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