Nepal Part III: Out on the town

Sat 7/23, day 38

Amy:

Finally on Saturday (July 23), five days after we landed, we headed down to the heavily damage Durbar Square, on our own. A former royal palace and home of one of the Kumaris (pre-pubescent girls who are living Hindu goddesses). Before we got to the square, we actually had to get there. On our own (did I mention that?). We headed for ring road and the taxi queue. There’s a website that calculates taxi fares so you don’t get taken advantaged of as a tourist (or local), so we knew that it should be about 150-200 rupees. I let Nate do the talking. The first guy we went up said nothing below 500 rupees. No, 200. Okay, okay 400. No, 200. We walk away. Next guy: 350. No, 200. Okay, 300. 200. We begin to walk away. Okay, okay, 250? Sold! Not sure that we got the local price, but Nate was triumphant at his first foray into taxi bidding.

There are three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley. Each with a special history and its own Kumari. This one in Kathmandu is actually a UNESCO world heritage site, but was heavily damaged by the 2015 earthquake. They raised the price to 1000 rupees (~$10) entry to try and help with the rebuilding, though we’re pretty sure that it is more of a tourist tax and that locals don’t have to pay. We tried to walk in, but a police officer and ticket-taker stopped us. We looked like the most cliche tourists.

IMG_6772It was confusing trying to find our way into the square, which is confusing in and of itself because squares usually are pretty straight forward. It turns out that Durbar Square isn’t just one square, but is the name given to the multiple squares in this area. As we tried to get our bearings, a nice downpour started. We ran like everyone else to get cover and found a nice spot under the eaves of a mini-police station.

I had my recording equipment ready to go and since I had nothing else to do, I started recording and hoped that someone would ask me a question. A group of young Nepali guys asked me if I was an American. Yes. I then asked them if they were Nepali. Yes. Would you mind answering a few questions? Sure. For the next few minutes during the rain, ask I asked a few 18-22 year-olds about American and Nepali politics. First, no they had not heard there was an upcoming election in the United States. What for? To become president. I guess if you don’t know about the election, you probably don’t know the candidates? Right, we know and care only about Nepali politics, just like in the US you only care about US politics.

IMG_6798An interesting part for my interviews is asking people who they would vote for or any advice they have for American voters. Overwhelmingly people have been hesitant. A sort of humility that says, “I am not from your country so I won’t presume to tell you how to run it.” Which is really different from my mentality, possibly because as an American I assume (wrongly perhaps) that if I know enough about your country, I can share input that will help fix it. Nevermind my lack of overall knowledge and cultural context may severely limit my ability to say something useful. People seemed genuinely suprised that I would ask them questions about American politics. From my perspective, I think US politics is relevant to the world because of our vast arsenal of weapons alone. The presidency matters for many reasons: a president is the Commander in Chief, but is also the Head of State, who is the chief diplomat on the world stage. The tone of the president can ice relationships or warm-up frosty decades-long spats. So though the president is limited to the powers granted in Article II of the Constiutution, this position has increased in importance and power since George Washington left office at the end of the 18th century. And now since nearly the mid-20th century, the president has had the nuclear option; going from directing generals into battle to dictating the obliteration of a city by just one bomb. And the president has access to thousands of nukes; that’s a lot of power.

I however, did not explain all of this to the young Nepalis, who explained that American culture is influential to them, but they don’t care at all about our elections. They did decide to play ball of sorts with me though. Okay, so who is running in your election? Obama? No, he can’t run again. Have you heard of Donald Trump? No. Big, yellow hair, businessman, older, on TV. You’re fired! Okay, who else. Oh yes, okay. Clinton. Clinton? Again. No, his wife Hillary. These are the least popular candidates ever, ever. Oh, best of luck to you. Who should I vote for? We can vote? No, I don’t know who to vote for? Awkward pause.

I ask what my students should know about and they start to talk about the Kumari. They said they were a little bit scared of her. Then we tried to explain where we were going in Nepal, but they thought it was funny that we don’t know Nepali. Understandably that was a sticking point. And like that the rainstorm was finished and they were gone.

NQLK5062We headed to go get some coffee to re-strengthen our resolve of what we were actually even doing in Durbar Square. People watching. Buy an umbrella (there are a million easier places we could have gotten an umbrella). Scout some souvenirs. Work up the nerve for more interviews.

There were interesting Hindu temples and worshippers. Tour guides abounding: 500 rupee, 300 rupee. No thanks. Hawkers selling their wares. Any time you would pause to take in the view, it seemed like it was license to offer something. We would get surrounded by guys selling who knows what. We wandered about for about 45 minutes and then called it quits. We headed to a taxi line and started the bidding war again. It was almost an exact replay of ring road. Another 250 rupees and we were back home.

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The easiest marker to tell people is Buddha Park adjacant to the Monkey Temple. It has three giant golden Buddhas and a few monkeys too. It’s interesting looking at religous symbols from other faiths besides Christianity. All over Europe there are giant and beautiful cathedrals; we’ve been in so many I’ve lost count. But you look up at the stained glass with incredible Biblical scenes and it makes you think about a bigger, greater world. Pointing toward the heavens. In Buddha Park there isn’t a giant cross, but you still have to look up and it is spectacular to see the gleaming gold against a blue and white puffy sky. It may not be my place of worship, but it is a place where I could worship my own way.

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Leaving Buddha Park we had our last major challenge of the day: crossing the ring road. Earlier I’ve tried to explain the ring road. A mass of vehicles, pedestrians, dogs, and cows and no traffic lights, crosswalk, or signage. That is what we were going to cross. PJ & Lizzy’s advice: just be confident and keep going, and try and follow someone already crossing the road, strength in numbers. Okay, we got this. And actually we did. We looked right before left. We tried to cross with other people and still had to mostly go on our own. But we made it to the other side and it was easy.

IMG_6872We felt very successful at our solo excursion. We are ready for Gyangphedi. Right?

Nepal II: Hiding out/Hanging out

Tue 7/19-Fri 7/22, days 34-37

IMG_6625Amy:

PJ and Lizzy live in a Tibetan section of town near the Swayambhunath (Monkey) Temple. Colorful prayer flags are everywhere. There are numerous refugee groups in Nepal and about 15,000 from Tibet, which is less than 50 miles north of the valley.

I think Nathan and I were both wondering how we would navigate the city on our own. We were contented lying low and following PJ, Lizzy, and kids around like puppies.

PJ and Lizzy have lived abroad in India and Nepal for over a decade and have an inspiring sense of adventure. They live on the bottom floor of a large home and it is retrofitted for the daily power outages. The fridge has a special way of staying cold without power and there are multiple power outlets that run off of solar power. The floors are a gorgeous green marble, which would be exorbitantly expensive in the states, but here it’s brought in from just down the street.

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In April of 2015, there was a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people and injured three times that many. The last major earthquake had been in 1934, when Nepal was still a closed country. In May, it continued to experience aftershocks up to 7.3 magnitude. Many things were damaged or destroyed. PJ was traveling and Lizzy was in Kathmandu with the kids. Their house was fine, but it wasn’t safe to be inside. So outside of the fear of their home falling on them, cell communications were out and they didn’t know if the other was even okay. All of the neighbors were staying outside and it started to rain and rain. Some of the houses in their neighborhood were severely damaged. A sense of adventure is needed to live in Nepal. But rebuilding is underway and along the sides of many roads are huge piles of red bricks, just waiting to be put together to rebuild a home or business.

The main industry in Nepal is tourism. Earthquakes do not make tourists want to come to an area. It’s really hard because so much work has been done by the Nepalis and outsiders to build up the infrastructure of the country, only to have it undone in an instant. Monsoon is not the major tourism season, even so there were a lot of westerners like us traveling about, which seems to be a good sign for the recovery effort.

Our first full day in Nepal, PJ, Lizzy, and kids took us for a tour of the Monkey Temple, just a half-mile or so from their home. The thing is: you have to cross the road. The biggest road in Kathmandu is called Ring Road, which rings the city. There are lane lines, which are really more of a suggestion. The trick is, you just go. Not in a fatalistic way, but the cars will swerve and get out of your way. You start and stop and juke and just go. We held the hands of the kids (5 & 7) but they were old hat at this. We were the ones that really needed our hands held. I could not imagine crossing this road on my own.

Footwear: my Italian leather thrift shop booties, shockingly were not a good fit for the muddy streets of Kathmandu. Thankfully I had my Chaco sandals with me and they worked out great. Nate had his big Iron Ranger boots and was fine too. I haven’t mentioned stray dogs yet, but there are a bunch of them. Mostly friendly and hungry. They’ll follow you for a few blocks (or longer). But it does mean that the streets have plently of dog poop, animal poop, mixed in with the mud. You have to be very careful where you step because it is also like walking through a river bed at times with ankle-breaking rocks and poop. It doesn’t smell great either.

The Monkey Temple lives up to its name. As an American, I am not used to seeing monkeys everywhere. They are all over the temple: swinging from trees, and prayer flags, stealing food from unsuspecting children, they are territorial and you should not get in the way of them and food, even if it is your food. We passed many people touching rotating cylinders – prayer wheels. Temples are on top of hills most places in the world, here too. Swayambhunath is one of the oldest and most sacred religious sites in Nepal for Buddhists. Adherents (especially older women) will walk around this massive complex a few times per day. In Nepal, religion is seen as something you practice when you are older. Early on in life you should try and make money, so that when you are older you will have the ability to spend more time on your religious practices.

LOEA7500So we climbed up and up the steps. Sometimes our stray dog would try and trip us. Sometimes monkey feces would try and make us slip too. There are two ways to the top, we went the back way, which is free. The front way is where most tourists find themselves and so of course, you have to pay. We went up and up, more flags and colors and monkeys and green. Stopped briefly for some Lassi (sweet and often flavored yogurt drink). Up to the top to Lord Buddha’s eyes. On top, there are a ton of vendors selling religious wares and trinkets. Lord Buddha always watching.

A feast for the eyes. So much happening. Monkeys, monks, congregants, tourists, locals gawking at foreigners, merchants, tour guides (500 rupee, 500 rupee), giant eyes and hundreds of stairs.

We headed back down and stopped for a lunch of momos (dumplings with goodness inside). You have to be very careful about what you eat. Raw foods are a no-no for the tourist that doesn’t want to get sick. So too is the water. Washed lettuce can never be clean enough, so just avoid it. Diarrhea can strike from just about anything. The delicious salsa is probably okay. But we don’t want to risk it. Nepalis drink a ton of hot tea and that is fine to drink because it is boiled, but you should wipe the cup out if it is still wet from being washed. Even bring extra water to the bathroom when brushing your teeth. This is a lot to keep in mind.

Also, just because it is interesting, the year in Nepal isn’t 2016. It’s the future: 2073. Nepal isn’t alone in their decision to not follow the Roman calendar; Israel and a few other countries do too. The time zone is 15 minutes earlier than India, just because.

For the next few days, we just hung around Lizzy and PJ’s, sometimes accompanying them on errands or to the local farmer’s market, or giving advice on elementary social studies curriculum, or reading a lot of John Grisham novels, or playing games with Naomi and Ezra. We all went to be early and got caught up on rest from our Korea travels. One thing we did not do is venture out on our own. We walked down to the ring road to get cash from the ATM about a kilometer away from home, but that was it for our adventures sans a guide.

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It rained a lot. It’s amazing how many people wear sandals here with the condition of the roads. The women in particular seem to have an uncanny ability to step lightly and keep their feet clean. It’s amazing how much balance and poise people have. Whether it’s dodging and weaving traffic perched on the back of a motorcycle or negotiating pot holes or crossing the street or pushing a fruit-laden bicycle or carrying a basket of stones or a tall pile of textiles.

Nathan was feeling stressed about work and getting his art installation Audiograph working and ready for the conference in Finland. I encouraged him to prioritize working on his art since he had been prioritizing other people’s projects up to now, and since we had semi-reliable power and internet. He did and after a few days of working on it and a lot of trial and error and getting help from friends back home, he got it working.

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Friday morning we met with our “baby trek” guides who would take us to the Gyangphedi villages (GP) next week. Lizzy dropped us off at the organization’s headquarters at their coffee shop, Kairos (which was the name of Nathan’s band back in the day, though spelled differently). The organization is called Five14 and works to do sustainable eco-tourism. That’s a fancy way of saying that they are very intentional about not exploiting Nepalis and doing their best to help Nepalis build Nepal. Our guide Yogya is Nepali and is from a small village in the west of Nepal. More on him later. He and his wife started Five14 about five years ago and havebeen establishing specific treks and homestays with remote villages. We wouldn’t be going high into the mountains, but we would be going high enough for us and I needed to get some better footware. Yogya thought my sandals would be fine, but I wanted a back up pair as well. We learned that we would be in a Jeep for 5-6 hours and walking for 5-6 hours to get to the village.

This is where I started questioning my sanity, or decision-making skills (not for the first or last time). We were calling this a baby trek and it may be a baby trek, but 5-6 hours hiking doesn’t sound all that babyish to me. Nate was suprised that I was suprised. Didn’t you read the description on the website? Um… maybe. I looked at some pictures, saw the words “village homestay” and called it a day. Whoops. What were we in for?

The thing is that sometimes in life if you read the description, you’ll talk yourself out of something and not give yourself credit for being strong. This hopefully will turn out to be for the better.

Nepal Part I

Mon 7/18, 2016, day 33

Nathan:

Somewhere over China just north of Thailand

This is just amazing. I’m watching the map change on the screen in front of me on our Korean Air flight from Seoul to Kathmandu. I am physically over a part of the planet I’ve never even been close to. We are flying a bumpy, circuitous route, due in part I imagine to all of the mountains I see on the map. Unfortunately, I can’t look out the window – they’re all closed – but I’ve taken to sitting in the aisle seat on long flights so I can get up and stretch more easily. So I look at the map. (I just asked the woman at the window if she could see anything – turns out it’s just clouds). Mt. Everest is what, 30,000 feet tall? If we flew close to it, it would look like we were about to run into it. So we skirt south of the Himalayas and approach Nepal from the southeast.

China is a big mystery to me. All those exotic sounding city names. The borders between countries seem so arbitrary from the sky. We make so much of our nationality, where we’re from, what nation we are a citizen of. We fill out forms that reflect arrangements between men about who may go where, when and under what conditions.

LVBB4627I need to put an address where I’m staying on the arrival card. But I don’t have it written down anywhere. I think it’s Satailpa or Saitalpa or something like that. It’s in my email. And it’s in the history of one of my documents on Dropbox. But that all breaks down once internet connectivity goes away. The promise of never losing your data because it’s in the cloud… it’s too obvious and ironic but I have to say it – I am in the clouds right now and the data I need is nowhere to be seen. There is no wifi on this flight. And when we land, my phone won’t be able to roam for cellular data. I hope there’s wifi at the airport. My only other backup plan is to search my browser history to see if I can find it – I know I looked at it on Google Maps recently.

I am getting less and less good at surviving off the grid, even part of it. The Lord will provide. We had exactly enough money to buy our last train tickets to the airport this morning, after redeeming the 4 single use subway tickets we had and scrounging up the rest of our change. The machine got my coins stuck and I had to press the help button and worried we would lose the only money we had on hand. Of course when the attendant came to help, it spat out my money and as she watched I put it in and it accepted everything.

Why is it so nerve wracking to not know what you’re doing, to not speak or read the language or know all the directions? How do I become more ok with the unknown and more trusting of the Lord and the kindness of strangers and my own resilience and ingenuity? I would like that.

We’re getting closer to Bangladesh now. The map flips to the day/night view and I see another set of arbitrary lines – time zones. I notice that the sun has risen in Maine, but not in Florida, though they are in the same time zone. Maine is significantly further east. Nepal is 5:45+GMT. Yes that’s right, 5 hours and 45 minutes – not an even hour. Our guidebook suggests they are just trying to stick it to India and differentiate themselves.

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Amy:

The thing about Nepal is that flying in you don’t really know what you are seeing. As the plane descends, you crane your neck in vain to see the mountains. Eight out of the ten highest peaks in the world are in this country. We saw none of them. During monsoon, the mountains are shrouded in clouds. It is only very rarely that you can see them. I have faith that we will see them in the next two weeks.

You start looking away from the mountain clouds and toward the ground. Normally when you fly into a city with a million plus people, you see all sorts of infrastructure and roads and tall buildings. A city.

But Kathmandu isn’t that kind of city. A ten-story building is a skycraper here. An incredible contrast to Korea.

It was my first time deplaning by stairs (it wouldn’t be my last). The airport was incredibly small. I’ve been to tiny midwest airports larger than this.

But we were in Nepal. A dream come true for someone who’s read National Geographic all of my life.

We had our customs forms filled out and our visa application ready to go. There’s only one way to walk in, but that doesn’t mean the signage was straightforward. We got in a line, not sure if it was correct. But we each paid $25 US dollars for a 15-day tourist visa and headed through customs.

We were looking for a place to put our forms because the agent didn’t take them. In the end we just hung onto them and realized no one was going to care. They actually scanned our bags on the way out of the airport (looking for…?).

We were staying with friends of friends. Some ex-pats living in Nepal, PJ, Lizzy, and their kids Naomi and Ezra. PJ picked us up at the airport and we headed off for an adventure… getting to their house on the other side of Kathmandu. We didn’t take a taxi because they don’t really have an address they could give us. That’s right, they don’t really have an address. That was a new one to us.

I’ve never been to Mexico or really anywhere with different driving “procedures.” For starters, they drive on the left. Secondly, there are not lane lines or even a center line. Third, there are no traffic lights or signs. Chaos, chaos, and look right if you’re going left. Go slow, 25 MPH is getting ahead of yourself in this deathtrap. Oh lastly, there are cows. Don’t hit the cows. We don’t know how they got to the middle of the road, but well they’re there.

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Rules of the road: just keep going. Someone will slow down and you can go past, but don’t stop. The same is true if you’re a pedestrian. Just start walking and hopefully you don’t get hit. If you’re a cow, just go where you want. Everyone will avoid you and you’ll be okay. If you hit a cow and injure it, it’s a huge fine. If you hit a cow and kill it, you’ll be in jail for a really long time.

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Sometimes there are cops directing traffic, but it seems like they do more harm than good. Whenever there’s a traffic jam, you can be sure it’s because there’s a police officer blowing his whistle and people trying to ignore him. Of course 99 percent of the officers don’t have a vehicle to chase people down to give them tickets. I’m not sure how it works, but all over the city there are signs: Police My Friend.

The condition of the roads is not great. Giant mud tracks and holes. Most of the pavement has disappeared (or never was). And there are just people everywhere. People walking, in cars, on motorbikes (1-3 people), on bicycles, tuk-tuks, public transport with 3-wheels, brightly painted buses, brightly painted semis, giant vehicles, tiny vehicles and everything in between, oh and cows.

Sensory overload. It was amazing, incredible, and very intimidating. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to get around in this city. What is this going to look like over the next 14 days?

I haven’t mentioned how green everything is. We were not in the mountains, but in the Kathmandu valley. Now as a Floridian, I would call what we were looking at mountains. But in Nepal, it’s a mountain if it has snow on it year round. So, we were looking at very tall hills. They stretched up and up. Covered with trees and green upon green. Prayer flags strung along like electrical wires. And electrical wires seemed to be having a competition with the electrical poles of who could hold more up. But these hills had power, well, 8-12 hours a day. There’s an app that tells you when you’ll have power. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The air is cleanest during monsoon because the moisture tamps down the dust. But clean air in Kathmandu is merely something of scale. We had masks and wondered if we should wear them. PJ said that most of the air pollution was particulate matter and a simple mask would work, for the few weeks we were there. (But the masks their family wears have actual air filters inside.)

Kathmandu is a people-watcher’s dream. It is thriving and bustling. Everyone seems to own a shop: convenience store, stationary, meat, fruit, sandals, trainers, all repeated again and again.

And it’s noisy. Because there aren’t traffic lights or stop signs, if you’re going around a corner and can’t see, you honk. If someone is going too slow and you want to go around them, you honk. If someone lets you go around them, you honk your thanks. If someone is stopped and they want you to go around them, you h… wait, no, they put on their blinker. Sometimes when someone is turning they put on their blinker. It gets pretty confusing, but the number one rule is don’t hit a cow.

Seoul Part IV

Sat 7/16 – Sun 7/17, days 31-32

On Saturday, Amy found a cool looking market of hand-made goods to go check out not too far from us, so we headed out in the morning, a 20 minute walk or so to the subway station then just one stop from Digital Media City to Hongik University. We got off the subway and entered a sea of people, mostly young people, in and around the subway stop. This was definitely a popular area to hang out in, especially on a Saturday. Unfortunately, it was raining off and on that morning so they had canceled the market. But there were plenty of shops to check out, and we found some good gifts and souvenirs. Off and on, Amy took out the phone and microphone, trying to psych herself up to approaching strangers for the podcast. That first successful interview is so important – if she gets that, she’s golden. But it just wasn’t happening today.

For lunch we chose an interesting looking restaurant that served “kongbul.” We walked down the stairs to see tables with burners in the middle and people eating from giant woks with lots of food in them. We tried to order one thing to split given the amount of food we were seeing, but that wasn’t allowed (we were politely told). So we ordered two servings of one of the styles of kongbul. The wok comes out with the uncooked ingredients arranged nicely, and they turn on the heat and get the process going. Someone comes by to stir it up every now and then and tell you when it’s done. It was delicious, we somehow finished it all, and we didn’t need much more to eat the rest of the day.

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Sunday, we decided to get going earlier in order to see the National Museum and War Museum before the 2pm church service that we wanted to attend at the Methodist Church whose building we were staying in. A little more familiar with the area, we took a different walking route through Digital Media City to the subway, through some large pedestrian plazas filled with really cool large public art sculptures. We also stopped for coffee from Coffee Temple, which had great ratings online and whose owner had won many prizes at national and international barista competitions. We weren’t disappointed.

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By the time we got to the National Museum, we had about 2 hours before we needed to head back for church – not a lot of time at all. We decided to spend one hour at the National Museum then head to the War Museum. So we asked for some advice on what to see, and zipped through the exhibits, slowing down for the highlights and some Chinese and Korean painted scrolls whose style Amy had been working on mimicking recently. It’s definitely worth a visit, especially because admission is free!

A little over an hour in, we had made our way through, including the requisite stop at the gift shop, and headed out to the War Museum… except it was further away than we thought it was going to be. So we abandoned that plan and Amy decided to try interviewing some of the people that were milling about the park-like space around the National Museum. She approached a small group of Koreans and asked if anyone spoke English. A woman pointed at her son and said, “He does.” He was probably about 14 years-old boy sitting. Amy asked if he would be up for answering a few questions. Uh, ok. After interviewing him, she approached a woman sitting near some kind of photo shoot. The woman didn’t speak much English but pointed to what may have been her daughter, the young woman who was posing for multiple photographers and videographers. Though a bit embarrassed and somewhat frustrated by trying to put into English words her thoughts, she happily engaged with Amy’s questions. The young guys who were doing the shoot were thrilled with the whole thing and continued shooting while Amy interviewed her.

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As that interview finished up, an older Korean man approached me and started talking about, of all people, Jeb Bush. His English was excellent, and his manner a bit odd. He explained to me that Jeb Bush was not successful in securing the nomination of the Republican party because he lacked the strength and fortitude of mind of his father and brother. Had he been able to secure the nomination and the presidency, he would have extended the reign of the Bush family to the entire world, eventually. Amy came over and started talking to him about what she was doing with the podcast. Amidst the other things he was talking about, and having learned that Amy was my wife, he slipped in this jewel out of nowhere: “It is not often that someone who is mentally retarded [referring to me] is able to secure such a beautiful bride.” Um… did I just hear that right? Well we kept on talking for awhile (mostly he kept on talking) and he actually had some insightful things to say about the way Koreans have looked at Republican presidents, historically. When Amy tried to wrap up by asking him his first name and where he was from, he said, “I must politely decline to answer your request, as it is my prerogative to not share this information, and it has zero relevance to the things we have been discussing.” No problem man, it’s been nice knowing you. He wouldn’t go away though, and tried to help walk us to the subway station he thought we needed to go to. But I wanted away from him as fast as possible, so we went down the stairs to the station the way we had come up, saying thank you, no thank you, we’ve got it, goodbye…

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We made it back just in time for the church service, which was a fun experience, though it was almost entirely in Korean. Our host had arranged for a few university students to help us navigate the service and be available for podcast interviews afterwards. During the service, our host’s father welcomed us and told the congregation a little bit about us. He even invited us to come up and say something if we wanted to, and I took him up on the offer. Here are some thoughts I wrote down during the service:

Language. The Lord speaks all of them. I try and read the Hangeul as we sing, but it’s still too fast. Singing is a good way to learn language though. I think of people who don’t have scripture in their own language. I think of immigrants and visitors to the United States who don’t speak or read English. I think about Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit when the people could understand all of the languages being spoken around them. As we sing hymns with an organ and folk-y songs with a guitar, I think about the influence of Western missionaries and the West in general. There’s a lot of decoration in religion. Some more explicit, some less. But love is the glue.

Food is glue too. I think about how much of our time in Korea has been dominated by trying different foods, finding them, eating them. And for much of human existence, getting, making, raising, harvesting, preparing, eating food, has dominated our lives. A meal is important, central. A shared meal even more so. I can’t speak your language but we can share food, try each others’ food. The Luke passage this morning references food. [The preacher breaks in with English… God is so good… He’s so good to me]. I think about how much hospitality we have experienced throughout this trip. People doing things for us out of the goodness of their hearts, not because they have to or are expected to. Music is another universal language. And art. And sports. To certain extents. Food feels particularly important though.

After church, we had some snacks and coffee with a small group of young Koreans (and one older couple) who were interested in being interviewed for Amy’s project. It was a good discussion, though at times it was hard to convey certain questions, though their English was a lot better (a few of them had spent time in college in the States). We sat around for an hour or so, as Amy and I tried to facilitate a wide ranging discussion about Trump and Clinton, the presence of nearly 30,000 US troops in Korea for the past 65 years, fears about North Korea, proposed reunification of Korea, typical western faux pas in Korea, life in America versus life in Korea. We did not get as far as Amy wanted, but it was a productive and interesting conversation with about 6 Koreans participating: 3-4 students, an elderly man and his wife, and a travel writer. They were good sports and generous with their time.

We took a taxi to Home Plus to stock up on a few things for our next destination. Back at the apartment, we cleaned up, went through our stuff, packed and ate dinner, and otherwise prepared for the next day’s travel to Nepal!

Seoul Part III

Fri 7/15, day 30 continued

We were feeling a weird mix of worn out and restless, and wrestling with our choice of where to stay in Seoul and the difficulty of navigating around with such a large language barrier. You know how sometimes you just feel emotionally stopped up and don’t know how to let it out? Amy sensed that and suggested that we each do a 15 minute writing blitz. This is what came out (somewhat edited).

On Ambivalence While Traveling

Amy:

The idea with our trip was to have every day default to rest day and then have a few excursion days at each location. We wanted to pace ourselves in traveling around the world. Two months is a long time. Two months is a long time. And yet here I sit and the trip is about half over. Tomorrow we will have been a month since we left Orlando. You always think a trip like this will change you. Your perspective or mentalities. But of course you never feel that until much later. Like getting older. The day after your birthday, you don’t feel older. But as time goes on, you are older and that changes and molds you.

So I sit in Seoul. A city that I’ve dreamed about for 24 years. We had three international students live with us from the Seoul area when I was 8 until 12. I learned to kick a soccer ball with the outside of my foot and give it spin. I learned to love spicy ramen and to brave kimchi, which my parents banished to the basement refrigerator. But I didn’t know anything about this city, other than I thought the South Korean flag was really cool and I loved their food. One time we went to a Korean restaurant with the exchange program group and I tried and liked squid. Bulgogi-style beef: yum. Korean BBQ Taco Box is my favorite food truck. And yet, upon entering this city, I know nothing about it. And I feel overwhelmed. I studied the Korean War. We’ve been here over two weeks. I feel like I should do some Korean stuff. See the city. But I know that we won’t be able to do it justice.

We just had an incredible visit with the Collins, but there was little rest with four kids and catching up on 3 1/2 years of life with Annie and Dan. We played cards and hung out late into nearly every night. Really good conversations, but there wasn’t breathing room. Or at least it didn’t feel like it.

I didn’t realize how isolated not knowing a language could be. An entirely different alphabet, which shouldn’t be too difficult to learn, except that it is. While I have interacted some with Koreans, I am such an outsider and the language barrier is actually crippling. Dan and the girls were our security blanket. Now we’re here in Seoul and we’re on our own. I’m torn between, “We’re in Seoul, we should do stuff.” and “Rest, rest, rest. Stick to the rest plan.

There is this pressure that I feel that I should do all of the stuff. I didn’t fly halfway around the world to just sit. Did I? But the funny thing is, we haven’t just sat at all. Even today. We chilled out, but then we went out and walked all over. But now thinking about tomorrow and the next few days, there is so much that we could do. I feel obligated. It would be silly to be here and not see stuff. But resting is good. Very good.

Nate has work to do and I can always find something to do myself. Video editing. Planning for Searching for We the People. Journaling. Dreaming. It is okay. We are okay.

We need to plan for Nepal. So many unknowns and that is intimidating. Norway less so, not just because of many English speakers, but we’ve been to Europe so many times and know what to sort of expect culturally.

So we can give ourselves a break and know that we’re not doing it wrong. We are okay.

It’s tough to remember the entire reason we stayed in the section of Seoul that we did, was to have some downtime before Nepal. We could have stayed in a touristy section and done touristy things, but we didn’t think we’d want to do that. Then when we got to Seoul it was like, “Wait, what are we here for?” You read all of the touristy things that you can do: palaces, temples, memorials, museums, markets, and on and on. Part of me was panicky. “We have to do stuff, we have to do stuff, as much as possible.” But if I sit back and reflect on the entire reason why we chose where to stay, it was because we wanted to be near nature and we didn’t want to feel the pressure of all of the touristy stuff.

In the end, we put some of that pressure on ourselves. If we had another week in Seoul, I would choose to stay in a more touristy section of this megalopolis. Very few people spoke English where we ended up. We just assumed that once we got to Seoul many people would speak English. People were very nice, but it was way harder to communicate that I thought it would be.

Nathan:

I’m feeling unsettled, anxious, nervous, worried. Part of it is being on our own in a part of Seoul where most people don’t speak English, without any tour guides anymore (namely, Annie, Dan and the kids). Walking around unfamiliar streets with unfamiliar languages and scripts and everyone looking at you is nerve wracking. Over the past two weeks I have had a chance to learn how to read Korean, but that doesn’t help so much without any vocabulary. Down in Busan we always had someone with us who had at least a working knowledge of Korean. I don’t know how they did it with 4 kids at the beginning. It must have been really hard.

Another part of my anxiety is linked to our next destination, Nepal. It’s a big unknown to me, and unknowns are hard, can be hard (can be exciting too; sometimes I want them to be more exciting than scary but the opposite is usually true for me). We’re staying with a family we’ve never met before, friends of friends. They come highly recommended, and I am sure they will be great. But after two weeks with a family with 4 kids and seeing how chaotic can be, I’m feeling nervous about being with another family. At the same time, sometimes I prefer staying with someone else not just winging it with Amy, though I think we’re good at that, a local guide just makes everything so much easier. Less decisions to make, less obstacles and hurdles to overcome. Ambivalence again. Nepal also intimidates me because I’ve never been anywhere that I had to get special shots for or really think about what I ate and drank to avoid getting seriously sick. Or even had to apply for or pay for a visa for. We have to get additional passport photos.

Norway… I’m really looking forward to Norway, to the cooler temperatures and amazing natural vistas. But the travel planning is stressing me out a bit, it’s really tight with our schedule, and I’m hoping it’s not too much. Will it be too much to pack in? London, Oslo, Balestrand, Bergen all in 5 nights. What’s it going to be like coming off our two weeks in Nepal, going into a super expensive and “western” country? Our full day in Balestrand, are we going to be so exhausted that we just sit on the porch and look out at the Sognefjord, versus doing any kind of excursion? If so, that will be ok. But the tension is there, between doing too much and not doing enough. After all we might not be back to Country X ever in our lives. Don’t we need to max it out??? No. But the drive to “take advantage of this opportunity” is definitely there, in all of these places. We said we were going to have rest days as our default days, and activity days as our exceptions. It’s so easy to fall back into “every day is an activity day until we’re so exhausted we get sick or are otherwise forced to rest.”

Work… I’ve got some incoming requests for two of my freelance projects, and I really need to work on them in the next few days, because once we go to Nepal, I have no idea how much time I’ll have, let alone consistently working electrical power or wifi. The work is helpful to have because it means we’re not entirely dry over the summer, spending money without making any. But it’s also hard to schedule in with everything else, and hard to flip flop back and forth between feeling like I’m on vacation and feeling like I’m just in normal live/work mode but in a different physical context. My work is not very tied to a place, which can be freeing but also enslaving. If you are always connected to email and social media, you are always “on” and there will be people who expect that you will be available to them.

Violence and death and brokenness in the world… we just learned about the attack in Nice, France today. That on top of recent Baghdad, Istanbul, Orlando. Then there’s the recent shootings of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling and the Dallas police officers. And the recent deaths of some close friends.

Blogging, podcast, audiograph prep… things that I would like to and need to spend time on, but the time just disappears… just disappears…