Seoul through new eyes

seoul templeIt’s been an interesting two weeks – some schizophrenic weather happening as the season transitions from spring to summer. There have been a few scorchers and then some crazy rain and wind storms, as if a very drunk God was peeing and farting at the same time. But it has also been fun – hanging out with my girl Carolyn again and seeing Seoul through her eyes – she used to live here and has since been living in South East Asia, South American and India – so she brings an interesting perspective.

We have, in fact, been extolling the virtues of this complex wonderful-awful, beautiful-ugly city. “It really is an amazing city,” Carolyn said as we were walking along a lantern-lined street at dusk. For once, I had to agree. We proceeded to throw out a series of reasons why – the cheap, safe, efficient, convenient public transportation, the abundance of western shops, restaurants, cafes etc, the flourishing salsa scene, the relative safety and affordability, the mountains so close to the city center, the mix of the traditional and modern, all the interesting things off the beaten tourist track, the diverse expat community…we could’ve gone on.

Then, a few days later, we were sitting in a cozy restaurant in the trendy Hongdae district. It was evening, and the sun was slowly dimming. Rain was gently falling from the sky, the lights in the boutique stores shone, there was a Vespa or two parked outside the restaurant. A well-dressed mixed Korean-Western couple ran across the road, sheltering under a large umbrella. Although just minutes away from the throngs near the subway station, it was eerily quiet. It felt almost European, but with that Seoul aesthetic that I know well but struggle to express in words.

And things like this are coming out all the time, telling the world just how cool Seoul is. I don’t believe all the hype, but I know the city hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves. Let’s hope that changes.



By the apple tree

apple tree“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”

From Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum


Down the Ubud rabbit hole

10922787_10152835605896853_7435212503923004836_o (1)Having never been to Bali before, and having made a last minute decision to come here, I did not know what to expect. My lack of research landed me with some visa issues and therefore some restricted mobility, and that is how I came to spend almost all of my time so far in Ubud, the artistic and cultural center of this famed Indonesian island.

Surrounded by lush green rice fields and jungle, dotted with temples and quaint old-fashioned Balinese family compounds, there is immense beauty here. Deep ravines frame gushing rivers. Monkeys hide high up in the trees and huge coconut palms provide shade from the sun’s heat. Some four hundred cafes and restaurants cater to the transient population which is made up of local Balinese, Indonesians from other parts of the country, expats from all over the world (but particularly Europe, the US and Oceania) and the travelers and seekers just passin’ through.

Ubud is generally a quiet and peaceful place. There’s some traffic congestion on the main street and the markets get a bit crowded, but the pace of life is enjoyably slow and the people watching is phenomenal. At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that the non-Indonesians who visit here fall into one of two categories: twenty year old supermodel couples or beautiful white, rich, married European couples with equally beautiful 2.5 children.

But then you spend some time at The Yoga Barn, a kind of yoga utopia, perhaps attending a yoga class or even the venerated Ecstatic Dance. Visit any of the dozens of raw, vegan, organic restaurants and cafes that dot the busy streets, rice fields and hillsides and you come into contact with a different beast altogether. I got talking to another New Zealander who has been living here for two years. He told me he calls this tribe the Trustafarians. And that’s exactly what they are: young, rich twenty-somethings living bohemian work-free lifestyles off their inherited money. They come to ‘find themselves’ but, my friend tells me, they end up staying and not really finding anything. I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite – I’m all for a good old fashioned Eat, Pray, Love style mission – and indeed, I went on a short one in my twenties. I may even be on one now (replace ‘Pray, Love’ with ‘Read, Sleep’). But how much fucking yoga and eating kale are you going to do? It’s like the kids here have taken the fanatical new age, health obsessed culture of California to a whole new level.

So there we are, trapped far down in the interior, subjective rabbit hole. I hope these man-bunned, tramp-stamped, tie-dyed, colonically-irrigated, glittered beautiful people aren’t doomed to a life of navel gazing and spending their days doing Louise Hay-inspired affirmations (after their coffee enema and morning Vinyasa practice) at the expense of achieving something worthwhile with their lives, of having an impact. But hey, this kind of tourism is helping keep an island economically afloat (even if most of the places frequented by said Trustafarians are owned by expats and the local staff get paid shit and don’t reap any profits).

Perhaps I’m a little bitter. It’s hard not to feel a bit hard done by when you’re surrounded by such self-indulgent, self-absorbed people who don’t know what it’s like to flip burgers at McDonald’s. At the same time, I swing to the other extreme and feel an immense sense of gratitude. Most of the locals have never left the island. Many of them never had the opportunity to get an education. Many are illiterate. I’ve heard the same hard luck story from my various taxi drivers many times – born into a poor family, unable to attend school, limited prospects for employment and earning an income. And yet they managed to teach themselves another language and make a life for themselves. Just to be able to write that sentence (“my various taxi drivers”), just to be here and witnessing this kind of apartheid, the beauty, the poverty, the comedy and the tragedy is an incredible privilege and stroke of luck.


On Spring Cleaning & Tiny Houses

Tiny-Home-Movement-Threatens-to-Go-Big-VideoIt’s that time of year again, when the temperature leaps from -4 degrees celsius to 20 in the space of a few days. The cherry blossoms burst open in all their pink loveliness and that North Face puffa jacket that has been like a second skin over the past few months gets tossed into the back of the closet.

And then the Monica Geller-worthy cleaning frenzy starts, with old clothes and random bits and pieces finding their way to the ‘charity clothing bin’ across the street, which means they’ll end up in a clothing market in Uganda.

Luckily, I don’t have much to clean or get rid off. Material things have never been important to me and don’t gel well with my nomadic lifestyle. I’ve never had my own car or TV. I have fewer clothes and lady-things than most middle-class women. I have an old MacBook and a decent SLR camera. I have a lot of books and have traveled more than the average bear.

Most expats/migrant workers who live in big Asian cities get used to living in rabbit warrens. Unless you work for the government and/or military, you won’t have a garden, yard, and in many cases, an actual bedroom. You may get lucky as I did and score a balcony. The upshot is that you realize you can live comfortably in a small space and all the money you save by being able to live in a Tiny House (they’re a thing, see image above) when you repatriate, you can spend elsewhere.

And thus, I hereby declare my membership to the growing Minimalist movement (yes, also a thing). I came across this concept when I read about The Minimalists – basically two rich, white dudes who wanted to break the cycle of working hard and spending harder. They started to understand the relationship between time and money. They began to realize that maybe happiness doesn’t lie in working 80 hours a week in order to have all the latest gadgets. Revolutionary, I know. Having built their new lives around this movement, they’ve thought long and hard (they now have the time) about what is entails. In their own words:

At first glance, people might think the point of minimalism is only to get rid of material possessions. Eliminating. Jettisoning. Extracting. Detaching. Decluttering. Paring down. Letting go. But that’s a mistake.

True, removing the excess is an important part of the recipe. But it’s just one ingredient. If we’re concerned solely with the stuff, then we’re missing the larger point.

Minimalists don’t focus on having less, less, less. Rather, we focus on making room for more: more time, more passion, more experiences, more growth and contribution and contentment. More freedom. It just so happens that clearing the clutter from life’s path helps us make that room.

Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s important things—which actually aren’t things at all.

So, as life as we know it hurls towards disaster (we consume too much, we work too much, we destroy the planet far too much), wouldn’t it be nice if everyone in the privileged, developed countries turned over a new leaf?


This is Tuscany

florence instagramFrances Mayes hit the nail on the head with her book and subsequent movie about Tuscany. I won’t even mention the title here because everybody knows it. While some things in those classic portrayals of Tuscany may be exaggerated here and there, the essence is the same. All of it is true. I’ve experienced it first hand – sleeping in a renovated farm house in the countryside surrounded by olive groves; taking a stroll down to the piazza of a medieval village, waiting for the annual fair that celebrates the village’s hundreds of years of history to start. But there are other, more subtle details that define this culturally rich and stunning region. Away from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Florence Duomo, and the myriad medieval villages, how do you know you’re in Tuscany?

Some hints: It’s being at the beach, standing on a lookout point and enjoying the view of the island of Corsica in the distance, then looking down to see a woman with bleached blond hair performing fellatio on her boyfriend. It’s the couples, mostly young, who linger against walls and fences in public places, unashamedly dry humping in broad daylight.

It’s noticing that there’s a lot of bleached blond hair, often complemented by bright blue mascara. It’s the 80’s fashion that’s not worn ironically. Doc Marteens, New Wave, asymmetrical hair cuts, nose piercings. And then there’s the ubiquitous leopard print worn by a large percentage of the female population, from young girls to old nonna. Sexy underwear, leggings, scarves, bags, jackets. Shoes, even.

It’s having dinner at a hundred-year-old restaurant (Italian of course, are there any other kinds in Italy?) and having your Italian dining companions burst into traditional Tuscan folk songs at the top of their lungs. It’s having the chef come out and join in.

It’s the 20- and 30-somethings who live in Florence and have to work three jobs to make ends meet. It’s the overqualified professionals who have worked abroad and returned home to find no place for them in the Tuscan job market which is a kind of mafia in itself and as dynamic as a dead boar.

It’s walking through Florence’s surprisingly ugly and shabby train station and seeing a feisty Italian couple in their late 20s having not only a screaming match, but punching and slapping each other. Nobody looks twice and my Italian companion tells me that it’s normal.

It’s the North African refugees/immigrants who walk around with loaded with piles of  random trinkets and other useless things. It’s nearly always men hawking these things, moving from bar to restaurant to street corner. As they can’t work legally, it’s the only way for them to get an income. The locals are annoyed but they usually remember their manners and shoo them away.

As a tourist, Tuscany offers many incredible things to see and eat. ‘Picturesque’ is far too diluted to describe the beauty of the region and its heritage. But lurking around the piazzas and castles lies a place that is living off the glory of its past. Soon, the region needs to realize it can’t capitalize on this forever.