Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Seoul etc

For some reason travel days are the most eventful. When it takes 40 hours to go door to door there’s plenty of time for events. Left Sabrina’s place at 11am for 3:30pm flight, realizing en route that the 3 was an 8 and I had five extra hours in Sydney before departure.

Sabrina aside: All is well with her. The entry I wrote about her blowing me off was during this little weird window when I felt bad about the situation and choose to write about it. (Interestingly, if I hadn’t written about it I’d surely forget I ever felt that way; it shows me how important keeping this record is to preserving the experience). Anyway, the “blow off” was more an effort to keep distance and avoid a third hard goodbye. We failed, the goodbye was hard, and now I/we move on.

So I fly from Sydney on a red eye to Seoul. This routing to Bangkok is like stopping in LA on your way from New York to Chicago except the distances are much longer. The western hemisphere equivalent (in terms of latitude and longitude) is flying from Uruguay to Mexico City via Washington D.C.

I arrived in Seoul at 5am with a 12 hour layover. You can’t get to know a place in a morning but you can’t get to know it in a week either so in I went. I withdrew 70,000 Won from an ATM (about $70), not sure how much I’d need. I nearly misread the confusing ATM and withdrew $700 of Korean currency.

The shuttle bus from the airport ($7) took an hour and a half on empty pre-dawn roads to reach the city center. Starving for breakfast I surveyed the area around city hall and found…a Dunkin Dounuts! A bagel with cream cheese and a hazelnut coffee cost $4. They have Coolatas on the menu for goodness sake.

Speaking of cool, its was downright chilly. Thick hats and Burberry scarves were the norm and I busted out my four warmest layers. It was almost like being home, being back in the northern hemisphere at the latitude of Washington, D.C. and feeling my fingers stiffen from the cold. Between 80 degree Sydney and 90 degree Bangkok it was an okay change.

Still, spending hours in the cold got tiresome. I visited a temple across from city hall and made a few circuits around the impressive market, ultimately cobbling together a lunch of roasted corn ($1), two fried dough things ($1), and an Asian pear ($3) so gigantic it took me two sittings to finish.

Waited 45 minutes for a bus back to the airport to show up but after a few nervous ‘How-much-will-a-90-minute-taxi-cost?’ moments it was smooth sailing. After killing another hour-plus it was on to Bangkok.

I never talk to my seatmates on planes because I don’t want to have to talk to them for, in this case, six hours. But the girl next to me was one of the few westerns on the plane and I thought she sounded American. Turns out she was Israeli. Nivi grew up in Jerusalem and we had a really long, interesting conversation about Israel/Palestine and Judaism. I told her how I’ve dated a ton of Jewish girls who all want to marry other Jews. She said, surprisingly, that that isn’t important in Israel and she would have happily married a Christian. Apparently the national bond of being Israeli greatly diminishes the need to close ranks that many of my Jewish friends (or at least their parents) feel.

Nivi said she stopped following the news because she’d given up on peace at home. She, interestingly, was sympathetic to the Palestinian position, “From their perspective we came in a took their land so of course they’re angry, I’d be angry too.” Also, she partially blamed Palestinian violence on their widespread poverty. Most interestingly to me, she explained part of the problem (for Israelis) with allowing a Palestinian state: If they have a sovereign government they can allow all kinds weapons into the country, creating more danger for Israel since any compromise solution is sure to leave a lot of people unhappy anyway.

She said two other interesting things. New York was the only place she’s visited where she didn’t feel the need to hide her nationality. She noticed when she was there how pro-Israel the newspapers in New York are, in her judgment, compared to European reporting. (This may surprise some in New York who hold an opposite view.) Finally, she was less adamant about the moral certitude of Israel than people I know at home. “People who are far away want to say, we are right and we can’t give in to them. But when you are there you’re willing to compromise for some quiet.”

She continued on home, clearly jealous of my journey. She’s 10 weeks pregnant and worried aloud that she’ll never take another trip.

She can take heart in Malcolm, the 72-year old Brit I met on the bus from the airport and shared dinner with. The internet place is locking up so that story will wait. More on Thailand soon.


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