Hiking: because it’s worth it

The destination...almost halfway there. Gulp.

The destination…almost halfway there. Gulp.

Along with drinking soju, the traditional Korean alcohol that tastes like nail polish remover, hiking is a national past time. Given historical, social and geographical factors, it’s not surprising that it is still so popular (and also one of the most popular activities enjoyed by expats).

My Korean friend once told me that back in the day hiking was the core of Korean social life. It was how sweethearts ran away to be with each other, how men networked, and families and colleagues bonded. There was a period in Korea’s history, not too long ago, when the country was very poor, devastated by war. People shopped at traditional markets for necessities only and most people didn’t have any money to spend on frivolous entertainment. Luckily there were, and still are, so many beautiful and accessible hiking trails scattered both along Seoul’s mountainous terrain and further afield, deep in the countryside to provide some respite from the daily grind.

I like to exercise and I like nature, so it would stand to reason that I would indulge in a bit of hiking here and there. I have explored some of the trails around the city and been endlessly fascinated and curious by the quaint temples, ancient rock formations and other remnants of the country’s rich history which dates back thousands of years.

However, it wasn’t until this past weekend that I went on my first big hike (think 6 hours) out of the city. My friend, a lovely Canadian woman with more energy and stamina than an entire Olympic sports team introduced me to the event through meetup.com, which, who knew, has all kinds of cool events happening around the country for like-minded English speakers. I decided to challenge myself to do it, and I’m glad I did.

We woke up early in the morning, met the bus and drove at a snail’s pace, stuck in traffic for a few hours. Finally, once at our destination, Chiaksan National Park in the east of the country, the bus abandoned us. I looked up and felt a sense of doom – the peak that we would be climbing to was so high and so, so far away.

DSC_4462I trudged and stumbled up thousands of steps, over rocks and along uneven pathways. I was sweating and cursing, my calves burning. My thoughts were an endless, repetitive loop of, ‘People who try to climb Mt. Everest are fucking insane.’ But eventually, I fell into the zone where I was present and felt a sense of peace and calm at being surrounded only by the sound of fluttering birds’ wings and the sound of my own footsteps.

The view

The view

There was a huge sense of relief at making it to the peak and when we’d taken in the view of layers of mountain ridges, taken a few pictures of ourselves standing on precariously situated rocks and devoured some Snicker’s bars, it was time for the descent. The relief, however, was short-lived when it became apparent that going down was almost as arduous as going up. Soon enough, my legs were like jelly. But I soldiered on. My fatigue and dehydration were appeased a little bit by the pink flowers that dotted the trails, the random, agitated squirrels that dared to cross my path and the dense green trees that towered over us. Slowly, the sun began to set as we made it back to our base. In the last thirty minutes, we were encouraged along by the gushing of the pristine, peppermint coloured river that snaked around the trail.

The sense of accomplishment was great. Even better was how happy I felt the next day, no doubt a result of all the endorphins. I will definitely join this hiking group again, albeit for a shorter, less difficult climb.

Beauty trumps exhaustion on the homestretch

Beauty trumps exhaustion on the homestretch

Being immersed in nature is hugely beneficial physically, emotionally and psychologically. It’s easy to forget that when you live in a metropolis and are participating in a quasi-rat race. Also, as an expat, it’s easy to get trapped in my own little introverted bubble and forget about all the adventures to be had and interesting people to cross paths with.

Hiking is one tradition I hope Koreans continue to cherish. It’s cheap, it’s challenging, it’s beneficial and it’s a heck of a lot healthier than drinking that hideous soju.








Heroine Worship

Janine di Giovanni

Janine di Giovanni

One woman who has been a big inspiration to me, especially in the height of my idealism in my mid-20s is writer and war correspondent Janine di Giovanni. In fact, I was kind of in awe of her in an almost creepy way – reading everything she wrote and following the turbulent journey of her life online and in print as if we were related.

At the time, I thought what she did was the coolest and most important job in the world (well, maybe except for being a doctor who can save lives). She went into wars all over the world for weeks, sometimes months, at a time and reported from the front lines for the world’s most respected newspapers. I was enamored by her courage and bravery. I agreed with her wholeheartedly when in one of her books on the wars she covered, she wrote about a life changing moment, when, as a young, green reporter in Israel, an Israeli lawyer defending Palestinians told her to “go everywhere, write everything, and give me a brief, a blueprint for life; if you have the chance to give a voice to people who do not have a voice…then you have an obligation.”

She inspired me to start writing and one day, I found myself in a very lucky position as a web reporter for an NGO. I was able to travel to twenty countries around the world reporting on a range of different issues focusing on human rights. Although I never saw the dead bodies or had to find shelter from flying bullets and falling bombs like she did, I saw enough to know that the world is one very fucked up place.

The event that has always stuck in my mind is when I visited Malta. We went to a detention center where refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn and poverty-stricken countries in north Africa had accidentally landed on route to Europe, usually Italy. I hope to revisit this experience in more depth in another post. For now, I just want to say that I was shocked by what had happened to these men – they were being held against their will with absolutely nothing to do all day and had to find ways to pass the time. I saw the loss of dignity they had endured- these tall, strong, capable men were in limbo and weren’t allowed to work legally, and had very little self-determination. The Maltese government were punishing them and would not send them back to Africa, nor forward to Italy. In the meantime, they descended into depression, slowly wasting away.

Then I wrote a little article about it, raised a little bit of awareness but essentially, nothing changed. And really, I couldn’t expect it to. Still, it was a pivotal moment for me. And of course, reality set in, where I realized I did not have even one-tenth of the balls needed to do this on a regular basis, to bear witness to so much pointless suffering. There was also the princess factor – was I really going to go ten days without brushing my teeth, or live without a flushing toilet and no running water like she did? Or being in freezing temperatures without heat in Eastern Europe sleeping on a floor? How about not showering for a week and risking getting shot at, tortured, imprisoned and gang-raped? No thanks.

And now, years later, I have again delved into di Giovanni’s life as I recently discovered she had written a memoir about the disintegration of her marriage to another war correspondent – a French cameraman.

In this book, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption, she writes very eloquently and poignantly about how all of her and her husband’s harrowing experiences of war catch up with them as they have a baby and start a new life as a married couple in Paris.

One reason this book is so compelling is that she is brutally honest about the messy, unflattering aspects of herself and her marriage. She weaves the narrative back into her personal and professional past (although she never really separates the two) and relives some of her most traumatic experiences and then moves back seamlessly to her domestic life, reflecting on how these experiences shaped and often, harmed her. In one instance, when she first holds her son in her arms after a difficult, high-risk pregnancy and birth, she asks the doctor if her baby is dead.

She attributes being able to write about her experiences as one way that she didn’t descend into madness and suicide like many of her colleagues who covered the same wars as her – in Sarajevo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and countless others. Her husband, however, wasn’t so lucky.

Bruno is portrayed in her memoir as a rugged, dashing and charismatic figure who protects his wife with his seemingly indomitable courage, a warrior who fights until the bitter end – always the last man standing – and thrives on excitement, danger and adrenalin. Slowly, their marriage erodes as it becomes apparent he is falling victim to PTSD and alcoholism. Eventually, he enters rehab and AA, becomes sober and saves his own life. However, di Giovanni finds that they have both changed too much – the wildness, turbulence, chaos and passion has gone from their marriage and they separate, although remain close and share the parenting of their only son.

I recently listened to an interview with the author on the radio talk about her work. She was being interviewed by her long-time friend and former war correspondent, a Canadian woman, who said, at one point during the interview (I am paraphrasing here), “You know, I thought you had it all. You did what I couldn’t – I left that work because I couldn’t handle it. But you thrived with the dangerous, globe-trotting journalism job, the husband, the baby, the beautiful apartment in Paris – it was portrayed as an enviable life. I coveted it.”

To which di Giovanni replied that she kept up appearances and didn’t talk to anyone about her own suffering because of how all the tragedy that her family experienced as she was growing up was swept aside. Nobody talked about her dying or dead siblings, the drug addiction or other sorrows that plagued her upper-middle-class existence in New Jersey. “But there was so much mystery. We never talked about cousins who disappeared and died, about the problems in our own home: the bags of dope stashed in the cellar; the boys’ grades slipping or the fact they stopped playing sports and spent more time with bongs…We never talked about growing up, about what would happen when I left the painted black front gate or our home and went into the real world,” she writes.

di Giovanni is not looking for sympathy or pity as she lays her life bare. As a journalist of the highest calibre, she is committed to truth and portraying reality in the most raw and honest way she knows how.

Partway through her narrative, as she is coming to terms with her husband’s addiction and the unraveling of their ‘perfect’ life together, she asks the reader these pertinent questions: “Why do we deny ourselves reality? When is the right time to suddenly see the truth?” Indeed.