Friday, 22 February 2008


We live embedded in a mosaic of people. It is much more than the sum of its parts, nevertheless some of the parts are more essential than others. And when they change, the mosaic changes utterly.

Sometimes unexpectedly...

The one who you took for granted would always be there. Adamant. A silent, reluctant inspiration. A role model despite never seeking to be one. When that piece is removed from the mosaic, suddenly you realize how fragile the rest of the pattern is.

Sometimes with sickening inevitability...

When you know things will not be the same again, when you watch the time pass by knowing that the change you dread is inexorably grinding towards you, when you hope wistfully that it will not come and at the same instant you can feel your spirit flag, and in your mind's eye you see the mosaic ripped apart a hundred times with sickening finality.

And then?

And then you tell youreself you're unbreakable, that new bonds will be created amidst the gnarled skeletons of the old. You tell yourself that you will dust away the debris like you've always done before and a new mosaic will take shape.

But still,

But still, in a corner of your soul, there is an ache. Will it go away?

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Viva El Mariachi!

Yesterday I had the rare privilege of watching a master at the peak of his powers. Carlos Santana was performing in Singapore, and I was there.

He played without a pause for nearly three hours. And he had me on my feet without a pause for nearly three hours. To be honest, I had not expected it. I was apprehensive about going to a show where everyone was assigned a numbered seat. And I was not reassured when I got into mine. Sitting in the stands in the Singapore Indoor Stadium at the far end from the stage, I did not exactly feel like I was in the middle of the music. It felt more like watching a concert video on high-definition TV.

But a couple of songs into the set I realized that the place to be was at the back where there was room to dance. And from that point on the evening turned into magic.

I had a blinding flash of reality soon afterwards. It suddenly hit home for me that I was watching someone who had played at the legendary Woodstock festival. And in the time since then he has been making music for nearly four decades. He's been performing for longer than I've been alive. And last night he played with a passion that has not been dimmed by the years, nor been perverted by wave after wave of musical fads and fashions.

It must seem to him a long way from the days when he was an upcoming musician in San Franciso and was rather obscurely described as a purveyor of 'mariachi samba-rock". Whatever the heck that means. And I'm sure the width of a universe lies between a muddy field in Max Yasgur's farm southwest of Woodstock, and the crisp air-conditioned interior of an indoor arena in squeaky-clean Singapore.

I remember watching Woodstock, the movie, while I was still in college. (It remains for me the best Martin Scorsese film I have ever seen.) And the best part of that movie was Soul Sacrifice, an eleven-minute opus with which Santana ended his set. At some point last night, time contracted and distance disappeared when the beat of conga drums laid the rhythm for the flickering, insolent guitar intro to Soul Sacrifice, and I could pretend to myself that I had been transported back to the golden age of peace, love and music.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Losing My Seoul

This place is killing me. I’ve been in Seoul for five days now, and I just cannot stop eating. If it’s not the tabletop barbecue then it’s the sweet potato noodles. If it’s not the kimchi pizza then it’s the egg waffles. If it’s not … well, you get the picture. It’s got to the point where I can no longer pick a favourite food because everything I eat seems irresistible.

I do, however, have a favourite drink. It’s called muju. It’s a sort of thick wine with a strong cinnamon flavour and it’s served piping hot in a bowl. It works very nicely in the depth of winter because you get a nice warm glow outside from the hot bowl cupped in your hands, another one inside from the hot wine trickling down your throat, and a pleasant little tingle from the warm smell of cinnamon wafting in front of you face.

(I’m leaving tomorrow morning and I'm really going to miss the pleasure of having a hot meal and then stepping out into a breezy night while the temperature is -10C. Yes, that is a minus sign and yes it is that cold).

There was more to this trip than food, though. There was the historical incident at Namdaemun Gate. I was flipping through my Lonely Planet guide on Monday. It was especially cold outside and I had decided it was prudent to be a virtual tourist in the cozy comfort of my hotel room. But then I saw an article on the said gate, also known as National Treasure No.1. I am incapable of resisting a name like that, so I dragged my feet out of my room, squared my shoulders, and set out to savour the sight.

About half an hour later I got my first sight of the gate, and I have to admit I felt a little disappointed. The gate seemed to have collapsed, and the monument seemed in remarkably bad shape, especially given it’s rather grandiose designation. The big striped blue-and-white scaffolding really did not make the picture ny prettier.

Then I noticed the news crews. There must have been a dozen TV vans and as many groups of cameramen and carefully-groomed anchorpersons. I thought of asking someone what the big deal was, then realized my folly. This has got to be the least English-friendly city I have ever been too. They even do sign-language only in Korean. Rumour has it there was once a Scottish tourist who spent thirteen years walking in a very large circle because he could not ask for directions. It’s so extreme that they actually have Korean-to-Korean language dictionaries.

Anyway, the point is that all I could do was take pictures of news crews and walk away.

I found out later what had happened. A certain Mr. Chae had decided to turn the gate into the world’s most historic bonfire. He’d been ticked off at not being paid in full for some land that he had sold, so he decided to vent his spleen by destroying a six hundred year-old monument. That’s right, folks. He went to a beautiful wooden building that had survived wars, invasions, and six centuries of inclement weather, and set it on fire with paint thinner. He did not even give it the dubious dignity of dousing it in petrol. He burned the poor old building with half a dozen cans of glorified nail-polish remover!

Here’s the kicker: apparently a couple of years ago he had set fire to Changgyeonggung Palace, another ancient monument. The guy is a freaking serial-offending land-selling monument-killer! Jokes apart, it really is very sad. Most of the classic old buildings in East Asia are extremely elegant and extremely fragile wooden structures. It’s a miracle that some of them have survived bombings and fires in multiple wars and revolutions. To then destroy one of the prettiest ones in such a callous manner, for such a petty grubbing reason, is simply unforgiveable. It’s a crime against a nation, a culture and millennia of history.

I guess I should be thankful to have seen the things that I have seen while they still exist. Can you imagine not being able to see the Taj Mahal or Stonehenge anymore because they were fire-bombed by football hooligans? It's disturbing that it can be so easy for disgruntled louts to ravage the milestones of human civilization. Now I'm even more determined to see as many of them as I can, while I still can. The milestones, that is, not the louts.

Next stop, Egypt.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Food for the Seoul

The coldest spots in Seoul are the exit tunnels that lead from the subway stations up to the street. It takes less than a minute to traverse one of these. But in that little time the cold seeps in from the concrete up through your legs, through your spine and all the way through to the tips of your ears. I learned this many times over the past two days.

It's been pleasant enough despite that. Yesterday I went to the Gyeongbokgung palace in the northern half of the city. It was built six hundred years ago. Since then it’s been damaged, rebuilt, damaged again during Japanese colonization, threatened during the Korean war, but still stands today with a quiet dignity that gives no hint of its beleaguered past. I spent the morning tramping through the grounds. The maze of corridored walks was lined with leafless trees and scattered patches of late snow. There were hardly any other visitors, possibly because of the lunar new year festival (and possibly because few others were fool enough to venture out in the cold). The absence of tourists set off the quiet wintry dignity of the building and grounds in a very fetching manner.

The cold did not bother me too much, because luckily I was able to insulate myself from the stomach out. I enjoy Korean food at any time. But when it comes piping hot from a roadside vendor on a frigid day, it is simply irresistible. Barbecued chicken skewers, sweet potato wrapped in a blanket of minced beef and dunked in spicy red sauce, pan-fried buns stuffed with cinnamon cream – and those were just a few of the things I ate. I won’t even bother to mention the food I passed over longingly because I was too stuffed to eat it.

Did I mention the ice cream? I went into a shop and asked for a banana ice cream with cinnamon topping. It turned out that the term ‘topping’ was misleading. The girl who took my order dunked a scoop of ice cream on a cold slab of stone. Then she sprinkled a small heap of cinnamon on top and used a pair of scoops to knead the cinnamon into the ice cream as if she was kneading a lump of dough. Divine! Of course my left hand nearly froze and broke off at the wrist because it was holding the icy cone while I walked down the street at night. But that was an acceptable risk to take for the gastronomic plesure.

I got to enjoy more than just amazing food; I also had one of my more unusual shopping experiences. I was browsing the wares at a stall selling fashion jewelry in hopes of finding something nice for my better half. The salesgirl helpfully asked whether the style I was looking for was elegant or cute. “Elegant”, I repled. “Elegant”, she muttered to herself as with great satisfaction she handed me a pair of Mickey Mouse earrings.

Mickey Mouse! Not even the most ardent Disney fan could call Mickey elegant! He wears red shorts, for crying out loud. The only person who comes close is Superman, and we all know what a dork he looks in his scarlet lingerie. Fortunately for the better half, and even more fortunately for me, I managed to overcome the salesgirl’s attempt at assistance and find something suitable. Something that I considered elegant despite its lack of rodent motifs.

So now I'm back in my hotel, and tomorrow the work part of this trip will begin. I do hope it lives up to the tone set by the last two days, because they were really great!

Monday, 4 February 2008

No Fury Like A City Scorned

It's midnight on Friday night. I'm in the back seat of a police car as it tears through the streets with its siren blaring. And I wonder silently whether a city can have vengeful feelings.

It had been raining all through Thursday night and Friday morning. I had left my hotel at 1130am with a couple of colleagues. We'd been advised to leave early so we could catch our afternoon flight, which was scheduled for 230 in the afternoon. At 130pm we were still in the taxi. I could see cars and buses and trucks stacked bumper-to-bumper for about a kilometer ahead of us, beyond which the road curved out of sight. My driver offered his estimate of how much longer it might take to reach our destination: "Maybe one hour, maybe two hour, maybe three hour, maybe four hour." We gathered that he wasn't really sure.

At 230 in the afternoon we were still in the taxi. The driver was slowly unfolding his vocabulary. He waved vaguely at the immobile traffic and announced we had a problem. "Problem", he said, "problem problem." Apparently there was a problem. Apparently we were too daft to know it without the benefit of his keen insight into gridlock in Jakarta.

By this time it was obvious that we were in the sort of mess that invariably makes it to CNN. About twenty minutes into the world news report they have a slot for third world disasters and other cock-ups in the developing world. This would fit in very nicely as either "Creaking infrastructure collapses at first sign of strain" or "Global warming causes freak weather - tens of thousands stranded in floods." It was vaguely comforting to know we were in the middle of a bona fide global news event.

Over the next five hours we inched our way through about two kilometers. I'm not kidding - I saw the road markers and counted off the distance we had covered. By this time we'd given up on making it to the airport in time to catch any flight that night and decided to try again the next day. As soon as we decided to turn back to the hotel, we found ourselves trapped on an exit ramp where traffic had come to an even more complete standstill.

Awe-struck at the realization that there was a level of immobility beyond what we'd already experienced, I slowly started to notice the people around me. They were all supremely calm. Not in a resigned way - everywhere I looked I saw pleasant, cheerful faces. No one was shouting or even getting mildly irritable. People casually got out of their cars or trucks, exchanged a word with those around them, smoked a cigarette, went for a little stroll among the inert vehicles, or just sat back calmly and waited.

Incredible as it seems, being in that traffic jam was a deeply relaxing experience.

Which lasted another two hours.

By this time I was convinced that the city was somehow sentient and had taken deep offence to my last post in which I'd whinged at traffic in jakarta. "You think you've seen traffic?", I imagined it fuming, "I'll show you traffic that will bring you to your knees. I'll show you gridlock that will make your soul cry out in despair. You want traffic? I'll give you traffic!"

(I think by this time I was mildly delirious. I don't ordinarily have morbid fantasies of animated metropolises plotting vengeance against mankind.)

Then our taxi broke down. With sickening inevitability our driver explained the situation. "Problem", he announced. Then he brightened up as he remembered another word he knew. With doubled eloquence he went on to share his thoughts and feelings: "Problem. Stress." In hindsight he looked much more relaxed than he sounded. Perhaps it was because by that time he had been running his meter for nearly ten hours.

Luckily our local office had swung into action and managed to organize a police car to try and extricate us. At first I felt a little guilty that these officers of the law had been pulled away from their crime-fighting duties to aid a bunch of foreigners stuck in traffic. But then I realized that any would-be criminals were pretty much stranded in their getaway cars, much like us. The cops could safely find us, extricate us, bring us back to our hotel, watch a movie, spend a couple of hours hitting golf balls, read a book, have breakfast, go back to the scene of the crime, and still find the bad guys smoking cigarettes patiently while they waited for the flood waters to subside and the traffic to dissolve.

That made me feel much better. That, and the prospect of finally being able to go to the washroom.

The only problem was that the cops could not get to us because ... they were stuck in the traffic! After another hour of practicing breathing exercises we were lucky enough to encounter a good samaritan who managed to find a way to get us to where the cops were stranded. Then we got into their car and after another hour we finally managed to extricate ourselves from where we were trapped and turn around to go back to the city.

Then, under a screaming police siren, we zipped through the streets to return where we'd set out from. After thirteen hours.

The next day we made it to the airport in two hours.

And just to set the record straight, Jakarta is a lovely city. The traffic really isn't so bad at all.