Monday, July 31, 2006

Pictures from the Road (Part II)

So I was castigated soundly the other day by a friend in Korea for the misleading nature of my "Pictures from the Road (by request)" post. It seems that the text bears me out as a total tease, with promises of adventures illustrated and exposed but no real juicy details to flesh things out.

Apologies, and perhaps a slight nod towards remedying the situation!

Angkor Wat. I wasn't joking when I said it leaves you at a loss for words. But there are intellectual and emotional touchstones that can be extracted from my memories to hopefully satisfy curiousities that may or may not abound. I could start in Bangkok to really tie this whole experience together, or I could include the long and jarring journey from the Thai border to Siam Reap and the amazing scenes we bounced and jounced past. But instead I will begin in the temple complex itself, picking up the narrative in midstream so to speak....

I think the words that I used in my last post on the subject remains the most apt - Angkor is an intensely personal encounter with the past, communing through so many senses.

There is the sight and touch of the rough weathered stone, pockmarked with the bullets of modern warfare and carved with testiments to acts of heroism in centuries past. Creeping with lichen and crumbling back into the dust beneath your feet. These senses become particularly engaged when one looks closely at the many female figures with breasts rubbed to a polish like glass by hands eager to commune with the essence of life - mother-earth through her stone surragates.

The smell of the musty corridors in the literal mazes of halls that criss-cross the temple complexes. An earthy scent that is moist and tinged by mosses and fragrant vegetation that thrives in the fine lines between stones and on the verges of the surrounding canals. This mixes with the incence burned by the faithful from worlds away that bow to say prayers in this place. But above and beyond all of this, I can convince myself, is the smell of stone itself.

The sounds of the huge complex, which are a blend of the modern shuffle of tourist feet with the attendant shutter clicks and the sounds that must have been heard even by the stonemasons as they worked. The shrill cry of the cicadas, which has been a regular part of my yearly cycle for so many years but has fallen silent this summer in Portland. The frogs in the ponds and moats and canals and the gleeful cries of the Cambodian children as they throw their near-naked bodies from the stones into these bodies of water.

And the bittersweet sound of those children that are working rather than playing - begging for the money to go to school, eat a decent dinner or just be welcomed home. And the attendent moral obligation to help that is often stymied by the suspicion that nothing will come of it than another night of sniffing glue or by the weight of the need to choose who among the throng is worthy of the handout.

And the taste of the cool fresh water that soothes your parched body after hours of exploring in the sun. Or the fresh fruit juices that give you the energy and drive to climb that next flight of stairs or cycle on to the next stop on the tour of ancient treasures - mango, watermelon, orange, papaya, pineapple, lychee. Or the steaming bowl of fish Amok that waits at the end of the day.

But where is the promised tale from the road? Where is the essence of the oft-hinted intimacy of the experience? I am not sure that I can give you that my friend - but I can try.

Have you read "Swimming to Cambodia" by Spalding Gray? If not I highly recommend it for a few great laughs and a lot of exploration of how we experience our lives on a moment-by-moment basis. The stream of conciousness of a man fighting mental demons that unfortunately led him to suicide in 2004.

Gray writes in "Swimming to Cambodia" about having a perfect moment. Something I have had the pleasure to experience on several identifiable occassions - one already chronicled in my story from the church steps and another coming at you from the temple complexes of Angkor Wat.

Cycling against time with Troy and Michelle - two truely wonderful people from New Minas, Nova Scotia - we raced to find Ta Preom before night fell and the park closed to the foreign occupiers we really were in one sense. Ta Preom was a must see not because of the fame brought to it by Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in the trash blockbuster "Tomb Raider", but because of the uneasy coexistence of this temple with the massive trees that are slowly ripping it to pieces.

Instead we ended up a Preah Kahn - fortuitously it would turn out, as the guard that attempted to usher us out for the 6:00 close finally relented and agreed to let us pedal our way around the complex to view a huge tree entangled with the rear of the structure. What a massive piece of ashen white, ossified timber! How could we resist coming closer to experience this site with all the intimacy explained at (too great?) length above?

And then, how were we to avoid entering a long stone hallway that turned out to bisect the entire massive structure from north to south and east to west, probably following some geomantric lines of energy divined by priests of another time. We were, after all, welcomed with open arms by the Apsaras dancing on the carved lintels above each opening.

And once the elation of being alone, in the rapidly darkening Cambodian jungle, in this piece of timeless significance, hit us, how were we to stop running at full-tilt back and forth, up and down those long corridors? How were we to stop from climbing to the top of those temple mounts and drinking in the sights and sounds of the mysterious area that we inhabited alone?

We came to the exact center of the complex as the darkness reached a particular poignancy, with the shadows cast at an artful angle across the geometric lines of the carefully wrought corridors and cubby-holes. There was a carved, round pillar of stone perhaps 8 feet tall marking that spot, and at that moment we fell silent - each with a hand outstretched to rest on what we could only imagine was the marker of a spot of great power and significance.

And we stood silent and let the sounds of the jungle wash over us and purge the rest of time and the world from our minds.

And it was a moment of pure, unadulterated perfection. There was nowhere else in the world I would rather be, and nothing about myself or the world that needed to be changed. The pure goodness that we hope is the core of humanity was plain and clear.

And then it was gone. Words were spoken, time resumed, and the deepening shadows and encroaching forest were suddenly stripped of perfection and imbued with a hint of fear. A shiver ran down my spine as we suddenly gave ourselves to what can be best described as a feeling of vulnerability. A counterpoint to the earlier peace coming in the realization of our foreigness in the verdant jungle of this strange land.

And Michelle's bicycle chain was jammed into the rear fork - and was not coming lose whether with my handy Swiss Army or the frustrated kicks of our sandle-clad feet. There was nothing to it but to get out of those deep woods and closer to some form of civilization.

Troy, a long-distance runner in another time in another land, took it upon himself to run that bicycle God knows how many thousands of meters until a crew of Cambodians on a motorbike stopped to do a quick repair job for us. I will never forget standing holding the light over those two toiling men as every bug in the jungle vectored in on my lamp - huge moths colliding with my face, mosquitos buzzing in my ears and fire ants biting my toes and feet.

The ride back to town was fairly uneventful. Maybe there was never any real danger, but that was irrelevant in the face of our perception of danger. Equally, there may never have been a "perfect moment," but if that's the case, I'll take the mistaken perception any day over the absence of that experience that the alternative would suggest.

I don't know if I have captured anything here that is accessible to you from your distant lands and different experiences. But I am not someone who often manages to anchor myself completely in the moment - and the value of those seconds of our perfect moment are truely indescribable if you have not experienced it yourself - albeit in your own place and time.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Pictures of You

Maybe photo albums should be edited to present only a happy picture of the past - or, to be more precise, pictures of the past that still elicit feelings of happiness in the present.

Maybe the painful memories that cut you like knives and draw tears are parts of your history that are better shed like old skin. Maybe the pain they cause is not edifying, and only erodes the pleasures of the present.

Maybe our ghosts should be vanquished to the thin nighttime chill.

Maybe our ties of communication to, and memories and mementos of, the painful past should be laid bare and then cut clean off - surgically excised.

Maybe we are not made to carry these pictures as burdensome reminders, instead giving into the gift of forgetfulness.

"I've been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they're real
I've been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures are
All I can feel"

Maybe we have to pull the thorns of our days past before we can move on with courage and vigor to build our better tomorrows.


Saturday, July 15, 2006

벌서 일년 (2집)

Its amazing how amateur my translation of the song 벌서 일년 was! I spent more than 8 years in Korea, and learned the language well enough to manage most of my whole life independently. I negotiated my last work contract in Korean (talk about being at a disadvantage) and dealt with finding my last apartment, getting all of the utilities hooked up, and the reverse process of getting rid of it all. Every day I was praised by Koreans surprised and delighted at the level of interaction I could foster with them.

But in practical terms I just never reached the level to claim true proficiency. I couldn't sit in meetings and participate. I would generally know what was being talked about, but most of the specifics would be a total mystery to me! I can watch Korean movies with English subtitles and recognize that the words in English match the spoken Korean (or that they sometimes don't)- but am totally adrift without the subtitles.

Well, thankfully the Internet can fill in the blank spaces in my abilities. Here are the lyrics to 벌서 일년 (Already One Year) translated in their entirety.

Brown Eyes - Already One Year
Translated by: Sooki

already a year thinking that because it was the first time
it would be fine after a few days
memories I had made with you come to me

my uneasy shyness the first time I confessed my love for you
passing by the first day we met
the tears, lighting the cake, and congratulating you on your birthday

*I believe in you I believe in your mind
even though already a year has gone by
even after a year or a year after that I wait for you

I couldn't say I miss you come back to me
because of the warm gaze of that person
and your face which was brighter than the ring on your left hand

**I believe in you I believe in your mind
even though I know you've started over
even though you are making memories without me

I always remember bygone laughter, conversations, and hopes
and now only one new memory to make
only my waiting and tears for you

**I believe in you I believe in your mind
even though I know you've started over
even though you are making memories without me

*I believe in you I believe in your mind
even though already a year has gone by
even after a year or a year after that I wait for you

It turns out that he did tell her he loved her...and that love lived for a short time.

But its been a year since they went their separate way, and she has moved on to making new memories without him.

Meanwhile he is still living in his memories of her.

And still believes.....

Monday, July 10, 2006

Church Bells

Another Sunday has passed with church bells pealing through the calm morning and myself cocooned in my own life and paying no heed to the call. No confession, no penance, no praise and no prayers.

No humbling of myself before an eternal force that may or may not direct our lives for better or worse.

But today those deep tolling tones stirred a few thoughts in me. Thoughts of the days of youth, sitting in church whiling the minutes away sucking a peppermint as the preacher waxed poetic/didactic about the rewards of heaven/perils of hades.

But you know, I enjoyed the singing! I have never considered that before. At the evening service the pastor would call for requests and I would weekly attempt to have an anthemic psalm of gravity added to the playlist: "Lead on oh King Eternal" or "Amazing Grace". Something evocative of a mission or cause to march for....

And while sounding those words of high purpose and heavy import - despite my frightful inability to hold a tune or produce a sound that approaches pleasant - I think I felt 100% free and at one with the people around me. I felt integrated into a group with a common purpose and shared thoughts and feelings.

A feeling that occurs seldom in my life, to be certain.

This was even true in Korea, where my partner was a devoted church goer and a true Christian in the sense that she questioned her faith daily and challenged herself to make it relevant in her life. She wasn't someone who just went to church once a week for confirmation of her holiness and goodness.

And I sang in that Korean church. I understood nary of a word of the sermon presented nor the psalms sung in unison with a people of another land, culture and language. Those moments singing may have been some of the moments that I felt most at one in my chosen home country.

Again, a feeling hard to come by for a foreigner in a foreign land.

Which leaves me wondering where that feeling of belonging comes from at this point in my life. Where is the thing in my life that dials me into my community, makes me feel at one with those I walk among as a stranger?

It would be wrong to go to a church and recite creeds and receive communion simply to experience a sense of belonging - it would be akin to being an Ed Norton at a support group for cancer survivors. But now I think I understand his compulsion a little more...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Do you go to the movies?

In Korea I really got to enjoy going to the movies by myself. On Saturday mornings I would drop my partner off at work and head to the Megabox at Coex and catch a 9:30 or 10:00am showing of whatever was playing. I guess you could call it a guilty pleasure - buying a ticket, getting a latte and a bagel at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in front of the cinema, and reading my International Tribune til the show started.

In Portland I have little choice but to indulge in that old habit. The rep cinemas are fantastic. I have already seen some great films I would have had no chance to see in Seoul: Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (Tibet), Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Korea) and most recently Russian Dolls (France).

These films have all been great in their own ways. Russian Dolls was a romance about a young French writer seeking love and being thwarted at every turn, often by his own desires/impulses. It was similar to Closer in this regard, except that Closer was a brilliant and unrelenting examination of the way that our basic impulses/desires are more often than not the things that stop us from achieving what we most want, whereas Russian Dolls was a romantic comedy that touched on the darker/deeper side of human relationships while always pushing towards redemption and the perfect love that tied everything together in the end.

But I am as much a sucker for the schlockly love story as I am for the dark investigation of human nature - as long as it is well done and not just Matthew McConaughey crap. So this film sent me back into my photo albums and a walk through the romance of another world and another life and time.

And this left me wondering about the editability of the past. We all know that memory can be fooled easily - some researchers believe that everytime we pull a memory to mind we store it by essentially writing over the most recent copy, meaning that it becomes contaminated by whatever we were thinking or feeling when we retrieved it.

And of course our physical record of the past is infinitely more revisable.

Have you ever gone back and read a journal years later and felt the desire to edit it? Cross a name out or "correct" a misapprehension? I recently found a journal from 1994, and was as interested to see what edits I had made at some moment of weakness as I was in the original contents.

And what about your photo albums? That's a big question.

A repository of your happiest and most blissful moments that can be recast as a house of broken dreams with a snap of the fingers. What do you do? Do you rearrange and reevaluate your photo albums everytime your life takes an unexpected turn?

Should a photo album remain a true repository of your history in images, or should it be reinterpreted ad nauseum to always reflect a positive and happy image of times past?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Pictures from the Road (by request)

Last night I booted up Skype and gave my younger sister a ring for the first time in too long - she lives in Bosnia, which is not the easiest time zone to coordinate with from here in Portland.
Turns out lil sis had been perusing the present blog, and had come away wondering where the pictures are. Now, before you start to blame her for being uncharitable in her judgment - indignantly impugning her for not appreciating the artistry of my concrete church steps and the sublime shape of the Hershey's Kiss - you should know that for her "the" pictures are a specific set.

Before arriving in Portland I took two months to wend around the world and visit friends and drop in on sites I have always dreamed of seeing. This languid progress took me through Thailand, Cambodia, the UK, Egypt, Jordan & Israel - with Kristin, the aformentioned lil sis - joining me in Cairo to bring to a close four years in which we had not seen hide nor hair of each other.
If only there had been someone to photograph that meeting in front of the Egyptian museum!
Now the pictures are not going to appear here - there being 1500 or so - but a small sampling could possibly be brought to light. So without further ado (ado being what I seem most proficient at), let's take a whirlwind tour around the world:

Korea: Well, everything in my life still seems to start and end with Korea, and this particular trip most definitely did. The vast majority of my photos from Korea are either analog format or on a harddrive that I do not have access at the moment. Nonetheless, I did manage to dig up a shot of "The Old Tea Shop" in the Insa-dong area of Seoul, an idyllic spot that I visited in my first few weeks in Seoul back in 1997. It's traditional teas sooth the senses with an amazing array of flavors and aromas, and the decor is stunning, with birds flying freely around the cozy space.

To juxtapose that peaceful image, I dug out a shot of a subway rush hour - not an uncommon scene - and it actually can look as blurry in real life as this photo! I know it looks intense and unbearable, and I can only agree - but as I was discussing with a friend the other day over lunch, the crowds and noises of Seoul really became my element, as the city became more and more "home"

Thailand: Thailand was not the point of this trip. I love the country and the food, but I have been there many times, and was looking for new stomping grounds. However, I have always avoided Bangkok like the plague, heading to an island or a mountain the moment I arrive, so this time I took a couple of days to see the capital. I am glad I saw it, but really, what I love about Thailand is on the aforementioned islands and mountains - the hot, muggy, polluted and crowded city has its treasures I am sure, and the Royal Palace pictured is beautiful, but I have always traveled to get OUT of cities and away from crowds!

Cambodia: Now Cambodia was the point of this trip. I had been dreaming of visiting Ankor Wat for years and years, and had had countless opportunities that I never took for one reason or the other. I have seen many amazing things in my travels and life, but I can honestly say that no manmade structure has ever come close to the impact that Ankor Wat had on me. This is ancient history spread over acres of lush forest and accessible in a very intimate way - you can touch the monuments or climb on them - you can camp out astride an ancient Naga head for a cool soda or watch the sun set from the pinnacle of a temple that has hosted supplicants since time immemorial. Needless to say the photo at the right is only the tip of the iceberg, and for sure not the best - but this is a taste afterall, not a full course meal.
God I could go on about Cambodia, as I haven't fallen in love with a country in quite this way in a long time - but it would be hard to encompass in a fair manner. This is true in terms of the places and the people, but is especially true of the darker side of Cambodia's history - encompassing Toul Sleng (S21, the Khmer torture prison in Phnom Penh) and the more well-known killing fields. I will not post pictures of this part of my trip, because I cannot put the images in their appropriate context.

Instead I add a photo of a youngster that was paddling a large clay pot in the lake district of Phnom Penh. My traveling companions and I were fairly certain that this little guy was skirting the verandah in hopes of catching a backpack too close to the edge - and while thwarting these (alleged) intentions, made sure that he had a full plate of food to paddle away with.

London: Believe it or not, I had never been in London before! It was long overdue, especially since two of my dearest friends in the world - Paul and Nicola - have been living there for years. I spent 7 days in their company, soaking in the warmth of their hospitality and absorbing the sights of the city. I didn't poke around more than a few of the great tourist attractions of London, but did walk by many as I wandered the downtown streets in the footprints of Charles Dickens, Dr. Johnson and their ilk!
I met (not for the first time in some cases) the intelligent, attractive and generally engaging circle of people that surround the Presler-Jones household, and joined this lively crew to see Jane Siberry and Goldfrapp in concert (the latter at Royal Albert Hall!), and was privileged to see Embers, starring the Mr. Jeremy Irons, and a chilling political play called My Name is Rachel Corrie.

Egypt: Touristed for longer than many current civilizations have existed: The land of the Nile. Pharoahs. The sphinx. Horus and the Scarab Beetle. Antiquity defined - its essence. But this all pales in comparison to seeing Kristin walk onto the grounds of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo from my perch at a window on the second floor. Rushing out without paying the bill - and having to rush back to pay before I could run out to end four years of estrangement. To the right is the ever cool Krazza looking as enigmatic as a hieroglyph in the temple of Luxor, and below is perhaps the most iconic structure that I have ever photographed - can you imagine the millions of minutely different pictures taken of the pyramids at Giza in any given day, week, month or year?

I won't go on at length, except to say that I have always wanted to see Egypt and am very glad that I have done so - our travels took us through Cairo and the Pyramids, down to Aswan and the Temple at Philae, and on to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. While a billion other great sites remain unseen, I do not need to go back! For all of its glory, it is just plain exhausting: hot, dirty, sandy, loud and a veritable gaggle of hawkers and would-be "guides" trying to get money out of you in anyway possible!

Hey, it can't all be wine and roses, right?

Jordan: Continuing our little tour of some of the world's oldest civilizations and the wonders left in their passage, Kristin and I passed through Sinai, narrowly avoiding a bombing in Dahab, and moved into the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to walk in the footsteps of Dr. Indiana Jones (oh, and an amazing lost civilization that remains largely a mystery to us to this day - did I forget to mention that?). But yes, after a night gazing at the full moon in the midst of the desert dunes of Wadi Rum, and capturing yet another stunning shot of lil sis (left), we finally reached another of my dreams - Petra.

I don't think I have words for Petra, as it defies the imagination even as you climb through the sandstone caves that make up an ancient city carved into huge chasms left behind by tectonic shifts. Many of these structures are of indeterminate age and were crafted by a people that are virtually lost to us outside of the marvelous city they left behind. We spent 2 full days hiking solid for 8-10 hours, stopping only for picnic lunches atop rock outcroppings overlooking the expansive city of the past, moments of exasperation trying to chart the desert paths on the tourist map (in German), and for the time needed to catch one's breathe after having it knocked out of you by the beauty of yet another monument hewn at great effort from the sandblasted stone.

Our time in Jordan took us from south to north, stopping along the way in Wadi Rum, Petra, Karak, the Dead Sea, Madaba, the capital Amman and Jerash, an ancient Roman market town said to be the best preserved ruin of its kind in the world. Pictured at left is a large group of Jordanian schoolgirls that followed our progress through Jerash VERY enthusiastically!

Well. Three weeks and an odd day or two passes quickly, and the time had come for Kristin to return to her Balkan home and for me to strike out on my own yet again. I spent a relaxing last few days in Jordan scuba diving in Aquaba, before moving into the Promised Land to visit Stine, a young Danish woman that we had befriended in Dahab, Sinai - Thank you Stine!.

Israel: I spent 2 days in Jerusalem, visiting the old city, the dome of the rock (pic at right) and the church of the sepulcher.
It was interesting and perplexing - these sites are the foundation of the Judeo-Christian culture that I am a product of, and yet seemed so distant.

One reason could be that, far from being an intimate encounter with the foundations of western spirituality, I found myself in the midst of the throngs gathered for the orthodox Easter, and was thus crushed in a throng of zealous reverence that was disturbing.

At right is a pilgrim placing a memento on the stone slab Christ is said to have been laid on when dressing his body for burial - holy water seeps through the rock by some mechanism unknown to me, and is said to bless anything that touches it. I understand the significance of this experience for these people, I believe, but am still left stunned by the woman that pushes through the crowd to lay her child on this stone tablet.

Isn't this the same fervour that fuels wars the world over?

All roads must come to an end: And back to Seoul - via Larnaca, Athens, Bangkok, Taipei - and then on to Portland, Oregon - via Vancouver - to start a new life from scratch.

This trip was amazing - no better adjective has been invented - especially as I never imagined that I would have a chance to take two months at this age and indulge in the stuff that dreams are made of. The present sampling of experiences from the road is far from complete: it doesn't even touch on the amazing people that I met - Troy, Michelle, Raven, Pricilla, Juliet (safe travels Juliet), Mila, Adam, Stine, Brad - and the dozen or so that I feel horrible for omitting. Also, it is pretty solidly slanted towards the positive aspects of a long trip that had difficult and even unpleasant moments - c'est la vie, n'est pas?

And the photos! Please don't judge me for omitting beautiful sweeping vistas in favor of posed-Yuri and posed-Kristin in front of another monument (right Pud?). I chose these pictures with the perhaps vain thought that those visiting might be doing so more out of interest in my life than in National Geographic shots. Patience my friends - I will get some stunning shots (if I may say so myself) up on the web eventually!

Hopefully the path I tread at present will be as interesting and rewarding: I love you to death Kristin, thank you for treading the twisted paths of the globe with me. I value my friends and family above all else in the world. I have hurt some and pushed some beyond reclaim - to my loss - but I hope I learn from this and become a better and stronger person. I love you all.

One more posed pic from the road, and I am outta here!

Saturday, July 01, 2006


"And if I could make you turn around
To see how we were then
Just one look into my eyes
You'd fall in love again"

Tara McLean, "If You Could", Silence

Do I want to go back?
Not really.
I know better.
But at moments it is so tempting.