Friday, October 4, 2013

Chicken, Beer, Karaoke, and Baseball: Welcome to Korea!

I arrived in Seoul around midday on the 24th and had to find my way to the train station that would take me down to Gwangju to visit my friend Jacob. After figuring out how to navigate the Seoul subway system (and going to the wrong train station) I finally boarded the fast train to Gwangju, and Jacob was there to meet me at the train station when I got in.

One interesting thing I noticed was that as soon as the train arrived, some people literally jumped through the doors as they were opening and sprinted through the train station to be the first in line for a taxi. It seemed a bit unnecessary for me and Jacob and I only had to wait at most five minutes for our taxi but evidently some people either had some incredibly pressing business at 7PM on a Friday night or they just didn’t have the patience or desire to wait with everyone else.

We dropped my stuff off at Jacob’s and then went and got some exquisite Korean BBQ. It was my first time having it and while the food was delicious, I think I liked the ceremony around it almost as much. Getting the coals for the grill, grilling the meat at your table, snacking on some kimchi while it’s cooking, and then lastly wrapping the meat with some garlic and sauce in either a piece of lettuce or sesame leaf—couldn’t have asked for a better first meal in Korea. Jacob and I then went out for a beer in the downtown area of Gwangju and then returned to his apartment as I was a bit tired from travelling all day.

The next day Jacob and I had some bone soup for lunch and then met up with Munhee, Jacob’s girlfriend. We had some coffee with her and then walked around a festival that was going on downtown to remember the victims of an uprising back in the ‘80s. There was a water balloon toss, people selling buttons and food, and some music and dancing on a stage. We eventually retired to a bar aptly named “German Bar.” It was around 4PM and wasn’t technically open but the owner let us in and got us a round. Turns out he’d spend a lot of time in Germany and loved good beer so, upon his return to Korea, he decided to start making his own beer and selling it. The place was evidently popular with expats in Gwangju who were sick of the watery, mass-produced lagers typical in Korea. There were some instruments on stage and, as there wasn’t anyone else there, Jacob and I hopped on the drums and bass, respectively, and played a little music. We were both pretty rusty but it was fun to pick up a bass again and lay down a few lines.

That night, Jacob and I met up with Robert, another teacher and friend of Jacob’s, and got some good Korean soul food. We also had some rice wine with dinner which wasn’t too strong but was certainly delicious. A little later, another teacher named Nate came by and after dinner we went to a Norebong, or a singing room. It’s basically like a little karaoke room you can rent for a period of time and sing to your heart’s content. The four of us spent about two hours belting out some great songs before we eventually parted ways. Jacob and I then went and got some fried chicken which is extremely popular in Korea. We finally went back to German bar around 3:30am to watch the Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Dortmund. It was an exciting game but it wasn’t over until around 5:45 and as we left to go catch a cab back to Jacob’s, the sun was coming up. It wasn’t the last time I was to see the sun come up while in Korea.

We understandably woke up late the next day and had some food ordered to the house while we watched some Breaking Bad. Around 5 we decided to head to the baseball stadium where Nate had scored some tickets to the Kia Tigers game. Now baseball in Korea is very different from baseball in the US. Not necessarily in terms of the rules of the game but as a cultural experience, it has many differences.

For one, all the teams in Korea are sponsored by a corporation, so instead of the Gwangju Tigers, it’s the Kia Tigers. Also, you’re allowed to bring in just about anything to the game. We stocked up on some fried chicken, sodas, snacks, and got a six-pack before we walked in. Supporting the team is a much more participative act for the crowd than in the states. Many people had big inflated sticks that you bang together to make noise, every player on the Tigers had both a chant and a song for them. I couldn’t tell the difference between the chants (or songs) but Nate translated some of it as “Chi-su Park, get a homerun!” or “(Korean name), get a hit!” if they were more realistic.

We had a very interesting neighbor named Mr. Han who didn’t speak a whole lot of English but he sure tried and was very generous with his dried fish, squid-jerky, and just about everything as he wanted to share with us. He also yelled a lot at one of the mascots who was supposed to be a female tiger in a baseball uniform. Well, he claimed that the Tiger was no female and made several arm gestures signifying the mascot’s anatomical differences. He also recovered a foul ball at one point and offered it to a kid. The kid was reluctant in taking it, and with due reason, as Mr. Han insisted on planting a big wet kiss on the kid’s cheek before giving him the ball. Before you start thinking anything foul was going on, I’ll say that the kid’s dad was holding him out for the kiss and everyone around was cracking up. Mr. Han was certainly quite a character.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Beijing and the Great Wall

I didn’t have too much of a problem in the Dubai airport, though a few things did stick out in my mind. The first of which was that once I landed and went through customs, I had some frantic messages, emails, and facebook posts from my parents asking me if I was alright and to contact them immediately. Turns out I’d left my Rwandan cell phone in the airport in Kigali and my parents had tried to call it. A Rwandan man picked it up and while some things were lost in translation I think he was trying to tell them the phone was in the airport but they thought he was saying I was detained in the airport (thinking it was Dubai). They thought for some reason I’d been detained/arrested in Dubai and were flipping out. Woops.

Anyway, I eventually made it to Beijing and had no problems in customs and security. All that worrying the day before for nothing! I took the subway (about 30 cents) into town and found my hostel. I immediately took a liking to Beijing. The city was huge, vibrant, and alive. Street food was everywhere and cheap, people loved joking and helping me even though most people spoke almost no English. It was almost the polar opposite of Rwanda and I was more than ready for it.

I walked around the city for a bit and grabbed some fried rice and then explored the neighborhood I was staying in which was pretty close to the center of the city. I took a short nap in the afternoon and then found a night market about a 20 minute walk away. I had some won tons, chicken skewers, and battered and deep fried strawberries, the later of which was my favorite. Some stalls had some pretty bizarre things like sea urchins or starfish on a stick, presumably waiting to be deep fried. I wasn’t feeling quite brave enough to try any of those, though. After I ate a bit I decided to try to find a bar to grab a beer and maybe meet some people. I strolled around that neighborhood for about an hour to no avail. While I didn’t find any bars, I had a good time exploring the city and even walking down some of the small streets through the neighborhoods and catching a little glimpse into the lives of the people through the windows and open doors.

The next day I got up early and went to the Forbidden City. I was told to get there by 8 to avoid the crowds. Well, I arrived at 8:15 and the place was already swimming with people from every continent. Audio guides were available in probably 30 different languages including more than one African language. I spent a couple hours there looking around at various exhibits and then left because I felt I couldn't really appreciate the place with the crowds there. I wandered back towards Tiananmen Square and stopped along the way to have some excellent dumping soup. I ordered it by going into a small restaurant and simply point at what a woman at another table had ordered and it was great. Tiananmen Square was filled with tourists, police, and hawkers selling trinkets. It was huge and meant to be a big grandiose statement. When it came down to it, though, it was just a really big open space of concrete with a few flags and sculptures in the middle of Beijing.

That night I met up with a friend of one of my dad’s colleagues who lived in Beijing and a couple of his friends. We went to a restaurant about an hour subway ride from my hostel and had some good Western Chinese food. It was a lot of beef shish kabobs and other things I don’t normally associate as Chinese food but it was delicious nonetheless. We hung out for a few hours and then somebody mentioned that I might want to catch the subway home soon before it stopped running. As it was only 10 PM, I thought they were joking but evidently some lines stop running at 11 and I didn’t want to have to snag a taxi back.

The next day I again woke up early because I’d signed up for a trip to the Great Wall the day before. I’d done a lot of research on the locations of the Great Wall near Beijing and it just so happened that my hostel could hook me up with a group heading out an area between Jinshaling and Simatai, supposedly the least touristy and most rugged part of the Wall near Beijing. I slept a bit on the two hour trip out there and then started out on the 8 km hike from our drop off point to where the bus would pick us up again. There was probably about 20 of us and I was in front making some pretty good time and walking and talking with a Danish woman in her mid 40’s. The first half of the hike was relatively easy as that part of the wall had been renovated and fixed up in a lot of places. The second half, though, was a bit rough and some places were at a 45 degree angle. It did feel lucky that I’d found somebody to hike with at the same pace, not merely just for the comfort of having somebody to talk to but also that in case I twisted my ankle or something I would’ve had somebody to help me out. The hike was a lot of fun and I sure felt that I earned the beer I had at the end when we got back down to the main road. One German guy had finished before us but I think he took a short cut and missed the most difficult part of the hike because we had caught up and passed the few people who had passed us along the way. We kept up a good pace and though it wasn’t entirely exhausting I did sleep really good that night. After a shower and another trip to the night market, that is.

The next day would be my last in China, which was something I felt very conflicted about. China turned my preconceptions about travelling and foreign countries on its head. On one hand it was what I’d expected: modern, busy, polluted (oh was it polluted!). But on the other hand, so much of it wasn’t what I'd expected: the food was great, accommodations were cheap, and the people were incredibly friendly and loved to joke around with me, even when we the only phrase we both knew was “Ni hao” (hello). Even before this last day I was trying to plan when and how I’d be back, I knew that four days was far to short a time to spend there, even if I was really just passing through on my way to South Korea.

Anyway, on my last day I went to Lama Temple, which was one of the few still functioning Buddhist temples I saw in Beijing. What’s more is that it’s a Tibetan Buddhist Temple. I bought some incense and before entering each building of the huge complex I’d light a few sticks, hold it above my head and bow a few times. I didn’t really know what I was doing but I was just mimicking the people around me as they prayed and made offerings of incense. I spent quite a bit of time here and it was probably my favorite sight I saw in Beijing proper. After I left, I wandered around and found a little roadside café. I sat down, ordered a soda, and then pointed at what a couple Chinese guys were eating at the next table It was some sort of salted beef with a pita-like bread and some garlic dipping sauce. The guys were loving that I just ordered the same thing as them and they tried to talk with me a bit but even though communication was a bit limited, they had enormous smiles on their faces as they kept giving me the thumbs up. They wanted to buy me a beer but I was hot and dehydrated so I stuck with another soda.

I wandered around for a little while and tried to find a Confucian temple. I wasn’t terribly motivated to do more sight seeing so I eventually stopped by a little café and had some traditional Tibetan butter tea. It wasn’t the best thing I’d ever drank but I’d been curious to try some for a while and if you can’t go to Tibet, Beijing is probably one of the next best places to try it. I met some travellers--two Austrailians, a German and an Irish woman--that night at my hostel and grabbed some dinner with them before we went to a bar district surrounding a lake that they knew about. It seemed so strange to me how few bars were around in Beijing but the Australians I was hanging with explained that a huge goal of many Chinese is to save up enough money to buy an apartment in one of the many high rises around and so activities such as drinking which cut into savings and income aren’t too popular. This was one of the few districts that did have bars and live music, so we had a good time hanging out and taking it in. We ended up at a hookah bar and as the subways stopped running at 11, we had to take a taxi back to the hostel.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Theft in Rwanda

My last couple days at Joey’s post followed a similar routine. I woke up around when he left for school, and went out and grabbed some tea and a piece of fried bread. I read for a while at his place, cleaned up a bit so as to be a good guest,  had lunch with him, and then read more once he left to go back to class. On Wednesday I played some basketball with the high school students again and had a lot of fun again. Joey was at a school meeting this time, though, so I was on my own with about 20 Rwandan kids who spoke little to no English. It was a fun experience and I had a great time, especially when they asked how I liked Rwanda and the village.  That night we made a Mexican dish of a pork stew, refried beans and Spanish rice. It was incredible. We then watched a TV series and hit the hey.

On Thursday I did much of the same except when Joey got out of teaching we walked about 45 minutes to some natural hot springs. The cement factory in town had developed them into an actual nice place to relax and soak. The big pool/pond was informally separated into a men’s, women’s, and women/children’s section and in typical Rwandan fashion (said Joey) the men had the best spot. We got there a little before sunset and then walked back towards town in the dark. It was so tranquil and calm, it was really difficult to imagine the horror that happened on these very hills during the genocide in ’94. It was something I kept reminding myself of throughout my trip. Well, we stopped by a bar in town and ordered some Akwa Benz, which was basically a platter of grilled pork and onions. It was by far the best Rwandan food I had there. We had a couple beers with the meal and then headed home.

The next morning Joey had off from teaching so he and I hitchhiked to Kamembe, the district capital. We first grabbed a ride with a big cement truck and then with a couple Ugandans in a mini van. The Ugandans didn’t speak much English or Kinyarwanda and I think they thought we were French because as a last ditch attempt we tried to speak to them in French. Well, it seemed they almost solely spoke Swahili so our conversations were mostly restricted to our respective travelling companions. When they dropped us off they asked for some cash, which seemed a bit sketchy because we were hitchhiking and they hadn’t told us they wanted money at the start, the first rule of trying to charge somebody for a ride. We reluctantly gave them a couple bucks and they were on their way.

We checked into a Catholic guesthouse near the border to Bukavu, Congo, and Joey went to run a few errands in town while I went to a different hotel and used the wifi while having some lunch. After a bit Joey came and met up with me at this hotel, which overlooked the border crossing and straight into the Congo. We muted the possibility of seeing if we could go into Bukavu and check out the market or have a beer—mostly so we could say we’d been to Congo. We decided it probably wasn’t worth the hassle and bribes we’d have to pay (without visas) so we hung out for a while and Joey told me about this new game he’d wanted to play called “NGO Bingo” where you sit at this hotel and have a bingo card of 4x4 (or maybe even 5x5) with different NGO names on it and check off the boxes when you a land rover with that NGO’s logo on it pass through either to or from Bukavu. Because of the conflict(s) in the Congo, a lot of NGOs base their operations in Rwanda and commute over to the areas in Congo where they work.

We eventually left that hotel, dropped our stuff off at the hotel, and made our way to a bar on the river south of the border crossing and were literally a stone’s throw away from Bukavu. We played some cards and taught a curious Rwandan kid (looked to be about high schoo level) the game we were playing and then eventually found our way back to the hotel as their wasn’t a whole lot of nightlife going on.

The next day, we woke up and made our way to the bus station. Joey boarded one bus back to his village and I hopped on one to Kigali. We said our farewells, unsure of when we’d see each other next. I got to Kigali and made my way to a guesthouse in Nyamirombo, the Muslim/West African neighborhood. When I showed up at the guesthouse I realized that a small travel folder which I’d kept a bunch of cash, my credit card and my yellow fever vaccination card was missing. It’s a long, dull, and somewhat disheartening story so I won’t go too much into too much detail but I’m pretty sure what happened was that either somebody went into our room at the hotel the previous night and took it or I left it in the room by accident and the hotel denied any knowledge and promptly hung up on me while I was trying to speak to her in French and then she did the same to Joey when he tried to call her and speak in Kinyirwanda. The bus company was incredibly helpful and I do firmly believe that I didn’t leave it on the bus and the last time I really remember seeing the black folder was in the hotel room before we went out that night. The only lucky thing about the situation is that my passport wasn’t in it at the moment. I hoped that whoever ended up in possession of my travel folder used the money inside to help their families and educate their children (if they had any) rather than just spend it frivolously.

Losing the cash and not having a credit card for the rest of the trip sucked but the thing I was most worried about was not having my yellow fever card for when I flew to China the next day. Supposedly it was required to have proof of a yellow fever vaccination when entering China from a yellow fever prevalent zone and I was worried I might get rejected entrance at the Beijing airport or even in Dubai which I had to fly through. I went through a bunch of ideas of what to do, and bounced some of them off my parents between frantic phone calls back and forth. But in the end I did nothing. I grabbed some pizza with a volunteer I'd me the previous weekend and I boarded the plane the next day to Dubai and simply hoped for the best. 

I guess now is when I should make some statements about how I found Rwanda overall. I usually hate these sweeping generalizations but I do have a few about Rwanda I'd like to share, even with how conflicted I felt about the country. Rwanda is the cleanest, least corrupt, and most promising developing country I've ever been to. The youth seem hopeful, the police seem well disciplined and capable, and the country seems from at least an economic and developmental point of view to be taking some massive steps in the right direction. I'm not going to go into any of the political issues surrounding the president and the conflict in Congo because, quite frankly, I don't understand it enough. I know what I saw and heard but as a visitor for only two weeks I can only say that the country looks very promising to me. 

On the flip side, Rwanda wasn't a great place to go as a traveller. It wasn't terribly expensive and it was easy to get around but there wasn't much flavor, both in the sites and food. Kigali is a clean, nice, boring city and most places outside the capitol didn't have a whole lot of excitement to offer. I'm sure the gorillas were great to see but the prices to enter the national parks were way, way to high for me to afford. The legacy of the genocide was ever present, even if it was easy to ignore because the country is advancing and trying to get past it. The genocide memorial in Kigali was one of the highlights of my trip because it challenged me to not only see but accept the terrible things human beings can do to each other. In the end, though, I had an amazing time seeing my good friend Joey and it was good for me to see and experience another African country, to gain another perspective about the continent. Unlike most places I've visited, I don't foresee myself returning to Rwanda any time soon but I am immensely happy I went and it was a learning experience for me. Travel isn't always enjoyable but Rwanda certainly posed a learning experience for me and I'm glad I went and spent a bit of time there.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Meeting Riderman in Kamembe and Hanging at Joey’s Post

Joey and I got up early that Saturday and quickly packed up our bags and belongings. We had a bus to catch at 11am and some Kigali streets to navigate on our way to the bus station in Nyabagogo. We arrived at 11:07 and the bus was already long gone. So we decided to wander around a little bit in search of some food. We wound up at a place that got us some much needed omelets, and they even tossed some spaghetti in mine, though there was again a severe lack of flavor. Oh well, we finished them up and waited for the bus.

We eventually boarded the 12:30 bus (first tickets and thus the primo spots) and talked for a while on the ride down to the far southwestern part of Rwanda. We were heading to Kamembe which is at the southern tip of Lake Kivu. The ride was gorgeous and after a couple hours we stopped for a quick bathroom and food break. We picked up some more samosas, water, and Joey got some brochettes while I stuck with an ear of grilled corn. The ride was awesome and for one of the first times in Rwanda we passed through areas of land that weren’t occupied or settled. Sure, they were national parks with both gorillas and absurdly high entrance fees, but it was kind of nice to pass through a place and just look at the vegetation and mountains all around.

Our mission in trying to get to Kamembe early was that there was a concert going on there that night. The concert was part of a series and it was called “Primus Superstars,” sort of like the American Idol of Rwanda but in Rwanda all the big stars perform so they can help make ends meet. Well, turns out it was a daytime concert and we arrived as it was letting out so that was a bit of a bust. So instead, we met up with some other PCVs and grabbed some food at a restaurant nearby which was actually pretty decent.

We heard about an after party at a bar in the center of town so we made our way down there and we were able to smooth talk our way into the VIP section where a lot of the performers were hanging out. We met a good number of performers but the one who stays in my mind the most is Riderman. We talked with him for quite a while and the more we did, the more I realized he was a Rwandan version of Kanye West. One of the bigger names in hip hop there and with a superiority complex bordering on the absurd. Don’t get me wrong, he was a charismatic and interesting guy but when he proclaimed, “I’m just the best rapper around,” we started laughing. He looked at us shocked and we quickly realized he wasn’t joking. It was fun hanging out with him and Joey got his number so he could hit him up next time he was in Kigali. (Side note: I’ve gathered reports that after my departure, Riderman decided to not return Joey’s text messages. For shame.)

Joey and I split a hotel room that night and the next day we had fun relaxing down by the lake and going for some quick swims. After only about 15 minutes by the water, however, I felt my neck and back getting pretty hot so I had to insist on sitting under some shade. That equatorial sun is no joke, I’ll tell you. Our beach spot was pretty great. Some other Rwandans were there swimming and eating and we had a great view across the lake over to Bukavu in Rwanda.

We made our way to the bus station around mid afternoon and took the 1.5 hour ride to Joey’s post. We grabbed a few supplies for dinner and then made it to Chez Joey where we quickly started working on some dinner as the sun had just set. That night we made grilled cheese sandwiches and some pretty good tomato soup. Up to that point, it was one of the best meals I had in Rwanda. We washed it back with a glass of some pineapple wine Joey had fermented at his place and then watched some TV on his computer before Joey worked on some lesson planning for his classes the next day.

The next morning I got up with Joey and we wandered into his village center so we could grab some tea and I could get a general bearing on the village and where things were. He showed me where the high school was and then I turned around and went back to his place while he taught. Joey has a pretty unique post for Peace Corps. For starters, it’s got a huge cement factory in town which is staffed with over a hundred Chinese workers. I only saw one of those Chinese workers before my last night, though, as they generally keep to themselves, make money, and don’t integrate too much into the local community.

That afternoon I read some, wrote some notes, and then had lunch with Joey on his lunch break. Around 4, I left his house again and met up with some of the high school kids who played basketball after school at a little court near the health center. Joey ran some drills with the girls group and played a little with them while I played with the boys. I think however teams were picked was a bit unfair because while I wasn’t paired with any of the best players, I was certainly paired with the two tallest who were a little shorter than me. We won a lot of 3-on-3 games and lost a few and everyone had some fun. I got a little frustrated towards the end because some of the kids had just resulted to playing rough and making some hard fouls on me, but I quickly got over it because I was a good six inches taller than most and I would have probably done the same if I was in their position.

That night Joey and I made an excellent dish of rice with a pork peanut sauce and watched the movie Kinyirwanda, which is about the genocide, though told from a very different point of view than Hotel Rwanda. A bit of it got a little preachy about the current government and it was no surprise to me at the end when I saw the Rwandan Ministry of Arts had partially funded it.

On Tuesday, Joey got out of class pretty early so we decided to go for a swim at the river that ran near his village. It took about half an hour to meander our way through rice paddies and with a trail and team of little Rwandan boys showing us the way. We made it to the river, swam a bit and then I sat and watched as Joey launched the kids into the river, to their squeals of joy and excitement. That day Joey had an English club meeting at around 3 so I went along and it was pretty interesting. I will say one thing I’ve noticed in all my travels is the way people pick up traits and try to emulate the leaders. The president of the English Club acted a lot like Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda. He was direct in what he was saying sometimes, but he was certainly long winded and easily distracted into other lines of talking. He also tried to hit me up for some money to help with an event coming up (which Joey promptly shot down) and how he asked for some “assistance” almost echoed how I’d seen Kagame pander to international crowds and ask for help in the country’s development.

That night, we decided to have a two-person party. Joey was in charge of grinding the beef with his meat grinder and doing mostly all of the cooking while I did a little prep work, made us some of those pointy party hats (so everyone knew we were having a good time), made some drinks, and kept a steady train of LMFAO, Pitbull, and Jason Derulo pumping on Joey’s speakers. The cheeseburgers turned out amazing and we decided to cap our party off by watching Blood Diamond.