Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Of Mystics, Memories, and Futures

In his book Saints and Madmen, Russell Shorto says that there is only one difference between a psychotic and a mystic: he says that a psychotic is inflated by his experiences, while a mystic is humbled by them. According to Mr. Shorto it’s that simple, the line is that narrow. A mystic takes what he has seen and heard and done and is humbled by its magnitude and holds those memories in reverence; while a psychotic understands his blessings only in light of himself and sees them only as a reflection of his own grandeur.

After 13 months of living in a foreign country and being blessed beyond what I dreamed, I am flying back to America tomorrow. I am entering that crucial time of reflection, an attempt to understand what all this has meant, what it means, and what it will mean. Thus far I know only one thing: if I am to fall into one of two camps, let it be that of the mystic.

My last two weeks have been really wonderful. I have spent time with my Korean friends, with my Korean family, and also with the beauty that is Korea. Saying goodbye to my school was particularly heart-wrenching. Many of the students hugged me, told me that they would never forget me, and gave me awesome cards they had written in broken English. To be honest I really didn’t think it would be as hard as it was to leave. I have spent so much time in that school, I have taught hundreds of classes, spoken to hundreds of kids, and suffered through cafeteria food countless times. As scared as I was when I first began teaching, now I can’t imagine life without it. It’s amazing how life shifts things like that. And if there has been one central theme to my time here, to my life, perhaps it is this:

The fear of something is always worse than the thing that is feared.

It’s incredible how this has proved true over and over again. Whatever I have been afraid of has never been worse than how I imagine it to be, to the fear I have created and in my mind. It’s really been a liberating concept to embrace.

**But before I get ahead of myself, allow me to divide this final Korean essay into a few pieces, each of which I hope will draw together and create some kind of puzzle, (although it's picture will no doubt be abstract.)

A Brief Note on the Nature of Unpredictability. A year and 4 months ago I could never have told you that I would go to Korea, let alone live there, for a year. Nothing could have been farther from my mind as I busily applied to law school and worked at my full time job. Suddenly I was ripped from that situation and thrown into one of the most difficult and rewarding situations of my life, one that necessitated the embrace (awkward though it may have been) of unpredictability. Embracing this concept is incredibly difficult for me. I have a great friend who I respect very much who really encourages me this way, because I am very high-strung and stressed and cracked out on caffeine most of the time, but he is one of the calmest people I know, and no matter what variables are handed his way he engages them with the calm faith of a man who understands what is worth worrying about. We are the same age, but he has embraced unpredictability, he has embraced the unknown, and all the freedom that comes with it. I wrote a while ago in my journal, in the midst of my teaching and traveling and planning for a marriage, that I really had no control over my life. That I was nothing but a small boat being tossed about in a storm, subject to wind and wave and every manner of nature's furry. That, for a person like me, is horrifying. For my friend whom I mentioned earlier, that's just a part of life to roll with. For me it means that I can't plan my future with any degree of accuracy, it means that my planning each year in advance is frivolous at best, and irresponsible at worst. All this because any plan I make is ultimately ephemeral. Fleeting. Temporary. So, this time has forced me to confront the darker, grittier side of human life on this planet. To bear the weight of uncertainty on my shoulders while clinging to the strength that is faith. To accept the fact that my boat will be tossed about by the wind and the waves, but to pray that God is in the wind.

A Note on the Continuation of Hope. I was speaking with a friend of mine a couple of days ago. I hadn't seen her in two years, not since an economics conference in Boston, and we were catching up about all that had happened since we last met. I have to mention, she is brilliant. She goes to an Ivy League school and will soon graduate with all the honors that her prestigious degree confers, and she will go on to do great things. So we were talking and she was telling me about how she had been traveling, how she had seen many beautiful and terrible things, how she had worked in the Netherlands at the Hague, and how the immense egoism and hypocrisy of the International Criminal Court had driven her away. She told me that she wasn't as idealistic as she had been, that after seeing so much she no longer felt compelled to become an international lawyer, that the life of altruism she had always dreamed of was not for her. She told me that she would rather embrace life at her Ivy League school and life in the lavish reality that it provided. And to be honest, I don't blame her. It was something that I struggled with a great deal after traveling this winter. A friend of mine once asked me how anyone, with eyes open to the world, could maintain hope. I'm not sure I have an answer yet, but I am thankful that the bitterness and cynicism that enveloped me for some time has dissipated, and that I remain today as much in love with traveling and experiencing as I ever have been. Hope is a tricky thing, and I think if we hope in anything less than perfection we are destined to be let down. I was, and I am learning to move past our broken nature to something lasting, to something greater.

A Note on the Enigmatic Nature of Time. I am, or possibly am not, in my mid-twenties. In America I am 24, in Korea I am 25, either way I am looking at about a quarter century. I am learning to be ok with this, but I have noticed, with a degree of alarm, that each year moves with a speed with which I am not yet accustomed. Upon leaving for Korea, my year-long commitment might as well have been an eternity, (because when you leave to a mysterious Asian country any period of time beyond a few months it seems like forever.) Yet here I sit, sipping a coffee in Seoul, South Korea, and wondering where the time has gone. I know intellectually that time has passed, over a year has gone by, but when I think back I can remember vividly arriving for the first time. My first bites of Kimchi, failing my language classes, taking taekwondo, and losing feeling to my legs as I sat cross-legged for hours on the floor. These things just happened, and yet they happened a year ago. And I don't think that this is tragic, or sad, or happy or anything; it just is. It's the strange reality we live in. I really struggled with trying to understand this, until I heard a man a respect very much, Dr. Ravi Zacharias, put this this way: He observed how strange it was that we humans should be constantly remarking at the passing of time, as if it were unexpected: "how tall you have grown!" we say, "where has the time gone?" we wonder. Indeed how strange it is that we constantly remark with surprise at the passing of time, although to our physical bodies, time is the one constant thing we have. It is as strange as if a fish were to constantly marvel at the wetness of water. Such an idea would be strange indeed, unless the fish was one day destined to be a land animal.

**So, to communicate some of what my last two weeks in Korea have been like, check out these pictures:

I went on a final hike with my homestay family, reminding me again of Korea's incredible beauty.
When we reached the top of the mountain, sweating and out of breath, the first thing my homestay family did was buy rice wine and popsicles. How awesome. How Korean. When asked if I would like a cool alcoholic beverage to hydrate myself with, I politely declined.
I was invited back to Chuncheon, the town I spent my first 6 weeks in Korea living in, to deliver a lecture to the new Fulbright Grantees who had just begun their orientation. It was weird. Here were new grantees, in the exact situation that I had been in one year prior. I stayed in the same dorm, and sat in the same room I had sat in for hours during my orientation. Things really came full circle, it was good and right to be back. Then we ate the Chuncheon famous dalk-galbi, something I had been craving since I left a year ago. It was good!
I encountered what has been voted one of the most difficult things to adjust to here in Korea: throwing TP in trash cans. I spent some extra time hanging out with my Korean friends in Cheongju, getting to know them has been one of the highlights of my time here in Korea, and I did some more hiking and found more beautiful places, each distinctly Korean.
I also spent some quality time dressed as a pirate with my coteachers. We believe in keeping things loose.
Finally I hung out with my students, playing fun games and eating pizza with corn and sweet potatoes on it, shooting rubber-bands and throwing pencils into the ceiling. This is the part that I will miss the most.
I have reached the end of my grant to South Korea, I have reached the end of my adventures here and to my teaching. I leave here deeply humbled and honored to have had this opportunity, it has been a blessing in good times and in bad, and I emerge a better man, a more complete man, for it. It's the end of an era for me, and I am running headlong into the next; I don't know how to do it any other way. This next stage of life will also be full of blessings, although it will be much different and will require me to grow up in substantial ways. I feel a sense of loss, but I am heartened by the hope that rises before me, in all its uncertainty, with all it's unknowns and questions and risk, which is perhaps why I feel so ready for it. Because I know that whenever I encounter difficulty, risk, danger, unknown, I am headed in the right direction, because to be fully alive you can't be safe.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Awakenings, or, Live, Love, and Leave

I have entered my final days of this great Korean experiment. This is my last weekend in Cheongju, and that sobering fact is just beginning to settle in as I have intentionally kept my self busy enough so as not to think of it. Leaving is a funny thing, it’s something that tugs at those tender heartstrings that we try so hard not to pull. Sometimes when I think of it I shake my head and laugh, because it’s one of the only actions that we perform repeatedly in this life yet it remains one of the hardest to do. Therein lies the beauty and the difficulty of travel, the art of constantly coming and going, of living, loving and leaving.

I will be honest with you; I am a bit of a sentimentalist. I enjoy reminiscing and thinking and learning and really searching through the pages of my recent history. So I beg your forgiveness in advance as I indulge with relish in this weakness of mine.

When I first came to Korea a funny thing happened: I didn’t eat breakfast. Or, rather, I couldn’t eat breakfast. Although I was confident that I wanted to be in Korea, I suffered from a crippling anxiety that subtly manifested itself in its ability to paralyze my capacity for food eating before noon. Not that I really cared, honestly, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of eating rice and kimchi at 7:30am. I tell you this because if someone were to paint a picture of my first few months in Korea it would be something abstract, employing many different colors and drifting far outside the lines. I suppose my expectations were met. I had expected nothing but a massive change, and that is what I received. For the first month I endured, along with dozens of my Fulbright comrades, a 6-week orientation that ran a bit like a military boot camp, complete with a drill sergeant walking up and down the halls with a megaphone at 7am to wake us up. Needless to say this form of motivation did little to decrease my anxiety. I remember one day in an orientation seminar being asked to write down why we had come to Korea, what our motivation was. I paused. It was such a basic question, perhaps the most fundamental question there was, yet I struggled to put into writing exactly why I had ventured around the world and landed here. What I eventually wrote was something like this:

“I am not here to teach. I am here to experience, to learn, to grow, to understand beauty and to learn to live in uncertainty. Teaching is just the vehicle. The means to an end.”

The day after we wrote these statements I received what was to me a rude awakening. We were sitting in our orientation class again, and we were told that if we went home early, if we did not finish our grant period, that we would have to pay Fulbright back for our flights to and from Korea. I listened without really hearing, each word falling heavily into place like a prison door clanging shut. “You…will…pay…us…for…both…of…your…tickets.” I did the math, “ok, each ticket is around 1,300 dollars, times two, that equals 2,600 dollars…oh dear,” I concluded, “I don’t have that kind of money.” My mouth slid open, I stared dumbly at the pencil on my desk as if it held the answer to my dilemma, as if it would sprout legs, arms, and a mouth, jump up and show me a way out of this quandary. Please understand, I had every intention of staying for the duration of my grant, but its one thing to say that you will live somewhere for a year, and its another to be locked into it via the threat of financial ruin. I officially had no plan B. Ultimately it was good for me, I reacted by pushing myself a bit more and acknowledging that I couldn’t afford anything less than success in this venture.

Fast forward to last night. I was sitting on the floor around the dinner table, with my homestay mother (Mrs. Bang) and father (Mr. So) on the other side, pouring another glass of Hite (the only Korean beer that they drink) and talking about Mongolians. “Did you know that years ago the Mongolians went into China, then into Alaska, then down into Canada, the US, and Mexico, and ended up in South America, in Peru?” Mrs. Bang asked. “No,” I replied. “I had no idea.” “And,” she continued, with a pleased look on her face, “that is why today the people from Peru farm the same way we do here in Korea. And they perform the same ceremony before harvest that we do.” Right on cue, Mr. So jumped up from his cross-legged position, beer in hand, to demonstrate. Dipping his pinky finger into his glass, he started flicking beer out of the glass and onto the floor with incredible volume and speed. Mrs. Bang, who had not anticipated this demonstration, started slapping his legs, telling him to stop throwing beer on the floor, and that he would have to clean it up. After he had emptied about half the glass, he stopped with a big, pleased smile across his face.

Moments like that I’ve found are hard to replicate. They are endemic of the comfort I now feel living in Korea, a comfort that has taken a while to achieve, but I now feel deeply.

So in a week I will leave this. I will bid goodbye to all the places I ever visited, to all the coffee shops I ever indulged within, and to all the beautiful people and places I have met and seen. Just as I've awakened to the beauty of this experience, so will I leave this and awaken to another beauty, another adventure greater than this has been. I will move on to greater and better things, I really believe that, and I am excited to do so; but that fact doesn’t make leaving any easier.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Korean Yodelers, and Indian Musicals: Life with a new family

I just moved into a new homestay last week. I know, it’s only a month before I leave, but the last family I was with had downgraded to a two bedroom apartment, and with all five of us living there it was a bit cramped. So my new homestay is a bit bigger, and consists of one 12 year old daughter and two proud, doting parents. One of my homestay father’s favorite pastimes is shaking my hand; an operation that he performs with clocklike regularity almost hourly. As he shakes my hand he smiles deeply and uses the only English phrase he knows, “nice to meet you!” It doesn’t matter that I met him four days ago, and it doesn’t matter that I’ve repeated this phrase four times already today, but I obediently smile, nod, and respond, “it’s nice to meet you too.”

Such peculiarities are common and usually highly comedic in this household. My homestay mother is a kind woman, short, with curly black hair and a perpetual smile, her chief concern seems to be making me happy. That, and talking almost incessantly. She has a decent understanding of English and makes the most of it. Around meal times she moves at a dizzying pace around the kitchen, chopping vegetables and talking about everything from her love of international music to how she met her husband to her love for watching Indian musicals. To be honest, she is so sincere and so kind that I really don’t mind, and as long as I smile and occasionally nod, I provide her with all the confirmation she requires to continue chattering happily. My homestay sister (Tammy is her English name) is a cute girl with a bit of a lisp, red-rimmed glasses and just enough missing teeth to make her look mischievous. Her first love is her fish. She has three bowls of fish in the living room and her favorite pastime is sitting hunched over them, trying to guess which fish are pregnant and which fish are in love with one another. Occasionally I will hear screaming coming from the living room. This is usually her signal that one of the fish has given birth and she has subsequently begun the chase to catch those fish and put them in a separate bowl before their inevitable consumption by less scrupulous older fish. Not surprisingly her excitement is not limited to fish; she is excited about almost everything, from completing a math problem to waving excitedly as I walk in the door every evening. On the second evening at my new homestay Tammy and I went to Baskin Robins to get some ice cream to take home. When we got home Tammy showed me that the people at Baskin had put dry ice around the ice cream to keep it cool, and then, with a twinkle in her eye, she said, “teacha, watch this!” She grabbed all the dry ice and threw it into our only toilet, causing a geyser of bubbling white smoke to burst upward. She threw her hands upward in wizard-like triumph as the bathroom filled with the smoke, fogging her glasses and causing her to reach blindly for the door.

It was the same night that my homestay mother had brought me to a local concert in a nearby park. A couple hundred people showed up to clap along with whomever entered the stage. The ground was littered with blankets upon which young kids and the elderly sprawled awkwardly, fanning themselves with complimentary fans that had been provided and occasionally eating from open containers of homemade kimchi. It seemed to be just another concert, one of the many that I had attended (or been forced to attend,) but suddenly a group came on stage that caught my attention. It was a group of Koreans singing literally the last form of music I would expect a Korean to sing: they Yodeled. Let me tell you, if you think that Koreans can’t Yodel let me tell you; they can. These people were talented. I stood in awe, jaw dropped, incapable of tearing my eyes or ears away from the harmonious melody that was being uttered from the mouths of those I least expected to do so. After several songs (some of which included audience participation, that’s right, I did some Yodeling,) we decided to go home where my homestay mother said she had something special planned.

When we got home my homestay mother sat me in a chair and turned on the computer. She had a smile on her face, as if she was tremendously pleased with herself and whatever she was doing, and she began to play a movie. The movie was on the computer, and was of her favorite genre: Indian Musical. So the movie itself was in another language, but it was ok she said because there were subtitles. Unfortunately for me those subtitles were in Korean. Our subsequent conversation, about ten minutes in, went like this:

Homestay Mom (HM): Jon, do you like this movie?

Me: Yes, only maybe it is hard to understand.

HM (shocked at what I’ve said): Really? Why hard to understand?

Me (equally shocked at her lack of understanding): Well, you know I don’t speak Korean, and since my Hindi is a little rusty I really can’t understand anything.

HM: Oh, you don’t understand, it’s ok. I explain movie to you…

Me: You really don’t have to…(wishing I could just go to bed and avoid this, but seeing how important watching this musical is to her)…well, how long is this movie?

HM: Hmmm, maybe three hours.

At that point I wished I could have said, “maybe I would rather light myself on fire and jump out the window right now.” But instead I begrudgingly submitted to this new authority and allowed her to explain to me what was happening every two minutes for the next three hours. It was a long night, but I have to say, there were some great song and dance numbers in that movie. I guess I see why she loves those movies so much.

So this is how my first week has gone with a new family. It’s been great, and I am really happy to be here, and to finish my time in Korea at a home with a family that is so kind and generous, even if they are a bit strange.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Mourning a Hero – and Defying Another.

Two weeks ago a tragic thing happened; the former Korean President killed himself. The sadness generated by this act was an interesting thing to witness, the Korean people united in mourning for this man who was, no doubt, a great leader in his day, but whose career was marred with scandal and charges of corruption. I am not qualified enough to say whether or not he was guilty of these things, but a great many people thought he was. Either way what happened was tragic. His rise to power was inspiring, making this end seem all the more unfitting. Across the country candlelight vigils were held to commemorate his life, and in Cheongju I attended an outdoor service where speakers, poets, and musicians, along with hundreds of the faithful paid their respects. There was a line of hundreds of people that stretched around the block, each person waiting to take off their shoes and bow in front of a picture of the president. Although I couldn’t understand much of what was being said, it was moving to see so many people paying tribute to a man they obviously felt great affection for.

Apart from this happening I have continued to take pictures of and around Cheongju, trying to gain a more accurate picture of what life here is like. Here are a few of the most recent:
This is Mr. Jo on his way to catch clams at Daechon Beach.

Taking the bus in Cheongju.


Last weekend I went to Seoul to work with the NGO I am apart of, and I happened to be near City Hall when a big protest was taking place against the current president, Lee Myung Bak. Such things have always fascinated me, and, against the strong advice of a few of my friends, I tried to get around the crowds of riot police engulfing the City Hall area and into the middle of the protest. After several minutes of well-timed maneuvering I made it to the center of the protest, surrounded by hundreds of passionate people chanting for the removal of the president. The atmosphere was electric. The protesters were surrounded on all sides by riot police, but this only seemed to encourage them, and they altered their chant from “out with the dictator,” to “down with the police.” It was great. The circle of police tightened, and the group grew more frenzied – frenzied, but not violent. I looked around me. There were all types of people among the protesters, old, zen looking Korean men with beards, mothers, fathers, even a few kids, and at the front of the protest were the students.
My respect for students has only grown as of late, as they are often so unrestrained and passionate (albeit often misguided) and eager to make they change that they profess. Like it or not, they are the ones who often spur change, who often give a voice to pressing issues, and who are idealistic and ignorant enough to attempt to do the great things that can, and often cannot, be done. Please don’t get me wrong, I know very little about the current administration and I certainly don’t know enough to actually give an opinion, let alone be a part of a protest, but to be among those protesters was a remarkable experience. Although it was chaotic, I had a strange sense of comfort, as if whatever brought together all those people was something genuine.
I spent about an hour standing in the middle of the group, and I met a lot of interesting people. One of my favorite people was an older Korean man who had taken it upon himself to slap an “MB Out” poster to every Police bus he could find.
Watching him one could easily see the relish with which he performed his duty. He was only stopped a few times, and each time he would continue immediately after.

I left only when a large group of “red police” showed up. They were riot police but meaner, with red tape on their helmets, body armor, shields and batons. Yes, I concluded, things were about to get ugly, and being beaten in an anti-government rally wasn’t how I had envisioned my day going, so I slipped out quietly. A few pictures:

The front lines.

The face of the other side.
A job well done.
Trouble brewing.

Just over a month left in Korea. Still uncertain about my future. Still excited at the prospects. Excited about new adventures, frightened about new challenges. Living expectantly.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Finer Things

I came to a startling realization about a week ago. This year long adventure has reached its last two months, and I am going to fly home and leave Korea, leave this culture, its people, its beauty. Thus, I have recently endeavored to enjoy the finer things that Korea has to offer, and I thought I would tell you about a few of my favorites.

1) Really good tea. This picture was taken in my favorite tea house in Insadong, Seoul. The tea house overlooks Insadong market, one of the coolest and culturally protected places in Seoul. Tree branches hang overhead and grass grows around small fountains on the floor of the house, all creating an incredible vibe, calming even the most frantic minds and giving one the chance to get in touch with his inner-self.

2)Spring. It's an incredibly beautiful time to be in Korea. Now that Spring has arrived the flowers are out in full bloom, the temperature is just right, the clouds seem a long way off and only stop by for occasional afternoon showers.

3)Culture. I have made it a point to enjoy Korean culture, I am trying to make it to culturally significant spots around town and around the Country before I leave. It's so easy to get locked into a routine that doesn't allow for much diversity, and it's even easier to choose the western fast-food restaurants over traditional Korean ones. But there really isn't anything like eating in the middle of a packed traditional Korean market, filled with all the smells, sights and sounds of such a unique place. This picture was taken at one such market in Seoul, it's name escapes me but it is one of my favorites.

4)"Konglish," or Korean English. There are some remarkable examples of Konglish all over Korea, but some of the best are in my school. One would think that, if a native speaker was on-hand (as I am,) it would be smart to have him look over things written in English before they were printed and posted on the walls of your school. This sentiment is apparently not shared by my principle, as we have some stunning examples of Konglish exhibited in our newly constructed English zone.

5)Clam-hunting. This is an exciting event that, until last weekend, I had not known existed in Korea. My friend Billy's homestay dad (Mr. Jo) is apparently an avid hunter of clams, and I received an invitation to go last weekend with Billy and Mr. Jo, so of course, I went. We drove two hours to the Western Coast of Korea, a place called Daecheon Beach. The weather was cold and rainy, and the wind had picked up near the beach to create a difficult set of circumstances for our clam hunt. We struggled against the wind and down to the beach and Mr. Jo proceeded to show us the art of catching clams. It went like this:

Step One, dig the top layer of sand away.

Step Two, look for small holes used by the cylindrically shaped clams and pour a generous helping of salt over the hole.

Step Three, wait for the foolish clam to take the bait and when he surfaces, grab him and utter a cry of victory.

This operation worked well and was surprisingly rewarding. There were other clam hunters on the beach with whom we engaged in a kind of silent competition, each of us trying to gain the upper hand and find an area with an abundance of clams. When they noticed us most of them would stare open mouthed for a few minutes, thinking how incredibly odd it was to see two tall, blond haired Americans digging for clams on the beach in the cold. Before we knew it we had spent three hours digging and grabbing clams on the rainy, windy, cold beach. We left with just over 40 of the strange looking creatures in our bucket, and that night we feasted on them at the Jo's apartment. Mission accomplished.

Mr. Jo and I: Clam Hunters.

So these are a few of the ways that I have been trying to enjoy Korea, to soak it up for the last two months. It is my goal to capture as much of what makes Korea unique in the next few weeks as possible, so be expecting more to come in a similar vein.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Of Expression, or, the Dynamo of Volition

I’m not sure how life is supposed to be lived, how the veil of familiarity is to be lifted day after day to provide the kind of soul gripping experience that I so desire. And I wonder if we aren’t cheating ourselves, living only in one realm of life, only one corner of the vineyard, when the grapes taste far sweeter on the other side.

Here’s what I mean.

I was thinking the other day about limitations, and how I feel as though I am limited to experiencing only part of the vast goodness that I am capable of experiencing; like how we only use a small percentage of our brains, only instead of the cerebrum I am talking about the soul. I find myself caught in a certain form of expression, recently its been academic, as I was busy applying to 12 law schools and have since been writing supplementary material for them. But that form of expression, perhaps every form of expression, is by its very nature limiting. Without another way in which to express myself I grow dull and weary and tired. Hardly the romantic conception of life I had when I was young.

I love the way that Picasso put it, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I might learn how to do it.” What a brilliant thing. He finds himself directly limited by the breadth of his own experience so he attempts to move beyond that obstruction by simply doing that which he doesn’t know. Following this truth let me say that I have come to believe that in order for life to take hold of our spirits in abundance, in order that the closed rose of the soul might open in the sun to its fullest glory, we must find a way to express ourselves on a variety of diverse fronts. I am limited by the academy’s strict prose so I move to the flowing rhythm of poetry. I am limited by the use of an established vernacular so I move to the never fully established voice of art. I am constrained by brush and color palate so I move to the unconstrained depths of music, from whose well I often draw a voice for my soul. And shouldn’t that be our goal, the unfettered expression of nothing less than our own souls? To impede expression is to impede progress and growth and everything that you and I have it in us to become. I am beginning to wonder if the great sin that we fall into as we grow old isn’t necessarily the pursuit of money of other material things, but the unintentional limiting, confining, and constraining of the very expression of our spirits, of our very nature.

I can’t tell you how challenging that idea has been for me lately, and to tell you the truth nothing scares me more than impeding progress, be it mine, God’s, or society’s. This concept is one of the things that drove me while I was in Africa. Faced with college level classes to teach and few resources I wanted to hand off the assignment to someone more capable, but I could not rid myself of the nagging voice telling me that to drop that responsibility would be the first step toward stagnancy. It’s a slippery slope, the more the easy road is taken the more it becomes the only road. I can’t tell you how frightened I am of it. To be totally transparent, that’s one of the reasons that this time in my life is so difficult, because if I am not accepted by any of these law schools, these great judges of human potential, then I put one foot on the road toward every 50-something adult who asks himself where the time has gone and why he did not do more.

To put a capstone on this thought, I was listening to an interview with an incredibly successful businessman, a man who had made his millions and reached the top of his game. The interviewer asked a variety of questions relating to how and why he had been so successful, and towards the end of the interview asked the businessman what he wished he had learned sooner. The man’s reply was incredibly illuminating. He said that he wished that someone had told him that when you reach the top, when you summit the peak of material success, there’s nothing there. Nothing. He went on to talk about how he had been let down by this fact, and had come to terms late in his life that his priorities had been a bit out of place. How profound! How tragic. This is why I am convinced of the need to pursue a dynamic existence, one predicated on the belief that things can be better, expression can and must be realized in as many forms as possible, and the onset of a stagnant existence must be met by the uncomfortable actualization of expanded knowledge and abilities.

I readily admit to my own shortcomings, to my own lack of insight and understanding; I am a traveler on the dusty and mired road of life just as you are. My thoughts are always open to reproof and correction, and I welcome it. Thank you for reading this confused conglomeration of thoughts, and thank you Luther (my future grandfather in law) for reading this blog, lets smoke some cigars when I come home.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Everything is New

“Then came April…Nature in that month sheds rays of enchanted light which, from the sky and the clouds, from trees, meadows, and flowers, pierce to the heart of man.” – Les Miserables

It is April. I have waited a long time for April to roll around; about 11 months come to think of it. And I remember the first time that I realized I liked April; it was four years ago and I was living in Washington DC, about eight blocks behind the capitol building. It had been cold, bitterly cold, a variety of cold that I had yet to experience until that point. I vividly remember standing on the Mall, mouth agape as I watched people in business suits skiing down the mall toward the capitol. Then as suddenly as the cold had come, it was gone, and the heartless cold gave way to warmth and life. It was as if creation itself was waking from hibernation and spreading its wings, flooding my world with light. I don’t mean to be melodramatic but that’s how it seemed, my time in DC was difficult, and the weather changing was a profound event. So here we are again, April, and things in Cheongju are warming up. I walked outside the other day and found the dead trees lining the road had changed their allegiance, instead of perpetuating the icy theme of winter their dead limbs had miraculously sprouted life, green buds springing up in mutiny against their former cold master. I am convinced that simple things like that are far underrated. How can you not feel uplifted as you find yourself caught up in such a transformation, literally watching the death of one thing giving life to another? It goes beyond simple transformation, I think the proper word might be birth.

Speaking of birth, one of my best friends and his wife just had their first child. His name is Enoch, and he is as beautiful a child as I have ever seen. Let me tell you that to miss this child’s birth was difficult, I love my friend and his wife and to miss such an important occasion seemed irresponsible at best, perhaps criminal at worst. So in an attempt to rectify the situation, I was constantly skyping with my friend while he and his wife were at the hospital. I got to know the nurses as they came and went, and even serenaded Enoch with a few licks from the guitar before he was born. After 20 some hours Enoch was born, and I missed it, barely. I called my friend’s cell as I was walking out of class, and the first thing I heard was the crying of a newly born child. Enoch had been born about 30 seconds prior to me calling. I don’t know much about those things, but for some reason tears began to form in my eyes and I found myself greatly moved. Nothing was said, nothing needed to be. Something profound had happened, something that defied the narrow constrains of language and would only be cheapened by its use. For all the value we place on language, there are places that even it cannot go. There are some emotions, some chambers of the heart best left unspoken of.

So if I had to choose a phrase to describe this time, this month, this season, it would be that everything is new. Everything is becoming new, moving toward life. Even in death something new comes. Big changes are on the horizon, big news is sure to come, life is evolving each day into something more dynamic, challenging, and profound. My most sincere hope in this season is that, as I find myself in the midst of this, that I might experience each emotion deeply. I so desire to deeply experience the pathos of this time, of this place, of these situations, and in so doing evolve into who I have it in me to be. Everything is new, and hopefully, so am I.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Of ignorance, respobsibility, and men's bathrooms

It’s the weekend and I find myself in a funny kind of limbo, awaiting with some trepidation the oncoming week, yet doing so with a book in hand and the aroma of Kenyan Coffee around me. Where would I be without coffee shops? And I will be honest with you; I have always felt guilty when I relax, when I am not performing some kind of visible labor. I think many of you can relate. So times like this when I look at my hands and wonder why they are not producing something useful I take solace in the words of one of my favorite authors, Victor Hugo, who said:

A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor. – Les Miserables

By the way, I think it is worth mentioning that I am close to 800 pages into Les Miserables and I cannot overstate the impact it has had one me. Thus far it is one of the most powerful works of fiction I have ever read, and I would implore anyone to investigate its pages. Don’t be intimidated by its size; even the largest things seem small when you are enraptured by them.

So I am teaching, and have been for the last two weeks. And it’s been good to get back to school and begin a routine that doesn’t involve packing a bag and waiting in airports. I am glad to be back, and have had a lot of time to think about what I saw and what happened over the two months I was gone, and let me tell you I think Albert Schweitzer was right when he said that “the great tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he still lives.” And I see travel as being helpful and dangerous in that respect, as one (if he is honest with himself) will necessarily struggle with hope if he travels. It is not a question of if, but rather when. On the other hand if one is doomed to a life of familiar domesticity I see this internal death as an almost unavoidable obstruction, something that must eventually be reckoned with. And the question arises, as I think it must, about what is responsible for those of us who have been blessed enough to travel and experience and by God’s grace have not lost hope.

But before I go further, let me say something outrageous. I think ignorance is great. I really like being ignorant, and my guess is that deep down, so do you. In the words of every good cinematic villain, “we aren’t so different you and I.”

I have to follow up this disgraceful statement by saying that I think that ignorance will lead directly to the death that Schweitzer was speaking of, but you will surely be comfortable on your way to that end. Anyway my problem with a lack of ignorance is this: it requires something of you. If you cannot plead ignorance you must either betray your conscience and slip into denial, or you have to bear a burden and sacrifice something. And that brings me back to my question of what is responsible. What do responsible people do who have seen a need and are no longer ignorant? I am working on an answer to that.

Ok, on to lighter fare.

I have been sitting across from two young Korean girls here at Starbucks, and they have been taking pictures of themselves incessantly with their matching Spongebob cell phones. One of them holds out the phone, snaps a photo, they look at the picture and both giggle, then the cycle repeats itself. Incredible. Is this a cultural difference or just a teenage thing?

I will be back in Korean language classes starting next week! 나이스! I was sitting in the classroom on Friday waiting for my placement test as all the old feelings from July’s language class came flooding back. “oh dear,” I thought, “here we go again, back to everyone nodding an affirmative ‘yes’ while I alone shake my head and slowly say ‘no, I don’t understand.’” In short, I forgot what it was like to be the slow kid. Back to the character building experience that is language class!

And lastly I want to issue a short plea; it’s what I view to be the #1 social problem in Korea right now. Many of you who live here can sympathize, I’m sure. The problem is this: old Korean women cleaning public bathrooms and bumping into me while I am trying to do my business. That’s right, try going to the bathroom with an old woman with a mop directly behind you, scrubbing the floor and singing something in Korean. No matter which direction you turn and no matter how close you press yourself to the wall that woman is always somehow peering at you from an exposed angle. And the crazy thing is, I seem to be the only one who cares that the men’s bathroom is constantly being raided, without warning, by female janitors. None of the other men inside seem concerned. Come on, the rights of men in the bathroom should be universal, right?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Around the World in 68 Days

Number of different countries visited: 8
Number of days it took to circle the globe: 68
Total miles flown: 23,374
Actual hours in the air: 40
Hours spent waiting in airports: 24
Number of different airlines flown: 5
Number of hours spent on buses: 10
Number of hours spent on trains: 26
Number of complimentary in-flight bottles of wine consumed: 7
Number of my bags stolen: 1
Number of bribes taken: 2
Number of times hospitalized: 1
Number of different languages I tried to communicate in: 5
Number of times I feared for my life: 2
Number of friends made: Too many to count

I'll be honest with you, after thinking long and hard I have decided that there is no way that I can sum up my trip around the world in words. I honestly wouldn't know what to write. So I think I will sum it up with something I wrote on the back page of my journal as I sat on a boat taking me across the crystal waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

"What is left to say.

The Sun rose every day despite what I had seen the day before.

I helped a lot of people, a lot of people helped me.

I saw the danger of human desire, I saw the beauty of human altruism.

I struggled with despair, I clung to hope.

What I saw made me sick, sometimes it made me cry.

I was afraid for my life, and I stared fear in the eyes.

Sometimes I ran, others I stood.

I was faced with decisions each day, decisions that built me up, and broke me down.

I was asked all the while what it was I really believed about the world.

And I was afraid that my answer would cause me to lose hope.

I haven't lost it yet."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Honest Traveler

I am in Korea now, but to be honest I’m not sure where my heart is. I keep asking myself, did I leave it somewhere on the dirt streets of Africa? On the white sandy shores of Koh Chang Island? In the jungles in the far north of Chaing Mai, Thailand? I’m not sure.

To be honest with you I have been struggling with a lot lately. This is for another blog, no doubt, but suffice it to say I have been asking questions that are fairly fundamental to living, questions involving how to live, or rather, why to live. It’s a loss of innocence, I suppose. One cannot circle the globe without experiencing it, unless they have lost touch with themselves. The truth is there a certain darkness to the world that we live outside of for the most part, a cruel, wicked thing that preys on our weakest elements. It’s the kind of thing that we are more inclined to believe in when we are young, more perceptive and enraptured by fairy tales. Every child who has ever heard his parents arguing knows it exists. And people analyze the problems that so plague this world and blame them on things like violence on television, socio-economic status, and the like. But the truth as I see it is quite simple really, and this truth has been central to my development as I have traveled; mankind is dark, and I include myself in that statement.

There were times during my travels through Africa when I fundamentally questioned the goodness of people. In fact most of my time there I did. When you are hissed at in the streets, yelled at by the ignorant and thankless, when you see families destroyed and meet survivors of incredible travesty, when you hear of 150 innocent people burned to death in a church miles from your home at the hands of a militia fighting “for God,” it's enough to make you question everything. I think there is a point, at least one that I reached, where simple answers don’t suffice. I couldn’t blame the problems I saw on “a few bad apples,” no, the problems in Africa and in Thailand are endemic of a much greater issue: the issue of man’s selfish and violent inhumanity to man.

In Thailand I was beaten by two drunken Thai men who were out for blood, nothing else. I had done nothing to provoke them, I was guilty of nothing but defending my friend, a good man. And there is a point that I came to when I realized that there is a hatred and an anger that is so reckless and irrational there is nothing rational people can do to stop it. Reason will fail you, as it failed me. So what do you do when reason fails? When hope hangs from a string? How do you react to the unpleasant fact that wickedness and evil are far more rampant than you ever realized? These are questions I fear the answers to.

Two days ago I arrived home to Korea, a few hours later I received a phone call that my 19 year old little brother, whom I love with every facet of my being, was in a car accident and thrown from his vehicle onto the street. The car that hit him drove away and hasn’t been found. He will recover, but it will be long and difficult.

So I ask again, what do you do when reason fails?

I really don’t have time nor do I want to jump further into this issue now, I just wanted to share a bit of what I saw and came to understand. I will write more later, but I don’t want you to read this and get the wrong idea, let me tell you, humanity is worth something. I’m not sure how much, but the very fact that there is so much darkness proves that there is light. And how sweet that light is, if only I could spread it.

I have been listening to Jon Foreman’s song “Equally Skilled.” I think it is true, and it summarizes a bit of how I feel. Listen to it sometime if you can, in the meantime I will leave you with the lyrics:

How miserable I am
I feel like a fruit picker who arrives after the harvest
There's nothing here at all
Nothing at all here that could placate my hunger

The godly people are all gone
There's not one honest soul left here on the planet
We're all murderers and thieves
Setting traps here for even our brothers

And both of our hands
Are equally skilled
At doing evil
Equally skilled
At bribing the judges
Equally skilled
At perverting justice
Both of our hands
Both of our hands

The day of justice comes
And is even now swiftly arriving
Don't trust anyone at all
Not your best friend or even your wife

For the son hates the father
The daughter despises even her mother
Look! Your enemies are right
Right in the room of your very household

And both of their hands
Are equally skilled
At doing evil
Equally skilled
At bribing the judges
Equally skilled
At perverting justice
Both of our hands
Both of our hands

No, don't gloat over me
For though I fall, though I fall
I will rise again
Though I sit here in darkness
The Lord, the Lord alone
He will be my light.

I will be patient as the Lord
Punishes me for the wrongs I've done against Him
After that He'll take my case
Bringing me to light and to justice
For all I have suffered

And both of His hands
Are equally skilled
At ruining evil
Equally skilled
At judging the judges
Equally skilled
At administering justice

Both of His hands
Both of His hands

Are equally skilled
At showing mercy
Equally skilled
At loving the loveless
Equally skilled
At administering justice
Both of His hands
Both of His hands

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sanyu and Leaving Africa

It seems that a bit of time has gone by since I last posted here; its only been about two weeks, but I have found that when you are traveling a lifetime of experience can pack its way into such a small space of time. Em and I spent all of our last week in Africa at Sanyu Babies Orphanage in the middle of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Our time there was really amazing, and I found that I derived much more joy from hanging out with infants than I thought I would. Each kid had a unique personality that never ceased to amaze me. Some were quiet, most were loud. Some liked to play with their friends, most liked to hit their friends. Emily and I ran the morning preschool class with about 20 toddlers, and it didn’t take long for a few of them to establish a sort of “fight club” that involved them taking any toy they could and hitting their friends in the head. Keep in mind that these kids couldn’t walk. As hilarious as it was to watch these kids turn lettered blocks into weapons, inevitably I had a responsibility to keep the peace, and that is what I tried to do. Feeding time was the second craziest time of the day, we had all 40 kids lined up in small wooden chairs and had the enormous responsibility of hand feeding most of them some kind of mashed sweet potato. What little they didn’t either throw at me or drop down their shirts they seemed to enjoy immensely. The most difficult event of the day was bath time. Oh my goodness it was insanity. The kids all stripped down and one by one, stood in a line and were each taken by a large, serious looking African nurse and scrubbed mercilessly in a small tub of water. After this scrubbing they would emerge smiling and usually laughing and run towards me as I waited with a towel in hand. Drying a wriggling African child was such a task that before I could finish one, two more would come and tackle me from either side, drying themselves on my shirt. Before I knew it there were dozens of naked children running wildly around and screaming. I would chase them around the concrete floored room trying to grab them, and would eventually give up. Of course after this insanity we would have to change diapers (yes, I changed my first diaper there, and many more after it,) dress them and put them in their cribs. Wow. The whole process took about an hour and a half and by the time we were done we were exhausted and full of stories about the rambunctious children. It was really an amazing time, and saying goodbye to those kids was far more difficult than I had anticipated.

On the way out of the airport in Uganda I experienced one last touch of African “realities,” if you want to call it that. I had a 7-hour wait at Entebbe airport in Uganda before my flight on Ethiopian Airlines left. When I finally was able to check my bags the airport employee informed me that my bags were about 10kg over the allowed weight. He shook his head and said that it was “a large fee” to send my bags, but then said, in almost a whisper “I want to help you.” “Ok” I thought, but how could he do that when my bags were clearly over weight? There was an awkward silence for a few seconds while we each stared blankly at each other, until he said again, this time slower and even quieter, “I want to help you.” Aaaaaah. I began to think African and understood what he was implying. “So” I said, unsure as to how to proceed, “you want….money?” He nodded. “Like, this much money?” I said cautiously pulling a 5,000 shilling note out of my pocket. Without saying a word he quickly swiped it from my hand and shoved it into his pocket. So, to make a long story short he demanded 5,000 more but said that his manager was watching so he would find me later and collect it from me then. I still had three hours to wait at the time so I proceeded to hide myself from him as best as I could. Finally it was time to board and I thought I had successfully thwarted the money making plans of this corrupt airport employee. As I was about to step onto the plane to my dismay I saw the man emerge from inside the plane and walk straight towards me. I was surrounded by people at the time and curious as to what he was going to do. He waked up to me and asked me for my ticket, shooting me a demanding glance. Slowly I pulled the ticket from my pocket along with a 1,000 shilling note and handed them to him. He took the money quickly and said in a whisper “This is all?” I knew I had the upper hand because there was no way he could ask for more money in the position he was in so I didn’t say a word, I just shrugged.

So that is how I left Africa, with a parting reminder that there is a lot that needs to change. Any kind of sustainable change will have to take place first in the minds and hearts of people who are willing to change the culture of corruption and dare to believe in honesty and truth. It’s really a bold thing, if you think about it.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Entebbe Again, Monkeys, Tarzan, and Ants

Back in Entebbe, Uganda, and this time it's quite a different feeling. I am used to the sights, the smells, the overwhelming nature of this place, so it's a little easier to take in.

We are staying at the Airport Guesthouse, which is literally an oasis in the desert. It is nicer than most hotels I have stayed at in the States, and for Uganda, that is saying a lot. We have HOT WATER showers, good food, and ice cream for dessert! That will all end tomorrow as we head to Kampala for a tour of the Watoto Villages, and then on to Sanyu Orphanage where we will work for the next week.

A brief highlight of the last 48 hours: Today we went to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, which was an incredible place full of huge trees, and giant vines hanging overhead. Our guide proudly told us that it was here that the 1930s Tarzan movie was filmed. I believed it, so much so that I grabbed a huge vine and swung 15 feet into the air. It was incredible. I let out a quick Tarzan-esq yell, and, after thumping my chest a few times, we moved on.

We came to a series of trees around which over 150 monkeys were playing and jumping around. It was amazing, they had almost no fear of humans so we could walk within two feet of them without disturbing them at all. There is something so freeing about watching them play, jumping from tree to tree flying through the air.

Unfortunately for me, in my ever-continuing quest for taking quality pictures, I ventured a little too far off the beaten path into some brush. As I was snapping a few pictures I felt several pricks on my feet, I looked down and saw dozens of giant ants covering my feet. It was the wrong day to opt for sandals. I had stopped directly on an ant hill to take my pictures, and in no more than ten seconds they had crawled up my legs and all over my body. It was one of the worst feelings I have ever had, it felt like my body was crawling. I ran toward Emily and our guide, trying hard to keep my cool but desperately swatting at the creatures that now covered my body. I knew I was in trouble when the guide looked worried and said, "oh dear, you might have to strip down." No way was I about to strip down naked in the middle of the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, so as he said this I started swatting furiously at the little beasts; smashing, clawing, pinching, slapping, doing anything I could to rid myself of this plague. Emily and the guide joined in as I danced around flailing my arms and shaking my jeans. So much for keeping my cool. Eventually all of the creatures were either dead and stuck in my leg hair and jeans, or on the ground. The guide, after examining the fallen ants remarked casually, "ah, these are safari ants, thank goodness, not poisonous." "Whew," I thought. "That was close." It was an experience, one that I sincerely hope never ever to have again.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Baptism and a Feast

“You have been baptized!” said the grinning Congolese man as he entered my room. “Now that you have Malaria you are Congolese!” As he said this I wished I could share the same enthusiasm regarding my illness, but there was no denying it, I had been baptized in the waters of African disease, and I could now relate to the plight of the Congolese in a new way. I was tested a few days ago for Malaria and came up positive for not only Malaria, but also Salmonella poisoning, which explained why my insides were burning. I walked out of Maba-Conga Clinic with three new prescriptions and a promise from the friendly doctor that I would be feeling better soon. “Asante-Sana” (thank you in Swahili) was about all I could eek back. Thankfully, this disease has not debilitated me to the point of not being able to teach or do other important things like eat. To be honest the Salmonella has been far worse than Malaria, although one might guess the opposite to be true. Anyway, I should be cured within the week, and even now I have almost no lingering side effects from the sickness. In related news, Emily and I seem to be in a contest to see who can be sicker, and just after I one-upped her Malaria with my Salmonella/Malaria combo, she came down with Typhoid fever. It turns out she still has Malaria but has picked up a bit of a bonus with the Typhoid. Nice job. Hopefully my body won’t feel the need to one-up that.

Many other exciting things have been happening. I will try to do justice to a few of these events quickly:

The Superbowl was a few nights ago and, since the Cardinals were playing, we weren’t about to let a few thousand miles and a huge time difference keep us from watching it. To begin the celebration we decided to try to make tortilla chips and guacamole and subsequently spend the majority of the afternoon operating a kind of chip-making assembly line. Bethany, Luke, and Justin, the other three Americans here, all helped. Bethany made the dough and rolled it, I cut the dough into chip-looking pieces and handed them to Justin and Luke who fried them in a skillet. Emily threw on a bit of salt and before we knew it we had a few hundred chips ready to be enjoyed. The game didn’t begin until 1:30am our time, so we all went to bed at our usual time of 10pm, and woke up at 1am to begin the festivities. We had soda (actually cold from the fridge!) chips and guacamole, and a whole lot of team spirit. Unfortunately, most of you know the outcome of the Cardinals ill-fated quest for the Superbowl title, but what a game! Our little battery operated television actually lasted all four hours, and we went to bed at about 5am, only to wake up at 7 for English classes the next day. It was probably the best Superbowl party I have ever been to.

One of my favorite students, Amani, was involved in an accident on his way to a town called Butembo, a few miles south of here. He was in the back of a truck carrying close to 70 people that, while trying to make a sharp turn, drove off of a cliff and rolled several times. 38 people died. 38. And Amani was one of the few who survived with only minor injuries, he was back in class a few days ago and is a living-breathing miracle. Just watching him walk around and talk and smile and speak of God’s goodness is deeply moving. I learn so much from my students; I have learned the most from him.

A thunderstorm hit Beni yesterday that was the biggest I had ever seen. Dr. Kasali (whose home we are staying in) said, with a dire look on his face, “tropical rains, not a good thing.” He was right, the gates to our little compound flew open, the chickens and various animals living inside all screamed and squawked and ran in terror, the rain poured, the wind blew, and within 15 minutes our house was flooded with an inch of water. We spent the next few hours trying to soak up what we could and salvage those things that had been on the floor. It was wild; living in Arizona has not provided me with any experiences close to that.

Two days ago Emily and I took a trip to a Leprosy Camp in the nearby town of Oicha, we spent all day there and to say that it was a moving experience wouldn’t come close. First of all, let me say that until recently I was under the impression that Leprosy was a disease from Biblical times; an interesting sounding debilitation used conveniently for conveying poignant moral lessons. I had no idea that it was, in truth, a brutal disease that ravages people’s bodies and leaves them debilitated, helpless, and often deserted by their families and remains alive and well in most poor countries. The director greeted us and took us on a tour of the Camp, allowing us a chance to visit with and get to know some of the lepers living there. Seeing firsthand the effects of an illness that so altered the appearance of its victims was remarkable and profound, and to see the indomitable spirit of most of the residents was encouraging to say the least. The smiles I received from those with missing arms, legs, eyes, fingers, toes and teeth were enough to give me hope that life might be much simpler than I had imagined. After spending some time with the patients, we were told that the camp only had enough food to supply the patients with one meal daily, some beans and bananas, and that due to these realities most are often hungry. After hearing this we had an idea and asked the director if we might be able to buy the camp a meal, something nice, (by third-world standards.) The director was overjoyed at the prospect and hurriedly assigned two of his helpers to accompany us to the local market to buy the necessary ingredients. An hour later we returned carrying several pounds of meat, a huge bag of rice and ten head of cabbage. Emily and I tried to help with the preparation by cutting the cabbage, (a skill at which I am terrible,) and had our inefficiency consistently laughed at by the women who usually take on the cabbage cutting responsibility. Finally, after two hours of preparation we were able to serve the patients a meal, and it was incredibly rewarding. Each one cried out “Asante-Sana! Asante!” and shook our hands with whatever fingers still remained on their hands. To them this simple meal of cabbage, meat and rice was a feast, and I have to admit, as we sat down with the director of the Camp and his helpers for our meal, eating with our hands because of the lack of silverware, it did feel an awful lot like a feast.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Malaria, the Rebels, and English

So to break the news, Emily has Malaria. She started feeling poorly a couple of nights ago and I thought immediately that it was probably the disease, as it seems to infect everyone in our town at some point. She is on meds and doing quite well, and should be back in action soon. Now all I need to do is go the last few weeks without contracting it!

The Rwandan troops, working with Congolese government troops, just caught the notorious leader of the Congolese rebels, Laurent Nkunda. This is big news here. Nkunda is responsible for a huge number of atrocities all across the northeast region of Congo where we live, things too terrible to write about, so this comes as a huge relief for many. The problem however is two-fold. First, there are still 6,500 Rwandan rebels hiding in the hills in our region, along with a huge number of Congolese rebels loyal to Nkunda. The question is, will these troops surrender now that Nkunda is captured, or will they fight on? Secondly, there are still large numbers of Rwandan troops in the northwest region, and for the most part people here don't trust them. These troops have sent Nkunda to Rwanda, but have refused to say if they will send him to the Congolese capital to stand trial for treason and crimes against humanity. So the issue is complex, but everyone agrees that life is better with Nkunda behind bars.

Finally, I am beginning my English course on reading tomorrow. I am teaching four hours tomorrow, four on Thursday and four on Friday. Then I teach all next week. Wow. The teaching load is a bit more than I was counting on, and I would be lying if I said that I know what I am doing, but nevertheless those students will be taught four hours a day for the rest of the week. What exactly they will be taught I don't know, but they will be taught. Oh the joys of being forcefully removed from your comfort zone and thrust in front of people!

For a cool map of the violence around Congo and our location, along with my travel around the world, go here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Congolese Realities" Chickens, Bucket Showers, and the Dark

How do you get 25 screaming Congolese children to let go of your arms, stop dancing around you, and let you walk through the door to your house? That is the problem that I was confronted with yesterday as Emily and I went for our evening walk around town. Every time we go for a walk around our neighborhood we inevitably gain a following of literally dozens of tiny Congolese children who may be cute, but will absolutely not let you go when they have a hold of you. Last night a neighbor who witnessed our plight came to our aid with a newspaper in hand, literally shooing the kids away running around yelling. That being said, the walks we take around our neighborhood have quickly become a highlight of our time here. We have learned basic French phrases and are quick to wish our neighbors “bonsoir!” or “bonjour! Como sa va?” to which they always respond with a grin and returned greeting. Congo is an interesting place because of the variety of different languages spoken, Swahili, French, English, and two other languages are most common, so often they will combine them by saying “Jambo! Como sa va?” (hello in Swahili, how are you in French.) I have also learned this since my stay began: French is a far easier language to learn than Korean. Every day I try to learn a new phrase or few words, and I am enjoying it immensely.

Emily began her work at the local health clinic yesterday, and is eager to get in on all the action she can. I on the other hand have yet to begin my teaching as there are no English classes until next week, so my job has mostly consisted of being excessively friendly with the students here at the University and helping however I can. Some highlights thus far:

The people are incredibly friendly and constantly thanking me for coming to their country, for a country as ravaged by war as the Congo is, you wouldn’t know it by talking to the people.

I went to a three-hour French speaking church on Sunday that was incredible. Upon entering and sitting amongst the hundreds of people packed into a small empty warehouse, a song began, perhaps the most beautiful I have ever heard in my life. It began almost as a whisper, then was picked up by more and more voices until the entire place echoed with the sound of a beautiful African song. I was moved almost instantly to tears, (a completely unexpected reaction,) as the weight and power of these combined voices pressed in on me. Although I had no idea what they were singing about I was sure it was something deeply beautiful.

My friend Noweh has promised me that before I go I will kill a chicken. He will kill one soon to show me the mechanics of the killing operation, but the next chicken is mine! “You just, like this!” Noweh said to me, demonstrating with his hands the sawing motion used in the operation. “You must feel no pity! Do you pity Jon?” “No” I hesitantly said. “I don’t pity.”

Yesterday I was reminded again of the danger of the country when I saw a young boy run over by a motorcycle. The motorcycle hit him and rolled him forward a few feet before finally bumping over him, the boy’s books and things he was carrying flew into the air. The driver just kept going and never looked back, the boy slowly picked himself up, brushed off his pants, picked up his things and kept going. Unbelievable.

“Congolese Realities.” (Spoken with a soft African accent.) This phrase always makes me smile and is usually said by a Congolese person (often Noweh) to break any awkward tension each time something happens that is an inconvenience; like the bag we lost, like the extra money we had to pay the corrupt soldiers at the border, like no electricity but from 7pm to 10pm, the bucket showers we take. Yesterday we all laughed when we were in the car and we noticed the molding coming off from around one of the windows. “Congolese realities” Noweh said with a sigh, as he tried to fix it. The longer I am here the more I am learning to accept and even appreciate these “realities.”

Walking along our dirt streets last night a mother holding her baby came straight towards me. Without saying a word she held her baby up to me. Not knowing what to do I grabbed its hand and said hello; instantly her child opened its eyes and his face lit up in a beautiful smile. His mother did the same, smiling from ear to ear. I am consistently amazed at how little I have to do to make people happy here, something as simple as touching a child’s hand can have an enormous effect.

Thunderstorms. Every morning since I have been here from about 5 to 8am a thunderstorm strikes Beni, making the streets into mud and the metal on the roof sing. The crack of the thunder and the sound of the rain in Africa is unlike I have heard it anywhere, it is a sweet but indescribably powerful melody, sung to the surrounding hills and forests, sung to wake me up each morning.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hope and Water in the Desert

“This place is hope,” the tall, thin Congolese man standing next to me said as he held his hands out in front of him. “It is like a few drops of water in a vast desert.” A smile crept over his face revealing his white teeth that shown brilliantly against the dark color of his skin. He was taking me on a tour of the Christian Bilingual University in the DRC, a place with great potential but for now consisting of only one building with dirt floors and 90 acres of beautifully dense untouched land. He led me into the building and into the office of Dr. David Kasali, an energetic man with a soft voice and a deep soulful eyes. He showed us a map of his vision, a plan for the University that included dozens of buildings in and around the 90 acres they own. It is a grand vision, one that is slowly coming to fruition. The Congolese way of building is strange from a western perspective, they begin building and build until they run out of money, then they wait and when more money comes they continue building. So the University grounds are scattered with construction, construction that won’t continue until more money is provided. As Dr. Kasali gave us the tour of the University, the students that were on a break from class came and introduced themselves amidst much giggling and laughing as each student prodded the others into introducing themselves. Everyone was so joyful, so full of energy and life, and most had no shoes. Nothing rich about them but the smiles on their faces.

Our tour around the University was the final stop in our haphazard journey to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Emily and I enjoyed an 8 hour layover in London and made the most of our time by going to Tower Bridge, Picadilly Circle and Hyde Park. We came close to missing our flight to Uganda as I had inadvertently set my watch an hour behind the actual time, so it was not until we were on our way back to the airport that I realized my mistake, but thankfully we made it with five minutes to spare. After London we enjoyed another 9 hour flight to Entebbe, Uganda, at which we arrived at 8:30 in the morning. The first thing I noticed was the heat; the oppressive, humid, heat. We made it to our hotel that was a nice place and were greeted by a small quiet woman who spoke mostly through her deep smile. She showed us to our room, and left without a word. We decided that we needed to contact the Kasalis and ask about the status of the violence that had been reported nearby Beni. After wandering the dirt streets nearby looking for a phone to use, we finally found a small booth that people could use to call internationally. None of our numbers worked, and after trying for a while we gave up and decided to go to Kampala, the capital, and look for phones or internet cafes there. To get there we took a cab, or rather a bus packed to capacity with passengers, about an hour. During that time we drove at wild speeds, almost hit multiple people, cars, and bikes, and witnessed at least one collision between a motorcycle and biker. I don’t know much about Kampala, but I will tell you this: it is completely overwhelming. Thousands of people packed the streets, the air was filled with the noise of people yelling, laughing, arguing, bartering. Bota-botas weaved in and out of the people honking and calling for passengers, the air was filled with the hot humid smell of dirt and body odor. Needless to say I was confused. To make a long story short we got a hold of people in Beni, who told us it was safe to go, but we realized that we had to go back to the airport to track down the people who were supposed to fly us to Congo in the morning. So we made one of our sketchiest decisions to date: we decided to take a bota-bota the whole hour long trip to the airport. We knew it might be a little scary, but we were in for an intense ride. If he wasn’t weaving in and out of traffic, our driver was driving as fast as his motorcycle could go, passing cars and other bota drivers on the way. We arrived safely an hour later, having at one point ripped the left rearview mirror completely off of one of the cars we passed. It was close.

The next day we journeyed to Beni, DRC, a small city in the northeastern area of the country. To get there we took a small propeller plane that was deafening from the inside, as I was seated directly between the two propellers. First we flew to a small city called Bunia, a city that has seen a lot of violence in the last few years. As we exited the plane we were met by a beautiful Congolese woman who greeted us with a jovial “Bonjour!” (French is one of the primary languages spoken in the DRC.) She led us past rows of gruff looking soldiers with AK-47s and into a stuffy room marked with a small hand painted sign that read “immigration.” There we received our visas and were led out of the room and back to our plane. Along the way I made eye contact with a particularly rough looking soldier who smiled and said “Jesus” and started laughing. We gained a few more passengers and were informed that we were going to make an unscheduled stop about 45 min away. As we had no say in the matter we simply smiled and consented. 45 min later we bounced onto the runway at our stop, and I looked outside to see that the reason we bounced around so much was that we had landed on a tiny dirt runway. Greeting us this time were 15 armed soldiers next to a sign that read “Avec Joseph Kabila” (with the president.) Emily and I were cautiously surveying these soldiers when Emily asked me “Jon, what are those long stick things they are carrying?” I looked harder and responded “um…those are rocket launchers Em.” Three of the soldiers carried this deadly weapon in such a cavalier fashion that I wondered if they knew what they were holding. Thankfully we didn’t have to leave the plane this time and in a few minutes we continued on to Beni. We arrived and were met by Dr. Kasali’s brother and taken to our residence for the next month. The house we are staying at is more of a compound than a house as it is huge and surrounded by a large brick wall around which large amounts of frighteningly sharp barbed wire is coiled. We have a friendly night security man who patrols the yard with a machine gun, and at any given time there are 10 to 15 people living in the house so its never quiet. We have met tons of people, all of whom are eager to grab our hands, introduce themselves and smile. The level of poverty here is remarkable, many have no shoes, most have no work and nowhere to go so spend their time sitting in the shade of a tree. I am enjoying the Congo immensely, the love and the sense of community Emily and I have experienced thus far is like nothing else. Each day has proved to be an adventure, and I remain excited to experience all those adventures yet to come.