring are enough to make one intoxicated. There are tennis courts and badminton courts and a faculty cafeteria, and the foreign teachers (12 or so, 6 new like me) have an office together. There is apparently only 1 level of English class, and thus only one book, such that despite teaching 18 lessons a week I only have to plan for 3 or 4. And that’s if I don't bum a lesson plan off of a colleague. Not that I intend to do that.

The Scotsman also showed me his crib, which one assumes will be similar to mine. It was a little bigger than my old one, some 550 square feet, with a better veranda and a much-hyped and therefore moderately disappointing view of a river and some trees. Many, if not all, of the University’s English-teaching faculty are housed in the building, I think even on the same floor, so living will be very dormirific.

With the job search finished, I pretty much get to kick back and enjoy some downtime in which to read

(DFW-STYLE INTERPOLATION, THOUGH REALLY IT’S MORE OF AN ASIDE: I am currently reading Black English, an old book from ‘72 explaining why it's completely wrong to assume that standard Black dialect is basically just a version of Standard White/Written English with all the grammar removed. I will admit that even though the linguist in me has long prodded me to say thingsike “Black English isn't wrong, it's’s just different," the former was more or less in fact my underlying attitude. That is, if I had heard the phrases "I done go," I done gone” “I done went," "I done been gone," or "I been done gone," I would havand assumed the speaker meant “I went," but didn't know how to properly express verb tense and aspect. But apparently, if you know how to decode them, such sentences actually contain information about the act in question - in some cases, even, informaton that Standard White/Written English tends to leave out. There’s even a difference between "he sick" and "he be sick," both of which I would have assumed were simple cases of deciding to leave the copula uncojugated or even out in order to simplify thtence and get rid of redundancy. END INTERPOLATION)

, do a bit of extra planning for camp classes, run around Seoul with the other camp teachers (material for a future post), meet a few old friends living in the area, keep studying Chinese character, and worry about my new job, though by all accounts it ought to run smoothly.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Day 1 Checklist.

(I wrote this the first night I arrived but haven't been able to post until now due to lack of internet at home, lack of time at work, and lack of USB sticks in general.)

1: Offend the person next to you on the plane. Check.

Sitting next to a Korean lady on the plane. We wind up talking a bit. She's been living in Virginia for a while, has 3 daughters, 2 of whom are twins doing missionary work in Brazil, and 1 who's going to William and Mary. She asks if I'm a missionary and I reply in the negative, managing to keep my mouth shut about how dumb I think missionaries are. I impress her by (unostentatiosly, of course) doing Korean and Chinese flash cards on my new used netbook. Then I shame myself and doutbless offend her missionary sensibilities by watching the movie "Borat..." How could I have possibly known in advance that the two dudes, one of them obscenely obese, would get into a naked wrestling match in their hotel room? The lady turned slightly away and pretended to be sleeping for the next 6 hours.

2: Lose 2/3 of your luggage, by mass. Check.

As we are about to get off the plane in Seoul, the PA comes on and calls my name, telling me to see a gate attendant. I immediately know what this is about, since my San Francisco-Seoul layover was only 1 hour long and was already boarding by the time I rushed over from my arrival gate. Somehow, one of my bags got left behind. It happens to be the one with deodorant and soap in it. It also happens to be the bag that I stuffed to 49 or 49.5 or 50 lbs (50 being the limit). The lost & found agent doesn't mentoin the weight or a potential fine. Supposedly, it will be delivered tomorrow night.

3: Meet a Walnut Lady. Check.

After getting my 1 lonely bag full of pants and dress shirts I don't need for the upcoming camp, I call the guy who hired me from a payphone (using my subway/bus card, pretty sweet), who directs me to take a bus ride then a subway ride and says he'll meet me at the station. I get to the place in question, and they don't have public phones. I have to explain to the lady selling snack cakes that even though I have a phone, I just got to Korea and haven't been able to activate it, but I really need to call this fellow so he can let me into my apartment. She calls on my behalf, introducing herself to my semi-boss as "the walnut lady." I thank her but don't buy any of her treats. I should probably go back and do that tomorrow.

4: Look awkward at convenient store. Check.

Setting up the house, I realize I don't have any TP. I walk down to the corner store but can't buy anything because I don't have plates, pots, or utensils at home. I come out carrying one roll of TP and a 2 liter bottle of corn husk tea. Or, to translate directly, Corn M(o)ustahce Tea.

5: See a feral toilet and receive expletives. Check.

In one of the alleys on the way "home," there are some toilets and sinks in the street. Not portopotties. Recentlyuninstalledpotties. Or maybe Soontobeinstalledpotties. Later, there's a little yellow triangular sign that in the USA would probably say "Wet Floor / Piso Mojado." Here, it says (in Korean), "Let's bathe!" I am pretty sure there must be a sauna in one of the buildings. I pass a Korean guy who looks to be a university student. Just like me, he's wearing a baseball cap and carrying an umbrella. I am pretty sure that just as soon as we leave each other's peripheral vision I hear him whispser under his breath (in Korean): Fucker.

6: Beat up a stranger: No check.

7: Perform at least one act of norm-subversion: Check.

Placed plums in the egg grooves in my mini-fridge.

8: Accidentally get self wet. Check. (Don't ask how it can be a goal to do something accidentally.)

Forgot that in Korean bathrooms, shower heads and sinks share a water line. Result: soaked left forearm.

9: Drink out of a cup with at least 5 dead mosquitoes in it. Check.

Note to future self: inspect new housing more thoroughly.

Day 1: 88ish% of goals accomplished. Not too bad.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

ETD: 4 Days

You may recall that about 4 months ago, I wrote a pretty schmaltzy post about leaving Korea "for good" after two years and then some.

But, as most of us more or less knew I would, I am going back. To be specific: I'm going to work a summer camp at Soongsil University, which happens to be ranked #24 in Korea, for what it's worth, which probably isn't much because my students will all be elementary schoolers. We'll see.

The camp starts on July 15th and goes until mid-August, but my visa lasts until late September. This is quite a boon, since it means I won't get deported after the camp even if I haven't yet found another school to sponsor my visa. I don't anticipate any troubles - I've got applications in dozens of universities and have done or planned interviews with several of them, and anyway if I don't get a university post in Korea there are hundreds of other places I could go - but it's nice to have the security.

I'm hoping to get out another post later this week about traveling and how much it cost (in case you are planning some future travels, [wink nudge]) and what it felt like and what (if anything) I learned, complete with another quotation from David Foster Wallace, who you're probably sick of by now. But, in my humble opinion, the dude was a genius, not to mention quite often hilarious. So deal with it.

Stay tuned~~

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


is an acronym used (I was really tempted to say "popularized," but I'm pretty sure that wouldn't be true) by David Foster Wallace in his essay "Authority and American Usage," in which he gives a book review of a guide to English usage, which is the sort of book meant to clarify where to put articles and commas and when to say "affect" or "effect." Though I think a fill-in-your-own-acronym challenge would probably produce some entertaining comments, I am going to go ahead and spoil the surprise: SNOOT stands for either "'Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or 'Syntax Nudninks* Of Our Time;" which one it stands for depends on whether you yourself are or are not a SNOOT (Consider the Lobster, 69)

In case those defintions don't clear it up for you, a SNOOT is a person who enjoys and takes pride in searching out, ruminating on, and perhaps even correcting faults in others' use of language. I'm sure that many of you honorable readers recognize this quality in yourselves, and I'm even more sure that all of you recognize (and detest) it in me. DFW has many humorous and illumining (intentional SNOOT word) things to say about SNOOTs, but lest my preface wind up being longer than the rest of my article, I'll get to my point:

I bring up SNOOTiness because in a period of about an hour this afternoon I had no less than five distinct moments when I thought to myself "wow, that guy just did something funny with my language." (A quick way to gauge your level of SNOOThood: did you twinge when you noticed that I just [intentionally, for the express purpose of this addendum, yes, I do put lots of thought into some of these entries] wrote "less" instead of "fewer" in the previous sentence? The more disappointed you were with my writing, the SNOOTier you are.)

Now, perhaps to your surprise, I am not the SNOOT I once was. With each day that passes, each Korean/Chinese/Pidgin English/Piraha phrase that I learn, I feel myself drifting further away from the prescriptivists and more into pure bafflement and wonder at the fact that language works at all. Thus, I present the following utterances not in order to mock the utterers, but to try to figure out what's going on.

The first three came from, of all people, Wimbledon commentators. (Yes, I actually scrambled to find a piece of paper and write them down during the match. I am apparently more into linguistics than tennis.) Note that these are professional men and women who make their money because they are ostensibly good with words, not members of some lower-class group who were never taught to speak "proper/correct/real" English.

1) "This is the most amount of tennis he's played in a long time." I don't even know how to describe what's wrong with this. I'm tempted to say that because "tennis" is uncountable, you can't modify it with "amount," but it's easy to think of counterexamples that seem to invalidate that point. I'm also tempted to say that "the most," being a superlative, should be followed either by an adjective or a plural noun, and that "amount" is uncountable and so inelegible; but it's not too hard to imagine a sentence like "He has different amounts of x and y," so that can't be it either [ASIDE: This phrase is apparently commutative and could also be/have been written, "It can't be that, either."]. Maybe it's just an idiosyncracy or inconsistency of English that we can say "the greatest amount" or "the largest amount" but not "the most amount." Interesting how the commentator could have avoided the whole awkward fiasco by just making the sentence two words shorter in the first place.

2) "If Roddick was to break here, it's going to be a quick set." The problem here, aside from the use of "was" instead of "were," which is probably an archaic rule already, is that the speaker mixes his conditionals. Normally we English speakers have a pretty good way of dealing with this: we use different verb tenses and moods to indicate the probability of the event happening. i.e.:

present + present/future: a habit, or likely, or at least not unlikely, or maybe even a promise
present subjunctive (looks identical to the simple past) + conditional: unlikely but possible
past subjunctive (looks like past perfect) + past conditional: logically impossible

The commentator here mixes the 2nd and the third, which is why we (by which I mean "I") get that weird feeling of disjunction. Does the commentator think the event is likely or not? I can't tell.

For the record, from what I've heard, Chinese grammar doesn't make these distinctions and instead leaves it up to context. On Chinese TV, you'd probably hear the equivalent of "If Roddick break, be quick set." Italian, on the opposite end of the spectrum, avoids some of English's ambiguity by having a mood (the subjunctive) dedicated to counterfactuals. Because this mood rarely takes the same form as the simple present or past, people don't get confused about how to use it. NONETHELESS, Italians still avoid using the subjunctive and often use the plain imperfect/past progressive tense instead. Lazy.

3) "Even if he's tired, he could still serve big." I don't know exactly what's going on here either. Out of context, this phrase is probably entirely acceptable, since we often use "could" to make suggestions. But from the speaker's intonation here you could tell that wasn't the case. I think the speaker meant to convey the thought, "Even though he's tired, he can still serve big." So why change "though" to "if"? I suppose you can't be 100% sure whether or not the guy's tired, so you go with the hypothetical. But why use the conditional "could" when it's clear that the player currently is serving big? I don't even know how to elaborate any further on this one, which is probably just as well.

4) This one was said by an NPR reporter, again, someone who(m) I would expect to be a little better trained: "...Michael Jackson's death, which was probably inevitable...." I realize I'm just being picky, and what he most likely meant was that Michael Jackson, being Michael Jackson, was not likely to die a normal and straightforward death, and so all the less-than-interesting mysteries and shenangins we are now being affronted with were not wholly unforeseeable. Unless he meant to imply that he might just live on like, say, Elvis.

5) Finally, one from the guy working at the produce stand where my mother and I just purchased a few peaches. As we're checking out, I slide behind a wall and out of his field of vision. Bidding farewell to my mom in his southern accent, he says "You have a good day now." Then I pass in front of him and he stutters embarassedly and says: "Y'all have a good day now." To me, the "you" in his first sentence was plural, and so I thought what he had said was entirely natural and appropriate ; to him, though, the "you" was singular. He thought he'd failed to wish me well, so he redressed the slight by using the less ambiguous "y'all." Contrary to my SNOOTy understanding of "y'all" as a non-word, or at least a kind of brute, class-revealing term, in this case, it was actually used to be even more explicitly polite. How dumb is it that we don't have a pronoun for you (plural), anyway? What would you think if you were studying a foreign language and there were words for I, you (singular), he, she, it, you (plural), and they, but not for "we"? The word that comes to mind for me is "bogus."

Just one more fact, then I'll conclude. The Piraha language, spoken by less (SNOOT sense activated!) than 500 people in the Amazon, has the following pronouns (the superscipt numbers indicate tones):

ti³ "I"
gi¹xai³ "you" (sing.)
hi³ "he" (human)
"she" (human)
i¹k "it", "they" (animated non-human non-aquatic)
si³ "it", "they" (animated non-human aquatic)
"it", "they" (non-animated)
ti³a¹ti³so³ "we"
gi¹xa³i¹ti³so³ "you" (pl.)
hi³ai¹ti³so³ "they" (human?)
This raises some interesting questions, like: can Pirahas tease their friends by referring to them with pronouns that refer to aquatic or non-animated things? And how can a Piraha talk directly to a river dwellers if there's no aquatic "you" word? Imagine a life where the sentence "[baby voice] you're such a cute little anaconda, yes you are!!" is impossible. Tragic!

I am impressed if you made it this far. Actually, there is another entire section of this post which I meant to include but decided to leave out. Fear not, I'll get to it in the coming days. Thank you for venturing into my mind. You deserve a break.

*Sorry for the bogus link. I thought it was funny. If you haven't yet tried following the link, sorry for ruining it for you.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

I'm broke as the Ten Commandments / Sometimes I'm harder to follow

Let it be said that after about 7 months of vagabondage, I am now about 85% of the way back to being employed again. This is because I went up to DC today to apply for a visa so that I can go return to Korea to work a summer camp. Thus, barring any horrific failure to obtain a visa, I should be back in Asia and playing tricks on little kids again by mid-July. Still no sweet high-paying, long-vacation-giving, little-work-requiring university gig, but sooner or later, that'll come.

On to my point: I must say that my few months back in the USA have been an unmitigated success. I saw most of the branches of my family kudzu and I may just have managed to spend time with all of my friends, with the exception of two living in Europe, whom I graced with my presence back in '07. (If you are a friend I didn't visit, feel free to insert an "almost" into the previous sentence in whatever place would make it least insulting.) The experience of checking up on and hanging out with everyone has occasioned in me some very serious thoughts about the nature of friendship and distance and love and life and cuddly puppies. Allow me to quote a certain Todd Snider:

You know,
If I ever do get my money together,
I'm gon' take care of all my friends
Gon' buy an island, run a phone line, call 'em
Tell 'em all to get fu**ed
Oh! That oughtta take care of them.
Just be me and my money.

It's hilarious when you hear it, I swear.

In case you were wondering, the humor here is an example of a paraprosdokian , or perhaps of syllepsis. But knowing this doesn't make it any funnier. In fact, it makes it less entertaining.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I've added some photos from the past 2 months. San Fran, Alturas, Boston, Philly, Madison.

Also, regarding the job offer mentioned in the previous post, it is pretty much going nowhere. The contract was funky and the lady, who was very nice during the interview, has stopped responding to my emails. Ah well.

I do have a summer camp position lined up in Seoul, which starts July 15th. So I guess I'll be going back to Korea by then. I also have numerous job applications pending and am waiting on the results of a few interviews for more long-term positions. But, I figure, if I don't get any, I can just go to Mongolia or something.

After 7 months of (much desired) unemployment, I may have forgotten what working is like.

Monday, June 01, 2009

계약할까 말까? (kye-yak halkka malkka?)

Means "Should I sign the contract?"

I ask this question because I have just now - after exactly 6 months of unemployment - been offered a position at Honam University in the city of Gwangju. In the Department of English Language and Literature, no less.

Needless to say, I'll post the result of my decision when the time comes.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

5(C) J(S)5(S)5(D)5(H)

I have now realized one of my few explicit life goals. It is: getting a 28 hand in cribbage. According to this page, there are 12 million 944 thousand 8 hundred possible cribbage hands, 7ty six of which can combine to make 28 points. So, depending on how you write it, the odds of getting such a hand are either 0.0006 or one in 15,028 or

6.65424541 × 10-5!

Have you ever done anything so improbable? (Existing doens't count because of the good old anthropic principle)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Superfluous subject substantives

Why does English need these? I'm talking about sentences like "It's raining" (Korean: "rain comes;" Italian: "rains") or "It's hot" (Korean: "hot;" Italian: "does hot.") This probably occurs more often than I realize, especially in what my Italian textbook called "impersonal expressions:" it's a shame that, it's too bad that, it's unacceptable that...

Why am I asking this, do you ask? Because of this AWESOME [lest you think that is merely my opinion, have a look at the innumerable number of stars in the top left corner] SONG (fake link! but follow it anyway) which answers that question of questions, "What is America?" Answer: It's America!!!

I will now display the lyrics, and comment IN BOLD AND CAPITAL LETTERS. Please take everything I write super-seriously (this is what happens when I spend 2 weeks in a county with only 1 radio station and no public recycling program), and don't neglect to delve into the labyrinth of wikipedia links I've set out for you.

Drivin' down the street today
They were the cutest kids (OTHER COUNTRIES DON'T HAVE CUTE KIDS)

As they handed me my glass
Smiled and thinkin' to myself
Man what a picture perfect postcard this would make

It's a man on the moon (TOUCHE`)
It's cities and farms (AMERICA INVENTED THEM BOTH)
It's America

Later on when I got home
I saw a little town that some big
People came from miles around (SCREW YOU, METRIC SYSTEM)
And I was thinkin' to my self
I'm so glad that I live in America (I'D RATHER LIVE SOMEWHERE WITHOUT TWISTERS)


Now we might not always get it right (FAIR ENOUGH)
But there's nowhere else I rather build my life (EVER TRIED?)

It's a farmer cuttin' hay (NO RICE HERE!)


Prominent video themes: handshakes 'n' hugs, soldiers 'n' flags, mechanics, baseball caps, samwiches
Conspicuously absent: non-whites who aren't dressed up in kitschy clothes. problems that can't be fixed up with a samwich.

Now, to lighten the mood: HONKY TONK BADONKADONK

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Chronological posting has begun. Photos from the first half of December (i.e. Taiwan, and Singapore) have now been uploaded.

UPDATE: The rest of December (Mainland Malaysia and Borneo) have been posted.

UPDATE: (15 April) Angkor Wat and the rest of the Cambodia photos are up.

UPDATE: (16 April) Vietnam photos are up.

UPDATE: (17 April) Laos and Chiang Mai pictures are up. That's the whole 10 weeks up until the CELTA course!

Friday, April 10, 2009

What the bus ride led up to



Hrm. Writing this post, I have an extremely awkward feeling. Probably because the people with whom I spent the most time over the past few days are the ones who are most likely to read and comment on it. Usually I can just make up realistic adventures and people will believe they really happened. In this case I ought to just stick to the facts. Thus:

Things recently done include:

-Spending Saturday-Wednesday at Yosemite with David and Andy Pekema(aka the "let's-pull-our-pants-down-and-take-a-picture-by-this-waterfall" brothers)
-- Preparing on Friday by going shopping for longjohns, plastic bowls and spoons, and a "sanitation trowel." I assumed this would be used to fling my excretions into the forest, but apparently you're supposed to dig a little pit and poo into it. You probably don't have to guess which I did.
-- hiking 45 miles or so over 5 days, over rocks and through muck and snow
-- lizard-resting on rocks in the sun, drinking purified stream water and snacking on GORP
-- eating untold amounts of aforementioned home-made GORP, plus salamei, peanut butter, and instant potatoes
-- sleeping in a sleeping bag on a tarp under the stars with piles of snow 15 feet away (aka "alpha-maling")
-- rinsing off in freezing stream water
-- taking photos of various shenanigans
-- not being afraid of bears. not even a little bit.

-Followed by several days with the illustrious Jeff Stepp, spent
--Visiting various ritzy malls in search of big, shiny watches.
--Visiting used book shops and stumbling across "The Mike Roy Cookbook No. 2" (LITERALLY!)
--Playing stupid amounts of a board/video game Jeff read about in Wired magazine called "Settlers of Catan."
--Cooking out of the "Grange Cookbook" purchased at the used book shop: aloha chicken, napoli pizza, peach crisp.
--Taking a mini-road trip from LA up to San Fran.
---First by driving up the 1, the westernmost road in the US (I figure), running along the Pacific coast.
---Stopping for a night at Morro Bay to watch seals or sea lions or whatever they were play in the marina while we had dinner.
---Going to Hearst Castle so a 65 year-old named "Art" could use his "tour" as a pretense to make about 6000 terrible puns.
---Driving through Greenfield, the town where I spent innumerable summers, looking at houses where my friends and I used to live, which have now been abandoned because the owners took out too many loans and were forced to foreclose.
---Spending an evening at Chez Pekema, eating free fish and ribs and seeing David and Andy's parents for the first time in 5 years or more.

As with the last 5 months' worth of hijinks, photos coming sooner or later.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Back in the 'States

I have arrived, though I was caught off-guard by the total lack of fanfare.

Took some buses to get from LAX to the home of the infamous DCP.

Had forgotten that buses are a form of lower-class transportation here in the states (whereas in Asia even people who are relatively well-off use them). Thus was unprepared for the assortment of passengers who were physically and mentally handicapped, old and overly-made-up, funny-smelling, funkily-garbed, gangsterish, grossly overweight, generally "different," or some combination thereof. Not that there were any truly weird incidents, except:

It was the bus driver's first day, or at least one of her first days, and she kept zooming past bus stops where would-be riders were seated, then she had to stop and wait for them to run and catch up with the bus. Upon entering, she would apologize and say she couldn't see them if they didn't stand up and hail the bus. Valid point, I suppose, but it happened about 8 times in under an hour.

Then she forgot that she was driving an abridged route and that she was supposed to kick us off halfway to Santa Monica. I was actually relieved when she kept on the route despite the automated announcement telling all the passengers to get off. But after another 10 minutes she got some warning message saying she was off course and she had to kick us all out and give us transfer stubs so we could take the next bus running the complete route. She did this and apologized.

I waited for about 10 minutes with 2 Russian tourists, one elderly black man who was looking for some veteran affairs office and took offense when people asked him if he meant the veterans' hospital, and a guy who looked like carrot top, except in a wheelchair. Logic problem: If two of the four people had bottles in paper bags, and the other two people were Russians, which country's citizens were in contravention of international booze stereotypes?

The next bus came and after some amazing (really, none of the standard sarcasm-masquerading as enthusiasm here, seriously) automated acrobatics that the bus did to help the wheelchair dude on, I stepped in with my bags. As I hauled 'em into the bus, the driver (understandably enough) asked if I was headed towards the airport. I told him no and then mentioned the stop where I was planning to get off, at which point he apologized to me, saying something like "I see. I'm really sorry sir. I was just trying to do my best to help. Please accept my apology." This obviously made me feel quite guilty - maybe I had replied really curtly? Maybe my time in Korea has given me some unnatural intonation? Maybe I only know how to converse with tourists and non-native speakers of english? Maybe I just turned into a huge prick? So I apologized and said that I hadn't meant to come across that way. Then he responded with another apology in a total scold voice: "No, sir. I was in the wrong. I was just trying to help but I made a mistake. Please accept my apology." Then I (surprise) commenced arguing with him about how he didn't need to apologize, telling him that his question was entirely sensible and that I appreciated his attempt to help me out. At which point he said: "You don't understand, sir. I'm a public servant and everything I say is taped. I am assumed to be wrong 100% of the time. Now please understand my situation. I'm sorry for asking and hope you'll accept my apology."

"I see. Alright. Thanks."

This was followed by an awkward 10 minutes until my stop, during which time I was wondering how our goodbye would play out. I thanked him and wished him a nice day. He did the same. Still in a scold voice.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Not counting this post, there is some freaky blog action going on. As of last night's entry, according to the "blog archive" on the left side of the page:

13 posts in 2006
50 posts in 2007
49 posts in 2008
13 posts in 2009 (so far)

You are free (pun!) to read divine providence into this if you'd like. I know I have/do/will.

설명 못 하겠다

(Meta: note the related changes in the blog title.)

I have now left Daegu for good, by which I mean for the foreseeable future.

According to a fancy online calculator, since I arrived the following amount(s) (does that parenthetical plural bring up interesting questions or what?!) of time have passed:
2 years, 3 months, 27 days OR
848 days OR
20352 hours OR
1221120 minutes OR
you get the point.

I'm not going to get all sappy-retrospective here.

With the exception of the following:

I still recall leaving Atlanta after Thanksgiving 2006 and not having a clue what I was getting myself into. And now, I've spent the last 10 days bumming around Seoul and Daegu, seeing a different friend or group of friends - almost all Korean! - every night. I've become so used to this place - the language, the people, the food, the cities - that I can hardly imagine being anywhere else for any stretch of time. My experience here has been fantastic beyond even my most optimistic expectations. I am trying to elaborate on that statement, but it feels so hard to do it justice.

두 마디로 말하자면: 한국, 고마워.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Something more annoying than the Bangkok heat:

I arrived in Bangkok yesterday morning at about 6AM via the night bus from Chiang Mai. It was a relatively pleasant 11-hour bus ride, including a midnight stop at a rest-stop where I got a fresh guava and a bag of dried dragon fruit chips for a dollar. I wasn't too keen on the part where at about 2AM the bus pulled into a gas station and just sat there for 30 or 45 minutes, for no apparent reason, doing nothing while the 50 passengers inside all exuded heat and made little exasperated grunts (in chinese, german, french, italian, australian, etc, but not thai) until we finally got going again.

Anyhow I was about 2/3 asleep by then, so I hardly noticed what was happening. I walked around for a while until I found a nice, cheap room, which didn't take long considering that this is the first time on the trip where I've arrived somewhere without either a reservation, a guidebook, or some kind of map. I managed to find a room for about 5 dollars a night on my 3rd try. The room is about the size of my mom's walk-in closet. Seriously. The single bed takes up about 80% of the floor space, and I can sit on the bed with my back against one wall, my knees bent almost up to my chin, and my feet both touching the other side. I know that for another 2 bucks a night I could get a better room but...I am tired of withdrawing and spending money and decided to try to live for 4 days on about 50 dollars. And I have to save about 15 of it for the airport, where I may or may not get fined for overstaying my visa by one day.

Now, about the resterday (portmanteau). I slept a little longer while it wasn't too hot, cleaned up, headed to the tourist info office on the corner to get a map, then set off. I just wandered in the direction of the super-huge temple with the "emerald buddha," but before I got there turned down a side street with people selling weird little coins, amulets, and inscribed stones. According to my map, there's a market at the end of the street, which is where I was intending on scrounging up some wonderful 75-cent pad thai noodles. But some dude stopped me and in surprisingly good English told me that it was the Buddha's birthday and that the place I was going was going to throw a big festival at 1pm (by then it was hardly 10) and that I should instead head up north a little to see the special 40-foot tall buddha, because admission was free until the afternoon. I told him I'd walk there and he said I should take a tuk-tuk (a thai taxi, basically an open cart attached to a motorbike) to make sure I get there and to the other attractions in time. I had been told to be wary of people telling you the places you wanted to go were closed, so I just thanked him and went on. I stopped at some little shrine to an old king and another guy came up to me and started giving the same story, chatting me up about where you from and where you go and how long you stay. I was already on my guard because of the previous fellow - who had actually been dressed pretty nicely, claiming to be a music teacher at the university - but couldn't quite get up the nerve to just walk off. Anyway he gave the the same rap, also making sure to let me know that the Buddha was 40 meters tall. I thanked him for the help and told him I'd walk that way, but that I didn't want to ride in a tuk-tuk because I'd rather get a good look at the city on the way. He insisted that it would only cost 40 baht (about a dollar) and I said I had no money anyway, at which point he slammed down my map on the shrine and started grumbling and I can only assume cursing.

I went on towards the huge temple and stopped at a restaurant and ordered some spicy egg salad and cold chinese tea for $1.50. Then I went into the temple complex and found myself in the middle of seriously about a thousand or more foreigners. I even had to fend off some old korean aunties who tried to hand me a damn pamphlet about the cult of the holy mother! The tickets to go in were over $10, so I skipped the main tourist attraction in Bangkok. Whatever. I'm a little tired of traveling, at this point.

I left the throng of mostly-whities and walked around the giant white castle-like perimeter of the temple complex. A Thai dude was following me, so I stepped off to the side to let him pass me, and he stopped and started up the exact same conversation; whereyoufrom ohfromcalifornia? ahiknowwashingtondc howlongyoustayinbangkok youcomeherebefore yourfirsttimeinthailand whereyougonow, then he asked for my map and circled the places with celebrations going on, and added that in order to celebrate the Buddha's birthday, the government was subsidizing tuk-tuk rides and I could get taken around all day for only about $1. I didn't believe him and said thanks but no thanks, but he even hailed a tuk-tuk for me (!), which stopped at the side of the road even though I was waving it on and shouting for it not to stop. Then the first dude went off and the driver got out and gave me the SAME spiel AGAIN. I was hot and broken down and couldn't handle being accosted every 20 minutes for the rest of the day, so I got in, agreeing to pay him 50 cents for a trip to the lucky sitting buddha and the marble temple, with stops at the government silk compound (you can watch them weave!) and a special jewelry expo (in between). I had my doubts but...

On the way to the lucky sitting buddha (by the way, in my amateur estimation, 50% of buddhas are standing, 48% are sitting, and 2% are lying down) we got stopped by a cop, so I figured if I were getting scammed I'd be told. However, we made it through the checkpoint and he took me to some small temple, which was totally un-festive and empty, except for 2 guards (1 in an army uniform) at the front and then a temple guide inside, with a clipboard and some forms. He talked to me about the 4 sitting buddhas, one of which was in a plastic case and allegedly made of gold. Looked like all the others. Except for the case. Seemed like a nice enough guy, and he told me a bit about the temple and the wall-murals, so I was nearly convinced of the legitimacy of the whole operation.

I joined up with my driver again, who had been waiting for me in the parking lot as we had agreed, and then it was off to the "silk factory," which was actually some Indian dude's shop only about twice as big as the aforementioned closet-room I'm s
staying in, though with shelves of silk. I told him I didn't want anything and didn't need a suit tailored, and he grumbled as I left. I got back in the tuk-tuk and didn't ask why I hadn't seen any weaving.

Then he took me to the "Marble Temple," which is a place on the map and one of the recommended temples on the Official Bangkok Tourist map. Again, it was deserted, except for two guards at the entrance. I asked one if it was a special day today, and he said yes, it was buddha's birthday. Then he asked if I had gone to a jewelry store yet and I said no, that was next. He asked if I was going to buy a ring and I said no. He said "I think American tourists are stupid." I thanked him (really, I didn't even know what else to say - mind you, he was wearing non-camouflage army fatigues) and went in. The temple was alright and I wandered around for a while, but made sure to check the name on my way out. Sure enough, I had been taken not to the Marble Temple (Thai name: Wat Benchamabophit) but to some other place, "Wat Saraya Vasam) or something. Not knowing where I was map-wise, I didn't let on that I knew what was happening, and instead just got back in and commented on how great the temple was!

On the way to the jewelry expo, the driver explained that to get a free government gas coupon for him, I had to spend some time in the store. I said I wouldn't buy anything, but he said I didn't need to. I asked how long, he said just a little while. He dropped me at the "expo" which was actually a little jewelry store about the size of your average McDonald's kitchen. I tried to draw out the fake-browsing and excuse-making process as long as I could, but I couldn't manage and started to make my way out. The woman who had been trailing me in the store and necessitating all those excuses told me I had to buy something for my dude to get a voucher, so I caved and bought a $3 wooden bookmark. I left and, upon entering the tuk-tuk, was asked if I had bought a ring. I said no and asked if he had gotten his voucher. He said no. I said he could probably get it because I had purchased the bookmark, but he just went on. We had agreed that he would take me to the 40 meter buddha, but he said the tour was over and dropped me off back where he had picked me up. I gave him his 50 cents and went off, just wandering around trying not to make eye contact with anyone, figuring I either was a novice tourist or at least looked like one, despite my dirty pants (been wearing them for 3 months!), Korean shirt, long greasy hair, out-of-control beard, and cheap corny baseball cap from a Malaysian Salvation Army.

I realize that at this point the story has lots of momentum to it and something awesome should have happened, like me reporting the dude to the authorities and them cuffing him, or some other tuk-tuk driver trying to trick me and me giving him a super Muay Thai elbow to the cranium. Or maybe he got in a terrible karma-crash trying to chase down another passenger? But actually I just walked around, sweating a lot, ignoring other guys who tried to start ostensibly friendly conversations, passing through a gigantic market completely empty of foreigners, buying savory jackfruit, and doing the usual.

So the moral of the story is: don't trust people who speak English. Except me.