by Joe Morris
|Heading out, 6 am.|
29 Oct 2002, 6:45 am, Michigan City, Indiana. I was sitting on the same United Limo bus I've used to get to the airport for the last decade; I've ridden it dozens of times to get to college, and recently to return to California where I work and live. This felt unique, though; I was more sorry than usual to be leaving the comforts of home, and my ageing parents, but also very nervous and excited about the places and people to come.
There were five of us on the bus: four senior citizens who I imagined where heading for Las Vegas, one young black woman, and me. I waved to my parents, by their car outside. My mom waved back ardently, since she was watching her only son head off for the wilds of Asia for nine months. One of the Vegas women looked in my direction, smiling warmly, touched by this show of affection.
The bus lurched forward, my first inch towards India. A burst of adrenalin made my nerves sing; I was suddenly more awake than I have in several months. It seemed like I was suddenly moving faster, or perhaps the world had slowed down.
The bus pulled on to the interstate towards Chicago, and like a squirrel packing away acorns for the winter, I started packing away mental images of America to tide me over for my journey. There were red and golden maples, trying hard to shine in the half-light of dawn and the drizzling rain, then some cookie cutter suburban homes with vivid green lawns, and signs: TRUCK SALES OF AMERICA, LINDA LAWSON FOR STATE REPRESENTATIVE, ILLINOIS ALCOHOL LIMIT .08, 80/94 WEST TO CHICAGO. What would it be like, seeing the 80/94 EAST sign, next July?
|Korean Air plane|
30 Oct 2002, 7 pm, Inchon, South Korea.
My flight to Mumbai was on Korean Airways, and my flight routed me through the new Seoul/Incheon (or Inchon, the "e" seems optional) International Airport, with a twenty-six hour layover. The flight over was unremarkable; I was seated next to a Thai woman named Ping, who lived in Chicago and was going to visit a friend in Guangzhou. I made it through the basic "Where are you travelling?" conversation, but Ping's English didn't seem up to much beyond that. I tried asking how it was that she had a friend in China if she was Thai and lived in Chicago, but she merely explained again that she had immigrated to the United States with her mother. Maybe she was Chinese, and I had misheard the part about being from Thailand. I gave up and turned to my book, Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express, sending my imagination south as my body flew West.
I had already read the relevant Theroux book for where I was going, The Great Railway Bazaar, and was so enthralled with his manner of travelling and of describing it that I had jumped at the chance when my friend Joe Teltzer offered to give me this book. Theroux specializes in train travel: Japanese bullet trains, Burmese clunkers, and now he was being pulled by a steam-driven engine in Guatemala. Theroux is a middle aged East-coast professor, smokes a pipe, has a family, and occasionally leaves home for several months to take an enormous train journey. Probably because he has practiced as a novelist, he describes the places he visits and in particular the dialogue with people he encounters, on trains and at the stops, with great clarity and vivacity. Every time I looked up from the book to take in my surroundings on the plane, I lamented at being packed here like a sardine in a flying pressurized can.
|Boat beached on Ur-Wang|
Although the plane was, for the most part, just a plane, there were a few details that jarred my sense of what a plane was supposed to be. The cabin was laid out in blocks of blue and pink seats, as if it was a flying maternity ward. The stewardesses were identically pretty, with perfect sking and well-formed legs; there was a "Ladies only" lavatory, but no "Gentlemen only". The bathroom had cologne spray bottles, absurdly labelled "Skin Contact" and "Simple Emulsion". The three in-flight movies alternated between Enlish and Korean. I watched part of one the Korean movies; it was a romantic comedy. The acting and production where pretty good, the plot was about a girl trying to decide between her ex-boyfriend or whether to pick up another guy at a sort of game show event; it was like MTV's "Singled Out", except the guys were boasting about how they just returned from getting a Ph.D. in the United States and now realized they wanted to start a family. I was just noting how well the lead actress was acting out her ambiguity towards her ex, when suddenly a female friend showed up and the two of them, both appearing to be in their late twenties, jumped up and down and squealed in greeting as if they were at a New Kids on the Block Concert.
After an interminable fourteen hours (sore neck, dry air, drone of airplane engines), I arrived at Incheon National airport, recently completed after nine years of construction and intended to be a major connecting hub for Southeast Asia. I was slightly concerned that I had arrived in a counry where I didn't speak the language, and I needed to find a place to spend 26 hours; certainly there would be hotels, but I wasn't particularly interested in a Holiday Inn, which would both cost me well over my estimated budget of $20 a day and would look exactly like a Holiday Inn in the United States. Looking around for other backpackers who might be packing a Korean guidebook, I saw only Korean businessmen. There were three young Americans on the plane who didn't head immedidately for the "International Transfer" door, but they were all American GI's, here to watch over the DMZ towards Pyongyang's nukes (there was a customs listing, after the usual allowed amounts of cash, liquor and cigarettes : "No Noth Korean Goods, Counterfeit Money, etc.") who didn't know the cheap motel scene in Korea. I asked one of them, a well-dressed black man with a woven fedora at a rakish angle, about where he was coming from:
"Washington state, Tennessee, and then Illinois. Taking pictures."
"That's a lot of places to be taking pictures. And now you're in Korea? Are you a professional photographer?"
"Naw, I'm just here in the military."
This seemed interesting. "What's it like being in the military in Korea?"
"Aw, dull. I do boring communications stuff."
Happy to be not in the military, I found the Hotel Information desk, where the woman showed me two brochures: one that looked like a Korean Holiday Inn, and one called "Korea Guesthouse" that cost a third as much. I took the second choice. She called the van from the Guesthouse, I sat down in front of a flat-screen Samsung televsion (all consumer goods in Korea seem to be manufactured by Samsung, or Daewoo) to watch Korean baseball. A young man sat next to me in a black velvet suit, practicing card tricks. A platoon of identical pretty flight attendants marched past.
The van for the Guesthouse showed up, a young man named Lee with his wife and baby. They drove me out away from the airport, on narrow roads that sometimes narrowed to one lane. Lee was very up on world affairs, asking me about the Beltway sniper, North Korea, and Iraq. He occastionally looked at me over his shoulder to talk, although he always seemed to turn to face the windshield when he had to stop at a one-lane narrowing. We passed several towns, at least I think they were towns, that appeared to consist entirely of general stores with garishly colored signs. The stores were closed at seven thirty in the evening, empty, but still lit with pale flourescent light inside. Occasionally there would be a small group of people by the stores, and more than once I saw a pint-sized dog trotting through the street.
"What, you ah, think President Bush will do with Iraq? Markets worried, yes, about what will happen."
The Canadians have it so easy with these things; it would be nice to duck out of all these foreign affairs quizzes by not coming from the big bully on the world map. In this case, I actually think that the violence of a war against Iraq might be worth it. Tony Horwitz's descriptions of life under Huissein in "Baghdad Without a Map" made me think that the place has little to lose; American imperialism can't be much worse than his dictatorship. The United States has gotten a little more competent at building nations -- Afghanistan seems to be going better than, say, Laos or Nicaragua -- but I'm not sure if the risks of Arab-Israeli warfare, and giving further credence to the United States as a gun-slinging cowboy of a nation, would make it worthwhile. Lee's English is pretty good, but all the same, I decided to simplify.
"I don't know, seems like in the last week that they're more looking towards sanctions. It's hard to tell whether they really mean it or if they're just trying to put pressure on him to get inspectors back in. But what is it like in South Korea, hearing about how Pyongyang has the bomb now?"
"Yes, we are very tense. We only wish to have unification with Norsquea, but they still will not allow families even to be rejoined. Now that Norsquea is working on atom bomb, it is even worse."
It took me serveral times hearing "Norsquea" to figure out it was "North Korea". We drove into another set of closed stores, and Lee pulled up a drive, behind some of them, and to the Korea Guesthouse. It was nothing fancy, but clean enough that it shouldn't have bedbugs: just right. It also had its own pint-sized dog, a miniature Doberman with the body of a chihuahua and the features from a K9 squad.
The next morning I took a walk, up at dawn, still on Chicago time. The beach was pretty, on a small bay from the Yellow Sea, and lined with wooded hills that dove down to the water. There was a fisherman whipping a twenty foot pole, with a tiny ten feet of line after it; I watched him for ten minutes, hoping to see a catch, but there was nothing.
Walking around Ur-wang showed little of interest; the stores were actually almost all general stores, with candy, flip-flops and liquor ("Keep On Walking" whiskey, with the Johnny Walker logo. Keep on walking, indeed). The only other commercial establishments were seafood restaurants, with tanks of fish out front. I had been hoping to find someplace where I could buy a watch, or my notebook that I had left on Korean airways, but found neither -- restaurants and general stores, all the way through. I headed back to the hotel; a busload of Koreans arrived, the only other tourists that I saw in town. Truly seeing Korea will have to wait until next July, when I spend a week here on the way back.
1 Nov 2002, Mumbai, India.
"Bombay is a crowd." -- V.S. Naipaul, India: a Million Mutinies Now
Arriving in Mumbai National Airport is the second most terrifying travel experience I've had yet, particuarly after flight itself, which was wonderful. I had asked for an exit row, and the agent said, "No, [Mumble] business class," which I took at the time to mean "Sorry, we only have exit rows left in business class," but actually was "No, but I can upgrade you to business class." So I travelled in style for the eight hours to Mumbai, seated next to a Korean nun, both of us with four buttons and a lever to control our double-wide seats. The plane, filled with Indians, smelled sweetly of cardamom and incense.
There were eight of the nuns, bald, with gray robes. The one next to me didn't speak a word of english, not even "Hello", so I remained ignorant of what Buddhists were doing in business class.
The flight passed (slightly less sore neck, dry air, drone of airplane engines). The airport was, like many important buildings in India, old and made of stone, with the wet underground smell that I associate with catacombs. Most long haul flights end up in Mumbai late at night, and mine arrived at one in the morning; by the time I had my bags (two perfectly coiffed Korean Air stewardesses were also hauling their bags from the carousel, looking lost without their platoon) and made my way through the queue at customs -- the only place I've ever seen that x-rays your bags to get into the country -- it was two thirty. I passed by the first currency exchange and then hotel information counter (which said, "Brotherhood of Indian Accomodation Organization", I thought I was looking for "India Natioanal Tourism bureau") expecting that there would probably be another afterward. Not so; once you pass those, you're gonne daddy gone, outside and in the mosh of Indian families boarding busses, and taxi and hotel touts that hover around foreigners like pestilent flies.
My plan was to change currency, call one of the hotels, and get a prepaid taxi. I failed on all counts. I kept walking for several blocks, laden with sixty pounds of gear, looking for either the taxi booth or a place to change money. Waving off all offers, I finally found the prepaid taxi booth by dumb luck, and asked an official looking man in a gray shirt with a walkie talkie for a place to change money; he handed me off to another man, who started walking off into the parking lot. Mildly concerned that there might not be a currency exchange in this direction, I inquired.
"Ah, we will take you to a place on the way, no problem."
"Will it have a good exchange rate?"
"Ah yes, big bank, very good rate."
"Does it have a name?"
"Very big bank."
Slightly more concerned, but lacking better options, I followed him to a row of mini-taxis, little vehicles with whining 100cc motors. He gave a few directives to the driver, who was folded and hunched into a yoga-like position in the front seat, and we were off, buzzing and weaving through three a.m. Mumbai traffic. Driving rules in India are standard third-world: having a larger vehichle means right of way, headlights are only on to give a signal to others, there are no seatbelts, and horn-honking is standard procedure to let someone know that you're going to pass them (surveys by Lonely Planet authors estimate an average of 10 to 20 honks per kilometer). This lasted for five minutes, then a transfer to an actual automobile taxi run by Mr. Khan, a Muslim who turned out to be the very big bank. He gave me a good rate, though, and didn't try to sell me anything, and he got me to my hotel, dispensing travel advice along the way.
"Yes, Sea Lord Hotel, very near Victoria Station. Very old, Victoria Station, it was built over two thousand years ago."
VT was built in 1887. I didn't know the date at the time, but I remembered Paul Theroux writing "Take off your glasses, squint at Victoria Central Station and you can see St. Paul's Cathedral," and I was certain that the British were not in India, or anywhere for that matter, at the time of Christ.
"Really!" I replied. "And who built Victoria Terminal all those years ago?"
Mr. Khan mumbled something incomprehensible and turned back to his window.
There are evidently two "Sea Lord Hotels" in Mumbai, and this was not the one in the guidebook, but it was passable: double room for 660 Rs, somewhat dingy but with no signs of insect life. I would find a better place in the morning, but for now, I went to my room and collapsed, happy to be in Mumbai.