Out and About in Seoul

Trying his luck on the Han River

Trying his luck on the Han River

Today the weather was beautiful – sunny, 25 degrees with a slight breeze. Korea is known for its extreme weather: it’s kinda like the (freezing) winter is 5 months and 2 weeks long, the (boiling) summer is the same, while autumn and spring get a measly 2 weeks each. So, when a lovely day comes along, I’m usually itching to get outside, like today. Since there was nothing that I needed to attend to urgently, I decided to head down to the Han River, which snakes its way through the middle of the city, separating it into north and south.

I headed on the subway and then walked along the concreted waterfront to the place where I could hire a bike. Although it’s a bit inconvenient, it’s a great service for someone like me who loves to ride but doesn’t want to own a bike for fear it wouldn’t get much use (riding on the roads is tantamount to suicide and I just don’t have the time or inclination to be out and about on a regular basis).

Typically, the woman who is renting out the bikes looks at me as if I am some kind of sea monster who emerged from the river. She is trying to remain composed in the face of a foreigner. Luckily, my baby Korean gets me what I need. And then, vamos! I have an hour to ride along the paths that go for miles along both the west and east side of the river. I take the east route and look over to the north side Seoul, where Seoul Tower, the highest point in the city, stands proudly atop Mt. Namsan in the center of the city.

The north side of the city is home to the biggest shopping areas and was the traditional center back when kings and queens lived in the palaces that are empty tourist attractions today. It’s home to the oldest universities and the grandest houses, built with old money.

The south side, where I live, is newer and is home to the now infamous Gangnam. As Psy sings, it’s a district where the nouveau-riche live, full of plastic surgery clinics, clothing boutiques and where a single mango can set you back $70. Personally, I find the area to be bland, full of drone Barbie doll lookalikes and pretentious-looking shops, bars and cafes. Compared to the ritzy areas of other major metropolises, such as Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and New York, it’s nothing special.

Still, as I peddled freely along the river, I couldn’t help but admire the effort that has been made to make the area more beautiful and user-friendly, with outdoor exercise equipment, small gardens and shaded grassy knolls for young lovers or families to spend time together. There was the odd person or couple trying their luck with a fishing line (note to self, don’t ever eat fish that comes out of there). Some futuristic, ostentatious event centres have cropped up, and float at the water’s edge.

The one cliche that is always thrown around about Seoul, both by the media, locals, expats and tourists, is that it’s dynamic. This is absolutely true. There is always dynamism, creativity and innovation happening in every corner of the city. Unfortunately, this also usually means to rip down and rebuild. However, in the case of the Han River, I think it’s more a case of making the most of what the city’s got.



Capoeira: In the Presence of Greatness

Photo by PJB

Photo by PJB

After months of intense training and anticipation, our capoeira group was finally graced with the presence of Mestre Cobra Mansa, one of the most respected capoeira masters in the world. We were able to spend an entire day with him as he led us through a workshop, lecture and finally, an ecstatic roda (the circle in which the students play against him and each other).

Now in his mid-’50s, Mestre Cobra Mansa (whose name translates as ‘tame snake’) is a small yet striking figure. With askew grey dreadlocks, thick, unruly facial hair, and toffee-coloured skin, he resembles a wise shaman or scorcerer who has just emerged from the darkest corners of the Brazilian rainforest.

It soon became apparent, however, that he carries within him decades of hard-won intelligence, life experience and unrivaled capoeira skills and knowledge. While his physical prowess was phenomenal for someone of his age, I was most struck by his words of wisdom at the talk he gave at the beginning of the first session. That is when I knew I could trust him, that he was the real deal.

Cobra Mansa vs. Idalina

Cobra Mansa vs. Idalina

He told us that the only way to improve is to keep making mistakes. To keep failing. Fail. And fail again. And again. He referred to himself as a ‘capoeira baby,’ stating that he too, had so much more to learn and that one’s capoeira journey is never complete because the path never ends. He said that although the world is now so competitive and we always have to pit ourselves against others, we should only measure our own progress and compete with ourselves. The goal is not to be better than anyone else, but to try your best and be better than before. Also, he emphasized that when we train, we need to reflect afterwards on our performance and think about the things we did well, congratulate ourselves for our progress and successes while thinking about one of two things we could improve upon the next day. In short, he created a safe learning environment. This was so refreshing considering that many capoeira teachers take a militant approach to teaching that borders on aggression, emotional and physical abuse, humiliation and shaming of the students – perhaps in the name of some kind of misguided tough love.

The students present at the event represented the entire beginner-advanced spectrum, so for those of us who are closer to the beginner end, it could’ve been intimidating and highly anxiety-provoking. However, he encouraged each of us to have a turn at playing all the instruments and singing in the bateria (the row of musicians at the head of the circle), in addition to working sequences in pairs. It was a kind of exposure therapy – just getting in there and doing it before fear could talk us out of it. The physical work was grueling, but the sense of accomplishment at trying and learning something new, in the presence of such a revered and expert teacher, was amazing.

What struck me most about Cobra Mansa was his energy. He was jet-lagged, fending off a cold and had been teaching at the school of capoeira he had founded many years before prior to our event. Anyone who has ever taught anything knows how exhausting it can be on all levels. Yet, he gave 110%. He didn’t tire and sustained his attention and focus throughout the day, remaining professional, energetic and even-tempered.

After lunch, he gave a lecture about a long-term project he has been working on to make a documentary about the search for the roots of capoeira in Africa, particularly in Angola. In collaboration with a professor from the University of Essex in the U.K., he has visited the continent four times over six years but he said that he cannot say conclusively whether the art originated in Angola or in Brazil. He showed video footage of Angolans playing the “zebra dance”, which bears some resemblance to basic capoeira moves in which you can only use your feet. It seems likely that this could be the closest ancestor to capoeira.

Cobra Mansa vs. Tigresa

Cobra Mansa vs. Tigresa

Other interesting things he came across was a village in which you can only participate in dance rituals if you are very rich – and because the economy of this place was based on cows, if you own a lot of cows, then you are rich. And then you can participate. Usually, men are allowed to dance while women are only allowed to play the instruments (although this is something of an honour in this matriarchal society). He also said that in some places, it was taboo for women to dance in public or in front of men. However, the women did so in private together which had also been the case with capoeira in Brazil.

Regardless of the origins of capoeira, the take-away message for me from the footage we saw is that traditional performing arts are slowly but surely disappearing. Mestre spoke briefly about the cultural erosion and amnesia he encountered in Angola as local knowledge and the education system had favored the language, culture and ideology of the Portuguese colonialists. Whatever the reasons for the loss (colonisation, war, globalization, homogeneity, popular culture, media), it is undeniably tragic that these links to the past which give meaning and identity to villages and nations will likely be gone forever, being drenched in blood and buried under the cultural hegemony of Starbucks and McDonald’s like the bones of our ancestors.

The final part of the event was the roda, in which the students played with each other and Mestre in the circle. It was a chance to show and use what we had learnt that day in a playful atmosphere, to show respect to our teachers by giving our energy and a chance to intensify the connections that had developed throughout the day. While incredibly fun and adrenalin-inducing, playing in a roda can be exhausting. Even after a few minutes, most people find themselves sweating and puffing. I played with him for a few minutes, using the Angola moves he had taught us (a style that is played very close to the ground, using a lot of arm strength, that he is an expert in) and I was dying. Yet, he played for an hour non-stop, his energy never flagging and always able to outmaneuver his opponents with his cunning trickery and theater, a real crowd-pleaser.

In a state of elated exhaustion, we then went to eat together. I was able to sit near him and talk to him about his life in Brazil, the farm he lives on where he promotes permaculture and his plans for the future. In true mestre style, he said he would never stop teaching or traveling to teach. Also, because it was my birthday, and his the following day, we had a small celebration before it became apparent that finally, he would need to leave us as gracefully has he had arrived, showering the students with hugs and kisses on his way out.

Last man standing

Last man standing

All in all, the day was enriching on many levels – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It reinforced some personal goals I have and reflected back to me some of my strengths and weaknesses, ultimately leading to more self-awareness as well as the realization that I am a few more steps forward on this journey of a thousand miles. Perhaps most importantly, it gave me that very rare and precious feeling that I could accomplish anything – a sense of freedom from mental conditioning, barriers and limitations. The feeling of being alive, present and content.

To learn more about Mestre Cobra Mansa’s documentary project, check out this link. Also, to see how he is promoting sustainable living by merging permaculture and capoeira, take a moment to read about the community he founded in Brazil here.

On a Roll

reflectionNow that my fire for poetry has been reignited, I’m finding striking, mysterious poems everywhere.

What follows is a deceptively simple yet achingly beautiful, nurturing and hopeful case for loving yourself, something that everybody struggles with. It is written by esteemed Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott.



Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Also, today Neruda was still on my mind and so I went and reread one of my favorite love poems by him – a majestic piece that expresses so well the ego in love.

If You Forget Me

I want you to know
one thing.

You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists:
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.

If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.

If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.

if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.


wordsIn a memoir I read recently, the narrator writes about the time when he met the woman who would become his wife. She wrote poetry, he said. During their courtship, they would spend hours writing and reciting poems to each other. These words slowly began to dislodge something inside of me…poetry, poems, poet. And then, a flicker of recognition: Hey! I know what that is! I used to do that! I used to be good at that!

Rewind to the Christmas before last. I was in New Zealand in my hometown and I bumped into an old friend I used to be quite close with. Petite and blond, she bares a striking resemblance to Kylie Minogue and was visiting from London. We took the same poetry writing course at university, as part of our English degrees (she got hers, along with a law degree, I downgraded mine to a minor). She asked me if I still wrote poetry. I said “Um, not really.” She replied, “That’s a shame. You were really good. You could do something with it.” A nice compliment and an interesting thought, but still, too traumatized and burnt out from graduate school, which I was only halfway through, I did not put pen to paper.

Fast forward to a year later. Just a few months ago, on a whim, my coworker in Seoul  invited me to a yoga class. It was in a dingy building in Seoul’s version of Chinatown for white people. All five of us fit snuggly into the room, which we shared with a little hamster named Pete. (The teacher warmed me that while free-roaming Pete usually keeps a low profile, he might pop out from his hangout to spend some time with us. And, indeed, at one point, as I am easing into downward dog, my eyes meet with a pair of little black shiny eyes, whiskers and a tail. Pete is staring me right in the face, as if to say, “Hey, you’re new here, aren’t you?” I let out a high-pitched princess-worthy scream, and he quickly scuttles away. Unfortunately, my friend tells me a few weeks later, Pete froze to death in what was one of the coldest winters in recent memory).

After the class, I noticed that the guy who came late looks familiar. We get talking and soon enough, I find out that he was also in that poetry writing class all those years ago on the other side of the world. He is working here too, the same kind of university gig. He also tells me that another guy from the class is around these parts too. Quite a high number considering that there were only 12 of us in the class.

This random meeting brings back a flood of memories from that time. Why I write about it now is because I think it is kind of funny, kind of cliched. The professor for that class was a very talented, famous/notorious American writer who was known for being difficult to get along with but also for shaping some of New Zealand’s best writing talent. Some of the students had moved cities and universities to be in this class. Past students had gone on to write books and win awards.

Our seminars involved sitting around a long table and critiquing our work which was submitted anonymously. We were the Stoner, the Hippy, the Reverand’s Wife, the Farmer’s Wife, the Bohemian, the Hipster, the Wounded Child, the Sophisticate, the Rastafarian, the Intellectual, the Goth and me. My creations, which were about family, travel, relationships, and of course sex and death, were called ‘inane’, ‘banal’, and ‘vapid.’ I had to run to the library to look in the dictionary to see what these words meant at the end of each session.

To celebrate the end of our course, we went to the teacher’s cabin-like house in a small community on the coast known for its large population of artists, musicians, sailors and people with substance abuse issues. We sat around, listening to Dr. Dre (amazing poet, according to the professor) and drinking cheap red wine from a cask. And then, one of our classmates comes late. He sits down and looks confused. He looks like he’s on the verge of a panic attack. We talk to him and try to pry out of him what is wrong. His agitation increases as he relays the day’s events: he took some LSD, and now he feels like he is turning into a woman. He is trapped inside the wrong body. He wants us to help him get out. Whhaaaaat?

Yes, that happened. Of course it happened. He talks some more about how he is feeling and we try to comfort him. Someone eventually has the idea of massaging his shoulders in order to bring him back into reality. But now, the atmosphere is too weird. We eventually drop the guy home and we all go our separate ways.

So after submitting my poems to the university’s anthology and having them rejected, I pretty much stopped writing poetry. I mean, you can’t make money from it. It doesn’t really have much of a purpose – it’s not like it’s going to end world hunger or stop global warming.

moonThen again, there is something sacred and beautiful about the gentle act of stringing words together that is an expression of your innermost self. Like gliding along alone in a sailboat on a moonlit lake. Maybe it’s worth doing it for the sake of just doing it – for the performance of it, the process. A creative gesture. Poet Jack Gilbert once said in an interview something along the lines of how tragic it is that we are not hungrier to find and express the diamonds inside of ourselves.

Thankfully, Pablo Neruda, one of my favorite poets, was. And hopefully I will be again, too.

…And that’s why I have to go back
to so many places
there to find myself
and constantly examine myself
with no witness but the moon
and then whistle with joy,
ambling over rocks and clods of earth,
with no task but to live,
with no family but the road.

(Pablo Neurda)




Domestic Goddessery vs. Keepin’ it Real

cupcake-azulOver the past couple of months, I have noticed myself becoming increasingly domesticated (and increasingly uncool) – spending more time, energy and money on cooking and cleaning. I’m also spending more time at home, living like an old woman, minus the cats. For dinner tonight, I made a salad with green leaves, vegetables and seeds I don’t even know the names of followed by a raw, dairy- and gluten-free dessert. But wait, it gets more exciting. Soon I will start reading a book about World War II, and probably by 10pm I will have fallen asleep with the book on my face.

My own foray into domestic goddessery has seen me start to cook more and more in an effort to be healthier and save money. My cleaning and tidying habits are bordering on OCD. I have spent substantial amounts of money ordering exotic hippy food over the Internet. The only thing that is not organic in my fridge is the fridge itself. I even purchased a blender to make green smoothies.

What is fueling this obsession? I think part of it may have to do with reading the Mommy blogs. That’s right, sometimes I indulge in reading blogs written by Type A mothers who are on a mission to portray their lives in the most flattering light possible – in a sense, creating a fantasy that the reader/consumer is drawn into…and it totally works.

These blogs are easy to find. Usually, they are written by attractive white American or Canadian women who are married to a tall white husband who wears coke bottle glasses with one, two or sometimes three young children. Their lives exude a kind of bourgeois hipsterness in which each day is a new opportunity for exploring (and consuming) expensive food, fashion, furniture, art, Apple products and all natural, environmentally-friendly cleaning things. Home renovation projects feature frequently and prominently.

And maybe I sound a little snarky. But truth be told, I love these blogs. They provide me with some escapism. Sometimes when I need a break at work, I will spent five minutes reading a post or two and feel rejuvenated after doing so. I feel like some of these women are my friends, like I know their children. Which sounds creepy. Anyway, I also get lots of ideas about my own life from their vast troves of information – about chemical-free cosmetics, or easy-yet-delicious pasta dishes, about new, interesting books and music. And it’s all frreeeeee.


In their construction and portrayal of their lives as seemingly perfect – one amazing domestic adventure after another – I think they do their audience a disservice. I mean, for sure, there’s always the danger of TMI or over-sharing, and there are some things most people would agree are just too banal or gross to mention. However, a dose of reality would go a long way to helping readers identify with the characters, their trials and tribulations. Holding up such a picture of idyllic domestic bliss, which very few people can live up to, perhaps sends a message that your (the readers’) life sucks and you are a bad parent because your kid vomited after eating too much candy.

One writer, in the FAQ section of her blog responds to the question: Is life really that perfect?

i never said my life was perfect. it’s not. no one has a perfect life.  but i choose to look at what i am blessed with rather than what i do not have. i work hard to find the joy in my day-to-day.  regardless, i have terrible days just like anyone. while i try to be honest about the entire picture, i like to keep this blog on the positive side.  please do not ever look at my blog (or anyone’s blog) and compare your life to it. a saying i love, “comparison is the thief of joy,”  has never rung truer than in the blogging world.  i can’t choose what you’ll take away from my blog, but i hope you’ll take away a message of finding the joy in what is around you, in your family and friends, and in your surroundings over anything else.

I agree with her wise words. Ironically, there is nothing but smiling faces plastered all over her posts. So maybe it’s OK to let the guard down sometimes and write, ‘this is hard,’ or ‘I feel overwhelmed.’ Maybe it won’t “sell” as well, but it will be real.