Favorites

AuSable River, Michigan: A Father’s Day reflection

One night while my family vacationed in the Northern Michigan town of Harbor Springs, my father suggested that we go fishing. The nostalgia-filled, stop-sign-only resort town is located on Lake Michigan at the tip of the Lower Peninsula, just two hours north of the famed AuSable River.  That was where we were headed.

At just 17, I was well aware that the AuSable River is one of three Michigan rivers that inspired the coming-of-age tales of Ernest Hemingway’s famed character Nick Adams, who spent his youth pulling trout from these pristine waters.

An outdoor enthusiast, my father echoed Hemingway’s fascination with the river, offering that the AuSable is a fly fisherman’s dream. The relatively wide river, which cuts through one of Michigan’s many Jack Pine forests, is said to be abundant with both rainbow and brown trout. While there were more than a dozen other rivers between Harbor Springs and the AuSable, the river’s history and reputation made it well worth the drive, despite the potential for afternoon thunderstorms.

kirtlands warbler, birdwatching, grayling

Kirtland’s Warbler

My dad was, and still is, a birdwatcher. He and a friend had driven thousands of miles across the United States in search of birds they had yet to see. To this day he keeps a lifelong list of every species of bird he has seen. As an avid birder, he was not above stopping to “pish” (something between a whisper and a whistle) at a bush in order to coax out nesting birds. He always had binoculars and had even been known to slam on the brakes of his car to identify something that turned out to be as common as a wren on a fence post.

As we loaded up the car and hit the road, I learned that my father’s reason for choosing the AuSable extended beyond the river’s lore.  Sure he wanted to fish, but really he wanted to see the Kirtland’s Warbler. This small rare migratory bird spends its summers nesting beneath Michigan’s Jack Pines near Grayling.  Like most kids my age, I was impatient, eager to get going on this father/son trip that involved the thrill of pulling in a sixteen-ounce trout from the fast-moving river. With impending thunderstorms and limited time, looking for a bird, no matter how rare, was not part of my plan.

The Kirtland’s Warbler is an extremely endangered bird. The fewer-than-a-thousand birds left on earth spend the fall and winter months in the Bahamas, migrating in the late spring, by night, to just a few counties in Northern Michigan. Having been a birder for nearly twenty years and having seen hundreds of species in America, my father was thrilled by the chance to see such a rare bird as the Kirtland’s Warbler, an opportunity as rare as the bird itself.

The nesting area was a few miles off the exit to Grayling.  A barbed wire fence, suited for the perimeter of a prison, lined a dirt road. According to the yellow warning signs, this fence was there to protect the warbler’s fragile nesting areas.

Also lining the roads were RVs with bumper stickers that read things like “I brake for roadrunners” and license tags from all over the country and Canada. Outside the RVs, their owners sat in lawn chairs, binoculars in hand, eyes trained on the tree lines.

“We will recognize the Kirtland because of its yellow belly, bluish grey back, and, most important, the broken ring around its eyes,” my father instructed me.  “You have to see the broken ring for the sighting to count,” he re-emphasized.

As we waited, rain clouds looming, he and his fellow birders swapped stories like old war buddies, occasionally pausing to check out a bird in a pine only to dismiss it as a sparrow. He was in his element and happy. My attention remained only on my watch and the rain clouds that drew nearer.  My day on the river was getting away.

My face grew hot with frustration. Frustration at the clouds. The bird. My dad. This is my vacation, I thought to myself, and he’s ruining it.

And as that thought seared itself into my mind, a bird with a yellow breast landed on a stump.

“That’s it,” I exclaimed.

My dad and the thrilled birders drew their binoculars to their eyes to catch a glimpse, but only quickly enough to see a flash of yellow before the bird vanished into the woods. Birding is highly honorable. Going on my word would confirm for all of them that they had seen the warbler.

“Did you see the broken ring around its eye?” asked one of the birders, not aware of how little I cared.

“Of course,” I lied.

“Are you sure?” asked my dad. I scanned their faces, then the clouds.  Rain was coming.

“Yes. Let’s go!”

He looked at his fellow birders and then at me. They waited, hoping for the confirmation.

“I saw it,” I managed.

“Guess that was it then,” he said, though his confirmation sounded more like shame and resignation than confirmation or accomplishment.

The car ride was silent. The way he said “Guess that was it,” weighed on me. He had hoped for years to see this bird. Seeing it should have been a moment and I had taken that moment from him. I had to make it right.

I didn’t see the ring,” I confessed. “All I saw was the yellow.”

“It’s okay,” he said.

But it wasn’t okay at all. I wanted to go back. I wanted to go back more than I’d ever wanted anything.  The river was no longer important. All I wanted was for my father to see that bird, but it was too late.

“Please…” I managed.

“We’re going fishing,” he said, the light now gone from his blue eyes.

We arrived at the AuSable. Two muskrats played along the bank and a kingfisher snagged flies from a hatch. Within minutes, it began to rain. Before long it was pouring. There would be no fish pulled from the AuSable that day. At least not by us. It was time to go home.

My dad and I in 2012

My dad and I in 2012

As we drove back towards Harbor Springs, I thought of all the fishing trips he and I had been on over the years. And as I played those memories back, I couldn’t remember any of the fish we caught at all. Just that we’d been together and that while we fished he would show me the birds. He loved them and he loved sharing them with me. I had loved just being with him.

This day had been different. We had set out to see something that we may never see again. That someday no one may ever see again.  I had been a child when we had left earlier that day, and somehow in that dark, sad moment as we drove, felt I was no longer.

“Next time,” I managed to say as it began to pour and we headed back to Harbor Springs, “We’ll see it next time.”

 

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda: Gorillas and the toy box

As we turned into Volcanoes National Park after a half-mile trek across lush hillsides dotted with young Rwandans harvesting sweet potatoes, it began to rain. It had rained earlier in the day when our group first met our guide, Feliciens, for a quick explanation about the family we would be visiting. That sudden deluge ended as abruptly as it had begun.  We hoped this time the rain would do the same.

Tribal dance before the hike

Tribal dance before the hike

Shortly after the early morning rain, against the backdrop of mist and eucalyptus trees, locals performed a tribal musical evocation.  The base of an inactive volcano rose up just beyond, disappearing into the low-hanging, fast-moving clouds.  Soon we would be traversing that volcano, rain or shine, in search of the Sabyinyo family. This family, led by a massive male named Guhonda, includes 14 mountain gorillas.  The Sabyinyo family is one of 18 families of mountain gorillas, first immortalized by Dian Fossey some 45 years ago, that call the dense rainforest of the East African Virunga mountain range their home.

As it turned out, the high top New Balance hiking shoes I had put on that day were more than perfect for the trek.  Equally so was the Frogg Togg rain suit, which guaranteed to keep me completely dry no matter how torrential the downpour.  While I was packing, such bulk had felt slightly over-cautious and unnecessary, especially given the limited space in my suitcase and short time I would be visiting the country.  Something about the word “rain” in “rain forest” and “wet” in “wet season” almost fell on deaf ears as I put the final touches on my packing before a 30-hour trip across the globe to Rwanda.  But as the rain began to fall with renewed energy, I was glad I had chosen to deal with the added bulk.

Potato fields below Volcanoes

Potato fields below Volcanoes

To reach the Sabyinyo family, we weaved along a path cut through narrow stone walls designed to keep Volcanoes’ buffalos in the park and out of the local potato farms.  As soon as we picked up the trail, my foot sank immediately into six inches of black sludge. The thick mud sucked at my boots as I extracted my foot again and again, making my way up the steep incline for the seemingly interminable hike to reach our gorilla family.

The forest canopy was no match for raindrops, which cut through the trees, beating a deafening rhythm on the hood of my rain suit. Soon the trail more accurately resembled a small river or quagmire.   A tracker just in front of us chopped away hanging vines and brush with a machete, creating a crude path through the bamboo and stinging nettles.  As we’d been promised, getting to the gorillas wouldn’t be easy, but the experience would ultimately be well worth it.  I hoped so.

DSCN0596

As a child, I loved gorillas and had a favorite gorilla toy.  With a “Go find your gorilla,” my parents could send me off on a search when they wanted a reprieve from my childhood babble. My room, a colorful explosion of toys, could be an artful camouflage for the world’s smallest silverback.  To ensure that I found my toy, my father kept a supply of the small statuette ready to pull out if another should vanish.

 

The inexhaustible supply of my childhood gorilla toy has not the case for the African gorilla.  In 1980, while I was looking for mine, poachers were combing the Virungas in search of the real deal, and succeeding in their quest. According to a 1978 census, these breathtaking creatures had dwindled to a mere 260. Without a massive push for awareness and action, they would vanish from the planet forever.

Fortunately, the gorillas haven’t vanished, but instead have thrived.  For more than 40 years, massive conservation efforts by various national and international entities have protected the gorilla and his habitat. Activists have tracked gorillas’ behavior in the park, working with local Rwandans to demonstrate that the park is more valuable in its natural state, generating tourist dollars, than it would be if the forest was cut down and used for farmland and firewood.

Lodges in the surrounding area, like the incomparably beautiful Virungas Mountain Lodge, often employ as many as forty people or more. Locals also carve and sell souvenirs, perform dances, provide  entertainment, and work as porters and trackers in the park.

Permits to go tracking, which are usually purchased months in advance, are $750.  Groups are limited to six people and each group visits one of ten habituated families of mountain gorillas.  The hikes are  challenging and are anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours. Once with the gorillas, visitors spend one hour before returning.  Weather, as I quickly learned, can be challenging, especially during the rainy season.  And rain or shine, gorilla siting or not (although almost everyone sees the gorillas), there are no refunds.

Local outside a dry shelter in the potato field

Local outside a dry shelter in the potato field

Feliciens, our guide, brings us to a halt. After a little more than an hour we have come to the gorillas. The silverback, he had explained, will either grunt giving us permission to “join” them, or respond with an aggressive “ah-ah-ah-ah,” suggesting that we stay back, they are busy.

At a whisper barely audible over the pounding rain, Feliciens explained that on sunny days, the young gorillas are playful, often intoxicated by fermented celery root. They are curious and often try to play with humans. The experience is typically an intimate one. We are to give the gorillas only a few yards of personal space, and while we must honor their space, they do not have to honor ours.

We are also instructed to remove our backpacks as the gorillas might try to steal them, set down our walking sticks because they are threatening, and turn off the flashes on our cameras as they are startling.

My heart pounds with excitement, which is diminished only slightly as Feliciens explains that gorillas hate rain.  It is still raining. We will be close, he says, but observing the Sabyinyo family of great apes will be challenging.

In hours I would be back on a plane, U.S. bound. There would be no coming back later today or tomorrow. Whatever he meant when he said “challenging to observe,” I hoped meant that we could at least see them.

Guhonda the Silverback

Guhonda the Silverback

Finally, we push through thick bamboo and come to a clearing. The tracker turns and holds his finger to his mouth. Even before he can speak, I  see the face of a massive silverback no more than ten feet from me on the other side of some brush. His deep black eyes catch mine. The guide grunts twice and we wait. The moment hangs and finally the silverback, as we’d hoped, parrots back the grunt. With his permission, like the small plastic gorilla that entered my world more than 33 years ago, I enter his.

Nonchalant, he chews the leaves off of some foliage. The guide tells us to go closer. We can hear giant silverback breathing. Behind him, branches crash as other members of the Sabyinyo family forage for food. Occasionally he snorts. Again Feliciens urges us to move forward. Next we come across a mother lost in thought while her baby, the newest of the group, nurses. The rain drenches us one last time and then stops.  As it does, so does time.

Ultimately, we spend an hour in that little clearing watching the beasts shake off the rain, roll around, groom, yawn, burp, and stretch. It is peaceful. It is terrifying. Occasionally Guhonda grunts. “He wants us to know that it is okay that we are here,” Feliciens explains.

A mother and the newest family member

A mother and the newest family member

At one point, one of the males approaches me. He comes close. I fumble with my camera as he gets nearer.  With my hands shaking and lens fogging up, I can’t get a picture. With the gorilla just inches away, I let the camera hang impotently from my neck. This moment needed no photo to be immortalized. A kid in a toy box who finally found his gorilla.  A moment of total childlike surrender, something that, I realized, I could afford to do more of.

By the time we return to the potato fields it is raining again and, somehow, between the New Balance boots and the Frogg Toggs, I am still dry.

Our car waits for us in a small village on the edge of the park. Outside a tiny weathered blue building, several young kids see us and quickly bring out a table of tiny hand carved gorillas for sale. They stand in the rain trying to get us to buy one of these little replicas.

Local kids selling gorillas

Local kids selling gorillas

I hold one of the crudely carved statues and think of my own endless quest to find a gorilla and how somehow, at least as a two-year-old, no matter how lost the gorilla may have been, thanks to my father, it managed to reappear. And thanks to the hard work of so many conservationists, environmentalists, and politicians, the real gorillas seem to be doing the same thing.

According to Feliciens, the gorilla population has increased to more than 866 from 260 in 1978. Poaching has all but stopped. And while 866 is still an alarmingly low number, the increase demonstrates that these gorillas have hope as long as people in Rwanda and around the world believe that they matter.

So from a table of eager-eyed youth, I buy one of the little statues for my own two-year-old nephew hoping that it will generate a love similar to my own for these handsome beasts. Pocketing my nephew’s gorilla, I think of my dad and how when one vanished he could always produce another so I pull out another five thousand francs and from the Rwandan children making our experience with the gorillas a more meaningful one, I buy another.

Matt in the mist

Matt in the mist

 

A non-foodie’s journey into the world of Korean street food

Pohang Fish Market

For four days, I’ve been trekking across South Korea exploring the country’s delightfully diverse array of culinary expression. And while bibimbop (veggies, rice, thinly sliced meats and chili paste) and Korean barbeque (thin slices of beef cooked table top)  are the nation’s flagship dishes, it is in the hyper-stimulating markets of Korea that the country’s cuisine truly begins to reveal itself.

bibimbop

From the exotic street food of the Kwangjang Market located in the heart of Seoul to the implausibly fresh seafood of the Jukdo Fish Market in Pohang, even those with the most educated palates will find their imaginations running wild with the varying textures, flavors and temperatures of the fare of this frenetic Asian gem.

JUKDO FISH MARKET

Even with a small cushion, at 6’2″, sitting shoeless on the floor in front of a long table in a tightly packed seafood restaurant located at the Jukdo Market in Pohang is a claustrophobic exercise. But despite my constant readjustment in effort alleviate pressure on my aching legs, I find myself squirming not from discomfort but in guileless anticipation of the fresh multi-course seafood extravaganza that is about to turn me from mild-mannered travel writer to ravenous leviathan.

Shellfish, shellfish, shellfish!

When I ask the restaurant’s name, the look from the waitress suggests it is without. The menu is written in colorfully smeared Korean characters on a dry erase board on one of the peeling pea colored walls. Next to it, a television plays Korean baseball, capturing the attention of the majority of the clientele, most of whom are male, nursing a bottle of soju deep into the evening. Three generations of women bustle over boiling pots of seafood soup and rice in an open kitchen in one corner of the one room restaurant.

Just outside of this mom-and-pop shop, which I later learn is called Seong Jin Heotjib, are more than 200 other raw fish stores and restaurants that make up this open air market. The inescapable pulse of Psy’s Gangnam-Style wheezes through various blown speakers. Scale-covered purveyors clean their catch amid giant blue, halogen-lit tanks abounding with live mollusk, mussels, oysters, squid, octopus, crustaceans and fish otherworldly enough to make even George Lucas recoil.

Crabs!

Soon, along with an ample amount of the Soju (sweet rice wine) and Kimchi, Korea’s national dish made of seasoned, fermented cabbage, radish and cucumber among other vegetables, I will try a sampling of each one of these curious sea creatures immediately after it is taken from its respective tank, cut, cleaned and served. When they say that the seafood at the Jukdo Fish Market is the freshest in Korea, they mean it.

The meal begins with a giant tray covered in conch, mussels, oysters, soft shell crab, crab legs, sea snails, sea food salad filled with crustaceans unknown, roe, abalone, octopus, freshly sliced persimmon, and a rose for color. Served with a side of freshly made soy sauce and wasabi, the meal is a joyful exercise in extraction and exaltation and is only just beginning.

Shellfish, shellfish, shellfish!

Next, the waitress brings a selection of large raw prawns. We each select the ones we would like barbequed. She takes them to the fire outside, where they will be cooked on a bed of sea salt in foil over an open flame. As soon as she is gone, an assortment of sashimi arrives to the table. I ask what kind of fish it is and the waitress shrugs her shoulders. “Fresh. Caught today.” she says. Having earned my trust with the shellfish course and fortifying myself with a generous serving of soju, I dive in. She tell me to save room. The soup, rice and the prawn are still to come.

The fish soup is a fiery, fishy red broth with chunks of seafood, vegetables and a fish head floating on top. We cleanse our palate with a bowl of sticky rice and then it is time for prawn, served in their respective beds of salt. They are the size of lobsters and better than any lobster I’ve ever eaten.

shrimp on a bed of salt

By the time we are finished, the table looks like a battlefield covered with shells, scales, tails and bones. My muscles no longer ache and the soju has been as warming as the food was filling. As I wander back through the market, I note again the men covered in blood and scales, the jettisoning squid, the languid octopus, the menacing eel, the sea slugs, the crabs, the conch, and all the other indescribable but delectable creatures, and think… despite their off-putting exterior… they look delicious.

And with a last fleeting glance, I’m off to the next stop.

 KWANGJANG MARKET

Stacks of Mayak Gimbap

The Kwangjang Market is Seoul’s is oldest and largest market, not to mention the busiest. Built in 1904, the market hosts 35,000 people daily with more than five hundred shops and eateries. The size of more than eight football fields, the market is constantly chaotic, but no place more so than the food court.

The food court, located in the market’s epicenter, has long been an after-work gathering place where tenacious suit-clad Koreans line up at dozens of family run small counters. Each offer their own culinary specialty, to sip on rice wine called Makgeolli, chomp on one of more than two hundred varieties of Kimchi, and blow off steam over an incalculable assortment of freshly prepared Korean dishes.

No matter where my over-stimulated eyes try to wander, whether to the amorous Korean couple feasting on mung bean and shrimp pancakes, or to the cook, a short, terse woman, as she hovers over a pan of tiny whole fish as the snap in boiling oil, I can’t help but stare at the pig snout that sits in front of me as I wait for my next dish. While there are many culinary conquests in this market, something about pig nose makes me shudder…. I try to focus on my first dish: soft rice, mashed up into balls and covered in chili sauce almost hot enough to serve as a distraction.

Woman cooks at the Kwangjang Market

Moments later, the terse woman sets in front of me a firm, but chewy rice cake covered in hot chili sauce and a Mayak Gimbap which is loosely translated to mean “Addictive” or “Drug.” It is warm rice, carrots, radish, and crabmeat wrapped in seaweed. While this sounds similar to the standard roll found at any corner sushi joint in any city, when prepared in fresh at this bustling nighttime market, this roll is anything but…

I bite through the brittle seaweed into the rice, soft and warm, and then into crunch of the carrot before finally getting to the fresh crabmeat.  The flavors dance with the chili paste from the rice cake I had just finished, and as the flavors continue to blend, I barely even notice the pig snout staring at me through its nostrils. I savor the roll a moment more, thank the cook, and move through the cavernous, chaotic, night market.

Small trucks and scooters share the narrow, indoor thoroughfare with pedestrians browsing the cases of each of the local vendors. Someone mentions Sundae. And while a sundae sounds delicious, I’ve been in Korea long enough to know that they are not talking about ice cream and fudge.

Sundae is steamed pig intestine stuffed with glass noodles, the market favorite. Though daunting in its appearance and earthy in fragrance, the meat is chewy and its strong flavor yields to the soft noodles (sometimes rice) and a spicy, chili-based tteobokki sauce. It is often served with pig liver and/or heart. While it could be a meal in itself, I take only a few bites and press on.

pig intestines stuffed with glass noodles

 

There are stands everywhere, each with its own specialty. There is yukhoe, a beef tartare mixed with pear slices and egg yolk, and there is Kalmandu, a brothy hot noodle soup with dumplings cooked in anchovy stock. Maeuntang is a spicy fish stew boiled with an ambiguous recipe but usually is made up of assorted veggies and fish cooked with spices hot enough to make you sweat.

There are the surprisingly tender chicken feet, of course covered in hot sauce, and everywhere you go there is Makgeolli rice wine, served chilled and usually in tin cups. Traditionally this milky elixir, similar in taste to sake, is taken in shots, and as my experience has proven, can disappear very quickly.

 

mung bean pancakes

After a broad sampling of some of Kwangjang Market’s most delicious and curious items, it is time to settle down in one of the restaurants on the market’s perimeter. The restaurant, like most places, is packed. Predictably, within minutes, Gangnam style plays and diners do bashful, diminished versions of the dance.

Men crowd around televisions playing Korean baseball, and unlike in the Korean countryside coast, here, I get a chair. After roaming the market, to sit is a relief, and while I’m getting full, this place claims to be among the best. So good, in fact, that I don’t even order. Food just begins to appear.

The waitress first arrives with the most popular item in the entire market, and besides kimchi, as far as I can tell, in the entire country. Bindaetteok is mung beans (similar to garbanzo beans) that are mashed, mixed with various combinations of vegetables, pork, or seafood, then fried. The texture is more hash brown than pancake, but either way, they are delicious and the variations are endless.

Next is a plate full of jeon, which is similar to Japanese tempura. Shrimp, crab, carrots, mushrooms, onions, and meatballs are dipped into a sweet flour-based batter then fried. You can order specific ones, but in the spirit of all things food, I try every last one and go so far as to get seconds of the crab. Each greasy, unhealthy piece is an expression of fried goodness.

By meal’s end, I am exhausted. I exit the restaurant once again into the chaos of the market, narrowly missing a scooter rushing down the corridor. I notice that the pig snout from my first booth is missing. Someone has clearly taken it home for dinner. I am thankful that no part of the pig was wasted and more grateful still that it wasn’t me who had to eat it. Something about a snout I just couldn’t stomach… even if it is just pork.But beyond that, Korean markets are among the finest.

 

South Korea and a mind-blowing toilet: The first two jet-lagged hours

By 6am on a Monday morning, traffic on the 25 mile drive from Incheon, home to South Korea’s largest airport, to Seoul is already bad. The daylight is a mere suggestion, but the city, at the dawn of a new week, has announced itself. It is the usual chaotic crossings of centerlines, indifferent honks, and blank faces one might find in any city anywhere in the world. Despite the fact that I’ve spent the last thirteen and a half hours, restlessly twisting and nodding off onto the shoulder of a stranger; a stranger by the way, who had an alarming three passports… (I THINK SHE WAS A SPY), I’m at full attention. I’ve been waiting for this for months.

Blurry Seoul Skyline

My travel companions are travel agents from Veitnam. They don’t speak a word of English. Nor do they speak their native tongue to each other. They just kind of sit silently in the back seat. My cab driver doesn’t speak English or Vietnamese so he plays the quiet game as well.

It is a challenging carload of companions when you are driving into a new city and have a million questions and are absurdly jet lagged. Are the ashy colored ten to twelve story buildings that line the highway for mile after mile all housing? Why does everyone go to work so early? If everyone gets up so early, why are all thousand of the coffee shops still closed? What do these people that are in traffic at 6am doing for a living? What is that thing over there? Is every single person in this t-jam jamming to Gangnam style? Why aren’t we listening to Gangham style? Can you dance gangnam style? Is that gangnam style guy gay? Where are all the KFCs and Starbucks? And seriously…. How much extra do I have to pay you to take me to the DMZ and if you’d take me, what would it take to get a round of golf in with Junior?

Toilet time machine

As the line up of questions never-to-be -asked reaches and exhausted, jetlagged level of absurdity, I’m taken back by the Seoul skyline as it comes into view. It is radiant.

Behind it, the sun rises turning the sky an unworldly pink and blue and the city itself seems to float in a body of water that rests before it (I couldn’t tell you the name of the body of water.. I wanted to ask… alas… language barriers…) The skyline is dignified and less dense than I had imagined. The buildings themselves, feel like they are waking up and appreciating the sunrise. It’s spectacular.

After an hour, I get to my hotel. It is called “Hotel the Designers.” That isn’t a typo. That is the name of the hotel, and despite the strange verbiage, the hotel is exceedingly contemporary and unique. If the hotel in any way represents the superstitious collective conscience of the country, then according to the elevator, they are not into the number four, as the floors skip from three to five. My room should be on the fourth floor… However, not the case. I’m on five.

unlucky number four?

The room is an fantastic enigma. Especially the bathroom. The bathroom, when it comes to the toilet, sink, etc., has more choices than a cheesecake factory menu. The toilet flusher alone has so many flushing and “rinsing” buttons that I’m afraid to use it for fear that by pushing the wrong button, I’ll go back into time. The shower with its levers, heads, and faucets guarantees cleanliness, if you are smart enough to make it work without causing a Noahic flood.

The beds are about half the distance to the floor as my own and despite being a little hard, are incredibly comfortable and there is no window. Well. There is a mirror that you can open one inch. And it looks at a wall. Not really sure what you’d call it. Anyway, despite being nine in the morning, right now, in my room, it feels like night. Kind of like a Vegas Casino. Only I’m alone with me and my fancy bathroom.

As if the standard American remote control hasn’t come to be too much, trying to understand one in Korean is a lesson in resignation. To watch tv, all I can do is turn it on. Beyond that, much like the toilet… I got nothing. I’ve settled, as I write this for first, a Korean game show (they seem to have so much fun!!!) and now a soap opera. So far as I can tell, it involves love, lust, and attractive people who tend to emote more than necessary. Sounds as American as KFC… man KFC sounds good. As long as they also serve kimchi.

I also have a little LCD screen that flashes the views of all of the various (and there are at least fifty) security cameras around the hotel. I don’t know if it is for safety or to satisfy voyeuristic impulses. For me, it functions for both. A lady I watch is confused right now. Ha. And based on the direction she’s going, she doesn’t appear to want to come to my room and kill me. Good… Voyeurism/security. Dig it.

Jungle breakfast!

And as for meals, I’ve had one. Standard Western breakfast in a small also windowless room and the decor is decidedly animal. For its centerpiece, a four foot tall stuffed giraffe munches on the leaves of a fake tree with a equally large stuffed giraffe.  As I chewed on my honeydew, like my stuffed friends chewed on their fake leaves, I thought…. Not the Korea I expected… but I kinda like it.

The rest of my group arrives and we are gathering at 1pm for lunch. Maybe one of them will speak english and be smart enough to explain the many luxurious functions of my toilet. There’s five days and a country to see and if it is 1/100th as curious as the room in which I type this, I’m sure it will be a blast.

Stay tuned for more!

 

 

A tribute to my dad’s friend Jane

This morning, I received a text from my mom at 7am. One of those heart-stopping “you shouldn’t be texting right now kind of texts…” But before I go on, I’d like to share a story.

Several years back on a trip to the south of France, my mom and dad were walking along one of the art gallery lined streets and my mother noticed a painting in a window that she liked. My father, also an art guy who had dabbled in a little painting of his own was taken by the painting, but not as much as my mom. She needed it. The only problem with the painting is that it cost about the same as a small luxury automobile and given that the trip was the annual big splurge, buying a painting quadruple if not more than the price of the trip itself seemed excessive.

The next year, as was usually the case, my sister and I returned to Oklahoma for the family Christmas. Christmas over the course of the years in the Payne family has always been unique. While the wine flows and gifts are exchanged, the past ten years in my family, Christmas has coincided with a stroke, a crippling snow storm, the precipice of two divorces, a terrorist attack, and a homicide so while we make an effort to enjoy the Christmas, and each has had certainly had its moments (my grandmother in Italy dancing around in a giant bra outside her sweater with flashing lights where her nipples should be), thematically, it has been a trying holiday.

This particular year was the exception. In a lobster and wine-induced near-coma, after the family had left Christmas Eve dinner, we usually exchanged the more good-humored gifts. Guides the bird scat. Marshmallow guns. That type of thing, but this year, my dad told my mom that he had something special for her. A minute later he comes down stairs with something flat covered in a towel. Having forgotten all about her trip to France, my mom curiously removed the towel, not quite sure what it could be. As she removed the towel, her jaw fell upon and tears welled in her eyes. It was the painting from France.

Over and over again she kept saying “you got me the painting?” and with each rhetorical question, her voice shifted slightly from a tone of absolute elation to abhorrence. My dad just kept asking if she liked it. “Of course I like it but are you crazy? Do you know how much this cost?” She asked.

“I didn’t buy it,” he told her, adding confusion to the many emotions on her face. “I painted it.” He had gone back, photographed the painting and spent the next several months replicating the piece of art she had loved so much.

And with that, we all fell apart in what has become unquestionably my favorite Christmas memory.

Jane Anderson painting

But what came of that was much more. Not only did the romantic gesture reaffirm my parent’s relationship after more than 30 years of marriage, it created a new one.

My dad, whose desire to paint was re-inspired, decided he wanted to paint more. In Carmel, CA, he found an artist’s work that spoke to him. He inquired as to the artist’s name and managed to get in touch with her. She was not the high-brow “art-eest” that make most people’s skin crawl. Instead, she was a vivacious lady well into her 80s named Jane Bradford. She wore bright orange lipstick, loved a glass of wine and despite her age, still loved to paint every day. My dad asked if she’d be willing to help him with his own paintings. The bright orange corners of her lips turned up, child-like.

Having recently lost one of her children and going through several frustrating relationships, it was a lonely time in Jane’s life. It felt in many ways like the end. My dad, whose mother had been an artist had passed away years before. There was a clear empty spot in his heart when he painted that painting of the French Riviera for my mom. He’d wished his mom had been there to share in his enthusiasm.

Suddenly, as he filled the empty spot in Jane’s life where once her son had been, she filled the spot in my dad’s heart that had once belonged to my grandmother. The friendship has lasted for years. Every time my parents would arrive in Carmel, she’d show up with a pot roast. When my dad finished a painting, he took it to Jane who quickly sent him back to work. When she finished a painting, my dad would find someone to buy it for her (and if no one bought it, he usually did.)

While I only met her a few times, I adored her. Of course she was a character, she was talented and she didn’t mind more than one glass of wine, but mostly because of the love she had for my mom and dad and because my family’s love for her. Through this strangely discovered relationship, the world, at least ours, became a better place.

This morning, at 7am, I got a text. My reaction was the only reaction anyone has to an oddly early text from home. Something bad had happened. Before I read it, I thought of all the people I knew and loved. I went down a list. It was a long one. It was the kind of list that make you grateful to be alive. I finally flipped on the phone and there was a name I had somehow forgotten. Jane Bradford had passed away. And for forgetting her, as I thought of those important to me in that moment before I looked at my phone, I’m truly sorry. She was as good a person as anyone I’ve known, and I’ll miss her.

That day on the French Riviera, my mom and dad looked at a painting and the reaction was that it was over-priced. Some pompous French painter inflating prices to take advantage of vulnerable tourists caught up in the romance of all things France. If only he knew just how valuable that painting was. RIP Jane.