To the Border!

The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) base commander looked at us strangely, clearly not comprehending that we had come to see the checkpoint, and not to travel beyond it. But they “have freedom now” he said of the people living north of the checkpoint, the checkpoint that once formed the border between Sri Lanka and Tamil Eelam.

This weekend, Sheela and I decided to head to Vavuniya (pronounced: Vowniya) and to Mannar. These two places are quite unique in Sri Lanka.

And so we found ourselves at the old border between Sri Lanka and Tamil Eelam in attempt to do a little tourism of Sri Lanka’s history. War tourism might be problematic, especially for people to make an industry off of the suffering of others—but this, I think, was a bit different—we wanted to see the old border and the old checkpoints (both Sri Lankan and Tamil Tiger). This border is important in Sri Lankan history for it’s obvious traumatic implications and it’s something that a self respecting foreigner living here should strive to understand. 

Furthermore, for Sheela’s film research purposes, the war features in some manner in virtually every movie that she has watched. One called Under the Sun and Moon, describes the story of a mixed Sinhalese, Tamil couple that was split by the war. The plot’s a bit complex, but the basic idea is that the husband met his future wife while he was in the Sri Lankan army. His had just killed the wife’s brother, a Tiger and his superior officer, furious at deaths in his unit, guns down the wife’s parents for harboring the Tiger and then trains his rifle on the wife. The husband saves her life by putting his gun to his superior officer. They marry and have a kid but the husband dies later in the war, and the wife goes back to Tamil Eelam with their child. The child has a medical condition that requires the kid to go Colombo under the care of an uncle.

The final climactic scene involves the uncle driving to the border to bring the child back to his mother, as artillery fire is landing around them. The checkpoints are big and imposing, with significant fortifications—and something, we thought by watching the movies, worth seeing.

(Under the Sun and Moon is a heart wrenching movies in a Sri Lankan style that portrays evil and humanity on both sides of the conflict.)

With the images of the border in our mind, we set off for the checkpoint. Thinking it would be a cool idea, we first started walking from Vavuniya. Only to discover, 5km in, after a bit of a map reading error (my bad) that the border was at Omanthai, about 30km up the road. Omanthai is a small village with maybe a couple dozen houses and shacks and maybe a petrol station.

But there are no border checkpoints anymore, only three years since the war ended. They’ve all been removed. The only thing left is a small checkpoint run by the SLA which notes down your passport information. That’s all. The officer, confused by our reason for visiting, called in the base commander, who explain in English that we were welcome to walk around as long as we didn’t take any photos. 

There’s nothing left to see. So we turned around to Vavuniya, nerves a little shaky at being present with so many army men and their machine guns.

Jackfruit for Dinner

We had jackfruit for dinner. That’s a jackfruit. It’s bigger than my head. A LOT bigger than my head. (Our jackfruit was small, about the size of my head). But you see HUGE jackfruit in the markets here for dirt cheap.

My mother says I should never eat anything bigger than my head. But it was oh so tasty in this recipe. Tastes just like chicken:

We’re planning a thanksgiving feast here—I know what I’ll be making.

One Month In: A Perspective

You may be wondering what exactly I’m doing in Sri Lanka, why I am here, what my raison d’etre is. I hope this post clarifies some of these FAQs.

Sri Lanka is something else. I’ve lived in foreign countries before, on my own, and with study abroad—so it’s nothing I’m not used to. I think most of all, though, is that this is the first time I’m living overseas on my own for an extended period of time. It’s definitely fun and exciting and I’m enjoying all of it. Just last night there was a Diwali celebration on the street outside our house. it’s basically like this long parade with banging drums, dancing and fireworks—you know the kind of drums in Lord of the Rings when the gremlins come up with their cave troll in the mines of Moria. THUMP THUMP THUMP.

From the way tuk tuks/3 wheelers have meters and the their obeisance to traffic signals, to cuisine and culture, Sri Lanka is different from India in many stark. It’s more than that people don’t generally try to rip you off that makes Sri Lanka “India Lite.” There’s something about the “feel” here. Comparing cultures is always a game of apples to oranges, but if one thing’s for sure, it sure as hell isn’t India. I do have to remind myself not to over-compare, as that becomes droll.

My reason for coming to Sri Lanka, the impetus for this sojourn, is Sheela. The rest, I figured, would fall into place. It has, surprisingly seamlessly. Within a few weeks I have found a steady “occupation” (working on my visa is a no-go), if you catch my drift, and I have found writing time to work on a book about the Bengal Gazette, the first newspaper in Asia. I’m in Colombo here with Discover Borderlands. Salary is $230/month as a copywriter for their website, but that goes a long way when my rent is only $96 a month.

I hope to complete this book project sometime within the next year or two. Saying I am writing a book as an occupation is not something I have been comfortable with—it is kind of something I have felt defensive about—I would have to explain my project to people even when I’m not too sure about it myself. Moreover, how do I actually make 18th century English?, which is my whole point. In addition to both of these things, I have been taking Sinhalese classes with the great teacher Michael Meyler so I’ve been kept very busy.

I’ve applied for a Fulbright to do research on British Colonial Newspapers and the Bengal Renaissance in Calcutta, so fingers crossed for next year if I’m lucky enough to be accepted!

Enough writing for now. The midday heat is coming on, and things slow down due to its overbearingness. Over and out, folks.

Country Roads And Country Music

My obsessive quest to figure out why all Sri Lankans know and love John Denver’s Country Roads has taken another turn. I first discovered this phenomena when they all knew the lyrics during Octoberfest here. Sheela just came across the Sri Lankan movie, Sisila Gini Gani, fimed in 1992. Some of the characters started singing “Country Roads”. This movie was filmed in 1992. So their love of this song has gone back at last 20 years.

I think I’m getting somewhere…

Also, in case you’re curious, you can easily find American country music on Sri Lankan radio stations. Why? I have no idea.

3AM Diwali

Just last night there was a Diwali celebration on the street outside our house. It’s basically this long parade with banging drums, dancing and fireworks.

Diwali is a Hindu celebration of the return of the Hindu god Rama after his 14 year exile from someplace that I’m not familiar with. Moreover, Ram defeats Ravana, who so happens to be the King of Sri Lanka. So, potentially a bit touchy that you’re celebrating the killing of Sri Lanka’s king. 

You know the kind of drum in Lord of the Rings when the gremlins come up with their cave troll in the Mines of Moria? That kind of drum. THUMP THUMP THUMP. Up from the deep.

Anyways, as I stumbled out of bed at 3am in the morning, I was mildly annoyed that these Hindus would have the gall to began a beating, bashing, banging procession of loud discordant noise. However, I was really annoyed that they had disrupted my normal midnight pee spot in the private garden in front of our house. How’s a man to whip it out in the “bright daylight” (thank you, fireworks and gigantic sparkler things) of 3am Colombo when there are three hundred Sri Lankans outside his door?

Disrupted pee spots aside, more culturally interesting about this Diwali celebration is that for some reason in Sri Lanka the Hindus celebrate Diwali with a icon of Buddha and a whole bunch of Buddhists flags, which is totally strange to Sheela and I, who have never seen the two religions conflated in such a manner.

My conclusion: A great holiday and “festival of lights” for the everyday insomniac and night creature. Not so great for normal sleep patterns.

Untitled: My purple marriage

Untitled: My purple marriage

The Rickshaw Driver

He had three sons. Only one son is still living.

Two died in the civil wars.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) killed his first son. The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) killed his second. His wife died of a heart attack in 2009.

He has only one son left. He has no family. His family, he said, “is his church.”

You can feel how real the war is, in the East. Minefields still kill, perhaps 120 in the last year. Almost everyone has been affected. Batticaloa suffered its share, being a hub of Tamil culture. (The civil wars in Sri Lanka were between ethnic Tamils in the North and East and Singhalese in the South and West.

On June 11, 1990 the LTTE massacred 600 police officers. LTTE soldiers surrounded the Batticaloa police station, separated the Tamil and Sinhalese officers, and brought the Sinhalese officers deep into the jungle in the Northeastern part of the country. There they tied the hands of the officers and shot them, leaving the bodies in the jungle. This atrocity existed among others committed by both sides during the twenty year way that divided the country.

The Singhalese Government defeated the LTTE after those long years in 2009. As I anticipate further trips to the North and East, I expect to see more damage from the civil wars. Most of all, I have noticed how hidden the damage is—you have to search to see it. Still, I am a newcomer and expect to learn more.

But, things ended on the brighter side with the rickshaw driver, as I hope they will remain for Sri Lanka. When asked, “what is your favorite thing about Sri Lanka?” He replied, “I love the shrimps.” The man’s got his mind in the right place.

Of Minefields and Movies

Our goal on Sunday was to reach one of Batticaloa’s famed, and empty, beaches. This was quickly stymied by the realization via Lonely Planet that to reach the beach the long way you have to pass a “well-defined minefield” to reach the beach. MINEFIELD!?!?! Well defined my ass. I’ve been in South Asia long enough to know that’s never the case. One wonders what could have happened if we had decided to try our shortcut…

Instead we decided on the much tamer option of watching a movie in Tamil, the language of most Batticaloans, and the language of the regional film powerhouse from Tamil Nadu, India Kollywood. Don’t ask me why it’s called Kollywood. Ask Sheela. Perhaps Telugu already got Tollywood?

Something strange, and makes absolutely no sense to me is that the movie was dubbed. Yes, it as a Tamil movie, and the audience (with the exception of us) was all Tamil. It’s like watching Harry Potter only to find that Harry, Rob and Hermoine’s voices have all been dubbed by other people speaking English. What the fuck?

I, still determined to see the ocean by any means possible, took a detour and walked to a beach. Absolutely gorgeous, and desolate, with fishermen’s boat sitting upside down on the beach. (This is the same beach the suffered tremendous damage during the 2004 tsunami) I sat down under a large tree for some quiet contemplation and reading. Next to me was a large Sri Lankan family. Faintly I heard the words “Where are you from?” Looks like I was about to become the center of attention, so I decided to ignore the question.

A few moments later I glanced up and noticed a girl walking in front of me, then around behind my bench. She asked, “Can I see your book?” So I show her, but she takes it from me! And with it, she runs back to her family, all giggling.

Great, guys. You took my book. Thanks.

Like a tempest, the family then rushed over to me, and crowded close around me. perhaps 20-30 in all, but only the girl could speak some English. The rest just asked me my name. All in all, lots of giggling and a genuinely heart warming experience.

They did give me my book back, and I enjoyed the beach in peace.

Now, I just went out to buy Sri Lankan ice cream. Sri Lankan ice cream is probably the most delicious store bought ice cream that I know of in the world—try the mango flavor. It’s time to consume a liter or two…Signing off.

Over to Batticaloa

This weekend we went to Batticaloa in the east, leaving Friday night and returning on Sunday. Batticaloa has a frontier feel, untrammeled by outsiders.A lazy city of 100,000 people, it sits on the Indian Ocean, and hosts a vibrantly diverse community of Tamils, Muslims and Burghers.  

We took the bus overnight there and found the journey to be incredibly crowded. The government bus—these are all painted red. Private buses are painted white. Every inch of isle space taken up and every seat occupied. There’s only so much sweaty arm pit in my face that I can stand. It’s also important to defend one’s leg space, as your knee can look like valuable real estate for someone else to rest their arm on if they are sitting in the isle. Thank god this isn’t India. More disturbing was the fight between a drunk father who two girls were visibly upset and crying and the ticket master. This weekend was a “poya” weekend and also Eid, so the entire country is essentially on vacation. Poya is a holiday that occurs with every full moon.

Arriving in the early morning, we set out immediately to find a guest house to find the first few all full. No matter, we started walking past the UN building, among other post 2004 tsunami development work buildings and encountered some wild dogs. Wild pack of family dogs?

That afternoon we did some exploration around the town and went to visit an old Dutch fort that had been built at first by the Portuguese (the Dutch took it over and expanded it). Lord knows how they got anything done in the heat. 10 minutes out in the 6deg north of the equator and I’m already sunburnt enough that I have to spend the rest of my trip hidden under an umbrella for shade—life here for my pale skin is like living like a vampire, I can only come out at night, or I’ll melt.

In the afternoon we set out to a lighthouse built by the British and a public park/beach north of town. It’s absolutely gorgeous and we get to climb to the top of the lighthouse for a great view at dusk. Thereafter we went to the riviera lodge for some sri lankan curry before heading in for the night.

Being Poya, we arrived at our hotel confronted by a Sri Lankan family who invited us to dance with them. An hour of bad dancing later, we, especially Sheela, had become the stars of the show. Of course, they asked the “baendela” question. That means, “are you married?” to which we replied disjointedly. A bit of singing and dancing. Girlfriend and boyfriend often don’t go here. You’ll get some strange looks if you say that so in so is your significant other. (I think that this is generally not always the case/is changing. May people will understand you if you say boyfriend or girlfriend) I got the rather awkward question, “Oh, so married but virgin?” Time to sort out that mess…

Shangri-La Singhala

Shangri-La, where there are Sinhala classes with the ETAs and Fulbrighters. The ETA’s live in a beautiful compound in the south of the city. They’re here for a month and then go their respective ways around the country to teach English.

Sinhala is pronounced “singhala” because you’re supposed to sing it. Jokes.

Malaria in Sri Lanka

In case you were curious about the state of malaria in Sri Lanka (Link):

More here, from a recent University of San Francisco Study. We’re planning on going to Batticaloa next weekend during Poya (it’s going to be hectic). In preparation for that, I intend to start Doxycycline.

Today at the Library

Today I decided to head out to the nearby “magical American library”. Indeed magical because it resides in the second story of someone’s house. But, that’s only if you find the correct library. My housemates and I have been looking for a library to haunt, in our search for a good study space. Rumor had it there was an “american library a short walk away.

What should have been a five minute walk to Sulieman ave to find the “American Library” turned out to be quite the adventure. Sulieman ave is a curly cue shaped street with a bad case of erectile dysfunction. It also has four or five unnamed little side streets that branch off of it. I walked on down to the tip of street, passed all the little side streets and found nothing, except some rather aggressive feral dogs. Trudging back to the beginning of the street I began the usual game of asking the locals where this said “American Library” was. A couple of tries later, I was directed to a “Social Science” Library, whatever that means, disguised quite well as someone’s house. After visiting the 1st floor bookstore, I Found the library, which I discovered was not in fact the American library.

So, I wandered out with a vague sense of where I needed to go next, and lo-and behold I see a white man! Very academic looking, too. Now, I’m on to something. I walk up to the house he came from and ring the bell, and am invited upstairs to the “American Library” office, where I’m told to go next door for the actual library. Unfortunately, the next house turns out to be just that: someone’s house (a duplex), and an irate old man in a lungi comes out to inform me that I need to go exactly back where I came. Bleh.

In the end, I do find the library. It’s the second floor of the duplex next door, above a small sign that reads: “American library upstairs. Ring the bell.”

In other news, I have been participating in Sinhala class with the Fulbrighters. Great fun as the teacher is a brit expat named Michael. It’s located in the south of the city in a neighborhood called Pepilyana, near Mt. Lavinia. We have classes in the guesthouse where the English Teaching Assistants stay (ETA’s), called Shangri-La. Very nice.

Oktoberfest In Sri Lanka

Oktoberfest in Sri Lanka!

The beer maiden strided by, six one liter towering steins of lager nestled in her arms. Meanwhile, a band played songs in German dressed in Lederhausen. Ah, Oktoberfest in Sri Lanka. While  little bit kitschy it certainly was fun. That, and the very strangely colored Chernobyl green dye that some of the beer had. Sheela and I went there on her Birthday while we met her friend Karmini a fellow Fulbright scholar.

Fun as it was, someone please tell me why did all the Sri Lankans know the lyrics to John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads?

Welcome to Sri Lanka!

The policeman walks up to the car, rips out the keys with an angry huff and strides back to the police station at the airport. My illegal taxi driver smiles and shakes his head, in an effort to calm the situation down and assure his nervous passengers, a muslim family and myself. Our driver then runs out, chasing the policeman, in an effort to retrieve his keys. So much for trafficking myself into Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city and former capital.

I had arrived into Bandranaike Int’l Airport on Six pm on Sunday amidst an atmosphere of rain, wind, rain, rain, sweat, heat, and more rain. My flight was 36 hours, including a 12 hour layover in London visiting Peter N. and the British Library, as well as seeing the eminently queer Bahrain Int’l airport—with its throngs of, well, men. Everywhere. Bengali, Arab, South Indian etc. In hordes.

Stepping out of the airport, I turned left as my hurried self written instructions indicated, and walked through the throngs of people hailing taxis and waiting for relatives down to the end of the airport where I expected a shuttle bus to the main bus station, where I would catch Bus 187 to Colombo. 

A Sri Lankan approached me on the bus as I expected to settle into an unpleasent three hour public transit sojourn to my house in Colombo.

“Going to Colombo or Negombo?” he asked.

“Colombo. I’m taking the bus.”

“My friend has a car. AC. Very nice. 1000 rupees—he will drive you”

I say no and hesitate. 1000 rupees, about eight dollars, is cheap for the two hour ride, and certainly beats the bus. “Yes” I change my mind.  

He escorts me off the bus and we walk in the shadows past an airport policeman to his friend’s car. This is not a sanctioned taxi ride. After a few nods with his friend, who turns out to be an airport travel services employee operating an illegal taxi service on the side, I hop in the passenger seat.

On our way out, we pick up the muslim family. I then see the policeman stride up to the car.

In ten minutes our driver returns, visibly cowed. “Sorry, sorry,” he says. I ask him, “Baksheesh?” Indeed, there’s nothing a good bit of bribery can’t fix.

So the ride in was a bit stressful, but the reward was good conversation with the muslim father, who worked in Saudi Arabia for a few American families. Most of all, I get to see Sheela and my future housemates!

And, holy hell, I think. Will it ever stop raining?

This article was featured in a competition for NPR’s Above the Fray Fellowship.

Bahar and his brother Mehran sit on two rocks besides me. They’ve agreed to meet in a park in their hometown in Connecticut, down the street from the house where they grew up. The house their father bought ten years back.

Afghanistan. Nearly 20 years ago. The country remained locked in civil war with the Taliban. It’s Russian supported government had been toppled. Sensing the growing chaos, Bahar and Mehran’s grandfather, a general in the Afghan military, shepherded the family to Pakistan.

Bahar and Mehran arrived in New York in January 2000. It had been ten years since they last saw their father. “He lived here for many years before us. That actually was probably around the first couple times I actually saw my dad.”

They landed in America, with it’s fast food, strip malls and skyscrapers.

“First thing we had was like uh…my dad got us some thing from like burger king—fish sandwich. Thought it was absolutely nasty. ” Even pizza was foreign. “We’d never seen pizza before. I never even knew what pizza was. We ended up not eating it. We were like what is this? We were sort of like questioning things”

Bahar and his brother were totally immersed, assimilating quickly. Now, the family speaks English at home, supplanting their native Farsi. “Everything was English English English. And all my friends became English”

“It was fun and interesting. Yeah, at first” Then 9/11 happened. Normal teen life, with it’s insecurities and petty meanness, became much harder. “I’d get in fights actually.”

“We actually even wore clothes from Afghanistan. Oh, outside sometimes. Then as soon as 9/11 happened it’s like people just thought they knew us. They knew everything about us. Oh, I know exactly where these people are from and what they do and what they think.

Being an immigrant can be an isolating experience. Afghans elsewhere, especially in larger cities, had what they did not—a sense of community. “We’re a lot more assimilated now so it’s like we don’t feel like that anymore. But, I remember times in the past you would almost feel like, I guess like lonely I guess. There are moments where like you can’t connect with anyone.”

They found it frustrating that they could not explain Afghanistan to others. “Whenever I was trying to say anything to educate kids about it, I don’t think they were listening anyways. Yeah they don’t. They don’t listen.”

While they keep up with their family overseas, they feel a disconnect. We don’t know what to talk about, Mehran says. “My dad thinks we’ve become so American… for me I see it as one of those things where I’m blood Afghani and nothing will really change that. Now you’re an Afghan American. I guess that’s the best way to see it. I’m not either or.”

Yet, they do want to return. “We haven’t been back yet. It’s been what? 13 years? Yeah, 13 years, we haven’t seen any of them.”

Bahar and Mehran attend the University of Connecticut where Bahar studies politics and Mehran studies neuroscience. For now, away from the pressure of home, they can enjoy the day at the park.

One man claims to offer every voter free ponies.  Another wishes to govern on the 1611 King James Bible. What do they have in common? They’re all officially running for president, and they have the campaign songs — boom boxes included —  to prove it. Reported by Andrew Otis and produced by Alexandra Dukakis. Featured on NPR Intern Edition. Photo courtesy of ibtimes.

This article was featured on NPR Intern Edition. In this series, Where I’m From and Where I’ve Been, NPR interns told stories of the cities and towns where they grew up and the many adventures they’ve had along the way.

I’ve never written this story down before. I think it is time.

Have you ever heard of a bhang lassi?

It’s a cannabis milkshake.

To travelers, the town of Hampi in Karnataka, India is famous for two things: it’s incredible archaeological ruins, and its bhang lassis. The ruins are the remains of the powerful Vijayanagar empire, what was possibly the second largest city in the world over five hundred years ago. Massive monolithic stone statues, abandoned elephant stables, and magnificent architecture jut out of the rocky terrain.

That day had been sunny and hot, like the rest of South India. We had rented four single gear motorcycles and took them zooming around Hampi and the surroundings, crossing the Tungabhadra river on rickety spherical wicker rafts where some of us volunteered to work in the rice paddies. After a long day, we returned to Hampi to relax and enjoy our treat, the bhang lassis.

At the time, Hampi had two main locations that sold bhang lassis. Local authorities had shut down one of them for making their lassis a little extra special. So we chose the “Chill Out Cafe,” nestled near the center of town on the roof of a two story building. We ordered four strong lassis for the eight of us and brought the total up to five when another traveler said he didn’t want his.

A few sips is enough to get one sufficiently high. A whole lassi is enough to bring you to a terrifying state.

The effects were delayed. But when they came on, they were immediate. The result of the bhang lassi was a heightened experience that was far too much, far too quick for someone who doesn’t like getting high.

Not having had much food to eat that day, we climbed down from “Chill Out Cafe” and attempted to find a restaurant near our hotel to get some food. I decided I needed to go back to the hotel.

“Brandon, I—I don’t feel well. I need to lie down”

Next, I remember lying in one of the hotel rooms as the world began to spin. Unable to find food, everyone else soon returned to the hotel, and we crammed into one room as we clung on to sanity.

Hysteria has a way of feeding off itself when no one is sober. Ana was on the floor vomiting. I was in the fetal position and had vomited a few times. Tom and Eugene were far far gone. Mary escaped the worst of it and fell asleep. Then we began to hallucinate. Lauren thought her boyfriend Brandon had turned into the devil, and tried to kill him.

Sean, the most sober of us, corralled us all into our rooms, turned off the lights, and told us to sleep. The darkness made the experience more isolating. Soon I began telling Sean I needed to go to the hospital.

“No, You’ll be fine. You just need to relax,” Sean said.

I became more persistent as the situation became more horrifying, and Sean asked the hotel owner (who gave us a queer look) for a rickshaw.  The first doctor we saw was having a house party and told us to go away. The second doctor said I needed to go to a “special hospital.” As I was listening to him speak, I thought I heard the words “Stomach pumping,” “permanent psychological damage,” and “tranquilizer.” Around this time, I lost all lucidity.

“Sean. What was in there?”

“Sean. Do I have schizophrenia?”

“Sean. Was there LSD in there?”

“Sean. Was there ketamine in there?”

“Sean. Am I going to die?”

I remember nearly nothing from this point forward. I do remember entering a building that had white washed walls, men sleeping on the floor on mats, red plastic chairs, and a Hindi children’s show on television. I think it was some form of an asylum.

Later that night, I was released. I vomited a few times more on the ride back.  I thought back to a friend who had warned us before our trip:  ”If you want a near death experience, try the bhang lassis.” He wasn’t joking. At least, as I felt the rickshaw cutting through the wind, I had a smile on my face.

I woke up the next morning with the worst hangover of my life.

NPR; All Things Considered

Hi all,

A couple days ago, I moved into my apartment here in North East D.C. at 4 and V. It’s a nice place, a row house with a few roommates. Marc, who works nights at Dominoes, Roland, GW grad student and Trey, a research assistant at the Federal Reserve.

Now: NPR! All Things Considered, (well, mostly opinions!) Orientation was Tuesday. I shall start Monday at 7am sharp. That’s 27 minutes before sunrise,and means I’ll wake earlier than I’ve ever consistently woke up in my life. Ideally, I’ll bike to work–if I can ever get my bike out of the shop.

Working Flu

A few days before I was to leave the country, I got sick with the flu. I called in to work (actually, I realized I didn’t even have the school’s number, but eventually I found it) saying I would be sick. The assistant answered my call, told me to feel better, and insisted I take medicine or go to the hospital. Medicine, hospital? That’s a bit strange.

My supervisor called me an hour later. She asked if I had taken medicine or had gone to hospital. What’s with this hospital business? She made it a point to say that they desperately needed me and expected me in later that day.

Reading online, I found that it’s quite uncommon for a Korean to miss a day of work or school on account of being ill. So be it. I’ll go into school and I’ll infect the entire classroom.

Cereal and Beer, Heels and Subway

A few days before I was to leave the country, I got sick with the flu. I called in to work (actually, I realized I didn’t even have the school’s number, but eventually I found it) saying I would be sick. The assistant answered my call, told me to feel better, and insisted I take medicine or go to the hospital. Medicine, hospital? That’s a bit strange.

My supervisor called me an hour later. She asked if I had taken medicine or had gone to hospital. What’s with this hospital business? She made it a point to say that they desperately needed me and expected me in later that day.

Reading online, I found that it’s quite uncommon for a Korean to miss a day of work or school on account of being ill. So be it. I’ll go into school and I’ll infect the entire classroom.

Why do all Korean women wear heels? And yes, even on planes or when they know they’re going to be walking on dirt all day?

Koreans have funny ways of walking across streets. You will see people calmly walking and then, suddenly, they spot that the crosswalk is green! They sprint! Kids old ladies, doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter that the crosswalk may have just turned green either. The run looks more like an incredibly fast paced shuffle, usually because they’re carrying bags. Anyways, it’s not weird that they run to/across crosswalks. There’s just something odd for me about the manner in which they do it.

Seoul’s subway is a fascinating aspect of the city. For one, it’s huge. Two, it’s so big, with 10 subway lines, it even covers other cities, like Suwon, with a population of 1 million. Many of the cars have lcd televisions built into them which display advertisements and the like. Most stations, as well, have some type of lcd technology whereby they accurately depict the location of previous trains. It’s pretty cool and efficient as hell.

Cereal and Beer

Cereal is a problem here in Seoul. Why does it cost $5 a box? And why is it all sugary and tasteless? If you like knock off frosted flakes, though, you might be in heaven.

Not to mention milk. It’s more than double the price of the U.S.

And beer. There’s nothing exciting on this front, with the possible exception that larger grocery chains are carrying more exotic foreign labels—especially in the foreigner districts! Generally, you’re likely to find Hite, Hite D (Dry Finish), Cass, Cass Red, OB Golden, OB Max, and Hite Stout. With the exception of Hite Stout, they’re all pretty much interchangable. None are particularly bad, it’s just that they’re all American lager type clones. Hite Stout, is a halfway decent stout, not offensive on the palate.

These will all cost about $1 a bottle.

In the average grocery store, for foreign beers, you’re almost guaranteed to find Hoegaarden and Budweiser. I’m not sure why, but these beers are universal. Foreign beers will usually cost at least double the local stuff.

Time, Time, Time

Although I’m now in London, I feel as if I should write a bit about life in Seoul. I arrived in South Korea on the 27 of August and departed three weeks later on September 17. For me it was three great weeks to live in Seoul, three bad weeks to work in Seoul. But, more on that later.

Now that I’m out of the country, I feel that I can talk more freely. And I have the energy and will to do so.

Seoul is a city that still shows signs of its recent and ongoing industrialization. Called the miracle on the han river, it’s truly and incredible city, massive yet densely populated with. It does a good job of holding all these people and tall apartment buildings dot the often hazy sky—which I’m not sure is pollution or fog, though I suspect it is a mix. The subway runs frequently and quickly, following a neurotic timetable. Indeed, timeliness is godliness in this country. And this neuroticism knows little bounds.

I remember my first week at Evan English School. I had 20 minute classes. 15 of them. Yes, I counted, 15 classes a day. It was utterly exhausting, darting from room to room with a little basket full of a boatload of books, my only instructions being to do “review” with the kids with books they had already finished that I had no time to look over.

Suffice to say, I got very adept at introducing myself to a bunch of kids. Who am I, What’s my name, where do I come from. That, and playing games with them. Until, of course, I was instructed by my supervisor that I was no longer permitted to play games with them. Which left me with…. a whole bunch of finished textbooks I had never seen before.

Point of this description is to say that once every 20 minutes were over, if I did not stop my instruction at exactly 20 minutes past once I entered, my supervisor would hurriedly march down the hall, enter the room, and inform me that I was late to the next class! I was late! It was more of an oddity than anything; timeliness taken to a rigid and stressful extreme.

At the British Library in London

I will tell the tale of how I went from London to Korea in a few hours but, for now, I pour over old books at the British Library. I am amazed at the wealth of material here. (I’ll also tell more about my scholarship in a bit).

It’s incredible how the Cape of Good Hope (Modern South Africa) and British India were so interconnected. The correspondence from Fort William (Modern Calcutta/Kolkata) to London is replete with references to the British Cape of Good Hope. In 1799, the British had just conquered South Africa. So that year marks the first year of their colonial rule there. That’s when my study of South African newspapers for my thesis commenced. The Governor of General of Fort William wrote to London of his reception from the governor of the Cape of Good Hope a letter that the new colony “was in great want of proper timber.”

The Governor-General of India sent timber as well as rice, which was “very scare and very dear” and other goods to the fledgling colony with his own initiative, separate from London.

Since every boat that went to British India made a stopover in Cape Town, these colonies were intimately connected. South Africa was an eminently strategic acquistion as it straddled all shipping lanes to and from the spice rich East Indies.

A happy and prosperous British India required a happy and prosperous British South Africa.

First Days in Seoul

Hello all!

This is my first post from the bustling, busy-busy city of Seoul. I’ll just start off with a quick layout of the first few days here.

I left early in the morning on Friday, the 26th from Bradley Int’l. The school pays the cost of the flight, which is a standard feature of the contract and quite a nice perk. I arrived here in Korea on the 27th at about 3:30 pm Korean Standard Time. I’m thirteen hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. So, if it is 1pm on the east coast, it’s 2am here in Korea. Likewise, if it is 5pm here in Korea, it would be 3am in Missouri.

The flight was uneventful, though I met an American couple who were traveling to the southern Korean city of Cheongju to teach English. The flight over from Chicago O’Hare to Seoul was pretty much composed of entirely Koreans or young Americans, of whom I presume were all going to teach English in Seoul.

My recruiter’s—the contractor who helped match me up with an English school here—driver drove me to the hagwon (Hagwon means private English school in Korea). There, I met the director of the school, who doesn’t speak English, which is a bit ironic. He showed me the school and then drove me to my apartment. All the directions are in Korean, including addresses. Moreover, street numbers are assigned based on the order in which buildings on the street were built, not one where they are on the road. Even further, this numbering system is often irrelevant since most building don’t actually have their building number on them. Imagine the confusion if I were to get lost!

I spent Sunday wandering around the Mok-Dong district of the city, the district where I live and work. I found a few grocery stores, so I know where I’ll be doing my shopping.

Monday I began work. The director picked me up at 11:30 and we arrived at work 10 minutes later. I was there until 9. A long day! At the end of the day, I walked home. A short walk, perhaps 15 minutes.

So, I’m just getting settled here and I don’t know anyone yet, but hopefully that will change.

Look forward to more blog posts! I’ll make them more interesting about adjusting to life here and culture in Seoul. I’ll certainly talk more the hagwon (school), too—of which I have a lot to say but want to hold off on because of some rather interesting occurrences that have taken place there.

That’s all for now folks!