About John Boivin
John Boivin is new to the blogosphere but not to writing. He worked as a print, radio and web journalist for more than 25 years until his retirement in 2010. He is now indulging in an old passion, landscape painting, as well as a new one, travel. He lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada with his family.
Latest Posts by John Boivin
Orient Express Order: February 2011: “We’ll meet you back here at 7:00,” I say to the women in the foyer of the mall.
Traveling in a group means constantly balancing needs, wants, cravings, interests, and bathroom breaks. This time it’s food. We split up, my son Cole and I heading out to find him supper, the ladies to shop.
We’re on Orchard Row, a Bladerunner-esque concourse in the heart of Singapore. It’s here I think that the island got its nickname ‘the shopping mall with a seat at the UN’. Running for several kilometers, a dozen floors up, two or three down, street level awash in neon and chrome and LCD displays. The streets are slick with a three-day monsoon rain, still coming down in fits and starts. Small rivulets stream along the curbs into gutters. The crowds aren’t dampened, though, as Cole and I begin the hunt for food. We have an hour. Plenty of time.
Singapore is famous for its food. It’s a port city, at the crossroads of the migration of three or four major ethnic groups, the rise and fall of several empires. the prohibitions and permissions of the world’s great religions. Just as the calamities of nature create biodiversity, the wash of history has layered and blended the Singaporean cuisine. Add the government’s penchant for enforcing clean, safe cooking conditions, and you have an incredible opportunity to taste the world here.
We cross the street, ask for directions to a specific restaurant my son wants. We’re told to go back across the street and find the subway line. We try to get wireless to bring up a map. Of course, in the world’s most connected region, I can’t find a free wifi signal to save my life- or settle my boy’s stomach.
There are more people on the street and in the stores than I have ever seen, outside of rock concerts or special events. This is the second-most populated country in the world (after Monaco), and the most concentrated part of it is on Orchard Row on a Saturday night. We struggle to get anywhere. We have about 45 minutes before we have to rendezvous with the girls.
Earlier in the day we went to a kind of open market of food kiosks. It’s where your food ignorance begins in Singapore, as a westerner. Signs offer names and food styles that mean nothing. Malay, Thai, Indian, Chinese, American, French, tribal, all have all settled here, have had food-sex and produced all sorts of strange offspring. I wimp out, stick to the one style I recognized, and had great dim sum.
Passed on the five kinds of frog porridge.
Now it’s my son’s turn to eat. We walk by some 10-year-old contortionists on the street, their tiger moms watchful behind them as they twist and fold themselves and busk for coins. We walk past massive public art displays, hawkers pitching stereo sales on the street, people handing out flyers for restaurants and bars. It’s all percentages here, catching a tiny fraction of the crowd’s attention for a fraction of a moment means a full house, a day’s sales quota met.
25 minutes. We consult with a concierge at yet another mall, and head down into a underground level. The ground is no barrier to commerce, and small city’s worth of shops and stores are here. Diamonds, gold, glasses, watches, swimwear, shoes, jewellery- the shops are more patient here, it seems, clerks wait and catch your eye as you walk past. The way we’re dressed- worn traveller’s shorts and t-shirts- we are quickly, and appropriately, dismissed as no-sales.
We go down another set of escalators, deeper into the earth. Past and below the MRT line. 10 minutes.The air gets heavier, thicker with humanity. Filtered air, fluorescent light, tile, glass and polished surfaces. There is nothing of nature left, this far underground. This is what it would be like on the moon, I think, in a colony centuries from now. And it will probably be a Chinese colony too. The energy, the drive, the discipline.
We pass by more food stores. The variety continues. There’s Laksa, Mee siam, popiah, rojak. Otah rendang, sambal, bak chor mee, char kway teow, prawns nasi biryani, roti prata, mee chuange kueh. Decked out for your viewing pleasure in mounds and heaps of colour and smell. Ducks and chickens cooked and hung in the window like medieval thieves.
Finally our store. I glance at my iPod. It’s 6:55. There’s no way we’ll get back to the rendezvous point in time. My boy orders.
“I’ll have a Whopper plain, nothing on it but ketchup. Fries and a Coke.”
What the hell, make it two. I’m a little hungry still.
Somewhere, a Singaporean chef weeps.
Note: This is a re-edited re-post of an earlier blog for submission to the Travellerspoint Travel Blog Competition.
There’s a good chance I may not live to finish this blog.
I am composing this in the back of a car travelling at high speed down a dark highway in the south of Cambodia.
Our arrival at Phnom Pehn airport was uneventful, just passing though the gauntlet of 10 military officers who check your passport, take your money, and review your customs declarations. In Malaysia, the job’s done by one person with a computer; here, it’s a pre-computerized throwback process. Welcome back to the developing world.
Oh jeez. He’s passing again. My foot digs into the floor. The propane-powered car has no pickup at all. The lights of a transport truck are growing ahead. He flicks his high beams at us. We cut back into our lane with seconds to spare.
We ignored the airport touts when we arrived and looked for a taxi service to Sihanoukville, about four hours’ drive to the south, on the coast. It’s near sunset and we wanted to get there tonight. Short version: no intercity drive service at the airport. A guy approaches us, has a friend with a car, prices have gone up for gas, blah blah. An hour later we are sitting in the back of a late-model Camry with good seatbelts and struggling aircon.
Please don’t pass on this curve. Oh Christ. Here we go again. My nails dig into my thigh.
Our driver seemed a pleasant enough middle-aged man. We front him $20 of his fee to fill the tank to get us to Sihanoukville, and we began snake our way out of PP’s commuter traffic.
The road’s in good shape, and traffic lights and rights-of-way are mostly observed in the big city. We pass through PP’s endless suburbs, past windowless garment factories whose workers are now piling onto half-ton trucks, heading home, packed liked sardines in minivans. The pace of traffic is speeding up as the sun races for the horizon. A last few moments of half-light, and our universe shrinks to the confines of our Camry.
The only other lights on the highway are transport trucks and local boy’s motorcycles.
You don’t have enough room to get between those motorcycles. You don’t. You don’t.
Last time we were here we took the bus. Dirty, smelly, noisy. Never again, we thought.
This way gives us a much better view of local driving customs. Suicidal driving customs, it turns out.
Take, for instance, the language of high-beams. In Canada, you may flash them to warn about a speed trap, or if the other driver has his highs on. Here in Cambodia, it’s its own stand-alone language.
Each time our driver wants to pass, he flashes his intentions to the vehicle in front of him. If it’s a truck or bus, they’ll flash to let him know the way is clear ahead. The driver then goes into the opposing traffic lane, on faith, flashing high beams at the traffic that has the audacity to be heading the other way. Several light signal exchanges now take place, and drivers in both directions cede right-of-way. Usually. Or they’ll slow down, or if they’re a motorcycle, swerve off onto the gravel. Laws of physics trumping traffic rules. Several more flickerings either settle the issue amicably, or the drivers flash a photonic middle finger to one another.
All this is of course, happens in the opposite lane simultaneously to us, with all the other drivers on the road, several high-to-low beam conversations going on at the same time.
The use of turn indicators is another sub-dialect, not to get into now. Because I am surely going to die in the next few minutes.
Our driver is confident, not very chatty but friendly enough. He seemed to know what he was doing, and we were only going 60km. That’s a comfort.
Until I double-checked the speedometer. This was an American model vehicle. We were travelling 60 miles an hour down a country road. Passing on curves and up hills. Depending that every other vehicle also has working lights- hardly a given. Going faster when we could. And faster.
Then it starts snowing.
Big, fat, thick flakes fly toward our headlights, hitting the windshield. It looks everything like a September snowstorm in Yukon, when the ground is bare but a squall blinds the way ahead.
Not snow. Insects. Insubstantial, like may-flies by the river. But millions of them are everywhere, peppering the windshield.
The driver hits the wipers, smearing the ‘snow’ across his field of vision. He gives a soft Khmer curse and hits the sprayer button. The plain water in the spray does nothing but add streaks. But when the water hits the air-conned windshield, condensation forms on the inside of the window, fogging what little clear spots of visibility were left.
This doesn’t slow down our driver. We are now heading down the road, blind, in near-blackness, at 60 miles an hour.
The only points of reference the driver has, between smears of clear windshield, are the lights of the oncoming transports, now passing uncomfortably close to my door.
The driver slows as we head into a nameless highway town. He pulls into a parking lot to clean his windshield, refill the wiper reservoir with water, and we take off again.
The drive gets hairier as the road gets lonelier and darker between the dirty little Cambodian towns. We straddle the painted line, hitting 80 now. We pass more transports, farmers on tractors, families walking along the road, ghosts in our headlights. Every new challenge on the road follows the same pattern: flick lights, change lanes to pass far too early, too slowly, and watch headlights grow ahead of us, pull into our own lane at last moment. It never gets easier.
Then we pull up to another guy, also doing at least 60. Our driver signals, moves into the oncoming lane. It’s on a blind curve, but that’s par for the course. Then, as we move to pass, the other driver accelerates.
Of course, such challenges to manhood cannot be ignored. The douchebag in the car ahead weaves into our lane when our driver speeds up, blocking him. Side by side, they race at ever-higher speeds. Finally we overtake him. On a hill.
We leave our opponent in the dust, now having to stay above 80 but with no-one ahead. I glance at my wife. She’s closed her eyes, making peace with her maker. I want to die with my eyes open.
But this is ridiculous. I have to try to relax.
I glance off to the side, close my eyes for a moment.
Something is under the car. The wet,sickening sound of something tumbling, breaking, but it happens too fast to see. Our driver cuts down 10 mph, checks his engine indicators. A few kilometres later we pull through a toll booth, and our driver pulls off to the side of the road. Checks for any marks on the grill, anything under the carriage.
‘What was it? I asked. ‘A box? An animal?’
The driver just grins at me, and his English has done a disappearing act. He smiles, mumbles irrelevant ‘yes’es to my questions, lights a cigarette, draws on a water bottle.
We stretch for a few minutes, then he throws his bottle into the shrubs. He nods to me. “Twenty minutes to go”, he says.
The toll booth recedes in the distance. I wonder what else we have left on the road.
* * *
The first street lights of Sihanoukville reduce the anxiety that we’ll hit something we don’t at least see first, though the driver takes no opportunity to slow down as we enter the city. A turn down a side street or two, and we reach our destination.
We pull our bags from the trunk and I pull out my wallet.
I fish out his fare, and add an extra five.
“Good driving”, I say, and shake his hand.
He pulls out without looking back, heading to his family four hours away. I have no doubt he’ll get there safe and sound.
It’s not often in Southeast Asia (heck, the world) that you see tourism done right. Touts and hawkers desecrate the peace at the entrances to Angkor Wat in Cambodia; corrupt politicans privatize whole beaches in Indonesia; monks forced to ask for early-morning alms in Laos to satisfy amateur photographers.
Malacca is different.
We pick up a cab at the bus station after an unremarkable two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur to the port city on Malaysia’s southwest coast. A few minutes drive, over a few modern overpasses and down wide boulevards, and we turn onto a tiny side street. Back into history.
This is Malacca’s (properly, Melaka) old quarter, a UNESCO heritage site. Three years ago, the UN decided the old core of this port town was worth preserving for the world. It’s easy to see why.
Our guest house was a converted 200-year-old warehouse; on either side are buildings just as old, still functioning as such. Walking by them is a glimpse into history, with crates of cloth and oriental medicine, wrapped boxes of ginger and pepper and dried fish.
The warehouses line a canal that snakes more than a kilometre in from the ocean, an artery of commerce that goes back from before Columbus sailed into history.
Malaysian sultans, Chinese exporters, Arab proselytizers and Indian entrepreneurs made the city important. Smart taxes and tolerance to different ways allowed the city to thrive and grow.
Then we came along. Portuguese, then the Dutch, then British. Europeans actually choked off the port with their greed and prejudice. High taxes, religious intolerance, and just downright douchebaggery saw Malacca slowly strangle. By the 19th century, British indifference (or desire to emphasize their post on the island of Penang, up the coast) finally sealed Malacca’s fate. It languished in obscurity, its harbour slowly silting in.
Which is not to say it disappeared. Melacca limped along. And as it goes in so many other places, neglect equated to preservation. A hodge-podge of 500 years of building styles and cultures survive to charm today.
There’s Harmony Lane, with mosques, temples and wats that have tolerated each other’s differences for centuries. The buildings are so old they lack that bland uniformity you see in their younger kin. So the Chinese temple has a Hindu flair, the mosque has European accents. Then there’s the red-brick utilitarianism of the old Dutch administration buildings; British and other European churches, fading in use and form.
Apparently there was a building boom in Malacca just before the Japanese invaded. Many buildings in the historic quarter sport dates from the late 30s to early 40s.
Much of SE Asian history is of the ‘you have to imagine’ variety- either various waves of development have wiped out older buildings, or they don’t survive the climate. Usually the only old buildings in any town are temples of worship or palaces, and there’s only so many of them you can visit before eyes start to glaze.
That’s what makes Malacca a delight to visit after six months of touring. There are shops, warehouses, parts of a fort, bureaucratic structures. There’s a wide brick walkway along the canal, for pedestrians. Restoration work and preservation seem to be ongoing.
Nearly two dozen small museums crowd in the quarter, telling stories from the history of education (skipped that one) to the Japanese occupation (watched the video).
It’s a town that still relishes its diversity. Restaurants and markets emphasize the multi-cultural nature of the port’s history. There are Dutch, Portuguese, Indian, and Nyonya (Chinese mixed-blood) eateries dotting the quarter. Antique shops and artists’ studios produce genuine handicrafts, interesting art- again, a sight rarely seen in the area.
I sound like Rick frickin’ Steeves, I know.
In fact, the daughter and I started doing passable imitations of the American TV tourist to each other, so easy was Malacca’s material to work with.
Malacca has its flaws, for sure. Garish Chinese-style gates advertising beer and dried noodle mixes greet you at the quarter’s entranceways. The antique stores will fleece you, and tourist-junk shops abound. A riverboat ride down the canal shows massive developments near completion, which will no doubt put more pressure on the area to cater to the masses.
But you can see the development has been done with some thought to the surroundings. There aren’t many examples of really unsympathetic construction.
And the core is very well protected. You see no-smoking signs everywhere- there’s no smoking in the buildings. Let me repeat that. This is Southeast Asia, and there are no smoking signs. And not only for one place. The whole quarter. And people were respecting that. I saw no one smoking in a building.
The day we left, the papers had a story about a developer that had cut down some centuries-old heritage trees to make way for a new building. Shit hit the fan. The governor was livid. The town mortified. “He’ll never work here again,” he threatened.
This is simply unheard of. Worrying about trees over development? I had to pinch myself I was still in SE Asia.
We hardly stayed long enough. We walked the streets at night, feeling perfectly safe. Smart placement of floodlights add both a feeling of security and charm to the place. There’s a quiet but busy sound to the evening. The church bells rang nine, prompting birds roosting in the trees to call out an angry chorus for being disturbed.
God help me, I am turning into Rick Steeves.
It was time to head back to the guest house. The streets were quiet. We jump as some rats race out from under a car and dash for the sewer, scrapping with each other as they went. Even that doesn’t bother us.
It’s an ancient port city, after all.
These are world heritage rats.
The bus ride from KK to Sandakan is not far in kilometres, but takes hours as we wind up and down the mountainous terrain. Borneo is gorgeous country. As the bus drives along a ridge, the land falls away on both sides into deep valleys, only to rise again in big plates of rock. Homesteads and mansions perch on the tips of the hills, permanently enjoying the spectacular Swiss-like views.
For us, though, the vistas are temporary, and as we fall to the coast the mixed farms and terraces give way to palm oil plantations. For kilometre after kilometre, rows of stubby, thick-trunked palms, carefully placed in geometric perfection, move off into the distance.
I’ve mentioned before the effect is like a Photoshop clone-stamp; it looks like a lazy game designer quickly pasted the backgrounds of Donkey Kong Country into the landscape.
Unfortunately, the parallel doesn’t end there. For real-world monkeys, the geometric landscape is dangerous and threatens their existence.
|An orangutan hears the dinner bells.
The monoculture forests have brought great wealth to one ape- us- but impoverished all our distant cousins who’ve lived here for millions of years. Oranguatans, macacques, proboscis monkeys, and a half-dozen others have seen their natural orchards bulldozed and burned, wiped out for inedible palm fruit. Even if they could eat it, it’s doubtful humans would let them. So they starve, if not shot or poisoned.
We visit two sanctuaries for the simians. One, the Sepilok Orangutan Centre, is supported by government and NGO programs. It was opened in the 1960s, and has decades of experience in professional animal care and management. The brown-orange apes, when found orphaned, sick or in captivity, are brought here for rehabilitation. A video show at the centre informs us this can take years, or even decades; some never leave at all.
The well-funded centre holds carefully-orchestrated public feeding shows for visitors. For about ten dollars, we’re let onto a walkway that skirts the edge of the 5500-hectare rain forest preserve.
We are asked to be quiet, and the elevated wooden path opens up to a platform for viewing. A few metres away, ropes in the trees lead to a series of wooden platforms. The morning crowd of about 200 is hushed and expectant. It’s all very respectful, very dignified.
Orangutans are solitary creatures, but will come together for feeding events. This is one of them. Soon a quiet murmur runs through the crowd, people pointing and the click of cameras. Children squeal in delight and are shushed. Silently, gracefully, the apes swing down the ropes to the stations.
Two professional but slightly bored-looking attendants step up onto the platforms and pour out melon rinds and bananas. Fruit is the orang’s natural diet. There’s no rush, no scramble, among the orangutans. Small young females and larger mothers carefully climb over and around each other to pick up fruit to eat. The only chaos comes from the smaller, more hyper macacques, grabbing, fighting, and hissing over the pieces they steal from the mellow orangutans.
An older park ranger comes up and points to the trees behind us. “There’s a male, a wild one,” he says. “Not from the park.” Half-hidden, three stories up in the canopy we glimpse the wide, grey head of an adult male. “He’s here for the females,” the ranger smiles.
There are less than 10,000 orangutans left in the world, and it’s thought they could be gone in a decade. This preserve will be one of the last stands. The orangs we see today will slowly be weaned off human feeding, taken to more distant points in the preserve, hopefully to return to more wild behaviour. Maybe to mate with the male just up in the trees here today.
We feel privileged to have caught a glimpse of a wild male. So few left. Such need.
The next day we’re taken through more plantations, and past giant artificial ponds for growing shrimp, a half-hour from Sandakan, closer to the coast. We’re here to see the proboscis monkeys of Sabah.
The proboscis, from its name, has a large, flappy brownish-pink nose. It sort of looks like a caricature of Jimmy Durante, made even more humourous with the addition of a good-old boy pot belly.
|You can get close enough to touch them.
The orangutan centre was a scientific and professional animal management facility; the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is different. It was set up by the owners of the company whose palm-oil plantations have helped wipe out most of the monkey’s habitat. A video about the monkeys (viewed during the tour) informs us the owners, two brothers, saw a troupe of the animals after they tore apart a worker’s shack. They took pity on them. They decided not to wipe out the scraps of mangrove forest remaining to eke out a few more ringit from the swampy land. They left it for the monkeys.
A noble deed, but so much of the monkey’s habitat has been wiped out there’s little hope they could survive for long unaided in the area. Thus, twice daily, troupes of the orange-brown monkeys come down from the trees to feeding platforms. Sanctuary workers and tour guides call out to the monkeys and spread food out. It’s all pretty casual. Walkways allow groups of tourists like us to watch.
It’s an amazing sight, I have to admit. The proboscis is a big ape, the largest ones the size of a 10 year old. It has a leaping gait, throwing itself forward as it moves. Its huge fangs belie the fact it’s a herbivore. Mangrove leaves are its food. It has to eat a lot of them, thus the huge pot bellies of the classic healthy proboscis.
These monkeys are acclimatized to tourists. They leap onto the platform as human guides call them. They wander within arm’s distance of me, watchful but calm. It’s an absolutely thrilling, unique experience. And sort of sad.
I notice these monkeys don’t seem that fat. The company handlers are feeding the proboscis melon rinds and bread. They fight the most over the bread scraps.
These monkeys are being fed the equivalent of junk food, juicy, soft fruit and bread instead of the tough mangrove leaves of their natural diet. The better to attract them to the cameras, I guess. They take the food out of tourists’ hands as we pose beside them.
These wild animals have been acclimatized in a way that would make any good Yukon park ranger cringe. A fed bear is a dead bear, we say in the territory. A fed monkey…?
The video about the monkeys says the company has pledged to restore more habitat for the proboscis to survive. I wonder if those good intentions will last through the company’s next hard times, or the next corporate owners. It all seems a little too little, too casual, too late.
And I watch the little proboscis babies, clinging to their mother’s fur. Will they even have a taste for mangrove leaves, after a lifetime diet of fruit and bread?
For the welfare of these monkeys, we’ll have to get them off human welfare.
Tourists have been underwhelmed with Brunei for years. The guidebooks generally paint the picture of a dull place, with little to do. I want to take that with a grain of salt, as most guidebooks are tuned to the sensibilities of drunken Australian frat-boys. So while part of the family flies off Borneo from Kota Kinabalu, my daughter and I hop on the four-hour ferry to Brunei.
Brunei has a history that goes back 1,000 years, but the modern postage-stamp country is an accident of British geopolitics in the region. It was created partly through the efforts of one of those early 19th-century freelance imperialists someone should make a movie about, and botched negotiations for unification with the rest of Malaysia in the late 50s and early 60s. It only gained independence from Britain in 1984. The end result is a privately-held enclave making an unremarkable and somewhat distasteful family among the richest people in the world.
We arrive, and are ushered quickly through customs, and onto a dingy minibus for the half-hour drive into town.
Well-kept homes populate both sides of the well-kept highway. I’m reminded it’s a country with free health care and education, and no income or corporate taxes, which even ofers subsidies to buy a car. Wealth almost beyond measure from oil. The ‘Shellfare State’.
Fantastic modern office towers rise out of fields- home to various government ministries. It’s an urban layout made for cars. We saw no bicycles, no motorcyles, no pedestrians.
We’re dropped off in the downtown core of Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s capital. Five blocks wide, maybe ten blocks long, peppered with attempts at architecture. We’re settled into our 80s-era hotel just as night falls, and decide to hit the town. Forewarned being forearmed, we expect no nightlife. And are thus not surprised.
It’s just short of seven, but no one is walking the streets. No cars make jaywalking the least bit dangerous. Office blocks dark from the second floor up. But there is light, at street level. We walk down Jalan Sultan, a double-wide downtown street, past CD shops, jewellers and restaurants. The intricately-cobbled sidewalks glow in the dark from the light of commerce.
Brilliant white fluorescents, clean tiles and booths- we choose a restaurant that both satisfies us on its sanitary appearance and ability to hide our ignorance of local etiquette. We’re welcomed by an Indian man-all the shopkeepers here seem to come from the subcontinent- and we slide into a booth.
And into heaven.
Our host, unbidden, brings us some samosas and sweet snacks for appetizers. We order from the menu- a roti telur (with egg), chickpea masala, kuey teow ayam (chicken with large egg noodles), and murtabak daging (the house speciality, we’re told, a thick roti with beef and vegetables). Small dishes of sauces from yellow to red offer various wonderful ways to torture our tongues further. The best orange and lime juices we’ve had this trip.
We eat till we can’t any more, and pay our bill. Twelve Brunei dollars- about $9US, and we walk out happy and satisfied. We wander some more just to aid digestion, and the downtown offers more of the same- empty parks, open but customer-free stores. Thunder rumbles overhead, lightning flashes through the cloud decks, but there’s no audience on the street below.
There’s no drinking in Brunei, but that can hardly be the only reason for the empty streets. We’ve been other places where the majority can’t drink, and the coffee shops are alive, teens walk in laughing gangs, street hustlers hang on their cell phones, parents and children play.
And it’s not that the people aren’t friendly. We are met with smiles and greeting when we catch a local’s eye- one of the nicest receptions we’ve received in SE Asia. And we feel perfectly safe, even where the streets are dark.
But it’s not alive.
Maybe, I think, it’s a function of a society where only one person- or family (and the corporation it’s tied to) really has a say in what is to be. No one has a stake, a reason to try to strive, to create. To make a different world. Brunei is a place where you work, where you consume, where you keep your nose out of the sultan’s business. Nothing intangible is being created out of the chaos of people interacting, just for the sake of it. A monoculture of power is as lifeless as a monoculture of agriculture. Both mislead with the outward appearance of health and prosperity.
We spend just over a day in Brunei. The next morning we visit the sultan’s regalia museum, and finally get a peek inside a mosque (Brunei’s is beautiful). We miss some touristy things- the water taxi, a visit to a wildlife sanctuary- but that’s really more of the same as the rest of Borneo.
It would have been worth staying one more day. But probably not two.
The long ride from downtown Seoul to Incheon airport offers plenty of time to contemplate. The 45-minute trip, punctuated by only a few stops, is fluid and uneventful. The Kubrick-esque polished floors and chrome, and buffed upholstery, and the soothing voice of the quadri-lingual announcer reassure and relax.
It took a nuclear accident to get us to Korea; our plans were initially for Japan, flights booked a week before the plate shifted and the sea fell on the earth.
Korea was a good backup, though my knowledge of the country was pretty well limited to the opening sequence of M.A.S.H. and my daughter’s obsession with Korean pop stars. Other than that, the country was a mystery; I hadn’t even bothered skimming the CIA Factbook before arriving. Kim Jong-Il, kimchi, Hyundai. Japan, watered down and split in two in a cold-war leftover. What else did you really need to know?
Initial impressions confirmed the stereotypes. Seoul was massive, forests of what must be soul-destroying apartment blocks, punctuated by uninspired office towers. Garish signage plastered over buildings, occasional English brand names providing partial context to the dominant commerce of an area. Left-hand driving, traffic lights, wide boulevards, not enough trees.
But the people seemed friendly enough, and we ventured into town time and again, forays from our guest house. The neighbourhood pleasant, the shopping malls indistinguishable from North America.
We had one major trip, a three-hour dash cross-country past more faceless apartment blocks and ginseng farms to the southern port of Busan.
And that’s when I started to get the hint I was experiencing something a little different.
It wasn’t the city itself; Busan is little more than Seoul writ small, the same franchises dominating the street and corporate logos the skyline.
It was in the subway that my perception of the country began to change.
We were surrounded by Koreans, and really, no one else. The country is overwhelmingly a single race, a monoculture. More old folks in Busan, more working class. But all Korean. And no tourists. Anywhere. We were stared at, brown-eyed gazes shifting away quickly when we turned towards them. As North Americans, we were a novelty act, something unusual in town.
You could go the day and not see another European face. We realized we were out on a long limb, off the beaten tourism track despite the city’s modern surroundings.
On this trip we’ve been to several places described as ‘exotic’ or ‘remote’. In Laos, supposedly one of the last frontiers of tourism, we were boating south down the Mekong River on a two-day trip. We were in one of six boats that hauled anchor that morning, each packed with over 100 European tourists. That pilgrimage is repeated daily, filling the hotels and swelling the local economy downstream in a daily pulse. We were not unusual, our experience not unique by any means.
It was the same elsewhere. Swaths of ‘mystical’ Bali are an Australian cesspool. You can get a decent chocolate cheesecake and cappucino on the edge of a Jurassic-period forest in the centre of Malaysia.
In short, few locations touted as places to explore are much more than well-oiled tourism machines anymore. How exotic is a place where you have to wait for another European tour group to get out of the way before you take your photo?
But here I was, in modern, metropolitan Korea, a complete stranger in a strange land. Clerks could not speak the language. I could not speak theirs. I didn’t look like them or act like them. Getting lost meant frustrating jabs at maps with uncomprehending locals. I had to watch and understand their way of doing things. I was illiterate, innumerate, and at the mercy of strangers. And there was no one like me to turn to for help.
It became a wonderful thing.
I began to realize you don’t need bamboo and palm leaf roofs to experience an exotic locale. Connecting with a foreign culture is just as hard- and rewarding- and authentic- six stories underground in an ultramodern subway station.
The Koreans are busy with their lives. Walking the streets of Busan or Seoul or any one of the uncounted towns means seeing locals really living their daily lives and culture- far more honestly than any 6:30 cocktails-and-buffet gamelin show.
And when Koreans do show off their traditions, interestingly, it’s more for themselves, not foreigners.
The day before we left we took a cablecar up Namsan hill in Seoul. There’s a CN Tower-style communication antenna at the top, remnants of an ancient shrine, and mid-20th century concrete fortifications. I was bracing for the perfect tourist-trap. There were drummers, dancers, and warriors, all in 18th century garb.
But surrounding the open-air stage were almost exclusively locals, watching and politely applauding the dance and martial displays. A handful of non-Koreans were there, but it was clear the Koreans were doing this for themselves, not for outsiders.
It was the same at a local palace complex, and walking through a neighbourhood of traditional residences.
Koreans are busy remembering, re-living, and re-learning.
It’s hard to realize, seeing the sophistication and intricacy of civilization in South Korea, that 50 years ago this state had the GDP of Ghana. That starvation wandered the land. That the people here, in a country with no oil, no iron, no hydro potential, built itself up from nothing to be one of the top 20 economies in the world.
And they are still busy doing it. So busy they are just learning the tricks of the tourism trade, catering to the foreign curious and international time-wasters. So cultural exhibits and events display a charming innocence here, ham-fisted attempts at building a market for the culture of leisure they’ve worked so hard to join. We’re welcome to join and watch, but we’re not essential to the equation. Tourism here hasn’t the careful slickness of Thailand, the sad sycophancy of Cambodia, the vile mendacity of Bali.
Which makes this trip, to Korea, perhaps the most honest cultural interaction we’ve had in the last six months. And I just began to realize this as the train pulled in to the airport station.
Korea is very much an undiscovered country. I will be back.
I’m standing waiting for a subway train in one of Korea’s ultra-modern stations, six stories beneath the street, when I notice a huge poster before me. It proclaims that 2010-2012 is Korea’s ‘Year of the Tourist’. A smiling face of a life-size Korean woman greeting the world is displayed.
I find the poster puzzling- if not for the bad math, it’s the idea that Korea is welcoming tourists. Cause, from what I can tell, Koreans don’t give a fuck.
|No, you ask if you can get the rice with no sauce.
We’re here in the early spring, so I’m not surprised that there aren’t a lot of tourists. What I do find surprising though, is that there are no tourists.
On our daily expeditions into the city, we might see a handful of non-Korean faces. They are few and far between. In a city of 20 million, I see maybe five or ten people a day who might qualify as actual tourists like us. Other Europeans, and there aren’t many, generally tend to be ESL teachers.
Our subway rides have been in seas of black hair, with the locals staring at us with unblinking brown eyes (so it seems). We were told to expect that, and it’s harmless, if a bit unnerving. It actually makes you feel like you’re a stranger, and strangely adds to the adventure. They don’t see folk like us ever day.
This is a country of people who have been busting their asses for the last 30 years, building world-leading shipping lines and auto assembly plants from the hardscrabble and devastated land they inherited from their parents. The country has hardly learned yet to cater to tourists’ business.
Outside of the automated voice on the subway line, English is barely heard on the street or spoken by service folks. Signage is almost exclusively in Korean script. Tourist brochures, oddly, are mostly in Korean, and only the occasional restaurant deigns to let you know the contents of the dishes they serve.
And this is a shame. I passed dozens of restaurants and cafes where I would have liked to hang out (and spend money) but knew I would face near-insurmountable communication problems. When you’ve got kids with you, your explorations on a menu can be limited. So we ended up, more often than we’d like, at a Burger King or Starbucks, letting the clerk practice his or her high-school English.
Less welcome is when you are met with little more than a peremptory grunt from an older clerk in a convenience store, or just a wave to go away from a taxi driver. They won’t even try to take your money. We’re told it’s shyness about speaking, and that’s understandable, but it can be off-putting.
|QED: An ad in Busan
Let this not be a reflection on the Korean people themselves. We have found them generally to be kind, helpful, and caring, once you begin to interact. We have never felt safer on our trip. And never felt more as equals. And that’s the flip side-the good part- of not giving a fuck.
After four months of touts, come-ons, hustlers, liars and obsequious servitude in the rest of SE Asia, it’s nice to be invisible, to count for nothing. I walk the street and no one’s approaching me to rip me off. I can look people in the eye and not expect a pitch for a ride or a request for a donation. They can do without my business, just fine.
And, transactions are transparent and honest. While it’s hard to work out, and give and receive the proper change, doing business as a tourist in Korea is refreshing. I pay the same, standard amount for a good or service as a local Korean. And I get the same amount of goods or services that the local would get. No haggling, no shorting, just honest dealing. It is such a pleasure doing tourism ‘business’ in such an atmosphere. Just wish I could do more of it.
‘Korea: we don’t give a fuck’. It could be the slogan for the 2013-15 Year of the Tourist.
Men, be careful what kind of fatherly wisdom you offer your children. You could end up as I did- freezing outside a Korean office building at seven in the morning. It’s clear, but cold, in the plaza of another futuristic office complex in Seoul. We’re lined up with about 70 raven-haired Korean teens, hoping for a chance to see a concert by Korean pop stars. The show’s taping is tonight, but to get in, you have to come out before the sun rises to get tickets.
Finally a security guard comes by, taking down names. In the complicated business of getting in to the studio audience for “MNET Studio Countdown”, you have to be registered twice, present at certain times and places during the day. Thus the 5:30 wake-up call on an early spring Thursday morning.
|“They are here, they are live, and they are adorable.”
Photo by Jane Robinson-Boivin
The guard, a black-suited young man with a perfectly superfluous Secret Service-style earphone, takes an extra half-glace at me and has us write our names on the list. We are #64 and #65. If we show up tonight at 5:10 exactly, we’re in.
We decide to head back to our guesthouse for a quick nap, but my daughter is so excited that’s unlikely to happen. ’Too many girls just like the same music their boyfriends like,” I told her five years ago, when my word still meant something. “Don’t be like that. Find your own path in music.”
What I had hoped my sage words would mean is I’d eventually share my Genesis and Van der Graaf generator albums with the girl. Instead, she went and found her own path-and it’s artists with names like U-Kiss, Infinite, SHINee and B2ST. Most North Americans have never heard of Korean pop music. But take what you might have pictured about Japanese music, dose heavily with American rap, hip-hop, and disco, and you are starting to get the idea.
Korean pop music is huge in this country of 50 million, and growing rapidly all over Southeast Asia, China and Japan. With massive corporate backing, and slickly produced videos, the star’s faces are familiar in every household and on the street. Larger than life posters are ubiquitous, the stars being used to hock everything from cell phones to fashion to face cream.
Wannabe stars are put through years of training, and sign five-to-ten year contracts with studios to work for them, exclusively. Most aren’t though high school yet, live in company dorms and are contractually bound to remain ‘available’ for their multitude of prepubescent fans. The band members are disposable and interchangeable at the company’s whim. But the payoff for the successful ones is fame for life.
The music itself is mostly forgettable- studio manufactured dance tunes and ballads, ranging from bubblegum pop to faux-ghetto rap. Just broken hearts, no teenage rebellion. The odd performer stands out- like a Canadian hip-hop artist banned from the airwaves a couple years back for lyrics critical about the government. The ban made him even more popular. All in all, it’s not much different from North American pop music.
My girl’s been lucky enough to see her idols once on the trip already- in Singapore, at an arena. But tonight, we’re going to see some up-and-comers, live in the studio. We meet a pair of young American women, foreign exchange students, who are also coming to the show tonight. “I can’t wait,” says one breathlessly. “They are here, they are live, and they are adorable.” The three of them laugh. I roll my eyes. This will be a long night.
Bismark said if you love the law or sausages, you should never watch either being made. The same goes for television. We are ushered into a large sound studio, walls curtained black with a large stage to the back. The audience is coralled between the main stage and a side presentation area for the hosts, packed in enough to hike the audience energy. The fuss and bother of pre-broadcast preparations flow seamlessly into the actual show. There’s no big announcement, no flash or dazzle. Suddenly, the hosts appear to the side of the stage, and announce the first act. The stage lights come on, and a young woman sings a ballad.
About halfway though, a bored-looking stage director comes on stage, and waves at the performer. The girl stops singing- at least, her mouth stops moving. Her song continues to play over the speakers. She bows to the audience, smiles sheepishly, and exits. There’s a smattering of applause. This happens another two times. Groups of young androgynous men, and lolita-like girls, come onstage, singing and dancing. Then they’re pulled off mid lip-synch.
|And the winner is, for the 153 week in a row… corporate profits!
Photo by Jane Robinson-Boivin
I can’t quite figure what’s going on until I glance to the side and see a monitor playing the feed. The bands have pre-recorded their acts, which are going out ‘live’ to the air. Their appearance here tonight is mostly to top-and-tail the show production.
Most of the audience, oddly, isn’t even paying attention to what’s on stage. About a quarter are watching monitors stage right, another quarter are sitting cross-legged on the floor texting friends, and another handful have their backs to the performance, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idols as they walk backstage.
It’s no wonder they don’t have a camera on the audience. The performance, such as it is, continues, and the energy increases as the show progresses. It’s a countdown of the top radio and TV pop songs of the week, and the hot bands are saved for last. More of the audience starts to stand up, there’s screaming and some weeping, scarves waved and heart-signs flashed.
Finally all the acts gather on the stage, and a winner is announced. There’s a bit of forced congratulations all around by the bands- the decision who’d win, after all, was actually made in a boardroom months ago. Fireworks go off, confetti falls, spots sweep the studio, credits roll. The crowd leaves, sweaty and happy.
It’s dark as we hail a cab for the short trip home. My girl is happy- she’s seen some of her favorite new bands tonight. She asks if she can go again next week. What the heck, I figure, and agree. “If we’re still here,” I caution. Sure, her music sucks to me. But I’m old. Her music should suck- the way my music sucked to my parents. There’d be something wrong if I really liked her music. She’s found her own path, and it’s lead us here, far away from home. I couldn’t ask for more.
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