Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Kilimanjaro Preview

As some of you know (those who are friends with me on Facebook, anyway), I went to Tanzania over Christmas break. And climbed Kilimanjaro. Climbing was an utterly fantastic, amazing, exhausting experience.

I have 500+ pictures to sort through and a bunch of chores before the school term starts on Monday, so a thorough reckoning will not be forthcoming for a while. To tide you over until such time as I can give you a more complete account, I have created this panorama for you, taken at Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa.

It's huge, but worth it.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Korea, part 4

Oh, yea verily, an aeon it ago 'twas when I set forth to document the course of my voyages. Oh foolish, foolish me! Such hubris, such unalloyed arrogance! to think that such a weighty endeavor could be writ in timely fashion. Muse! Forgive me my insolence, I beseech thee!

Humble reader, judge me not by my tardiness, think me not blind to your presence. For, if not for you, what am I? A pale shadow of nothing, a meaningless echo in the aether: without purpose, empty, and alone.

Recollect, I implore, the fragile tendril of a story with which I last left you: of Llama, my faithful companion, and I, as we set forth, bold and foolish, into a --

Alright, I'm not going to be able to keep that up for any longer... Let's see if I can do a narrative through pictures, instead.

Llama and I went down to Gyonju, which is this pretty spiffy town at the south-east end of the country (due to the awesomeness of high-speed rail (please, please work, Prop 1A!), it took us only four hours to cross the country).

Here, the quaintly urban scene surrounding Seoul Station.





And we'll pretend that this picture was intended as an artsy self-portrait, rather than evidence of my unawareness of the existence of flashes.




Wandering around Gyonju the following day, we encountered a number of mammarially-inclined burial mounds, a representative of which is displayed below.





The real treat of Gyeonju, however, is Namsan Park, a large, undeveloped swathe of land south of the city utterly littered with historic Buddhist relics. It was almost embarrassing wandering around -- one incautious step and you would probably end up shattering a thousand-year old prayer mound. Although noone would likely have noticed.







(Zoom in on this next one)










Of course, our trail was occasionally arduous, requiring sacrifices and feats of almost inhuman bravery. Witness this breathtaking precipice!






Marvel at SonicLlama's daring feats of rope acrobatics!





Of course, such a trial demanded celebration on both our behalves.








At long last, we reached the top of the trail ("a veritable Shangri-La," in Llama's words), a small monestary nestled at the end of a multiple-mile long hike up a challenging hillside trail. Complete with coffee-vending machine.




And large Buddha, around which we stood awkwardly while non-tourists conducted actual, sincere, non-ironic prayers.





Sadly, in punishment for our disrespect, SonicLlama was infected and turned into a werewolf.






And proceeded to shrink my head.





Thankfully, I was soon rescued by my new Vampire friends, who drove Llama off, howling in to the distance.






And helped me get back to the train station, where I hopped on and took the bullet train direct to Los Angeles.




And that's how it really happened, children. Now fetch grampa his Valium!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Righteous anger!

Wow, that's a lot of cop cars. I must be getting close. I pull over to the side of the road to let a convoy of 20 or 30 police cars, sirens blaring and full of cops, pass by me on Wilshire Boulevard. It's 5:30, the height of rush hour. Traffic is normally slow. But now it's completely stopped.

Fortunately, I know what's going on, and I'm on my bike. After a few minutes delay, I hop on my bike and resume racing down Wilshire, passing mile upon mile of stopped cars. It's exhilerating.

At this point, I still harbor vague illusions that I'll be able to make it back in time for class -- I've got an hour, after all. That's plenty of time.

Normally, my Thursday evenings are spent going to my billiards class and generally goofing off. It's a good way to spend an evening and let some stress off. And, as this week had been particularly stressful for me, I was more than a little excited to take my brain off of classwork and paper-writing to spend an evening hitting balls with sticks. But, alas, as I sat there idly writing code for a class project, my cell phone buzzed. It was a text from my friend J.

J: "Huge no on 8 protest on wilshire just past westwood. Bring a bike and your sense of justice!"

Me: "What're people doing?"

J: "Closed off the streets! We're marching west! It's huge, cops, news. We're stalled right now but people are trying to push through"

(Perhaps you have not heard of Proposition 8 -- although evidence suggests that's unlikely. It's an amendment to California's constitution defining marriage as being valid between a man and a woman. The measure was proposed to counteract the supreme court's egregious finding that discriminating based on sexual orientation was, you know, maybe not so cool. It passed, sadly, 52-48%.)

I'm not sure if I was motivated more by my anger at injustice or my desire to flake out on classwork. It didn't much matter. I hopped on my bike, muttered a quick goodbye to my officemate, and peddled furiously south of campus.

And now, here I am, on one of the most major streets in LA, and it's completely shut down.

Sweet.

Luckily, I have no trouble getting ahold of J -- he's at the tail end of the march when I meet up with him, and I hop off my bike and start walking. We're in a crowd of thousands, marching and chanting. Sometimes in unison.

"Where are we marching to?" I ask. "The Mormon temple." I know the temple. I used to live right across the street from it. It's huge. Mormon donors (many from out of state) contributed a significant fraction of the Yes On 8 campaign's funding. And the crowd is marching to their temple to vent. I'm ambivalent about this -- it's frustrating to feel like someone else's religious beliefs are being foisted on you, but I worry that targeting particular groups like this will only serve to foster divisions.

But I don't dwell on this too much. I'm too caught up in the swell of people, chanting "Gay, straight, black, white: marriage is a civil right!" at the top of my lungs, driving myself hoarse. I talk to a man who looks like a young, gay Jesus, whose husband was one of the lawyers that helped overturn Colorado's anti-sodomy laws. He seems nice.

We make it to the temple. The crowd stops. Puts signs up on the fences. Helicopters, ten of them, perhaps, are circling overhead, passing cars are honking at us, in (I choose to believe) support. The police are being remarkably decent: they're clearly not too thrilled with us, but they are extraordinarily efficient about clearing the roads, blocking off side streets, and keeping things safe.

A couple has an impromptu Jewish wedding in front of the temple. Not legal, of course -- I don't even know if they're really a couple -- but it's cute. Everybody cheers.

But then we're restless. The crowd's enthusiasm is waning, and people don't feel like milling around anymore. "March! March! March!" We have huge swaths of the city yet to explore, and we want to move!

We set turn around and set off north. And we keep going. We march through West Hollywood and into Beverly Hills. My feet are killing me, but I'm exhilarated. I yell, I start chants, I smile at befuddled club-goers on the sidewalks. I don't know if I'm here more to support the cause or for the pure pleasure of walking down the middle of major streets and basking in the attention. I don't care. I keep marching.

I can't really bring myself to believe this is going to accomplish anything. The measure was a constitutional amendment. Short of a federal-level constitutional challenge (unlikely) or another ballot measure to overturn it (very likely, but it'll be a few years), I don't see what can be done. Maybe this will raise attention to our frustrations. It's been getting press -- apparently our rally made it to CNN for a short while. I hope that we make the issue a little more tangible, a little more real to some of the people we pass on the sidewalks.

But I don't think about that now. I'm caught up in the emotion and the noise. I keep marching.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election 2008

Alright! Time to prepare for four years of disillusionment!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Intermezzo

I promised one more post about Korea, I know. I'll get there, as soon as I'm done with these fellowship applications and midterms and final projects and... and... Yeah, whine, whine, everyone's got a lot of work to do, I'm not special, I know.

But before I get there, you should know that GenderAnalyzer.com thinks I'm a woman. I had no idea.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A (brief) interruption to my otherwise laggardly Korea-post producing rate. I just happened to be skimming through the Onion (procrastinating, of course, on writing an essay), and came across one of their regular columns, Statshot, which this week was asking "What Else Is On The Ballot?"

Item number 5 on the list is "Portland, OR: Joke about a guy walking into an election booth."

It is more than a little bit likely that I am making too much out of this, but it delighted me to no end to see such an incomprehensible (to most people) joke on their list. No one I know down here has even heard of vote-by-mail, and I can only guess at what they would have made of the joke. I just feel like I'm part of a little, 3.7-million-or-so-strong, secret club right now.

I guess it's kind of a joke if you don't know about Oregon's vote-by-mail, but then it's not nearly as funny.

And that's that. I now return to a more placid rate of posting.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Korea, part 3

If, say, your next-door neighbor took it upon themselves to prune a tree that sat between your two houses and, furthermore, you kind of liked the tree the way it was and rather it not lose any of its branches, what would you do?

Well, if you were the nation of North Korea, you would kill your neighbor. Because, you know, that's how rational people resolve their horticultural disputes.

This is not some sort of weird, obscure political analogy: this really did happen, in the DMZ separating North and South Korea. In 1976, a small troupe of UN/South Korean soldiers were dispatched to trim the branches off of a poplar tree that was blocking their view of the North Korean side of the border. For whatever reason, North Korea decided that the reasonable response to this act of aggression was to dispatch a cadre of soldiers to convince them to stop -- in this case, "convince" meant "murder two of the UN soldiers with their own axes.

I knew North Korea was crazy. I knew that the government practices a policy of political brinkmanship designed to keep the rest of the world off balance. But murdering hedge trimmers? That's just batty!

Of course, there was only one logical response: escalation. Shortly thereafter, the UN launched Operation Paul Bunyan, in which a troupe of engineers armed with chainsaws, backed up by South-Korean taekwondo experts armed with axe handles and soldiers with claymores strapped to their chests, drove up in a convoy of armored personal carriers and proceeded to chop down the tree (leaving the stump, though, as a reminder). According to our tourbook, an entire aircraft carrier was diverted to the region as support.

And this is about where it all happened:




SonicLlama and I, being the nerds that we are, could not fathom the idea of going to the DMZ. And when we realized that you could actually go inside the DMZ and walk on the North Korean side of the conference room!, we were willing to move heaven and earth to make sure we got on one of those tours. Or, at least, give ourselves some very incovenient train trips.

On the course of the tour, our guide made sure to tell us the store of the axe murder incident several times. At the time, I thought they didn't have all that many annecdotes to tell us, but then I realized: this is a cautionary tale. It's not just that we're in one of the most tense, militarized areas on the world, but the people on the other side are completely insane!

So when they told us that there was a dress code to go on the DMZ tour, and that anyone with holes in their jeans or wearing excessively baggy clothing couldn't get through the checkpoints, we believed them. Because, sure, we now completely believed that the North Korean government would be taking pictures of us, and baggy clothing would be used as evidence that South Korea was so destitute its citizens couldn't afford well-fitting clothing. It made sense, right?

Duly warned, we hopped off the tour bus and into the DMZ (I keep wanting to write Neutral Zone: I believe that Star Trek has somewhat ineffably sullied me). Of course, most of the DMZ is military emplacements, so most of the interesting sites we ended up seeing (or, at least, being allowed to take pictures of) were explicitly designed for propaganda purposes. Like this statue memorializing the Phillipine soldiers that you also did not know served in the Korean War:




The ne plus ultra, of course, were the villages. North and South Korea each have villages that they keep in the neutral zone (with elementary schools among the minefields and everything). Our guides kept on laughing about the North Korean village: "They give it all the modern appliances, and it looks nice and all the buildings are big, but nobody lives there! All the lights in the village go on and off at the exact same time! We call it 'Propaganda Village,' because that's obviously the only reason it's there." "What do you call the South Korean village?" we asked. "Ah," they smiled, "we call it Freedom Village."

Apparently the two villages are the site of yet another silly patriotic spitting match. The South Koreans, eager to stick a nationalistic fist in the air, built a 100-meter-tall flag pole in their village. Because, after all, what convinces your enemy of the rightness of your cause but an enormous piece of cloth, right? North Korea, of course, would not be outdone and proceeded to build a 160-meter-tall flagpole in their own village. The South Koreans, apparently cowed, have not yet one-upped them.

Of course, we couldn't actually get anywhere near the villages, so you'll have to make do with this picture. The North Korean flagpole is visible slightly an inch or so right of my left ear. Maybe if you squint.



Not all of the sites were quite so garish or over-the-top, of course. For example, we came across this rather pleasing installment of pinwheels, which I can only assume must serve as some form of anti-war memorial. Or something.



But, of course, we weren't here for the memorials. Oh, no. We were here for buildings. Specifically, the main conference building where all the North/South Korean talks occur. The one where you can walk on the North Korean side of the room!

So, of course, there were talks going on. And the conference room was occupied. And we couldn't actually go inside. On the plus side, I was near something that was in the news briefly. You know when North Korea announced it was going to resume developing nukes a couple weeks ago? Yeah, I was there. In a tour bus. In the parking lot. Hooboy.

Here's the building. This was the best I got.



And then, of course, we checked out the gift shop, where I was able to find apparently the only available postcards in South Korea. Also some North Korean wine, and a bottle of hard alcohol that I've been too scared to try.

Back in our hostel room, we had a brief conversation with an Italian transhumanist--who gave us bad books about philosophy and Japanese grammar--and plotted our trip down to Gyeonju.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Korea, part 2

A silly little pleasure I have when I travel outside of the US is finding visual juxtapositions between old and modern buildings. Yeah, I know, it's a clich├ęd observation. But every time I take a picture of an old castle or temple or funerary monolith, I find my eyes casting about for some little bit of modernity to add contrast.

I'm not sure exactly what the draw is. At least part of me is fascinated with the idea of visualizing the relatively modest (by modern standards) cities whose crumbled remains lay somewhere beneath the skyscrapers I walk by. It's hard to get a sense of the scale of human history sometimes, and I feel like the intrusion of ancient civilization on our modern edifices makes the historical events I read about feel that much more real.

Fortunately, Korea did not disappoint. As a caveat, most of the buildings Llama and I toured are modern-day reconstructions. They're faithful reproductions of the old buildings and occupy the exact same spot, but there was a tiny, niggling bit in the back of my head that said "Hey, this is kind of like going to the The Luxor and telling people I've seen the pyramids." But then I thought, "Hey! Castle! Cool!" and forgot my objections. [As a side note, it's always bothered me that the big Vegas casino containing pyramids is called Luxor. There aren't any pyramids at Luxor. The big ones are in Giza. Luxor just has a bunch of (really cool) temple complexes].

Of course, if you're going to rebuild a temple complex, it would be a good idea to ensure that the damn thing doesn't burn down again. Llama and I came across a number of these (presumably historically accurate) fire hydrants.




Suwon, a little city an hour's subway ride from Seoul, provided us with a solid day's worth of exploration. The primary attraction is an intact (but, I believe, reconstructed) fortress that occupies a huge chunk of the city. As seems to be fairly common in cities that have these ancient fortifications in their midst, the modern part of the city has enveloped and absorbed the older buildings, resulting in (for example), this city gate ensconced in the middle of a roundabout.




Reconstructed or not, I very much enjoyed the opportunity to walk along the city walls, overlooking the much larger but somewhat less impressive buildings below us.





Against Llama's well-intentioned but, I feel, silly objections on the basis of relegious respect. I ponied up 1000 won (~$1) to ring a Confucian bell three times, honoring my ancestors. Llama stood some distance away and would have pretended to ignore me had I not forced him to take pictures. Mom and dad, you better appreciate it.





And, of course, what ancient city would be complete without a hideously tacky tourist vehicle? We decided that, by night, this was probably the vehicle of a Chinese-themed supervillain, perhaps named Ming. We called it the Mingmobile.




And I know Llama posted essentially these exact two pictures before, but I really like them, so they go up on my blog. Hah. The first is a section of the city wall in Suwon overlooking the river. Notice the students walking along it -- I wish my route to school were so pretty. The second is of a Korean admiral who famously repelled a Japanese invasion of Korea with "turtle ships". Not quite as cool as the Mingmobile, but definitely worth an "attaboy".







And, finally, some historical reenactment. We visited one of the larger palace complexes in Seoul on our second day. Striding out of the subway station directly onto the palace grounds, we came across a spectacle of soldiers dressed in what I assume was historically accurate guard uniforms, participating in a changing of the guard. The whole routine, with musical accompaniment and rigid solemnity, took around 10 minutes. For a while, we thought this must be a particularly serendipitous encounter, since how often do you think they change the guard at the palace?

Apparently around 8 times a day, on the hour. We'd essentially watched the Korean equivalent of Civil War reenactors. Which was cool, mind you, but not quite the nifty anachronism I'd been hoping for. Oh, well.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Korea, part 1

[Those of you who read SonicLlama's blog will notice some (strong) overlap between our stories and pictures. Perhaps my posts will provide you with new insight or aesthetic enjoyment, or perhaps you should just skip over these. I cannot instruct you here.]

Since I clearly haven't done enough fun stuff this summer, I rounded off the month of September with a trip to Korea with my dear friend, SonicLlama. We were there for only a week, so we had a bit of a rushed visit. Aware of our limited time, we did our damnedest to pack as much site-seeing as possible into our every day.

So, backpack on back, I strode off onto the airplane and into the distant Orient.



(As a side note, may I say that melatonin is perhaps the most awesome drug ever invented? I tried it for the first time this trip, and after only one day I was over my jet lag. Good lord!)

My first full day in Korea was spent alone, exploring the marvelously bustling city of Seoul. While the majority of them are recently reconstructed, the palaces and tombs littered about the city are something to see. I also apparently managed to show up in the middle of "Korean Thanksgiving", meaning that I got to experience some level of random revelry at completely unexpected moments.

First stop, the Seoul tower:



On top of a hill in the middle of the city, the tower provides pretty fantastic views of the city. And, because of aforementioned Korean Thanksgiving, there was a maypole dance going on.



And I have no idea what exactly this art installation was intended to signify, but there was a plethora of locks attached to a chain-link fence. I thought it looked kind of neat.



And, of course, there was the obligatory wash of neon lights.






While not as pervasive as in Tokyo, I was reassured to see a smattering of random pop-culture ephemera littering the streets. The first, a statue of Gandalf, was unexpectedly standing sentry at a coffeeshop near my hostel. The second, whom I can't place (can you?), posted himself in front of the Cartoon Museum at the base of the Seoul Tower.





And I'll leave you with that little taste of Seoul. To look forward to in upcoming posts: palaces (lots of palaces), enormous flag poles, North Korean soldiers, and Buddha statues (lots of Buddha statues).

Friday, September 26, 2008

Off the wagon

So, there's this thing I've been meaning to tell you. I've been talking about it with a few of my friends, in private, because I haven't really been sure how to break the news to people. I mean, I know you all love me, and you care about me, and you would never think of judging me. But still, this is the kind of thing that really defines you as a person, and I'm a little nervous about it, rightly or not. Normally, I feel like this kind of thing is personal, and I feel a little bit uncomfortable airing the lurid details of my personal life with you. But I care about you, a lot, and so I feel like it would be wrong of me to keep this from you any longer.

It's a bit of a sensitive topic for me, so I hope you'll understand why it's taken me so long to come clean. I mean, it's not every day that you make a big decision like this.

You see, well, there's this thing, and...

Oh, hell. No more stalling. Out with it.

I'm not a vegetarian anymore.



You know, I feel a lot better now that I've told you that. It's such a relief. I had no idea you would care so much about my dietary preferences, but I'm happy we can be honest about these things.

I've been doing my best to fit in and catch up. Check it out! I've even tried silkworm larvae -- I hear that's a fairly common pick among you carnivorous types, right?





And, while SonicLlama has already covered a lot of the details of our joint Korea trip, worry you not, I shall have details of my own forthcoming, shortly. As soon as I finish moving, and get my classes sorted out, and figure out how UCLA screwed up my funding (again!), and apply for fellowships, and...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Road trip, part 2

But, of course, meeting friends and family went fine. Why wouldn't it? Of course, though, visiting Eugene once again made me nostalgic for Oregon booze prices -- viz, the $9 pitchers that you can't quite see on the table there (am I starting to sound like a broken record about this? Sorry).

And so, camera in hand, we wound our way up the Oregon coast, on our way to Vancouver. It's been a long time since I've actually taken the time to explore the coast, and I'd almost forgotten how absolutely gorgeous it is. Alright, maybe not forgotten. But it was good to see again.




View from the Florence Jetty.




Looking down the maw of the Devil's Churn.




Gazing out from inside Devil's Punchbowl.






And then, with a brief stopoff at the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse, we hopped in our car, drove across the border to Canada, and pulled in to Vancouver.

Vancouver, of course, was our ultimate destination. Well, more accurately, we were heading nine hours east of Vancouver to a tiny little town called Salmo, for the Shambhala Music Festival. We were attending at the suggestion of one of L's friends and had almost no idea what to expect. Some sort of electronic music festival, we guessed, but hell if we knew any more than that.

It turns out we'd signed up for a four-day-long rave.

After Coachella, Shamhala is the second music festival I've attended. At Coachella, at least I knew most of the bands I went to see. I explored a few new bands and overheard music from neighboring stages, but by-and-large I was just attending a lot of concerts at the same time.

So I was caught completely off-guard when we pulled through the completely perfunctory security check, set up camp, and wandered into the main stage area. We were early, and music was already playing. In fact, music was playing at some stage at the venue for the entire time we were there, 24 hours a day. Unlike the pervasive security clearance at Coachella, you had to struggle to find a non-concertgoer: beyond the workers directing traffic and the people manning the pill-testing tent, the organizational presence of the festival was almost completely invisible.

And the effect was amazing. As we wondered around the festival at three in the morning, we were sucked up and completely enveloped by the experience. Wandering from stage to stage, dancing, getting lost in the forest between stages marveling at the weird costumes. At one point, at three in the morning, I decided I wanted to learn how to hula-hoop -- a skill which I never picked up as a child. And lo-and-behold, not 10 feet from me, we found a trio of hula hoops hanging from a tree and I distracted myself until we decided to wander on to the next novelty. An enormous bunny rabbit wandered handing out jelly beans to passing strangers, in what I'm almost positive was not an offer of drugs. A wandering fairy, lost in a sea of dancers, found herself fascinated with the facepaint on my chest ("It's sticky!").

And then we played a tractor.



The whole weekend now occupies my mind as an indistinct blur of color, noise, and dancing. It would be impossible, beyond my few paltry annecdotes, to adequately express what I experienced. With that in mind, I leave you with a few pictures.



Bicycles in hand, we set out for a day of exploration.




Building spaceships out of magnets, one of the many, many random activities strewn about for the amusement of festival-goers.




All suited up and ready for our first big night out. Our costumes for night two can be seen in an earlier post.




A late-night rest stop down by the creek. Delightfully cooling by day, eerie and ethereal by night.




The creek by day. Installing that music stage by the beach was one of the festival's more inspired ideas.




And a daytime shot of the Ewok Village, one of the three or four or so dance stages we spent hours lost in. The effect of the stages was much cooler by night, although I will admit to a little nerdy giggle of glee as I noticed the Ewok houses nestled up in the trees (up to the top left, there).



And then, far too soon, we were back in our car, driving down the West Coast, and on our way back to LA. Where I've now been for the past few weeks, working and resuming what constitutes, for me, regular life.

However, I'm flying out to Korea tomorrow, so that should be pretty awesome.