Receiving is an act of bravery

Today, I let a stranger do something nice for me. And I was struck by how much I fought against it before I realized what I was doing.

I was running an errand as a volunteer intern for the theater where I am studying improvisation, picking up groceries from a market in Hollywood. Parking anywhere in LA is a minefield, and punishment is usually swift and brutal. I docked my Yaris in a near-ish space that was available only because that particular side of the street was fifteen minutes from switching to a 'No Parking: Street Cleaning' zone. I hoped it would be enough time.

As I returned to my car, pushing a laden cart, five minutes to spare, I noticed a Parking Enforcement prowler poised at the ready a short distance from my vehicle. The officer was a grave-looking woman wearing shades and reading the paper, just waiting to clock in. I unloaded the larder and pushed the cart to a safe, out-of-the-way spot (I digress to point out there are those who would have simply bolted at this point).

I approached the officer's car and knocked on the window. After a less-than-subtle expression of annoyance, she cracked the window as microscopically as she was able.

"I know time is almost up; I want to return this cart to the store, it's just around the corner. Will you give me a ticket if I go?"

A shrug. I guess so.

Then, another woman, the attendant at a nearby parking garage, got my attention. I saw that I could park there for fifteen minutes for $2, and thought that was better than a surefire ticket or appearing to abandon the cart as I looked for a new spot (I'll be honest, it was more about the inconvenience to me). She invited me to just park there while I returned the cart.

What? I probably misunderstood. Anyway, I was already resigned to paying the fee.

As I walked away, I saw her explaining something to do with me to another uniformed person, perhaps the manager. As I returned from retuning the cart, she made more gestures that indicated she was not going to charge me. I was thinking I would insist, 'do the right thing,' pay the $2.

Then I realized, to do so would be to rob this nice woman of her act of generosity. I would be saying, "No," rudely denying her, throwing a fat wall up between us. In my heart, I knew she had sympathy for me, I knew she wanted to let me park for free, yet I was about to give her the finger in the form of two bucks. What an asshole.

So I sucked it up, simply smiled and said, "Thank you so much!"

And I wondered how often I had done this, slapped someone in the face because I was uncomfortable accepting an unconditional gift, all the while beaming with pride for how fair and honorable I thought I was.

And I vowed to watch more closely from now on, and to try to muster the courage to let people give me things they want to give me, say thank you, sit in that feeling, share a moment of grace.


Writing for dollars

I have a new job! My first work as a freelance writer for the music channel of entertainment website IGN was published today. It's a brief review of Chris Cornell's latest album, Scream. In itself it's a very humble beginning, but you can read it here.

I want to be careful not to get ahead of myself, but at this point indicators are good that (very) soon I will be a regular. I am excited by the prospect of writing professionally, and that the focus will be music is an incredible bit of good fortune. I am a little anxious as I am fully aware that writing to a deadline (and often about things I may not totally connect with) is its own skill and I will need to learn quickly.

I will be writing under my professional name, Finn White. I haven't asked if there is a mechanism for following a particular author, but the IGN Music RSS Feed should include everything I contribute if you are interested.


It's the end of the 'round the world

Last October and November, I started to notice a change in the way it felt to be traveling. I declared it the emotional end to my latest around the world travels, though it still clearly felt nowhere near the end of the journey. On 18 December, another end of these travels milestone was reached when I arrived at my new home in Los Angeles. And now I can report the technical conclusion of travels, as yesterday I officially canceled the final leg of my around the world ticket, the flight that would have taken me back to Sydney where it all began almost nine months ago. Nine months, hmmm...

On the practical side, I was holding out to see if I could get a relatively inexpensive visit to Sydney in there, given that half the trip was already paid for. But for a while now I have suspected the timing was going to be bad, for me personally as I did not expect to feel established and stable enough to want to leave my new home. And that feels true.

As much as at any point during my traveling, I feel like so much of the real journey still lies ahead. I do not yet have that feeling of strength and confidence; that all of my self-disruption, leaning heavily on the generous hearts of my friends and taxing their love and patience, bewilderment and (often too public) navel-gazing has amounted to something. I am unsure and sad and sometimes lonely. I still have that light of hope and knowing this is the right path, but right now it feels a little distant, like there is so much more ground to cover than I expected, and right now it is a furious struggle to ask of myself little more than to be patient and stay the course with my eyes and heart open.

And I have been watching airfares for round trip flights between LAX and Sydney, and it is a shocker, in a good way. As of this writing, the best price is $700 on United, departing February to mid September. That's amazing! It should mean a visit to Australia will be totally doable, and that it can be at a time that works a little better for me emotionally and also will more truthfully feel like a visit TO Sydney FROM my home in LA (I do not devalue these seemingly minor technical differences).

And so the trip is ended. I will continue to visit this blog. It was never intended to be solely a travel blog. I should have plenty of musings left to muse. And I can hardly be less frequent than I have been lately, and at least I won't be making pseudo posts with only itinerary changes. Maybe I could blog my grocery lists?


The Return Of The King

(Budapest, Hungary)

The quest to find an appropriate fate for my wedding ring is now satisfyingly complete. I have made previous mention of this unexpected stowaway amongst the belongings I had brought with me on my travels, and the time has come to relate the final chapter.

In my first iteration of this post, at this point, I embarked on a major expository digression covering my feelings about rituals, symbols, marriage and commitment (and heaven knows where else I might have gone) with the aim to honour my storyteller instincts and fulfil my intention to tell the story properly and feed my insatiable penchant for gravitas (those who know me well know I got a fever and the only prescription is more gravitas) in bringing the tale to its ultimate close. But I soon realised the studio would never put it in theatres at such an attention span challenging length, so those deleted scenes will have to wait for the Extended Director's Cut.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008. It was the morning of my last day in Budapest. My flight to Paris was in the afternoon and I had left all preparations for departure until the eleventh hour. But there was something I needed to do first.

I rose as early as I dared, dressed as warmly as I could given I had the resources of a backpacker traveling during the summer, went to the drawer of the bedside table where I had been keeping my sentimental artifacts and put my wedding ring in my pocket. I walked out of my apartment building and headed straight for the Lánchíd (Chain Bridge), one of the world's most famous and historic bridges, one that carries powerful symbolism of its own, spanning the equally famous and symbolic Danube, and an unmistakable icon of Budapest.

For the preceding two months the weather had been almost without exception obscenely gorgeous; sunny, warm, delicious, energising. On this morning, the sky was grey and exhausted and the air was startlingly cold. I smiled to myself as my eyes watered in the biting wind, wondering whether this was poetically appropriate to the occasion and deciding that might be going a little too far even for me. The walk was considerably further than I anticipated.

On its own, the entire subject of what one might do with one's wedding ring after one's marriage has ended is in my opinion fascinating and worthy of discussion. As I walked, I reflected on the options I had considered and rejected. This is not actually true, at all; I was probably consumed with the burning in my frozen toes, the building sensation that I needed to pee, and making mental notes of potential breakfast venues for the return trip; but narratively speaking it works a little better.

The first possibility to arrive was simply keeping the ring and adding it to my permanent collection of sentimental objects. This led to the inevitable fantasies about what the archetypal next partner should make of such a thing, despite knowing realistically she either wouldn't give a shit or would simply lump it in with the rest of the quirky and ultimately more serious baggage she would need to graciously accept. But you never know; after all, bitches be crazy an' shit.

Another early consideration was to melt it down to make some other thing. This idea not only carries the same probably even greater next partner concerns, but is to be blunt pretty lame, especially for a simple gold wedding band. I fail to think of a single compelling reincarnation to justify such an undertaking, let alone one for which it would provide sufficient raw material. A cufflink? Objet d'art? It doesn't even hold up as mediocre sentimental deconstructionist poetry and most likely could only ever be one of those things that ends up in the too hard basket at the dead letter office disguised as the I'll get to it someday really I will drawer.

In the end, the only sensible solution that would extricate the ring from my life going forward and suitably demonstrate closure and my detachment from the symbol would be to sell it. I did not get around to this task before my departure from Sydney, and during the early half of my journey I didn't feel confident I could locate an adequately reputable merchant, so I pushed it off the list of urgent priorities. As time passed and I stumbled across it every now and again, it gradually dawned on me that no matter what kind of kryptonite chamber we put the rings into to drain them of their meaning, no matter how successfully we felt we had transferred whatever it was that was significant and healthy to move into our hearts and memories, these rings would always be our wedding rings. And selling my ring, aside from at best fetching enough cash to fund a day or two of my trip, just didn't feel right. I briefly considered at least getting a quote before making my final decision, but I am pleased to say I never did, pleased because it aligns with one of the most important commitments I made to myself relating to the dissolution of my marriage, to never alter my behaviour or compromise my integrity, sense of fairness, or convictions about the right course of action based on money. I never sold out.

And so it was that toward the end of my residency in Hungary that I finally knew what I wanted to do.

As I walked out to the middle of the bridge, one by one the anxieties that had been testing my resolve fell away. The bridge was not closed to pedestrians that day (the city was riddled with construction, I had seen other bridges closed to pedestrians, and I knew I was giving myself only once chance to get onto the bridge). The barriers were indeed about waist high as I recollected (no potential obstructions, no risk of a comical ricochet followed by an unceremonious flop over the edge or a bounce into traffic or a return to my feet equalling a depressing and impotent no net effect). No officials were on guard to potentially disturb me (to suspect me of plotting of my own demise or arrest and fine me afterward for egregious disregard for ordinances and the safety of would-be rivergoers below, of which there were also thankfully none). The bridge was deserted in fact, I was alone.

In the sleepy morning hush of near silence, I took the ring from my pocket, looked at it one last time, said softly "Goodbye" and cast it into the river. In one clean simple motion, I watched it fall into the water and disappear in the rushing current with a humble splash.

I came to Budapest because I love Hungarian culture, history, language, food, people. I spent enough time there to form my own personal connections to the city, to write my own story, but I make no mistake, I was introduced to it all by my ex-wife, a first generation Australian born to (very) Hungarian immigrants. And so it is appropriate and satisfying to me that the final resting place for my wedding ring be somewhere at the bottom of the Danube, beneath the iconic Lánchíd. I will always know where it is, it will always be somewhere, but at last it is no longer with me.


The end is the beginning

Chicago, U.S.A.

Last night I touched down in Chicago, marking the end of my roaming. This comes as a bit of a surprise to me, as this was not a premeditated gate. It is so because it suddenly feels so, and I am still in the stage of feeling and understanding it. The end of the journey has always been Los Angeles. Still is. And so I find myself in the transitional space, between the end of my roaming and the end of my journey.

I am highly conscious of my absence from the blogosphere. I can couch a piece of that behind the time and effort applied to the extraordinarily rewarding (creatively and personally; heh, is there a difference any more?) poetry project I did during the month of September; another piece behind the background murmur feeling that my commitment to blogging, and my increasing disappointment in my self and my discipline, were becoming unhelpful distractions to actually experiencing whatever there was to be experienced. All I can bring myself to muster is a shrug and yet another regathering of intention.

So what is it now that sits on the tip of my tongue, my fingertips, the edge of my mind, waiting to be expressed? One is a reflection on those travels that have so far escaped the full fruition of documentation. Another is the distillation and discussion of the personal philosophy that has filled so many of my hours of private thought, social intercourse, artistic contemplation throughout this journey, to which I have made allusion in several posts but not yet followed through on the promise to elaborate. A third is an impulse just beyond my ability to articulate at the moment, to 'make something'...

And this place where I am now, Chicago, the Midwest, the part of the world where I grew up and then left many years ago. I am resting here. Am I resting? I feel like being quiet. This is the perfect place to practice quiet. The Midwest, also known as Flyover to the important and smug, blind, asleep, ignorant... the place between here and there that most simply fly over on their way to wherever else. In many ways, that nowhere that resonates with immense beauty and power. I will be here for a while, and write.


Where oh where could he be?

Budapest, Hungary

So. I have been away from my blog for a while now. A month and a half actually. How could that happen?

I arrived in Budapest on Sunday, 20 July. I had been to Budapest before, almost exactly three years before, and I like the city and absolutely adore Hungarian food and culture and history and the language and people. The original plan was to spend some time here and then to use the city as a base for travel around the central parts of Europe.

Plan. Plans can be useful but I have learned to refrain from becoming attached to them. A rapid sequence of coincidences unfolded. I no longer accept coincidence as meaningless; for me all coincidence is synchronicity, at the very least in my poetic reality (one day soon, I promise). For me 'mere' coincidence belongs to a strictly causal purely rational reality, which for me is still real and of value but to reside there exclusively is not living fully, and such meaninglessness probably relies on a belief that time marches forward only, another belief I no longer accept at the very least in my poetic reality (ironically the multidirectional nature of time is also supported in rational reality in the science of quantum physics, but I digress from my digression).

How far back shall I trace the thread? Kathmandu.

In the early days of my time in Kathmandu, I was out exploring and it began to rain. As I hurried toward shelter, another person more hurried and shrouded in a navy rain poncho passed on my right, we glanced at each other briefly and she continued a short way, then stopped and turned back toward me. We decided to have a drink together and wait for the rain to pass. She invited me to come with her to a birthday dinner that evening. A couple she had randomly encountered invited her despite not knowing the guest of honour very well themselves. It turned out the birthday girl had just finished a ten day meditation retreat at a nearby Buddhist monastery and apart from Blue Raincoat and I the thirty-odd guests were other relative strangers also from this retreat.

In such a place with such a group, it's no surprise that hearts and minds were open. I met a woman who recommended The CouchSurfing Project, in short a global community dedicated to opening their homes to travellers to promote cultural exchange and raise collective consciousness. I joined and later searched for a host in Budapest. One remarkably helpful woman, who would have hosted me but was headed to Bulgaria for three months, referred me to a friend of hers that manages a few properties in Budapest. He had a few shared rooms, but it just so happened that another friend of his was considering renting out her studio flat. The three of us met at the property, instinct presided over formality, and within a few minutes (within 36 hours of arriving) I was residing in Budapest for the next two months.

The plans had changed. From tasting Europe widely to tasting life in Hungary deeply. At this point the thread loops back to Taipei. My friend Andy suggested I pursue freedom and truth, set fire to the notion of plans, choose somewhere to be for a while, and follow my heart from the present, free from the need to keep an eye forward for approaching plans. This struck me deeply, and I very nearly cancelled my remaining flights to live in Taiwan for at least three months and study Mandarin and Traditional Chinese with Andy. But at that point in my trip, I was not ready yet. My quest has been to find, hear, follow my own voice. At the last moment, I decided I was not clear enough on the matter.

Andy and I have had a long and close friendship, and with him in particular I have always struggled to know the difference between my voice and his (or more accurately the unfairly up on a pedestal version of his voice I created and heard; I am sure this is not uncommon; and I am so pleased to have woken up from it and started hearing my dear friend at last and can and do now love him more freely). I also felt burning my plans was not really more freedom, that it was closer to trading one set of given circumstances for another, that in reality each day presents its own set of given circumstances and my task is to hear my heart, make choices and do what I do; that as each article of my plan approached I was always free to keep or change or abandon it. I take the point, that it may well feel more free and be easier to follow my heart with fewer plans to negotiate. But I also felt like it would teach me less, that for me it would be avoiding the lesson; I want to learn to take this ability into my whole life not just my travelling life (whereas for Andy, right now, I think there is no separation).

So my heart lead me to stay for a while in Budapest. I wanted to taste normal life, to taste 'living here' and also to devour as much of the life on offer here as possible, so I went about pursuing activities that could give me the feeling that I actually live in Budapest and others that could become treasured memories. I contacted my former employer in Sydney and arranged to do contract work, in essence giving me a nine to five job to go to each day. I joined the gym and took a personal trainer. And as I mentioned I took the apartment and sought to establish for the first time more connections with locals than with travellers. I enrolled in salsa dancing classes (taught exclusively in Hungarian I might add; well, except for the words in Spanish, a language I am actually far less familiar with than Hungarian I might also add), bought tickets to camp overnight at a week long international music festival on one of the islands in the Danube, and registered to run in the Budapest Half-Marathon.

And it is wonderful. Wonderful wonderful. I am happy and invigorated and physically exhausted and happy and happy and happy. But a side effect of all this activity has been less time to record my thoughts in my blog. At many points during my travels so far I have felt the inner battle between writing about my journey and actually having my journey, between taking pictures of a place and actually being present in that place. I do not complain and I do not apologise. Not having enough time to do something is a cop-out and an illusion, we are all given the same amount of time in a day it is only a matter of how we choose to spend it. And this is how I have chosen to spend my time. That said, I will try not to leave it so long next time... ;-)


Pegasus And The Phoenix

Budapest, Hungary

Today marks the birth of a poetry project called Pegasus And The Phoenix. It's a collaboration with another writer and the objective is to write a poem every day for the month of September. The concept is we take turns proposing the muse for the next day, then each complete our poem by the end of the day. And no reading the counterpart poem before ours is complete.


Finding my inner Viking

Oslo, Norway

Fair hair and blue eyes? Check. Fair skin? Check. Tendency to avoid eye contact, be emotionally reserved and slow to trust others? Hmmm...

For a long time now I have wanted to visit Oslo, or at least Norway, with Oslo being the most obvious destination. Since my early twenties, since I started to see more of the world and meet more people with diverse and sometimes unimagined backgrounds and experiences. Since a longing awakened in me to have my own rich ethnic history, to throw back the solid white one hundred percent cotton kitchen towel, bought on sale at ShopKo and with a soda can pull tab sewn into one corner, of 'just plain midwestern American' for a cultural identity and reveal the complex, sensual and deeply compelling mixture of spices and flavours that make up my true lineage.

The commonly held view in my immediate family, though not authoritatively researched, at least not by me, is that I am descended from German and Polish on my mother's side and from English and Norwegian on my father's side. With a family name of Krueger, accepting my maternal grandfather as Germanic is easy. My grandmother is Paulus, which doesn't seem so Polish to me, but one must bear in mind many surnames were altered as they passed through Ellis Island, especially if they were difficult to pronounce or spell, as many Polish names are, or if they sounded 'too Jewish' or whatever was running through the immigration officer's mind; anyway the Polish designation is regarded with reasonably confident conviction. Hoping that White is anything but English is futile (it just seems so microscopically more interesting than Wisconsinite). And my paternal grandmother, Pauline Bradway; the name doesn't scream Norge to me but is plausibly Scandinavian, especially if we invoke the Ellis Island effect again, and though I can't recount an avalanche of names of family members, Ingeborg leaps to mind, I have seen a pretty deep family tree and am satisfied of her Norwegian pedigree.

Having collected this information, I gravitated most strongly to Norway. Why? Almost certainly all justification can be reduced to it simply seemed the sexiest of the bunch.

German is a decent start, but it's not terribly exotic. And with that simplistic young person's mind not so far out of high school history class, unable to see beyond the holocaust to appreciate there is so much more to Germany, especially in my generation, than World War II, and being blonde-haired and blue-eyed enough to be once dubbed 'Hitler's wet dream,' I just didn't want to be German at the time.

Where I grew up, Polish was not a sexy thing to be. There, they were the go-to butt of the joke. Simpletons, at best in a sort of charming and cuddly yet ultimately dismissive way (the slot for genuine ethnic prejudice and sub-human regard has long been solidly occupied by Native Americans). And being a child of the 80s, indoctrinated in Reaganomics and Cold War neo Red Scare rhetoric, I imagined Poland as a dour, monochromatic hell hole like every other coutry behind the Iron Curtain. Having my eyes opened since then, Poland is actually a very attractive lead. I identify strongly the broad underdog status, the fiery spirit, the fits of cerebral passion; though I am probably too upbeat and lacking in languages spoken and engineering degrees and tolerance for grain alcohol to be properly Polish.

English I have already touched on. I love English humour, and music and literature, but it just wasn't tasty enough for me. I have a memory of poring over the family tree and deciding that English must have traveled exclusively along the patrilinear edge with the surname and the rest of my paternal grandfather's heritage was in fact Norwegian as well. Perhaps it was one of those cases where an Ellis Island officer of English descent simply substituted his own family name when he was utterly baffled by all those mad diacritics? Male names like Finn, Welby and Almon certainly seemed unusual enough. Perhaps they were at least Welsh? I haven't given up hope.

So I settled on Norwegian. It certainly fit with my physical appearance. Indeed when abroad and people try to discern my marred and somewhat acommitted accent, the guesses usually start in Scandinavia. Swedish is often the initial attempt, being by far the best known source of Scandinavian blondes. I often take this opportunity to point out (like a good Norwegian) that Norwegians (as though I was one of them) aren't terribly fond of being almost-the-same-thinged and absorbed into Sweden; Sweden is to Norway as the US is to Canada and Australia is to New Zealand. Norway is proud, deserving of distinct recognition but doomed to sit in the shadow of its more famous cousin. In fact, just last night, I watched a young woman become a little heated when giving her opinion of Swedish neutrality in finger quotation marks during World War II.

And so I have come to Oslo, to solidify this long time identification, perhaps only as much as a quarter in fact but much more in spirit, with Norway.

Alas, I have not really penetrated the essence of being Norwegian. Not yet. I think my visit will prove too brief, and I am a little underprepared for the task. I would love to return, armed with more information about family lore, use that as a framework for exploring the whole of Norway, and that pretext I hope would also warm the elusive hearts of the locals and deepen my sense of belonging.

I have noted a sharp increase in the normalness of my complexion, though it is quite short of the ocean of lookalikes rumour led me to expect (and dread). As much as (I think) I long to be seen as just like everyone else, I think in my heart I am very attached to feeling special. Of course, the real magic trick would be to let go and settle into knowledge of those things that truly make me special...


What I love about Kathmandu

Kathmandu, Nepal

Honk. Honk. Honk honk. Beeeep. Bee-beep. Honnnk.

Hello. Hello. Where you from? Australia. Australia, capital Canberra! Wow, that's right! When you arrive Nepal? Yesterday. First time Nepal? Yes. How long Nepal? Two weeks. You go trek? Oh, no, I'm not really sure. I can guide you, we can have tea, we can talk? Um, no thanks. Why not? Uh, what? Why not? Uh, sorry I'm not interested. Why not? Sorry, thank you. Where you stay? Sorry, thanks.

Ugh, it's hot and dusty. Ugh, it's pissing down rain. Shit, I stepped in a massive puddle. Shit, my sandal got stuck in the mud. Shit, was that animal piss? Shit, was that human shit? Shit, my sandals flick filth up on my legs, clothes, hands when I walk. (I tell myself it's only mud.) Shit, is that a dead rat? Shit, did I just step on what that fuck was that a chunk of animal guts filled with animal blood?

No I don't want to go trekking. No I don't want to go rafting. No I don't want a guide to tell me about this building. No I don't want a taxi. No I don't want a rickshaw. No I don't want marijuana. No I don't want hashish. No I don't want cocaine.

Honk to warn you of danger. Honk to tell you to get out of my way. Honk to say I'm turning left. Honk to say I'm approaching a blind corner. Honk to test your hearing. Honk to say it's Tuesday. Honk just to fit in. Honk like it's a mating call and I'm looking for a mate. Honk because what else would I do when I'm driving? Honk honk honk. Taxi goes honk, motor scooter goes beep. Car with a Kathman-doo-dee horn goes doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee. Rickshaw with a clown horn taped to the end of a shampoo bottle goes haw-hee haw-hee. A man hangs out of a bus and shouts something at everyone he passes. A man on a bicycle makes is that a kissing sound in lieu of a horn. Honk! Beep! Doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee! Honk honk! Haw-hee haw-hee! Honk honk beep beep ssssmooch (something yelled in Nepali or Newari who knows) honnnk!

Wow, what a wonderful smell! Beautiful incense burning in that little shop. Wow, what a horrible smell! Putrid garbage piled in the street, Franken-dogs made of spare parts, with fur like botched hair plugs sprouting from eczema, prowling and tearing at it like they were in a nature documentary, giant grey-hooded crows nearby taking their share.

Wow, what gorgeous flavoursome food! Dhal bat with the tastiest vegetable curry! Vegetable momos kothey (think pot stickers filled with dry curry)! Egg and vegetable katti rolls (think thin naan covered in egg on one side wrapped around dry curry)! Decadent and divine gulab jamuns, laddus, burfis (sweets, Google 'em)! Wow, what amazing Western food, what delicious pizza, what exceptional Mexican (think huevos rancheros on a corn pancake), what fabulous coffee! Wow, what dreadful coffee, what dry and flavourless pastry that looked so promising, what disappointing coffee, what painful coffee, what heinous coffee!

Hello. Namaste. Namaste, where you from? Australia. Goo-day mate, capital Canberra. Yes. When you arrive Nepal? Five days ago. First time Nepal? Yes. How long Nepal? Another week or so. You go trek? Look, I'm sorry I'm not interested. No no, I'm just talking to you, I like to practise English. (A few minutes of shadowing and small talk.) Please some rupees / Please buy for me some biscuits / Please can you buy some milk for my sister (shop owner, without a word from my companion, introduces a huge tin of powdered milk that costs more than three proper dinners).

No I don't want to buy a beaded necklace. No, I don't want to buy a small embroidered purse thing; my girlfriend, sister, mother will understand. No, I don't want to buy your flute. No, I don't want to buy your string instrument. No I don't want to buy a giant fucking knife, yes I understand you said it's official Nepalese army. (Oh my god! Are you going to pull that out at me as you walk across the street?) No I don't want to buy a packet of Tiger Balm, No I don't want to buy two packets of Tiger Balm. No I don't want to buy a dozen packets of Tiger Balm. (Jesus, does anyone? Surely, over time, trial and error would favour something more practical like Immodium, laxitive, anything to manage your gastrointestinal tract. Dear god the unprecedented... let's just say Kathmand-don't drink the water.)

That looks like some sort of temple or shrine back through there, no one's going in there, I wonder what's back there....



Take a deep breath, and....

Honk honk honk honk honk. Hello. Namaste. Where did you get that shirt, where did you buy it? / I like your hair / I like your shoes / I like your earrings / I like your teeth / I like your laugh. Thank you. Beep beep honk. Where you from? Australia. Capital Canberra. Yes, that's what everybody says. Doo-dee-doo-dee honnk honnnnk!


I got Seoul but I'm not a soldier

(Seoul, South Korea)

Brief though it was, I thoroughly enjoyed my two days in Seoul. This was my first solo adventure in a city where English is mostly unavailable.

My hostel was in a part of Seoul called Daehangno. Armed with fairly detailed instructions from my booking confirmation email, brimming with satisfaction at having made my way into the city exclusively by train, both for the money it saved me and the achievement itself, I rose to street level to bustling late night activity. In front of the metro station there was an improvised food court; a number of tables were laid out with vessels containing various limbs of various sea creatures, with several stations for preparing these alien delicacies, I forget now whether they were vast burbling cauldrons or large wok-like apparatuses; patronised exclusively by locals (well, to my eye).

As I followed my instructions, reliably hitting the landmarks, I noted bars named The Doors, Led Zeppelin and Austin Powers. A twenty foot Gandalf statue stood guard in front of one cafe, "You shall not pass! ...without java and bundt cake." And suddenly my landmarks failed to materialise. A big intersection with a Burger King across the way and "a shop that sells bags" nearby. I did see a Starbucks across the way and a shop (among many) nearby with its garage door shutters closed... Had the mermaid overthrown the king? After briefly doing the lost white boy shuffle, I found the right alleyway and my hostel.

It was a bit of a shock to discover no one is given keys, not to their room, not to the hostel itself, everything is always unlocked. Thankfully there were small lockers where I could secure my laptop and passport and paper tickets (another story, I think I have the last paper tickets on the planet) and other designated irreplaceables, but I decided it would only be good for me to start getting comfortable with the possibility of losing all my belongings. This is not hysteria, it has happened to friends of mine. I will not be careless but I feel I am moving in the direction I want to go, that I feel I could lose everything and things would still turn out okay.

My two days were more realistically one day, and it began with making a few notes on my transit map and just seeing what I could see. I decided to start at the Presidential Palace, but found it utterly surrounded by an utterly inconceivable throng of police and countless armoured busses lining the streets. The police seemed alert but not in the middle of something. I couldn't work out what was happening. The palace turned out to be closed early that day for an inapparent reason. I concluded they were probably related but didn't pursue the mystery further.

From there I walked to an area called Insadong. This is a very well-known pedestrain shopping strip popular with tourists and it seemed locals alike. It had lots of galleries and shops, cafes, culturally relevant artifacts, street food, a few crazies (guy dressed as robot), everything I suppose you might expect. I enjoyed it but didn't see anything I wanted to buy. I had a 15-herb Korean tea with these fluff ball biscuits, billed as traditional Korean cookies, in essence sweet packing peanuts rolled in toasted coconut; quite lovely I must say.

From there I walked in the direction of the Cheonggyecheon; a river that used to run through the city, that fell victim to urban development, that not so long ago was restored, redeveloped and turned into a pleasant if not completely successful get back to nature in the middle of the city affair.

Then I made my way to another palace or temple (some circle I made on my map) and found myself in the middle of an enormous public event of some kind. Again I couldn't quite work out the nature of the happening. Traffic was blocked off, food vendors were everywhere, people were everywhere, I swear there were carnival rides but now I am unsure. Then some sort of protest mob seemed to materialise before my eyes, like clouds of cotton candy spontaneously gathering about the stick, and the people began to march. There was no English signage to help me decode the incident, except the word "NO" in places, and I saw some stars and stripes and some drawings of cows. I had heard in the news (not sure how, maybe at the airport) there was some issue the Koreans were having with beef imported from the US, so I was satisfied I had worked out what the march was about. But this was definitely not the whole story of the enclosing gathering.

Further along the square I saw people with signs to do with Tibet, with a group of demonstrators laying on the ground, with police drama chalk outlines, faces covered for a somber effect. I remembered passing some people in Insadong with Tibetan flags and another street pantomime with soldiers and a hooded victim with something on a sign about North Korean refugees, something critical of China's treatment of them. So China was also on Korea's shitlist that day.

Next I came to a huge gathering, I took to be the ultimate gathering, with music blaring from the main stage, everyone holding signs that bore a number of Korean characters and the word "OUT." I decided this was a political action day, mostly a protest about China's involvement in Tibet, Korea's contribution to the displeasure echoing everywhere in the lead up to the Beijing olympics, and the other demonstrations were offshoots, the natural result of the coming together of so many like-minded politically aware individuals.

Then I got a better look at the stage, the next song started and the crowd cheered loudly. I will not be able to adequately convey the scene. Five musicians dressed in yellow rainjacket hazardous waste Devo outfits with custom instruments hewn from odd post nuclear apocalypse materials, one musician with sousaphonic back-mounted tubes akin to flexible sewer pipes bent around his body with the ends twisted up in front of him to make a toned bass percussion instrument, looking like Madeline half swallowed by an H.R. Giger creation, the others bearing similarly constructed instruments, the central female (looking, from where I stood) performer with a type of xylophone.

Their anthem? Tequila.

All dancing in unison like some cross between Dance Dance Revolution and a Tai Bo class led by The Wiggles, inciting the crowd into happy swaying and the inevitable all together now, "Tequlia!" And I must admit, it just might have been the coolest thing I have seen in a long time.

I got a better look at the signs and saw a photo of a grave looking man in a conservative suit with the red international 'no' circle, like a vast public outcry to who ya gonna call the Bankerbusters or something. I took "OUT" then to be about a politician that had displeased this particular group of Koreans. Perhaps all the issues being presented falling under his influence? Perhaps this while thing connected back to the barricaded palace, but I had not the communication skills to investigate.

And I found the whole unintelligible adventure strangely and incredibly satisfying, I absolutely adored not having a clue what was happening.