Saturday, January 27, 2007

I'm easy to please, really.

Tonight we'll have a wine and cheese night at my house. I can't even eat cheese, but I'm excited to have company, and have a good time. Maybe I inherited the hospitality gene from Mom -- nothing pleases me so well as seeing people around me having a good time (especially if it's partly my doing -- through hospitality, or through suggesting an activity, or [best of all] through recommending a restaurant. For some reason, taking a person to a restaurant I know of, and seeing them really enjoy the food/dish, gives me inordinate, almost inappropriate amounts of pleasure.)

That's really enough to make me happy, right there: some people at my house, some nice conversation, some laughs, and some good food. Wine is the best conversation drink, bar none. Beer is too loud, and lends itself to binge drinking. Hard liquors either must be drunk too slowly, or lead too quickly to drunkenness, and, once drunk on hard liquor, people make bad decisions, and have odd moods (for example, the "let's see what happens if I throw X at Y!" mood). Wine's taste is rich and subtle, good to be savoured (especially red wine), which means it gets sipped rather than gulped. Add to that the way alcohol lowers a person's inhibitions, and you have more honest and interesting conversation than coffee or tea (because they're alcohol free, people's defenses never quite drop). Plus, wine is a happy drunk. People don't start throwing things or swearing or punching when they've had wine.

It doesn't take much to make me happy. Wine and a friend will do. So will wearing my leather-soled doc marten boots and walking in Lotte Department store, where the floors are polished stone, and where I can slide for almost three meters after a short running start. (Yep. That's me. The grown man sliding around on the department store floor like a little kid on an ice patch. Stare if you want, but don't tell me to stop, because I won't. And if you don't like it, just look at the grin on my face and reflect upon whether I'm really hurting anyone. Yay me!)

In other "I love this country" news, the folks at the bakery where I grab a bite every morning on my way to work figured out that the cinnamon buns they make are my favourite thing they serve (Ha! Diagram THAT sentence!). The cinnamon buns are not as good as the ones at Kent Pastry and Bakery, but anything cinnamon is better than no cinnamon. Problem was, their baking schedule had the cinnamon buns ready about five minutes too late for my morning schedule: the only time they were ready by the time I came through was on days when I was already late for work. One day, I came in to find no cinnamon buns, and used the best Korean I knew to say "Nine o'clock. . . cinnamon buns. . . please! Cinnamon buns, ummm, delicious!" The lady gave me a knowing "isn't he cute" smile -- she's been seeing me come in there regularly for more than a year now -- and answered in Korean.

Since then, every morning, the cinnamon buns have been on display by the time I pop in for munchies. I can't even communicate with these people (other than "Have a nice day!" "Do you want a bag?" "Two thousand won, please!" and "Nine o'clock . . . cinnamon buns. . . please! Cinnamon buns, ummm, delicious!") and they're going out of their way, if only just a little, to make my day better. People are great.

And that's all it takes to make me happy, really. Add in a good book to read and good music to listen to, and enough personal time to write stories and poems, and I'll love life, whatever else is happening.

This also makes me happy.

His name is Micah P. Hinson. Beneath the Rose

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Home, and Cat Stevens, and some Malaysia pictures.

Just had a great conversation with a friend about how, to me, home is people. Home's a slippery kind of idea -- my Dad just moved to a new church in Niagara Falls, which is great, but it also means that the house where I lived for most of my last decade and a little, is no longer my house. I don't have a bedroom in Canada anymore, by any stretch. There are numerous couches I could probably crash upon, but none that I'd call my space. Even if I DID go back, Agassiz has changed so much from the way I remember it for me that I wouldn't really feel like I belong there (at least in the way I used to).

But you know, I'm not complaining, really. Coming to Korea my first year hurled me so far out of my comfort zones that I had to create some new ones, fast, so now home is not so much a house or a place with my posters on the wall (though that's nice). Rather, home for me has become a starbucks latte on a sunday afternoon, a long walk around my neighbourhood after work, cooking one of my specialty dishes for a friend, showing a friend a restaurant I love, hanging out with someone around whom I don't have to talk or entertain. Curling up on a coffee shop chair and writing poetry. As long as I have access to these things, I'm no longer too far from home, and if I'm near somebody who can ask me good questions, I'm set!

More than anything else, though, home for me is people. Having people around me who know me and respect me gives me a grounding from which I can go off in other directions.

By the way:

I'm listening to Cat Stevens right now (speaking of feelings of home). Wow, this guy's great. He isn't the best singer, not the best musician or composer by any measure, and his songwriting, while simple and well put-together, certainly isn't as clever or intriguing as a Tom Waits or a Leonard Cohen (and certainly not as intentionally obscure as Bob Dylan). Yet, despite that, listening to Cat Stevens, for some reason I can't quite name, is one of the most satisfying things I can think of. It's like sitting down and having a mug of coffee with a good friend -- not spectacular, not even quite memorable, just nice, and relaxing. After listening to one of his songs, I feel like I've gotten to know him a little, and that's nice. There's a warmth and a humour in his music that makes it easy to be around, like that friend in a group who doesn't always say a lot, but just manages to set everyone at ease, and seems to really enjoy everybody's company. So give Cat Stevens a try. You don't have to buy his box set or his complete works, but it's sure nice having his best of in your collection -- sort of like having a tin of hot cocoa powder in the cupboard. You don't have to use it often, but it's sure good to know it's there.

Modelling one of the shirts I bought.

Sliding down the rock slide at seven wells.

The tower on the highest peak of Langkawi Island. There was this fantastic structure with a bridge where tourists could wander (accessible by cable car). It was all held up by this tall tower support, and I have NO idea how they built that whole thing right up on top of a mountain. Best of all, there was a sign tucked away on one corner saying, "If you see dark clouds feel drizzle or rain, or see flashes of lightning, get off the tower immediately! That made me smile.

I may not have mentioned yet that it's really pretty there.

I climbed this rock and swam around in the waterfall pool. Then I looked up and right there, inches from my face, were three black toads, blinking up at the waterfall. I didn't go under the stream because I had no idea how deep the pool was, but it was pretty cool being that close to the waterfall.

On the way up, I was stepping over slippery rocks, and lost my footing as I tried to step around an eight-year-old kid. By twisting my body ridiculously, I managed to fall sideways into the water instead of crushing a child. Once I surfaced, I looked up, and Anthony was laughing at me.

Malaysia report, part three.

Since I've already mentioned the most interesting characters I met in Malaysia, here are the nicest ones. These are in either the order I met them, or the order they appear in my diary.

(Days 1-3) Jimmy: you read about him in the "most interesting characters" section too, because he had all kinds of stories and comments about travellers from all kinds of places, who'd stayed at his place. He earns his spot on the 'nicest' list because he did all kinds of legwork/phonework to help us book our trip and our place in Langkawi Island, as well as helping us see the beach on Penang Island, recommending a place to eat near there, and taxiing us there and back.

(Day 5) Emma, the Kiwi (Kiwi:New Zealander = Canuck: Canadian) we met at the seven wells (or was it seven springs?) mountainside. It was our second day on Langkawi Island, we had rented a car and were driving around to some of the landmarks. We climbed about five hundred steps to get to this spot where there were pools cut into rock by a stream channeling its way down to a big cliff/waterfall, and they created chutes and gulleys where we rode natural waterslides, and while there, I started a conversation with a young lady and her father. They were both extremely well-travelled in Asia, the father was a teacher, and the daughter had just started university. This was the first lengthy conversation I had in Malaysia with another traveller who wasn't part of our own group. We'd just gotten our bearings on Langkawi Island, and it was a very pleasant to have a little chat about where we'd been and where we were going.

(Day 6) We took an island-hopping tour that brought us around to a freshwater lake, a grove where we could watch eagles and sea eagles feeding off the tidal pools, and finally to a DIFFERENT sun-drenched beach than the one where we USUALLY sat. On the boat was a honeymooning couple. The new wife had this fantastic glow about her, a light headdress (Malaysia is mostly a Muslim nation: headdresses were everywhere), and she spent the whole trip chatting with, and totally charming, our travel-mate Amy, asking her to take picture of her with her new husband, etc..

Something I noticed: look at the woman's feet in this picture. I saw that same foot stance a handful of times when I saw Malaysian women posing for pictures. Maybe it was just coincidence, but it's a good pose, and it made me smile every time I spotted it -- you know how sometimes you just notice something, and from then on, it makes you smile when you notice it again, like a friend's little mannerism, or some quirk in the way couples talk to each other, or whatever. (Conversely, ever notice something and immediately wish you could un-notice it - like a friend who's a noisy chewer, and once you've noticed, you'll ALWAYS be annoyed by that friend's chewing.)

Anyway, here she is.

Also on day six, on that same beach, I met Theresa and Raiden. I'd brought my juggling balls to the beach. (Juggling is almost as good as having a puppy in terms of "meeting people" tools -- except that puppies attract cute females, while juggling attracts kids and other totally random people [with cameras] -- any age, any type, unpredictably, from super-cool folks to bedraggled parents of young kids.) At the freshwater lake, I'd noticed Theresa and Raiden standing on the dock because she was wearing a very bright orange dress, draped and tied in a way I hadn't seen before. Then, at the last stop on the island tour, I started juggling, and they approached me, asked about juggling (I gave them a mini-lesson), and took pictures with me after we chatted about seasons, Canada, Korea, and Kuala Lumpur. Also, she's the one who told me to try Laksa soup, and I'm glad I did.

Here're Theresa and her boyfriend Raiden with me on the beach.

Also at that beach, I had a nice chat with an Indian couple who were also travelling; the wife was an educator, so we shared notes on education-y stuff, and the husband got a juggling lesson. He approached me with the line, "Are you giving busking lessons over here?" They were very sweet -- big smiles and approachable manner. The husband's smile reminded me of my brother-in-law Frank. (In fact, I saw Frank's Malaysian twin on the ferry back to Penang Island -- he was sitting on the ferry's deck and looking seasick, but his build, his hair, and his mannerisms were identical to how I'd imagine Frank, if he were seasick. And Malaysian.)

(Day 7) The next day, I had a really neat chat with the tour guide on another tour. He was ridiculously knowledgeable about the area's wildlife, the island's history and natural features (rich in limestone: we drove by a cement factory on this resort island, that TOTALLY threw us for a loop, but then I learned that before it became a resort island, its primary industries were limestone (concrete) and marble). He was really well-spoken and full of interesting knowledge, and made me think of my days as a tour guide, how I took a real pleasure in knowing, or finding out, the answer to any question the tourists could throw at me. We went through a bat cave (the sound of a camera's film winding disturbs bats, but we could take digital pictures), and saw a mangrove swamp. Mangroves are trees that adapted to salt water, and they have roots that come up about two or three feet above the water level, so that it almost looks like a tree on stilts. Neat trees. We went to a fish farm, and archer fish (fish that shoot a jet of water to knock bugs off low branches, into the water to eat) shot my thumb when I put it on the rail and wiggled it. They can hit a target at two metres!

In fact, this random clip from the internet looks like it was taken at exactly the place where the fish shot MY finger!

There was a family on our tour boat, from the Netherlands, no less! As the tour continued, I started a conversation with the parents, and by the end of the tour, the two daughters (Bee, seven, and Ella, nine -- exactly the age I teach) were chatting and asking me questions, too. They asked my age and I told them I'd say a number, and they had to guess if my real age was higher or lower. They agreed to play, so the first age I suggested was 161. "Lower!" "OK. Seven." "Higher." With much giggling, they found out my age. The younger daughter especially took a shine to me, asking me questions and telling me endless stories, and at the buffet lunch that ended our tour, she told me, "I want to take you with my family for the rest of our vacation." It was very sweet. The family lives in Japan, and the girls go to an international school there, so I asked them if they know any Japanese.

"A little."
"OK, how do you say 'Goodbye'?"
"Very good! How do you say 'stop biting my elbow or I'll cough on your shoe!'?"
"I don't know."
"How do you say, 'Hello'?"
"Excellent! How do you say, 'Can you call the police? I think my puppy ate your bicycle'?"
"I don't know."
"Well you should study more! My goodness!"

Much fun. I don't have a camera, though, so none of them are represented on film. Sorry. I remember what they look like.

(Day 8) Rachel was sitting on the beach when I went out on my last morning to take my last dip in the water. I walked over and parked myself beside her and we had a lovely chat. She teaches dance to children, and she had a really nice, gentle way. She was there with some friends from her church group, and all their names were biblical names starting with R-- there were Rachel, Ruth and Rebecca. We joked that we got along because my names starts with 'R' too. We had a good, little chat about finding our way home, and wrote a very nice e-mail to me, to boot!

Here are the four things my friend Rachel loves the most about Malaysia.

1. It's really diverse. As a former English colony, and because of its geography, you'll see (some) English, Indians, Thai, Chinese, and Malaysian, all with regularity (and you'll also see all those influences on restaurant menus). This means most people are versed in many languages, and they all generally get along peacefully.

2. It's really easygoing -- everybody there's really laid back. That's nice.

3. Because so many cultures are represented, there's always a holiday or a celebration taking place, and all the special days -- the Muslim holidays, the Chinese ones, the Indian ones, the Western ones, and the Malaysian ones, are observed by their respective groups. The day after Christmas, we saw a Chinese parade in Georgetown, and near the end of our stay, we saw a lot of shops closed during regular business hours, because Muslim Hajj period ended -- the Muslims who took the pilgrimage to Mecca are supposed to have come back on that day, or week.

4. GREAT food.

Here's the drawback:

Every Malaysian I properly chatted with said they wished they could have four seasons. The sun there was so nice, and they all pined for snow! They even mention it in their e-mails! When I think about it a second time, I realize that it's true for me, too: I LOVE seasons. Fall and spring are my favorite things, and the cold of winter really sharpens me. Summer's probably my least favorite season (unless I'm on a beach or a walking trail), but it's true. Seasons are great. Don't take them for granted: especially if you live in a place where leaves turn red in the fall.

Oh yeah. Can't forget about this:

I met this lady on day three, Christmas Day, and she gave me some tongue within five minutes of my meeting her! Some of you may think that's a little fast, but once you see her picture, you'll understand why I had no choice but to go along.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Learned something today.

I learned something today, about ancient Greek theater, nonetheless.

Those great old plays (some of the best ever written, for my money) usually include a chorus. The chorus' main function was, between scenes, to provide commentary and sometimes background information on the events occurring onstage. Today, I realized why the old writers included a chorus: because the parents of the actors playing minor roles and bit parts called the playwright to complain that their children were not getting as many speaking parts as the lead actors. The chorus was a nice way for those background characters to get in some speaking parts, and balance out the allocation of lines.

In a completely unrelated note, I just finished writing the script for the play my students will perform for their graduation presentation, and, coincidentally, it includes a chorus!

While in Malaysia, juggling on the beach, I met a really charming couple. We exchanged cards, and managed to make e-mail contact.

They sent me this fantastic picture of the peaks on Langkawi Island -- the picture of Amy and me is from this same area, but their picture really gives a great view of the area, and the myriad colours green on those mountainsides (one of my favorite parts of the trip -- I talked so much about the trees in the cable car up, that Amy teased me about it that afternoon).

Saturday, January 13, 2007

If you like martial arts stuff. . .

As you may have noticed, I learned how to put movie clips onto my blog. This pleases me.

Here's a guy called Tony Jaa, a new action star from Thailand. His fighting style is Muay Thai, which might be the deadliest martial art -- many world class ultimate fighters, pride fighters, and K1 fighters are trained in Muay Thai because it's sickeningly effective. He's awesome -- in his films, he does all his own stunts, and his skills are just silly. Here he is at a demonstration in a theatre.

And if you think the whole martial arts thing is silly, then check this one out instead. It made me and my roommate howl.

At its best, and at its worst, I suppose.

Today my student invited me to his house, so I went and had a nice chat with his father and mother, while Willy played lego and built things out of jenga blocks. I used to teach his older brother, Peter, back in 2003, and he was the one whom I once made to laugh so hard he sprayed mango juice all over his notebook. It was quite nice. We talked about how great Korea is (of course) and what an interesting experience it has been, living here.

Take care!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Malaysia report, part two.

Personally, I think a good thirty to forty percent of a travel experience depends on the food. You can go to a beach resort, get some rainy, cloudy days, but still eat well and enjoy your time. On the other hand, if your first meal in a destination gives you stomach trouble for the rest of your stay, you won't exactly write home about your adventures, except in the "you think YOU had a bad vacation?" way. Sure, some vacations, everything goes wrong (my trip to Japan with Matt was like that: things went awry from beginning to end, but we still had a fantastic time through the misadventures), and sometimes everything goes right (like my trip to Jiri Mountain and Kwangju, again, with Matt -- every single endeavour was a full-fledged success), and sometimes things fall somewhere in between, but whatever else happens, ya gotta eat well. Here are the best meals I had while in Malaysia.

1. The malaysian restaurant where sea foods were displayed with prices per 100g. All the food was fresh-caught that day, and you could point at a fish and ask for a specific way of cooking it, they'd weigh it, and barbeque (or steam, or broil) it for you. We went there one night, and they said, "we're so busy -- it'll take an hour for the food to come out". We left that night, but came back a few nights later, intent on bucking up and waiting the (this time) 45 minutes to get this food. The meal featured some redsnapper, some squid, and some noodles, and the redsnapper was the best white fish meat I think I've ever tasted. Rich, flavourful and buttery, it barely needed chewing -- just savouring.

2. A little Indian restaurant right across from our hotel on Langkawi Island, where we had our first meal (late lunch) on the island. I ordered mutton in that wonderful, long-grained rice that Indians make so well, all done up just spicy enough, and scooped onto naan bread (the soft flatbread that's probably, after lamb, my favourite Indian food).

3. A little outdoor cafe where I ordered a rice dish "in the style of the country people" with a flower cut up into it, that served both as colour and as flavour. These little pink petals were like something between a gentler ginger and a sweet lemongrass, and they made the dish (along with the other green herbs and vegetables in the brown rice) a proper rainbow. Tasty, too.

4. Laksa soup had been highly recommended to me by another woman I met on the beach, so we walked up and down the restaurant strip to find it. It's a red, mildly spicy soup with fish in it that has about the consistency (in the one I had) of eel, along with a few other vegetables. It was quite nice, and the dessert we had afterwards was a sweet bean paste in crushed-ice with coconut milk on it, which, now that I describe it that way, somewhat resembles the Korean dessert Pat Bingsu, with coconut milk instead of cream.

5. The farmer's breakfast at a place called "the Tomato Garden" right next to our motel. Big hunks of potato and onion, turkey-bacon (to stay hallal, in the Muslim country), scrambled egg and fat slices of toast, with proper drip coffee (blast that instant coffee so pervasive in Korea! Blast it all!), and, if you wanted, fresh orange juice. It wasn't Malaysian, but it sure was good, and the lady who served it to us had a great smile, and one of the most perfectly-shaped heads I've ever seen. (You wouldn't think, but a well-shaped melon can be really attractive -- right up there with perfect teeth among the kinds of things that can take a nice face and suddenly make it exceptional)

6. (ignominious mention) The restaurant where they put milk in the scrambled egg for the egg and tomato sandwich, so that it set off my allergic reaction and I couldn't eat the darn thing. They didn't charge us for it, but it sure wasn't the best Last Meal On Langkawi Island I could have had. In fact, our Last Meal Before The Flight was also pretty unimpressive: after waiting in line at this crowded place (usually crowds are a sign of a good restaurant, right?) and even after asking the waiter for chef's recommendations, the Chinese food we had just before leaving for the airport was mediocre at best, and certainly the most disappointing dish of the trip.

Everywhere we went, the spicy soup (tom yam, a great Thai staple) and the curries (an Indian staple) were fantastic -- yay for countries with diverse cultural influences! Plus, Tiger Beer (from Thailand -- kind of the fallback on-tap beer there) is much better than Cass or OB (the fallback on-tap beers in Korea).

But boy, we ate well there! Plus, because we never quite got the price scale sorted, we kept ordering way more food than we needed, thinking "it must be a small portion if it's so cheap!" and so we got chances to sample much more food than we ought to have.

Now I'm back in Korea. Maybe I'll post my forty-three favourite Korean dishes in a later post.

Bye now!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Everybody should have a New Year's Resolution.

My student Eric's new year's resolution:

"Teacher! My New Year's plan! When I in bathroom and shwii (the Korean word for peeing), and shwii is on toilet and messy, I New Year's plan to clean up the shwii!"

"That's a great New Year's plan, Eric. Your mommy will be very happy if you do that."

In that vein, my New Year's resolution is that when I forget to wash my dishes after I
cook, and leave them for so long that my roommate washes them instead, so that he can use the pan or the plates, this year, I'll say, "Thanks" instead of "Sucker".

Report on Malaysia!

I'm back from Malaysia, relaxed, fadingly sunburnt, and full of great stories. I didn't bring a camera to Malaysia (my two coworkers both brought theirs, and one of them is a shutterbug, so I figured we'd get plenty pictures), so I made a point of journalling every chance I got, to write down impressions, thoughts, things I'd noticed, before they escaped me, and I filled up almost an entire (small, to be fair) journal!

The trip was, to apply an overarching theme (without dismissing the rest of what happened) a journey of characters.

My favorite characters were:

The cross-eyed restaurant owner who'd ordered for us before we had a chance to say "actually, I DON'T feel like having redsnapper tonight" -- it took a concerted effort to get him to order something else for us that we actually wanted, but once he had, the dishes were quite marvellous!

Jimmy, the hotel proprietor in Georgetown on Penang Island. Two buildings down from his inn were some sketchy kinds of places with ladies in short skirts standing in the doorway, but he (in a crackled, raggedy old voice, with his gap-toothed mouth,) helped us do everything we wanted to do, including connecting us with a guest house on Langkawi Island (such a beautiful little resort island), taxiing us around, and storing my winter jacket while I didn't need it.

The guy at the Jam Band Cafe. His speaking voice sounded like a sore-throated man, doing an impression of a little boy disguising his voice to sound like an adult over the phone. (Follow that?) Then, when he sang, he sounded like the lead singer from Pearl Jam, if someone were holding his head under water and squeezing his larynx. Every break between songs, he'd go from table to table, asking people if they played an instrument, if they wanted to come up and jam with him, or else he'd introduce the next song in his unbelievable voice (and with a mullet to stop a bullet), saying things like "this soooong is a ... it's a song for people who want to hear songs with people, because people, you know, that's what it's all about, is people understanding and understanding you understanding me that life man, that's people. Sorry about me all this woof woof bla bla dadedah in the talking with all you people out there. . . " and so forth. Fantastic. For the rest of the week we'd occasionally start talking like him, for giggles and such.

The masseuse from Borneo who started chatting about music with me, and by the end of the hour-long massage was singing me full choruses of her favorite Rod Stewart and Destiny's Child songs, to see if I knew them.

The lady who sold me one of those lovely light cotton beach shirts, and talked in this singsong voice that was either an exhausted person trying to put on a cheerful face, a bitter, disillusioned woman being sarcastically chipper to the tourists she despises, or a second language English speaker using a style of intonation that's really cute or charming in her original language, but sounds incredibly forced and contrived in English. Couldn't quite get a read on her.

The taxi driver who took me across Langkawi Island on the way to a tour (also mulleted. . . this is making me nervous), and told me, among other things, "my wife left me to go back to the city. Didn't like island life, slow pace, didn't like that I have less earning power here than pushing pencils in Kuala Lumpur. I said she can go. . . but if she wants to come back, she might have to take a number!" and "You gonna stay in Korea long?" (me:) "I don't know. My sister really wants me to come back to Canada for good." "Well you tell your sister, if she can find a rich lady in Canada wants to marry you, you'll come back to stay." The guy cracked me up about three times a minute.

The main port in Langkawi Island was a town called Kuai, which literally means "gravy" because there's an old legend that some giants spilled some gravy on that spot. What a great legend! Forget myths and tales and narratives! Here's to random placenames from cute anecdotes about mythical beings! "Yes, this town is called. . . Missed A Spot, because after Velman the Giantwife washed the Titan Balgor's shirt for the first time, he spotted a wine stain, and threw his shirt down onto the very place where our city hall now stands!"
"What happened next, grandfather?"
"They went on to the next island, and spent the second night of their marriage where we now find the town called 'Bickering'"

Here are some pictures.

"Lah" is the saying Malaysians (apparently) use the way Canadians say "eh". We saw this sign encouraging Malaysians to learn proper English.
The music at one club was so terrible, Amy and I had to bust out some ballroom moves, while Antony took pictures. This picture won both "best action shot" and "silliest face".

Did I mention that it's really pretty in Malaysia? And that I had to wear shorts this day (December 27th)? That's right, it's true. Sucka!

(These pictures are from Antony's camera. That's why they're all of me and Amy together.)