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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Live-Blogging the Kim Jong-il Holiday Spectacular

Being in South Korea when the death of Kim Jongi-il was announced was interesting, working for the national news agency makes it more so. So, why not live-blog the day of the funeral, in between my real work and facebook play . . .

0959 (Korea) and time for the Holiday Spectacular to begin. The funeral of the "Dear Leader" is expected to closely follow that of his father Kim Il-sung, the "Great Leader" in 1994. An hour of fresh lamentations at the bier in Kumsusan Memorial Palace, followed by an impressive cortege and military escort to take the body and entourage through Pyongyang then back to the palace, where his corpse will join that of his father's. Il-sung remains North Korea's "Eternal President."

1016: A story comes in regarding new anti-submarine drills planned in South Korea next year in response to the torpedoing of the Cheonan by the North last year. The exercises will be surprise simulated submarine infiltrations where they try to get as close as possible to SK patrol ships without being observed - let's hope there are no unexpected surprises . . .

1020: SK's nuclear envoy leaves for the US for talks with his counterpart - I wonder what about . . .

1025: Purty picture *squirrel*

1045: South Korean civic activist based in France made unauthorized condolence visit to North Korea. She was jailed for two and a half years the last time she visited the Norks and prosecutors plan to arrest her if she returns home.

Two private condolence delegations were given permission to visit and returned yesterday. One was led by Lee Hee-ho, the widow of SK President Kim Dae-jung, who authored the "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation with the North and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for arranging the first inter-Korean summit that same year. Hyundai Asan, the SK chaebol  that held  monopoly rights to tourism packages to the North, was later charged with paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the Norks in return for the summit. That's quite a pricey Nobel.

The chairman of Hyundai Asan, Chung Mong-hun, indicted in 2003 and facing years in prison, died in an apparent suicide.  His widow, Hyung Jong-eun, led the other condolence delegation. Both were approved by the South as the North sent official delegations South after the deaths of Kim and Chung.

On the issue of condolences and delegations, the Norks last Mondy when announcing Kim's death were very clear NO foreign delegations were welcome at the funeral. Many analysts read that as a sign Kim's successor, youngest son Jong-un, had not yet consolidated power. By Friday, after the visits by Lee and Hong had been approved and the South had sent a message of "sympathies . . . to the North Korean people," the Norks had tweaked their message. Not sending an official delegation and not offering "condolences" was an "unpardonable insult" to their dignity.

Same shit, different Kim . . .

1110: The inter-Korean factory complex has closed for two days to honor the "Dear Leader."

1122: Many images of excessive grief from the North - I believe they are stage-managed and definitely hysterical but still quite genuine. Kim was not only the "Dear Leader" but seen as the father of the people, and those residents we see in Pyongyang have a far better standard of living than those in rural areas, so therefore more to lose.

It's a time of concern about choosing to align with the winning team, I'm sure, but it seems clear, at least in the short-term, that team will be led by Jong-un, with the help of Uncle Jang and the military. The penalties for a wrong choice can be harsh

1136: Oddly, after the excess of coverage the Nork's media has shared this last week, there's not yet any footage of the funeral or even acknowledgement that it is underway. I doubt the Hermit Kingdom has gone back in its shell . . .

1138: New Year's Day will be an interesting one for Nork-watchers. The North traditionally releases a New Year message that is thought to signal their intended path for the next year. They usually make for good reading, promising such treats for their neighbors as "nuclear holocaust" and "prompt, merciless and annihilatory action."

It will be fascinating to see what they wish us for next year . . .

1149: Those damn Norks never do what we want. No doubt they'll start releasing news at noon as per usual, that way they not only upset the US news cycles but keep analysts there awake past their bedtimes (they need beauty sleep more than most) AND mess with my lunch hour . . .

1203: The Kiwi is off to forage (eats roots and leaves) but will return anon. If you're bored while she's away, Andrei Lankov's analysis of the NK economy makes for interesting reading.

While I agree that the NK economy has improved a lot recently and that there is a lot more investment flowing in, I also keep in mind that money coming in does not mean money trickling down to the people, and the UN report last year on child malnutrition. A synopsis can be found here.

1313: One of the many interesting things I noticed when I first came to South Korea was the almost universal tendency of offices to close for an hour or two over lunch. Thus, while you can go to the bank during your lunch break, don't bother phoning a government office or even most travel agencies to utilize your break productively. Be like most "salarymen" (the SK term for mid-level business people) and do that during work hours instead.

So, while my colleagues and I mostly worked through our lunch break last Monday, when the "Dear Leader's" death was announced, it's back to business as usual today and nothing expected until the reporters return at 1330.

1350: It appears the (North) Korean Central News Agency has decided to talk again and the funeral was delayed several hours by heavy snowfall throughout the country. More to follow, perhaps . . .

In the interim, I guess I'll go back to facebook stalking Doctrine Man while waiting for my online opponents to take their Scrabble turns and planning New Year's Day dinner . . .

1400: We're getting the live feed now and the Norks really DO know how to put on a show . . .

The initial voice-over was creepily reminiscent of Boris Karloff (speaking Korean while trying not to cry, so perhaps not that reminiscent) and the rows and rows of NK military against the snow-covered background are impressive.

For the record, the KCNA said the snow was the sky "grieving" for Kim Jong-il also . . .

Jong-un is walking at the front right corner of the hearse carrying his father's body, with Uncle Jang behind him in a suit, not the military uniform he has been in the past few days. Those on the right are in suits while the uniformed military walks to the left of the hearse. Pageantry and symbolism - Disney has nothing on the Norks . . .

1411: Much weeping and wailing from citizens lining the route, some jumping up and down also but that may be just to stay warm . . .

1415: Myths to cement Jong-il's importance in the North's history books:

These are from Yonhap but I can't access the link right now so will post this for now.


In one account, an unidentified bird was seen brushing off snow from a statue of Kim Jong-il last week, "breaking the hearts of many people" who heard the story, the official Radio Pyongyang reported.
"As I was unable to calm my heart from a guilty conscience, a white bird larger than a dove suddenly brushed off the snow from the shoulders of the leader's statue," one eyewitness was quoted as saying by the radio station.
And . . .

A soldier was quoted by the North's state television on Sunday, saying that he saw a tree budding in temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius.
The official Korean Central News Agency reported last week that residents near the inter-Korean border saw a "series of blinding blue flashes accompanied by thunder" on Wednesday. These occurred in five-minute intervals during heavy snowfall between the hours of 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., it said. The English-language dispatch was titled "Even nature seems to mourn demise of great man."
"Witnessing this, citizens of the city said that the demise of Kim Jong-il was so heart-rending that even the sky seemed to writhe in grief," the dispatch said.

1440: Mass hysteria among the military lining the motorcade route also - I'm sure there's an aspect of "WTF happens now?" to it . . .

Long lead shots of the motorcade are eerie, headed by the lead car carrying a massive portrait of Jong-il and everything obscured by the snow except headlights . . .

1509: Goose-stepping looks painful . . .

1551: Having just finished editing a long analysis on North Korea for a sister publication, plus watched hours of snow swirling around Jong-il's motorcade as North Koreans grieve hysterically, the Kiwi feels it might be time to head home soon. Photos and updates can be found on the Yonhap site and a live feed should be available here.

Let's see what tomorrow brings - no doubt SSDK again.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Ding Dong, the Kim is Dead . . .

Yesterday, at about 10 a.m. local, the South Korean national news agency for which I work got a heads-up that there would be an official announcement from North Korea at noon. To put that in perspective, last month the Norks were threatening to turn the South's presidential palace into a "deluge of fire" because of military exercises to mark the first anniversary of the North bombing a border island. For the past week or two, they have been alluding to the "consequences" of the South illuminating three huge Christmas Tree structures on their border. We expected something similar.

The lunch break in my office starts at noon but, not surprisingly, we stayed to hear what the Norks had to say. Then stayed to report that the Dear Leader was dead, and how that might affect many aspects of life here on the Korean Peninsula and further abroad. At the same time, I was communicating with friends around the  world on social media sites and a little stunned by the lack of knowledge many displayed. After a full day of editing how Kim's death might play out socially, financially, militarily, politically and in terms of foreign affairs, I headed to the VFW and discussed similar matters with U.S. military and contractor friends.

So, some thoughts on what might happen now, with the proviso that much about North Korea is supposition and guesswork BUT when you study it closely, there are noticeable trends. It's also a particular interest of mine and I spend a lot of time discussing the possible meaning of those actions we see with experts from South Korea, the United States and China. Many of the opinions I previously held have changed of late because of conversations with a Chinese friend and colleague who did his PhD on North Korea while in China. It's enlightening to add that perspective to the mix.

Kim Jong-il's death was sudden and unexpected, to everyone. North Korea has been building up to next year's 100th anniversary of the birth of NK founder Kim Il-sung, by which Jong-il had pledged to make the North a "thriving" nation. Yes, I know how laughable that sounds to most outsiders and how impossible it would sound to the North's starving rural populace but much investment has been made by outside countries recently and you can even take a birthday tour.. There has been supposition that the senior Kim would take that opportunity to hand over the reins to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. I don't think he was expecting to die before then either.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. As amusing as Jong-il may have been in "Team America World Police," he was never so funny on the world stage. Psychologically, take any child, constantly assure them they are God-like and all-powerful and never, ever say "no" to them and you have the recipe for a monster. Have that child reach adulthood ruling a country where his word is law and nobody dares say "no" because to do so means death, and you have Jong-il. It has long been a concern that, as he watches his empire slowly slip away (increasing defections, technology opening borders virtually and bringing news of the outside world to the Hermit Kingdom) and his health decline, and with only a third-and-last choice successor to continue the dynasty, he might choose to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. That would secure his place in the history books forever. Obviously, that's now off the table.

Jong-un is not Jong-il. By all indications, he's a bit of a disappointment. He also had a completely different upbringing and doesn't, I believe, have the arrogant self-confidence of his father. Remember, this is the third son, and he was only chosen as heir-apparent a year ago because both his older brothers were sorely lacking. He was not raised to expect to become "Dear Leader" and is possibly well out of his depth. That could play out well or badly, depending on the advice and guidance he receives.

The transition looks likely to be smooth, at least at first. The military has already pledged to support Jong-un and the generals hold immense power in the North. The people are accustomed to feudal and dynastic succession and also have a history of accepting young rulers. Korea (and China, it's strongest neighbor and major ally) have in their histories child kings (and emperors) mentored by regents. Jong-un is not quite a child, but he is young and untested. To support and mentor him, he has Kim Kyong-hui, his father's younger sister who is a four-star general and a member of the North's Politburo, and her husband, Jang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and an alternate member of the Politburo. If Jong-un heeds their advice and that of the generals,  he should survive. At least in the short-term.

Longer-term, there is likely to be the political and power jockeying that takes place with any leadership transition. The most likely sources of trouble are probably within the military. Mid-level officers with ambition may want to move up more quickly than is occurring and could take advantage of the situation. Lower down the food chain are the frontline soldiers and guards, whose tendency to do things without thinking them through or clearing them with their chain of command may increase in the current uncertainty. Last month's reported shooting of a supposed North Korean defector across the river border and on Chinese soil was unlikely to be on orders from above but it happened. China, mere days after the report, gave a group of 19 NK defectors official transit to South Korea, rather than sending them back to a less-than-welcoming repatriation as they usually do. Those two events may not be related but hair-trigger responses from undisciplined border guards could easily get out of hand.

Jong-il's death does not mean automatic reunification. Even if Jong-un fails as a leader and is removed, the military has long held power and will not give it up easily.

This may be a game-changer in next year's general (April) and presidential (December) elections in the South. Current voter sentiment is against a conservative ruling party that is viewed as corrupt and favoring the rich (why does this sound familiar?) and could be seen to result in a leftist, pro-unification, anti-U.S. government next year. That may change as South Koreans, post-Jong-il's death, consider the cost of reunification, particularly in the current economic climate.

"May you live in interesting times" is often viewed as a curse. For a writer, interesting times are a blessing, even if occasionally uncomfortable. There is no question that these are interesting times on the Korean Peninsula.

  



 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

From the Sublime, to the Ridiculous . . .

This is going to be a fairly random, Kiwi bouncing off walls, kinda post. About things that people take very seriously. Life, love, religion, first amendment rights and inter-species erotica. Oops, that last one was purely for Squiggles.

Of all the amazing things that happened on my three-month, 6,000 mile motorcycle tour of the United States of America earlier this year (and there were epicly amazing things all along the way), three experiences touched me deeply. I've been promising to write about the final one for some time, but it needed to simmer for a while before being ready to serve.

1. Rolling Thunder, Ride for Freedom, 2011.

2. The funeral of SSgt Ergin Vidot Osman in Great Lakes, MI. The family had requested a motorcycle escort and the word was put out quickly by the Patriot Guard Riders and the local HOGs (many of whom, including my hosts in Detroit, are ex-military).

I was stunned as we rode out of the funeral home carpark to see so many people lining the roadsides, bearing American flags or saluting or simply standing with hands on hearts. Local police had roads blocked and traffic signals off for the cortege and all stood at attention as the hearse and entourage passed. As we neared the National Cemetery, about a half-hour ride away, I noticed families in their front yards, honoring Osman's service. Mom, Dad and three kids, just standing silently in respect to honor his sacrifice. I was glad to be a passenger for that trip (thanks, Pirate Martin) as I was too choked up to have been a safe rider.

3. This is the one some of my friends have huge issues with.

While in Kansas City, Missouri, I visited with the Westboro Baptist Church.

Yes, those of the godhatesfags = godhatesamerica = thankgodforieds protests at the funerals of military members, small children and homosexuals. Actually, anywhere they can get an audience.

I wanted to ask them, "Why?"

I've been thinking about their answers for a long while now, and also talking to others about it and them, and Life, the Universe and Everything. I interrogated a friend who is the dean of a bible school about his take on their take on God, talked with my Lutheran host and discussed them over Mexican and Margarita's with two new friends and their church choir. I also relistened to the recording of the 90 minutes I spent at the home of Fred Phelps Jr. talking with him and his brother John, and looked up the bible quotes they gave me. And visited with two Patriot Guard Riders at Ft. Leavenworth.

So . . . thoughts on the WBC . . .

They're intelligent (most of the family are lawyers and one of Phelps Sr's daughters argued and won a Supreme Court case brought against them) and they know their bible. Much better than I, so I didn't even attempt to argue dogma with them.

They believe totally in what they are doing.

They are not interested in "saving" anybody. They believe God has already appointed an "elite" and you're either part of that or you're not. It's a done deal. They also believe God tasked them to help his elite come to him, and they believe publicity is the best way to do that. "God invented the Internet for us," was one of the quotes that stuck in my mind.

They can quote and manipulate scripture as well as anyone I've met, but scripture can easily be massaged to fit most agendas. They're also not the only Christians (or any other flavor religion) I've met who believe sinners (i.e. anyone with a different viewpoint) will burn in Hellfire forever.

Apart from the fact that John was wearing a godhatesamerica.com t-shirt, they seemed a perfectly normal all-American "mom and apple pie" kind of family. We had to move into the kitchen during our talk because it was time for a daughter's piano lesson. The community (there's less than 100 people in the church and most are family members) was building a house for a church member. They served me water, not Kool-aid, and admired the bike.

They know their First Amendment rights, probably much better than those who are fighting and dying for them to have those rights.

I believe they are essentially misguided. I believe they are wrong, I believe that if their view of God is correct, I want no part of him/her/it.

I also believe that everything has a purpose, whether it is the purpose we want or not. And I suspect that the purpose of the WBC may be exactly what I witnessed at the Great Lakes funeral. Their presence at such public events has so incensed middle America that it has made communities take note of the sacrifices made for them by the less than 1 percent that is the military.

The Patriot Guard Riders formed in response to WBC, and stand, non-violently, between them and the families of the fallen. Other ordinary Americans, who mostly have no connection with anyone military (it's a small world), turn out to show support and respect for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and I wonder how many would be there without the abhorrence they feel at the WBC's actions.

I hate what the WBC does and the pain its members cause already suffering families, but I have to admire a country that allows them the freedom to do it, and the people who find a non-violent way to counteract their actions.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hanging with the gals . . .

As those who know the Kiwi know, and casual readers probably suspect, although she can scrub up okay, she's a bit of a boy at heart. She's much rather talk bikes and boats than makeup and manicures and finds cowgal boots a lot more practical than heels. Most of her friends are male (she makes a great wing-gal) but she makes a point of cultivating their better halves also so they'll be allowed out to play.

The one huge exception to that is at the Kiwi's volunteer job, at the Second Hand Rose Thrift Shop on Yongsan Garrison. The store is run by the American Women's Club Thrift Shop Association and affiliated with the American Women's Club. Given that, it's not surprising that almost all of the volunteers are female, though a couple of husbands hang in the "boy shed" out back at times, supposedly checking donated electronic equipment.

Another women's organization here in Seoul that the Kiwi has had dealings with (she was a guest speaker at one of their evening events some years back) is the Seoul International Women's Association. Formed in 1962, the organization includes members from about 80 different countries and has two major fund-raisers each year to raise money for the many charities it supports. For one of these, it partners with embassies to throw the Annual SIWA and Diplomatic Community Bazaar. (The brochure given out at this year's 33rd such event stated more than 40 nations on the front but listed only 29 on the back - the Kiwi didn't go around counting.) Held in late autumn, the bazaar is said to be a perfect place to source unusual holiday gifts not easily found elsewhere in Korea. But, despite having spent a number of years based in Seoul over the past decade, the Kiwi had never attended.

Until last week, when she boarded the courtesy shuttle bus (happily alongside two new friends she'd made just days earlier at a wine tasting - great minds DO think alike) to the Grand Hilton Seoul hotel. The Kiwi's main mission was to get some good New Zealand wine, as she's been told the embassy always donates some.  But also to look at what else was available, perhaps write a story and network with the "ladies who lunch" (a large part of SIWA's membership is made up of the wives of corporate executives, embassy personnel and officers - not the Kiwi's usual social set).

Mission accomplished! Despite a little jostling from a combative ajumma (in the hierarchical age-conscious Korean society, elderly women feel justified physically pushing aside anyone in their path), the Kiwi captured a Babich Pinot Noir and a Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc, both from the Marlborough region of Te Wai Pounamu (The Waters of Greenstone is the Maori name for Aotearoa's South Island). She also reconnected with the embassy Public Affairs Officer and met the ambassador's wife, as well as a good many other contacts. She was highly tempted by the possum/merino gloves and scarves but decided they were a little too pricey and probably not sturdy enough for her ruffian lifestyle. The wine was not inexpensive, but still great value for money.

Amanda Valentine and Michelle Mann (wearing a beautiful pounamu pendant) at the New Zealand stall. 
 
Olga, Elina, Viktoria, Andrey and son, Mark, at the Ukraine stall.

Jayme Heywood, the daughter of a Greek mother and an Australian father. Jayme's grandmother made this outfit for Jayme's mother when she was a child.

Kristina Meeks, of Norway.


Three young members of Dance Group Moscovia play spoons.
Having achieved her main purpose, the Kiwi wandered around taking photos, watched a lively performance by Dance Group Moscovia, caught up with a few of her fellow thrift shop volunteers and sampled a variety of different cuisines. Nom, nom, nom. As did the many, many others who attended. Not having access to a corporate or embassy salary, she found the prices of most  items rather high, but appreciated that the proceeds all go to needy Korean charities. Having served as treasurer on the Thrift Shop executive board some years ago, and therefore been both part of the Welfare committee and the person who got to actually give our donations to the charities, the Kiwi knows all too well the good work charities here do.

Thanks for a fun day SIWA and Seoul's diplomatic community, thanks for the wine Aotearoa!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pairing Kiwi with Wine

And no, the authorities in Aotearoa frown very seriously on the consumption of the Kiwi bird, but this particular Kiwi has an affinity for and appreciation of good wine, preferably from her homeland.

And it has been a good week for the Kiwi and wine, as well as the Kiwi wine  of the Kiwi's friends. (Which makes up for leaving a gift bottle of wine behind last week, but I do hope the gifter enjoyed it and thought of me for at least a few sips of the bottle.)

Saturday, while at Yongsan, I noticed banners advertising a wine tasting at the Dragon Hill Lodge so phoned a military buddy to meet me there. For those who have never lived in Korea, the local wines range from atrocious to undrinkable. Koreans have a sweet palate and no history of wine making so the result is usually a cloyingly sweet cordial that has little resemblance to wine. I'm sure they could make spectacular wines as they have wonderful grapes but it would require an excellent winemaker to come over and do so, preferably partnered with knowledgeable vineyard managers who know how to achieve the best grapes for making the best wines.

Side note: The Kiwi is surprisingly knowledgeable on the subject, having grown out of her late-teen affinity for Asti Spumante, a sweet sparkling wine preferred in those days by those with aspirations to elegance but no understanding of class. She has since worked at and managed some of the best bars and wine bars in New Zealand and Australia, learned about wine at the shop of one of New Zealand's foremost experts (who brought in other experts regularly) and spent whenever possible on vineyards, both tasting and tending grapes.

So the nastiness that Koreans mislabel wine just will not do for this gal.

There are other wines available in Korea, and a much larger selection at a much better price each time I return here but, as with anywhere, its those that are produced in huge quantities that are mostly available. So the chance to expand my knowledge and taste some unknown drops was not one to be sneered at. I happily paid $18 for a ticket and another $5 for a perfect tasting glass, and it was time to have fun learning.

And what fun it was! Aside from the wine, I enjoyed time with old friends, reconnected with recently-made friends and made a few new ones while on a roll. (One gentleman sidled up behind me to ask, "Is there an event that involves alcohol in this city that you don't go to?" He'd been on the Craftworks Brewery Tour the previous week and hasn't been in Seoul long enough to know that it would take a few thousand cloned Kiwis to attend every event that has alcohol. Maybe more.)

I talked up those few New Zealand wines that were on the tables, though none of them approach the standard of our best; discussed wine-making and tourism and Seoul and Kim Jong-il; ran out of business cards to hand out and met a vivacious fellow journalist whom I hope to work with in the future. It being the day of the Marine Ball, which was being held in the hotel, I also got to admire some buff, handsome men-in-uniform and thank them for their service. (Offering to buy them a drink didn't really work under the circumstances.) And, of course, drank a little wine, and found a lovely Zinfandel Port. (Port being far more difficult to come by here.)

Then, on Tuesday, I attended the 2011 SIWA and Diplomatic Community Bazaar at the Seoul Grand Hilton. I intend to write a separate post on that but, having heard tales from earlier events, planned to get there as early as possible and head straight for the New Zealand table as I'd heard our Embassy sold good Aotearoa-made wines but they always went quickly.

That event was also improved when I arrived to catch the shuttle to the hotel (about a 30-minute ride) and found my new journalist friend from Saturday also there, along with another friend of hers I'd met at the tasting. Great minds do think alike, as she pointed out.

Once at the bazaar and checked in with the relevant people, I was off to find my compatriots and buy some good wine.  I walked away with a Babich Pinot Noir and a Saint Clair Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, both of which await a special occasion or a whim. I was also sorely tempted by the possum/merino scarves and gloves but decided they probably wouldn't survive my vagabond lifestyle too well.

Then this morning, Wednesday, in keeping with the week's wine theme, I was informed that the wines from two vineyards whose owners I know well and have been involved with had won trophies in the Air New Zealand Wine Awards 2011. I'm happy for both pairs of vintners and  feel proud to have personally been part of the making of one of the winning wines, or at least the nurturing of the grapes.

During a long-overdue return to Aotearoa from Nov. 2010 through May of this year, I was fortunate to spend time living and working with friends on Tussock Ridge Vineyard in Central Otago. The vineyard's label is  8 Ranges for the eight separate ranges you can see surrounding it.


As you can see from above, it was a magical place to be, and each day I learned more about grapes and vineyard management and all the many factors that must come together to make a great wine. It's a small vineyard with only a small output, but the wines are superb.



The judges at the wine awards obviously agree, and the 2011 Pinot Rose made with the grapes I helped prune and tend took the gold.

I had hoped to help harvest also, but the weather did not cooperate and I had a date with a motorcycle and good friends in the U.S. I had also wanted to work the harvest at another vineyard close by owned by other friends, but again the weather had other ideas. But I was happy to hear that one of the wines from Maori Point Vineyard also won an award.

Well done all involved! I know what a team effort it was and wish I could be there to celebrate with you.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Lisa's shirt goes out in Seoul

The brewery tour on Saturday was to start the new winter brew for Craftworks, and I got home to find a friend in Virginia had been on a brewery tour also. I promised to send her the Seorak Oatmeal Stout t-shirt, then thought I should take it out on the town first. It didn't suit me so I accosted random strangers and asked them to model or pose with it for me (except the dog, he's my roommate so not random).
Here are the results, and there's a story to each:





This guy was sitting in his pickup, obviously moving house and waiting for someone (his wife, he told me later) and when I asked if he was going to be there long, thought I was trying to move him on and got quite aggressive. After I explained that I just wondered if he had time to pose for a picture, he explained that someone had tried to carjack him the previous day. And he was so, so apologetic . . .



This little lady is the graphic artist that designed the shirt, hence the proud smile

She's also one of the lovely staff members at Craftworks, as are the next four models






Punk dude really didn't want to be part of this

The Kiwi prevailed




Random Nigerians




A charming Frenchman and his beautiful daughter - trying to explain what I was doing in pidgin French was difficult


Saturday, November 5, 2011

The new brew . . .

I'm trying to blog on the brewery tour yesterday but need some information and it's 0-too-early on a rainy Seoul Sunday and nobody wants to talk to me in this country.

Thank God for America and time-zone differences, I'll just debate ows on DM's wall and chat with Nicholas (who gets paid to swim with dolphins - what a job!), Jisu (my very own Jeju guru), and Lisa (a new friend in VA).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Itaewon Freedom

The following is the original of my latest feature for Yonhap News Agency - the shorter published version can be found here (worth looking at for the photos by Jake Hanus, if nothing else:


Koreans Drawn to Freedom of Foreign Enclave


Situated just outside the concertina-wire topped concrete walls of U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan  –  home to the headquarters of United States Forces Korea  –  the suburb of Itaewon has long been known as a foreigner-friendly enclave. U.S. troops roam the streets, monitored in the evenings by Courtesy Patrols of Military and Korean National Police; English-language teachers mingle with international students; Africans of various nations peddle jewelry on street corners; and Pakistani, Indian and Turkish restaurants share street space with Western diners and English-style bars.

Itaewon’s foreign flavor precedes all of these newer immigrants, however. Historian Robert Neff, co-author of “Korea Through Western Eyes,” said the Japanese were based in the area when they occupied South Korea and before the Americans moved in. Neff has also been told that a Chinese presence preceded the Japanese but has no proof of that claim.

The faces on Itaewon’s streets have changed again recently, as Koreans reclaim this most non-Korean of suburbs, which was once considered both unsafe and undesirable.  

When Ashley Cheeseman, Executive Assistant Manager of the Grand Hilton Seoul, first visited Seoul in 1997 with his Korean wife, she did not tell him about Itaewon, “because she had only heard bad things,” he said.

The Englishman was told of the area by another Westerner and visited, finding a home away from home. Cheeseman and his wife subsequently lived one suburb over in Hannam for many years, and he continues to visit Itaewon three or four times a week.

“There wasn’t so much of a mix back then,” he said. “People were very segregated. You had the African community going to one place, Filipinos going to another.

“Now, I see this community where everybody is accepted and nobody is looked down or frowned upon.

“You have this perfect combination of young Koreans being in an environment with a lot of foreigners.”

He believes the change began when Korea co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup, and Koreans wanted to socialize with foreigners and be part of a global experience. Itaewon was one of several focal points in Seoul where locals and visitors gathered together to watch the games.

Kevin Cyr, the Canadian owner of the Chili King burger bar, is another long-time visitor to Itaewon who has watched the area mature along with Korea itself. After coming to Korea as an English teacher in 1996, Cyr started selling chili burgers from a truck on the Itaewon main street in 2008 and moved to permanent premises on a side street in April 2009.

In 1996, he said, Itaewon was dominated by young American military and English teachers, he said.

“Most Koreans didn’t come to Itaewon because it was still considered dirty and dangerous.”

He said that perception has changed with promotion of the area by the Korean Government and as Koreans “slowly but surely become more wordly.”

“The late-20s, early-30s generation wants to experience more than Korea. A lot of them have either gone abroad, studied abroad or been on trips, so when they come back to Korea, they still want that authentic feeling. They don’t want to go to a Bennigans. They want to go to an Italian restaurant that actually has an Italian cook. They want to go to an American burger joint that actually has a Westerner cooking. They want the authenticity.

“Itaewon is basically the only place that really offers that.”

Koreans on the Itaewon streets gave similar reasons when asked what brought them to the suburb. Young parents Shim Gyu Sang and his wife Choi Hye Young said they both first came to Itaewon as middle school students and now visit every year or two. Bringing their 10-month old daughter for her first visit, Choi said she had noticed many more Koreans in the area.

Koreans frequented the area, she said, because “there are lots of tasty restaurants and many authentic restaurants.”

Nineteen-year-old Lee Jeong Sun, who was visiting to take photos with two of her friends, said she had been to Itaewon “just a few times.”

“When I was just a high-school student,” she said, “I heard that Itaewon is a beautiful place, similar to Europe, with so many foreigners.

“I think Itaewon is not like Korea because so many foreigners live here so they have their own culture and their own behavior.”

Kang Jeong Moon (26) said that he has visited Itaewon to shop, go to dance clubs and meet friends about 20 times in the past 10 years. He had also noticed a lot more of his fellow citizens in the suburb and said it was the foreign experience that attracted them.

“If you can’t go to America, you can still come to Itaewon,” he said.

Another factor that draws Koreans to the area, in a country where social media is an enormous influence on so-called “Netizens,” is a song that became a Facebook and Youtube phenomena in March of this year. “Itaewon Freedom” is an ‘80s-style disco/rap parody that speaks of freedoms unavailable elsewhere in a culture that has rigid expectations of its citizens.

The duo UV, consisting of musicians Yoo Seyoon and Myuji, and rapper JYP donned faux afros to sing lines that include translations of “a world full of youth” and “the world is there.”

Cheeseman said the song and the influence of many more foreigners on Korean television added to the attraction of Itaewon.

“There’s nobody there judging you,” he said.

“Especially with young couples, it’s an ideal location to go. They can be more affectionate with each other without people looking at them and criticizing them with their eyes.”

Cyr agreed that the area offers a freedom not easily found elsewhere in this strictly-regimented society.

“For them it’s like they’re living on the wild side,” he said.

Other long-time foreign residents grumble about the influx of Koreans to what many view as their own small part of the peninsula, though none spoken to wanted to go on record doing so.

Cheeseman said he had heard such complaints.

“But at the end of the day,” he said, “we’re in their country. We are the visitors here so to have Koreans with us and socially accepting us – there can be nothing better.”

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Kiwi is Back, and the world didn't end

It's been more than a month since the last Kiwi post, as the Kiwi has been grounded (in all but the most literal sense of that word). She has not only reached a phase where she needs to stay in one country for an extended period of time, she has taken a job that she truly enjoys and that is important to her and, it being in media, has had to work out where her own meanderings fit in relation to that. No final decision yet but she feels free to comment on some of the things that are part of that job.



But first, it's Saturday, Oct. 22, and the world did not end. Or it may have, and the Kiwi missed it - that has happened before. (Just looked outside the Kiwi cave - the roommate's dog is there, there's no movement on the streets but it IS mid-morning on a South Korean Saturday so perhaps she just missed the party.)

Apart from the Mayans, who apparently ran out of either paper or numbers when making the calendar so stopped at 2012, a New Zealand pastor and a bunch of religious nutjobs from Oakland, CA, forecast yesterday as the end of the world. (*check world clock - it's still yesterday in CA, quiver, whimper, head for the nearest bar*)

Why don't I believe this, if we disregard my cynical, skeptical, non-believer essence?

Becase, "if" the rapture had already occurred, I know a few (actually many) people who were missed. Not me, not Doctrine Man, but a number of others without whom heaven would be lacking. When they all disappear at the same time, it will be too late to do anything other than to wreak havoc with those of us left behind.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Products of our Culture

We are products of where we come from.

I consider myself one of the most non-Kiwi New Zealanders I know, and when I visited home last year I kept being asked what part of America I came from. But yesterday, being the opening of the Rugby World Cup in Aotearoa/New Zealand, I found myself in a sports bar watching the game. I cheered the Tongan Sipi Tau, had shivers down my spine at the All Blacks' Haka and drooled along with every other female and a few males as Sonny Bill changed his shirt. And learned a little about our culture viewed through other eyes.

I was sitting with a couple of Irish guys (my other nationality, so I felt at home) and they were talking about New Zealanders. Apparently the rest of the world thinks it strange that when you tell a Kiwi to come stay if ever they're in town, they do. Being a Kiwi, it had never ever occurred to me that people would offer you a place to stay if they didn't mean it. In Aotearoa, we tend not to say things we don't mean. Apparently, in other parts of the world, people say things just to be polite (yes, even in Ireland, which is not the first country that springs to mind when one thinks of polite gentility). The Irish boys told me that in Ireland you have to say no the first time anyone offers you something and wait for them to offer again before accepting. They also said they miss out on a lot of things because of that.

The conversation left me feeling defensive, uncomfortable and wondering how many people I'd inflicted my presence on when they hadn't actually meant the invitation they'd extended. We're a very literal people and believe what people say - and I hope I don't begin to question that because I prefer to believe people. But I just found out that the rest of the world doesn't necessarily work that way.

It's a very strange thing to feel I need to apologize to people for taking what they say as truth, but that's how I feel right now. So, to anyone I have inflicted my presence on in the misguided belief that an invitation meant a welcome, I humbly apologize. Though I do advise you to think before you say things that you don't mean.


THIS JUST IN: I have been advised by a number of American friends and my Australian guru that they all mean it when they invite someone to visit - perhaps it's just an Irish thing?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Life in Limbo

I'm not very good at doing nothing. I like to be moving, working, traveling, exploring - being busy is my natural state. But a moment of inattention two weeks ago has resulted in an enforced period of frustrated waiting, and I'm finding it hard to take.

I returned to Seoul, South Korea, at the beginning of August to take up an editing position with Yonhap News Agency - the national wire service here. Before I could begin though, I had to wait for my visa application to be processed and approved, something that did not happen until midway through the month. That was only the visa application however, and I still needed to go to another country to actually get my visa as per the rules in South Korea.

August being school holidays and the summer season, flights everywhere were scarce, as were ferries, but I managed to book a trip to Fukuoka, Japan, for my visa run. It involved an overnight train to Busan, a ferry to Fukuoka and an overnight stay there before reversing the trip and coming back to start work - something I was eager to do after eight months on the road.

I prepared everything I needed for the trip, including passport, tickets and cash in Japanese yen to pay the visa costs once there. But then came the moment of inattention. I had taken a cab to the railway station and got caught in traffic so was running close to departure time once we arrived. I paid the driver, grabbed my backpack and started running up the station steps. About five steps up, I realized I had left my purse in the taxi, but by then it had pulled away. With my passport, wallet, cards, tickets, cell-phone and cash.

Koreans are very honest people and I know of many instances in which people have lost important items here and had them turned in untouched so I hoped for the best. Or at least hoped that my passport would be turned in, even if my wallet and cash was not. I filed a police report, notified my embassy and my employer and waited to see if luck would smile on me this time. I also visited my bank to cancel my cards, and found I could not get new ones reissued immediately without a passport for identification. I instead had to wait a week to have them delivered to my home address.

I arranged to have some money sent to me so I could pay for a replacement passport and, as I waited for that and my bank cards to arrive, pestered the police and embassy each day in the hope my  passport would show up. It not having done so in a week, I applied for a replacement, which has to be processed in New Zealand and then couriered. I hope it will arrive this week but can't book tickets until I have it in hand, and next week is the Chuseok Thanksgiving Holiday here in Korea so I will have to wait for that to be over before  I can travel to an overseas embassy anyway.

I also can't replace my cell-phone as my old contract was for a 2G phone and the service provider no longer has those. I need to start a new contract for a 3G or 4G phone, but I can't sign a contract here until I have my visa. It feels as if my life is on hold as I wait.

Fortunately, my new employer has been very understanding and is waiting patiently for me to have all my documents again in hand. But I'm finding that being in limbo is something that I am personally very bad at. I am trying to make the most of this unexpected free time to write and did finish a feature article last week, but it's difficult being creative while feeling stressed, frustrated and mad at myself. I am getting a lot of exercise taking my roommate's dog on long walks and catching up on a few years of television series while I have the time.

And I know it's only a matter of time and there's nothing I can do to speed up the process, but I really want to get to work at my new job and I'm not very good at waiting.

I do know I'm going to be very, very careful with my new passport once it arrives.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Back in the Ghetto

It has been more than a decade since I first arrived in Seoul, South Korea, knowing absolutely nothing about the country, its politics, its history, culture, food or people. In the interim, I have spoken to experts in their fields here and people in the street; watched; observed; sometimes listened, sometimes ranted; communicated with yesterday's and tomorrow's leaders; and been honored to work in the South Korean media with many brilliant and inquisitive colleagues.

One constant throughout that voyage, as for most other foreigners in Daehanminguk, has been the suburb of Itaewon. I was introduced to the foreign ghetto within days of my arrival and have spent all of my Seoul-time living within walking distance of this most non-Korean of suburbs. I have also been frustrated and irritated by the many  Westerners who come to South Korea for a year or two and never venture beyond Itaewon's borders. You're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy, and there's a whole wide world beyond the comfort zone of English-style pubs, familiar food choices and reliving your campus days with people who understand your language.

By the time of this current return, I'd not resided in my former home for about six years. I'd visited semi-regularly for much of that time so still had my finger on Itaewon's pulse intermittently, but I hadn't been paying this crazy place the attention I did in earlier days.

Now I'm back. And, as with a family member who hasn't seen a child for a long time, I see the immense growth that those who helped closely nurture that growth barely notice.

I've spent the last few days working on a feature article on Itaewon for the Yonhap news agency, for which I have written for the past year and for which I will soon be a full-time copy-editor. As happens, the story turned out very differently than I expected when I pitched it, but it has been fascinating and fun throughout. In the process, I have gained a deeper appreciation of this unique area that I am fortunate to know as one of my homes. Its residents have become ever-more diverse and I love that when I venture out, I never know what I am going to find.

I love being back in my ghetto!  

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Fenders

When I was asked to sail the Indian Ocean, I made it clear to the skipper that I wasn't going to warm his bed.

He wasn't overly bright, so I accepted that I would need to say that more than once.

What I did not expect, was to be woken every day with the (tired) line, "I suppose a fuck is out of the question?" I got bored more than annoyed. But I loved the sailing.

Night watches in the Indian Ocean where the sea is total phosphorensce.

Trading cans of coke for lobster in Thailand.

Hanging with the Sultan of Oman's crew in the Seychelles.

Walking a friend home in Mombasa because she was scared, then realizing we were in the worst ghetto around, and refusing to give my buddy my knife, because I might need it.

Watching a young black friend race MTX in Seth Effrica.

The village in the Maldives, which I had to talk my way out of . . .

BUT, back to the yacht. I flew into Thailand expecting to be taught to sail. The Skipper didn't think I needed to learn that particular skill, because HE knew it already. And it was a boat that could be sailed single-handed, therefore I didn't need to know. (I spent many hours with other sailors in Thai beachside cafes planning how to lose The Skipper at sea, and learning what I needed to know to 'single-hand' the boat)

Fast-forward a few weeks, to Nai Harn and a yachting regatta. The Skipper, trying to impress, came into our mooring under sail (note to non-sailors, NOT a wise idea if you have the option of a motor). We had a free boom, and the line caught on another boat's cleat. There we were, swinging around on a collision course, and The Skipper yells at me to get the fenders.

I, having been a roadie in a previous life, look around for electric guitars. Not seeing any, I wonder if these big squishy things might be useful.

I jumped ship in Sri Lanka, and signed on with someone who let me sail.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Essays On America

I'm not big on plans.

That is probably because every plan I have ever made has evolved into a creature very different from the one I first conceived. AND . . . because the most miserable times in my life have been when I tried to follow the preconceived plan, rather than taking whatever the universe tossed my way and running with it.

So . . . not surprisingly . . . the "Great American Adventure" took its own path. Or road. Or interstate.

BUT . . .

The trip is still worthy of a book, even if it's not the book I first had in mind. I have hours of interviews to listen to, thousands of miles to recall, and many friends to thank. The result will probably surprise me as much as my readers.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Back in the ROK

Following the latest version of the Great American Adventure, the Kiwi is back in the Land of Not-Quite Right (aka The Land of the Morning Calm or the Republic of Korea).

After an initial aborted attempt at leaving America last Friday, caused by mechanical problems with one of United Airlines's scheduled flights and not helped any by the company's incompetence and complete disregard for its customers, I arrived back in a soggy, stifling, sweaty Seoul on Sunday night. (If my characterization of United seems harsh, read the note at end.)

I made my way to my old neighborhood of Kyungidan, just down from the Hyatt Hotel on the side of Namsan, and quickly settled into my new apartment with a friend of long-standing. I realized on arrival that it is the same building where a couple who have also been good friends for many years lives - not bad odds in a city of 10 million plus.

On Tuesday I made my way to meet my prospective employers at Yonhap News Agency - South Korea's national news agency - and was delighted to be officially offered an editing position. My visa paperwork should be processed soon, after which I need to take a quick international trip (yes, another) to have the visa issued and the plan is to start work August 22. I'm tossing up between Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Jakarta for the visa run as flight prices are all similar. Hong Kong is winning out thus far as it has good friends to have dinner with, great stores that stock even Vegemite, the Stanley Market and nearby beach AND a New Zealand store that serves hokey pokey ice cream.

While I wait, I've been trying to reset my body clock by +14 hours and trying to adjust from VA's heatwave to the monsoon heatwave in Seoul, where flash-floods caused loss of life and landslides this past week. I've also been getting accustomed to my new kitchen and enjoying cooking in my own place. After eight months of being a guest in other people's homes, five months in Aotearoa and three in the U.S., it's wonderful to have my own space again. I am humbly grateful to all my hosts (thanks to come, both here and in other ways) but being a guest for such a long period was at times almost as tiring as the 6,000 miles I covered on the motorcycle.

Now it's time to start work again, not just at Yonhap but on my own writing (see next post) and back at the volunteer job I held and loved when last living in Seoul. I should find enough to keep me from getting bored in this dynamic, vibrant and often mixed-up place. It's time to enjoy another of my many homes.

NOTE ON UNITED: After confirming my flight the day before, I arrived at Norfolk International Airport two hours prior to departure on July 29 (0730) to find a long queue at the United check-in and only two staff on duty. One of the two appeared to be a trainee as she had to ask the other for help on almost every task. My flight, to Washington, Dulles, was canceled because of "mechanical problems" and there seemed to be trouble with a flight going to Chicago also, as many of those in line were complaining about the excessive wait they had to be assigned seats and checked in. Once checked in, many still had to wait for up to 30 minutes as the staff member was unable to print luggage labels so they could check their bags with security. This included a family with three young children, who were repeatedly asked how many tags they needed without actually been given them.

I noticed a gentleman near the front of the line when I arrived whom I saw again two hours later near the back of the line again. At this stage there was only one staff member at the counters and she advised those waiting that it was going to take her some time to process them and they could dial 1800-United for assistance instead. The gentleman replied that he had done so earlier and an agent had rebooked him on another carrier but when he went to check-in there, he had been told he had to return to the United counter. Shortly before I left the airport he made it to the counter again, where he was told that although the agent had booked him on the flight, a seat reservation had not been made.

I was initially told there was no alternative service available to me for at least the next two days. I explained that my US visa was about to expire and that I needed to be back in Korea for an important appointment and I was happy to take any routing on any carrier. After more than two hours, I was rebooked via a different routing and with my final two legs of the trip on a different carrier. I was offered a hotel room overnight but told it would not be available until after 3 p.m. I declined, having wonderful friends/family less than five minutes away, and was given a $10 meal voucher as compensation for the inconvenience. NOT redeemable for alcohol, which is what seemed most needed at the time. (I kept the voucher as a souvenir and a reminder to myself to avoid United Airlines whenever possible.)

The staff were pleasant and tried to be helpful BUT there were not enough of them rostered on to deal with the number of people and from my own experience and those of other disgruntled passengers in the queue, they were poorly trained. The company mindset, rather than being of trying to deliver a service well and gain customer loyalty, seemed to be that of "buyer-beware."

On returning to my friends' home on July 29, I e-mailed the United customer relations desk with the above concerns and some questions about their handling of the situations and their apparent lack of concern for any inconvenience caused by them.  I have still not received a reply, but will be happy to post it here if I ever do.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Fond Farewell

To top off the Great American Adventure and my exploration of things Americana (thanks for that Victor), I got a personal patdown by TSA on my way out of Chicago. They didn't even take me for dinner first!

I assume there has been a good deal of sensitivity training since the new rules and the subsequent complaints first came into play, or maybe I just got a sensitive new-age TSA-er. She explained what she would do before she did it (I've had worse dates) and offered to take me to a private room if I'd be more comfortable with that (see previous date comment). Because I was wearing a skirt (yes, I do own one or two), the patdown was "friendlier" than it might have been otherwise, she explained.

The perfect send-off!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Planned Reading


One of the many people I was privileged to meet while on my Great American Adventure was Victor M. Rosello, a retired USArmy Colonel who is the author of the above book. I'll be ordering my copy as soon as I have an address in Korea at which to receive it, and look forward to both reading it and reviewing it here.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

It's a Strange, Strange World

The east coast of America, and many other states, have been wilting in a heatwave this past week.

Aotearoa, in contrast, is bracing itself for the coldest weather in 16 years.

I visited my first gun show today, and was strangely attracted to the pretty knives, crossbows and buff salesmen (that bit wasn't strange). At one stage, I was carrying the SEAL's upper (it's a gun term) and people kept wanting to buy it from me. Good thing I'm scared of him!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Arkansas

The Note: I have put off writing this, because the person I measure myself against is a US Navy SEAL, and I know he is going to be pissed at me when he reads this. All I can say in my favor is that I was there to observe, not to change. On with the show . . .


Until this month, I have never been scared by people. I've been in scary situations. At age 17, while hitch-hiking from Taupo to Napier [both Aotearoa, for those wondering], I had a driver pull off the road and pull me into the back of his van. He was Maori, as am I, and I calmly told him that the only way he was going to get what he wanted was to kill me, and then I would haunt him every day of his life. If he had not been Maori, I'd like to think I could have found another way to reason him out of hurting me.

You can't reason with crazy.

While visiting a friend on this Great American Adventure, I got to meet her cousin, whom she had already warned me was crazy. Long story short, he got angry, I probably responded unwisely, she told him to leave her house and he attacked her. At which stage, the Kiwi being the Kiwi, I stepped between them, hands held high, not in attack mode, and said "stop."

You can't reason with crazy.

I have the bruises where he took hold of me before he threw me out of the way. He then went outside and started firing his guns. I went to bed with a screwdriver under my pillow, just in case. (Yes, I do know where the carotid artery resides.)

As this was happening, I was remembering an I.O.U.  my SEAL buddy once gave me, and how he worded it. I could have called him, he would have dealt with it for me, but he would have been disappointed that I couldn't handle it myself.

I'm capable of killing, as in I know how to, but I can't put down a sick kitten. Or a sick dog, as in this case. AND . . . I felt partially responsible because I didn't realize my friend meant crazy-insane and not crazy-fun.

You can't reason with crazy.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Kiwi has landed!

Safe home in the Norfolk nest and looking forward to two weeks of sleep, good company and piecing together the 6,000 mile journey and making sense of some of what she experienced along the way.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Very, Very Ugly

The Kiwi has been quiet online lately because she has been anything but elsewhere. Got lost in the Arkansas Ozarks for a week, then spent the last two days riding, to get back East.

On the sad, bad, sad side, a beautiful young family member died, and it's hard to write when you're grieving. R.I.P. Nikki, you taught a lot of your elders how to really live.

On the good, I may have a job to go back to, one that I want.

On the ugly - I had my first experience of human hatred last week and, no, it wasn't the WBC. Another thing to get my head around before I write it up, but I learned that you can't reason with insanity. I have the bruises to prove it, the bike was easier to fix.

Today is a rest day on a three-day ride from Arkansas to Virginia, where I need to courier some documents for the (hoped-for) new job, then sleep all day while the gals are at work and emerge to tell stories at night. Yesterday was 12 hours travel, about 10 in the saddle, and five rainstorms. When I get really tired, like now, I ask whose stupid idea this was anyway, and have to answer that it was mine. And, as much as I hurt right now, I'm glad I'm stupid enough to do it.

Nite y'all.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

God is Hate?

The Westboro Baptist Church and its place in the seething melting pot that is America has been of interest to me since I first became aware of its existence. I admit that I never passed that curious-child phase of asking "Why?" to everything I don't understand, and this was one of those things I really didn't understand.

The WBC, for those who don't know, is the small Topeka, Kansas-based "Old School (or Primitive) Baptist Church" probably best known of late for picketing military funerals. I'll explain in more detail in a later post (but need to pack and ride from Parkville, MO, to Salem, AR, today, so this needs to be brief).

The pickets were part of a thread recently on a (loosely) miltary-themed page I follow, and another of the followers, who had already offered me a roof and pillow while in the Kansas City neighborhood, mentioned the church's proximity to where I would be. On checking that services were open to the public, I decided to attend one, wanting to get a feel for the members, and then to try and speak with them.  

On Sunday, my host drove me to Topeka, where we encountered a locked door at the church, and no response to the doorbell or intercom. We returned to Missouri, I e-mailed the WBC contact and had a response later that evening that included the following:
We are so sorry that
you were unable to attend today's meeting. We welcome anyone to come, but
the doors were locked just prior to the service, as we have had some
mischief-makers right outside the church doors as of late, and we will
suffer no disruption to our sincere worship of God. So again, sorry. If you
are still in the area, we would be happy to meet with you or talk to you by
phone. You are welcome to come back from Kansas City and meet with any of us
who are available.
In a decision that has already upset at least one person I know, I took the WBC up on their offer and yesterday, the 4th of July, rode to Topeka and spent an hour-plus with Fred Phelps Jr., the eldest son of Westboro Baptist Church founder and pastor Fred Phelps, and another son, Jon. I recorded our conversation, with their permission, but need some time to listen, transcribe, consider and e-mail further questions (to them and others) before being  ready to write about that. I'll do a backgrounder on both WBC and the PGR before that.

For today, I need to ride.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Still On the Road

Just a quick note to apologize for writing so little lately. Surprisingly (or not), motorcycling more than 3,000 miles across America (thus far) takes a lot of time and energy. It also makes me sleep very well.

Am currently in Minneapolis again, having made a quick return trip to Jamestown, ND, to honor a very special lady, whom we sadly lost earlier this year. I will be heading further south tomorrow and expect a long day of riding.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Bikers Helping Bikers

After more than 2,000 miles of riding the west U.S. interstates and highways, I had my first urgent problem on Wednesday while arriving in Chicago en route from Detroit. Thankfully, a free service I signed up for while in Myrtle Beach provided the help that biker friends have provided for me elsewhere.

The ride itself was as I've become accustomed to, as high winds and torrential downpours seem to enjoy reminding me that I chose an adventure, not a comfy package tour, on my current U.S. trip. My wet weather gear kept me reasonably dry, apart from the right leg that rides up and funnels water into my boot rather than keeping it out. (Note to self: Buy stirrups to fix that problem before heading out again.) The temperature was reasonable also, so although wet, I wasn't cold. But the Chicago traffic was just as bad as I'd been forewarned, if not worse, and my clutch hand was sore from all the stops required getting through and beyond the Chicago Skyway.

Once through the worst of that, I pulled off the interstate to top up with gas and, on pulling out of the service station, found my rear tire was completely (and suddenly) flat. There was no mechanic on duty so I filled the tire with air, and noticed a screw embedded in it. There I was, states away from anyone I knew who could be of help and with no knowledge of the state, city or town I was in.

BAM to the rescue!

While at Myrtle Beach Bike Week I'd been impressed by a Breakdown & Legal Assistance for Motorcyclists service offered by Russ Brown, Motorcycle Attorneys, and signed up. Started by Brown more than 30 years ago, BAM is a volunteer network of bikers helping bikers, whether with emergency roadside assistance, local knowledge or even blood donations and hospital visits. (BAM also offers legal services and an emergency database that holds members' emergency contacts, medical problems and blood type - services I hope not to utilize but which are reassuring to have available.)

Wendy at BAM asked what I needed, which was simply a convenient shop that could take care of my tire. In less than five minutes, I had a call from Dave at Albrecht's Fast Track, less than three miles from where I was. He checked he had the tube I needed, asked the mechanics if they would mind staying a little late as it was nearing 6 p.m. by then, and gave me instructions on how to find the workshop. While on the phone with him, I missed a callback from Wendy at BAM wanting to let me know what she'd arranged.

Once at Albrecht's, the guys changed out the tube as asked, plus tightened and lubed the chain and checked my brakes when they found out how far I'd ridden and how far I still had to go.

So what could have been a major stressor - drenched and tired in an unknown city with a bike that needed urgent work - turned into a positive experience (except for the cost, and that was reasonable also). I got to meet some more like-minded people, talk about bikes and biking America and reinforce my belief that people generally, and Americans in particular, are willing to help strangers whenever they can.

Thank you BAM (especially Wendy) and thank you Albrecht's!

For any U.S. bikers out there who are not already members of BAM, check out their website here: http://www.russbrown.com/

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Welcome to America

It has, once again, been an interesting night.

A friend of the friends I am staying with had a party to celebrate becoming an American. The amusing part of that is that she was born to American parents and has lived most of her 40 years of life in the U.S.A. but her mother gave birth in Canada. The required paperwork was never filed and it took some time and a lot of bureaucratic bullshit for her to gain citizenship to her own country. The event was celebrated with alcohol, bad renditions of both "O Canada" and "The Star Spangled Banner" and a fortunately timed fireworks display.

The new American's husband rides in the same Harley Owners Group as my hosts so there were a few bikes and a few more bikers present. (Don't tell anyone, but sometimes bikers drive.)

One of the reasons I love being an outsider is that, by not belonging, I can hang out most places. I began the evening in the garage with the ladies and was amused when JD came in to refresh his drink and objected to the women discussing leg hair, waxing and other nasty female thangs that he preferred not to hear about.

I later joined the boys by the bikes, and got to hear about prostate exams, cytoscopies, how acid reflux can develop into cancer and other male health concerns I'd never previously thought about. I did wonder, while hearing the joys (?!?) of a cytoscopy, just why leg hair would make a "Man of a Certain Age" cringe. (I also suggested, when told how much it cost for a prostate exam, certain places where one might get paid to allow a similar procedure.)

I'm not sure where I stand on the Mars and Venus issue, but have never doubted that males and females are different, and celebrate the differences. And I thank my male friends for allowing me to observe them in their natural habitat occasionally.

Tomorrow: I'll be riding to Hell and back.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Sweet Ignorance

My current U.S. motorcycle road trip reminds me an awful lot of when I first learned to sail. Not for me a series of lessons at the local yacht club, or even learning the ropes aboard the many yachts that sail out of Sydney, where I was then based. I, in my usual "If it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing" manner, flew to Thailand, boarded a 28-foot yacht and set off out to sea.

Four months, five countries and two yachts later, once back on dry land in Kenya, someone asked if I'd ever been scared during the ocean crossings. On hearing my response in the  negative, the fellow Kiwi I'd crewed with aboard the second yacht from Sri Lanka to Africa couldn't help himself.

"You should have been," he said. "You would have been if you'd known better."

I'm reminded of those words many times as I traipse around the east of America, and wonder if I would have undertaken this trip if I'd known better. But ignorance can be bliss (for me, at least) and I'm learning as I go.

First the bike, or the Bike from Hell, as I've described her before (bikes, like yachts, are always female and should be treated with similar  respect). The MZ Baghira was designed and built by an East German company using the 660 single-cylinder engine that Yamaha uses for its Raptor ATV. It's fast, especially from standing still, light and easily maneuverable. (It also likes to wheelie if you're that way inclined.) The SuperMoto (a cross between a racing and off-road bike) was versatile enough to be enlisted as a Police bike in Germany and was, apparently, the impetus for BMW's GS series.

As the MZ's owner often tells her admirers, she's fast enough to hold her own with the big boys but can also take a six-foot leap in her stride.

What the MZ is not, I am discovering, is an ideal cruiser or tourer. (Her owner's big brother pointed this out to me numerous times, I paid no attention.) With her high profile, high rider stance and only minimal wind deflection, the MZ and her rider (being me), tend to take quite a buffeting on the open road.  Add a little luggage for my two-plus months on the road, in the form of sissy bags behind me on the seat, and the center of gravity becomes higher and wind resistance increases.

Detroit friends and I have been looking at windscreen options since my buffeting on the Ohio Turnpike on my way from DC to here last week but nothing looks suitable. That said, I survived that 12-hour day (about 10 of which were spent in the saddle, with at least half in gusting winds) and don't plan to have a longer or windier single day. The MZ has shown she can handle it, even if she's nowhere near the comfort level of my friends' custom cruisers, and anything she can handle I can also.

The bigger problem is probably my naive ignorance, but my unfailing optimism seems to win out regardless. Before I borrowed the bike she was serviced and given new tires, plus lowered about an inch and a half so I'd be able to hold her up more easily. (Last time I borrowed her was only for a week so I didn't mind being on tiptoe - I also only had one long-ish ride alone.) But taking her across states and weaving in and out between big rigs on America's Interstates at speeds of 80-plus miles per hour has provided what in boating terms we would call a shakedown cruise.

Doing so without basic tools or equipment was an example of either my optimism or idiocy - take your pick. Jury-rigging a solution to the side fender wanting to leave the frame, while on the side of I-80 W with trucks roaring past, wasn't fun, but it worked. I'm blessed with my friends and once safely in Detroit, JD and others helped me with more permanent solutions, plus general maintenance and advice. I'll be leaving with more tools than just the Leatherman I arrived here with, plus cable ties, electrical and duct tape.

Appropriate clothing has also been a problem, and here's where the wind and weather conditions again come into play. I bought wet weather gear my first week here, but have come to realize that it's not really suited for Interstate speeds, particularly on such an exposed bike. My biggest problem is again wind, and one I discovered last week when riding home later than planned from an outing. A friend lent me his jacket, which was many sizes too large, and the effect was similar to what one might expect if trying to ride at 80 mph while towing a small kitesurfing kite. The bike wanted to go forward while the jacket filled with air and wanted to pick me off. The same thing happened, to a lesser degree, when I wore my wet weather jacket riding from East Lansing to Detroit today.

But, in the grand scheme of things, these are all just inconveniences. I'm loving riding the roads of America, even if they're less fun in high winds or thunderstorms, and loving the people I'm meeting along the way. And for each problem I encounter, there's always a solution, whether it be to wait til the storm passes by or to simply tough it out and get warm and dry once at my destination.

Perhaps I'd be more scared if I knew a little better, but its much more fun believing everything will work out for the best.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

It's a Long, Long Road

I know I keep saying this, but this country is big!

My home islands of Aotearoa/New Zealand have about the same area as Texas. I wanted to visit Texas and eat a wild pig and drink Tequila, but I don't think I'm going to make it. (I'll post the bowl, Matt.)

I am currently in Sterling Heights, MI, having ridden from DC to Detroit on Wednesday in one day. Mapquest gave the journey as just under 10 hours, I made it in about 12 but definitely had at least two hours of stops along the way.

I had initially planned to stop in Pittsburgh overnight but it was only noon when I passed there and I only had another five hours riding so decided to continue. I'm glad I did, but was even more glad to step away from the bike at the end of that day.

I now detest the Ohio Turnpike (I-80 W), particularly in big winds. I was being buffeted from all directions, and the numerous big rigs did not help with the wind currents. At least this time, I was passing the trucks, not the trucks passing me as happened in thunderstorms I rode through going from Elon, NC, to Norfolk, VA, the previous week.

The bike performed admirably but reminded me, about five hours into the ride, that we'd intended to replace the screws that held the left fender to the tank. It wanted off while fighting the Ohio winds doing 80+ mph. I had very limited choices but jury-rigged a solution that lasted til Detroit. I've since spent some hours and borrowed friends' skills to ensure that won't happen again, and will never head out again without at least cable ties and duct tape. The GPS has also found a real mount - velcroing it to the tank worked, but having to look down that low while doing 80+ and being bracketed on all sides by trucks wasn't the safest thing I've ever done.

Then again, it wasn't the riskiest, either.

I still have almost two months and a lot of miles to cover. I'm probably going to stay based here (in an amazing historic house with ultra amazing people) for a week or more and visit an artist/writer/brilliant person friend in Lansing, MI, from here. I'd also like to cross the bridge to Canuckistan while I'm so close but will speak to US and CA immigration before I do so to make sure the bike and I can get back. It would be a little embarrassing to have to smuggle it back. But would make for a great story.

After here, North Dakota, via (tentatively) Chicago and Minnesota. From ND, down to Kansas/Missouri to meet my favorite super-hero's alter-ego and better half  - he's a sick, sick cartoon character, but very wise. I'll be spending Sunday worship with the Westboro Baptist Church while there, and balancing that by talking to some Patriot Riders (Google both terms if that makes no sense to you).

After that, Arkansas and then time to make my way back to Norfolk to return the bike, teach an amazing lady to ride and visit Monticello with her and her equally amazing sister. It will then be time to find a  job and pay off this adventure, while saving for the next. It's time to send out the Resume, I guess, but not today.

Today, I'm riding in a funeral escort requested by the family of a Great Lakes military member who was killed during his 9th deployment to Iraq/Afghanistan. These non-wars have been going that long. (This same week, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has talked openly about pay and benefit cuts to the military, including medical.)

Stay safe out there.