Sunday, November 20, 2011

A letter from Kuwait, 2006.

A letter from Kuwait (December 2006)
I was awoken at around 6:00am by what I thought was the usual mosque call, but thought it was either too early or too late. I tried to drift off as I thought it was just the usual Friday rantings about Amrikiyah (America) or Falistiniyah (Palestine) which went on at some length. Actually it went on until I got up around 7:20am and I just assumed that maybe it was in celebration of the beginning of the Eid. I turned on the BEEB (BBC) and saw the headlines that Saddam had been executed shortly before 6 am (Baghdad time) which is the same time as here in Kuwait. So, I got to feeling that perhaps the excitement in the air was that the mullahs may have been passing judgment on the much-heralded execution of the little Satan to the north of here in former “Republic of Fear” or as it is now known—“Occupied Iraq”.

Yesterday, my wife (in Kenya) had asked if the execution of the old executioner (Saddam) would cause any problem in the Gulf area, especially Kuwait and Iraq. I texted her back and said— “Could there be any more chaos in Iraq?

Having said that, I am sure the US, UK and Canadian embassies have sent out holiday missives with the caveat that we must be vigilant against suspicious activities; avoid large public areas, be mindful of tinted window on vans (like all of them here) avoid loud and aggressive people for they are a vexation to our spirit …etc. On that point—could there be anymore security here in Kuwait? Since first coming to the Crowne Plaza gym three years ago, there have been ongoing installations put in place to safeguard the hotel users and gym users. I guess I should mention that some US and  a handful of Japanese troops use the Crowne Plaza for R&R from time spent in Iraq. Originally there were a few jersey or concrete barriers in place in case of a car bomb attack, and then over recent months, they have erected these huge concrete barriers that must be 25 ft high and could stop a 747 jumbo jet in its tracks. These wall barriers ring the perimeter of the hotel and you must squeeze between then to get into the main hotel entrance. To go to any of the other big hotels, i.e. Hilton, SAS or Shiik Flamingo involves stopping at a barrier and having someone check under your car with a mirror, plus under the hood or in the boot for possible explosives.
Moreover, going to the gym has taken on new meaning at Crowne Plaza Hotel, one must drive by the security folks who wave you on, then to enter into the gym from the side entrance, you have to pass through an x-ray machine plus have your bags put through the machine. Then you must use finger print identification to gain access. If you come through the main hotel entrance, then you sometimes have to go through two x-ray machines.

With regards to Iraq, a number of friends have written to ask me about what would happen in Kuwait if Saddam was executed or just how are things here generally, given the proximity to Iraq. Actually, the border with Iraq is only a mere150 kms from here. Hence, the speedy invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi armed forces in 1990. As a remembrance to some of the atrocities committed during those days, the usual custom here during the Eid is to go to the graves of the departed and pray for their memory. Here in Kuwait this is special as many Kuwaitis went to pray for those who were martyred in the Iraq invasion. The Kuwaitis were mad that the new Iraq government executed Saddam on a day when they should be thinking of their own loved ones and not Saddam.

Well, for starters, there is no love lost here for either Saddam or Iraq. If anything, Kuwait is, for a lack of a better word, a bastion of America and things western. Most people would be shocked if they came here: there are no camels, except those locked away on someone’s farm. There no black tents in the desert, unless you mean the ones that Kuwaiti families go to on weekends during the winter months here pretending that they are nomadic once again whilst a generator purrs away in the background as they watch CNN and Al-Jezeera live on their satellite TV. They don’t even have a traditional wood fire, but an electric warmer—it’s quite decadent.

The one thing that is dangerous here is driving. According to one paper, Kuwait has the highest rate of road fatalities in the world. Some 550+ people died last year on the roads here and they weren’t from car bombs. The problem isn’t the roads but the drivers. The roads here are probably in better shape than most roads in North America. They are definitely better than the potholed tarmac that my wife has to drive on daily in Nairobi, Kenya. The majority of Kuwaiti driving deaths were in the age group of 17-25 years and probably the majority of deaths were guys, young guys. For the most part Kuwaitis are quite polite and are respectful, and there is no real individuality per se perhaps because of Islam and it’s dogma of equality amongst people. However, get these same shebab (boys) out of the polite classroom or shisha joints/Starbucks and get them into a car and they become Mad Max. It’s as if they have dual personalities. Moreover, their cars are martyrs to their cause. My good friend Brian Rose said it best when he mentioned that in the United Arab Emirates or UAE, it wasn’t “right of way” that counts, but, rather “right of weight”—the same applies here in Kuwait.  As a result, if you own a Hummer or Pajero, then you are given some latitude for passing or pressing other cars. For the record, there are no road rules that I can see and no one to enforce them. It is not unusual to be in the driving lane (for slow moving cars) and to be flashed from behind by a speeding demon so that you get out of his/her way. That being the case, the shoulder is not a desired driving lane is it? Passing lanes are passé as every lane is considered as a passing lane. Having said that, many ex-pats either refuse to drive here or are scared shitless to—can you blame them! Road rage is common and without it you couldn’t survive I guess. What irks or confounds me is the fact that even though someone is driving a brand new Jaguar, Cayenne or Mercedes, they still drive it like they were driving some old bomb or gerryrigged pickup truck.

Many of the newer cars look like they have been to Iraq and keeping your car looking nice is not a pre-requisite here. People drive as though their cars are bumper cars. As regards to traffic violations and traffic fines, this depends on where you are from and if you are from one of the status families in Kuwait or you have some relative working in that department. If you have ‘wasta’ or influence, then you probably won’t be fined at all. As a westerner, I have no ‘wasta’.

Kuwaiti society: a real polyglot
For the most part, GUST is not only a meeting place for guys and gals but you can also make a fashion statement here. It has been said that GUST is actually one of the few places where male and female can meet without fear of reprisals from family members. There are no ‘mercy killings’ here like they have in Jordan or Pakistan. If anything, GUST may be a place where potential marriage partners can be checked out. The idea of dating someone from the opposite is quite foreign here or ‘haram’ or forbidden for many of the traditional families. But, one wonders why the girls and guys have so many phones. When one of my girls answers her phone in class, I usually embarrass them by asking “Which boyfriend are you talking to now?” They quickly turn off the phone. Quite often the clip clopping of high heels and entrance (albeit late) into classes can be more for effect and to show off latest fashions—these girls have money and style!

You can sometimes tell the student’s ancestry, or at least I can now, from their surnames or family names, i.e. Al-Omani means from Oman. The Iranians students who are mostly Shia are easy to tell because of their big families here, i.e. Al-Behbehani (a village in Iran), Al-Isfahani (from the city of Isfahan), Al-Kandari (means ‘water carrier’), Al-Sadegh (means ‘goldsmith’) and my old travel agent and photo company Al-Ashkanani (which sounds close to Ashkenazi). I was just reading “In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs” (about Iran) and the author mentioned a ‘reformist’ Ayatollah Taheri, a close associate of the martyred Ayatollah Montazeri. I bring this up because one of my older married ‘girls’, Huda Taheri, has the same surname. I mentioned this to her in class about the late ayatollah Taheri, she nodded and said that her ancestors were from Iran—she was Shia. I know that there are many Shia in the student population and teaching staff because most of them would come by my shared office door to look at pics I had put up on our door. One was of a mural from Shiraz (Iran) depicting Ayatollah Khomeini and the basijis (martyrs) from the Iran/Iraq war. Most students came to see pics of me chewing qat with my old Yemeni staff from my days working at Nexen in the Hadramawt. Our office door has become something of a curiosity as many Profs, deans, students, cleaning staff, the president and other staff have come to see what I have up today. Of course, there are pictures of Jessica baby and old shots of me in the Bedouin market in Beer Sheva which raises some eyebrows more because I look like one of the Taliban with my full beard! My latest is a wanted poster of the three stooges from the Sudan: Sadiq and his cronies.

There is every form of Christianity represented here in Kuwait: Egyptian & Ethiopian Coptics, Syrian Orthodox & Catholics, Marthomite/Carmelite Indians, Pakistani Anglicans, Indian Roman Catholics from Kerala and Goa and Lebanese Maronites & Catholics who all worship at many locales and have a special Christian area with many churches in Kuwait city. You wouldn’t know an Egyptian Copt unless you fell over one. Many of them run the small bucalis or corner stores here where I live. They usually reveal themselves by discreetly pulling back their shirt cuff to reveal a cross tattooed on the underside of their wrist. There used to be a Jewish community here, but they are long gone or keep to themselves, even though there is some secret Jewish cemetery near Kuwait City that we haven’t found yet.
On the whole, Kuwait is the land of petro dollars, highrises, paved highways, really expensive cars, luxury goods, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, KFC, Second Cup, TGIF, Applebees, Virgin Megastore, IKEA, covered and uncovered women, a traditional and modern society, arranged marriages and marriages for love—Kuwait is the polyglot of the Arab world, its culture and its religions. I have students whose family ancestors can be traced to the Levant: Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian or Turkish. Some are from the Near East: Iraq, Afghani and Iran. Many familial lines originate from the subcontinent: Indian, Baloochi, Bangladeshi, or Pakistani. Then you have some girls who have an exotic blend of English, Russian, Brazilian, Spanish, and Moroccan parents. Even other striking guys and gals have African roots: Somali, Zanzibari, Swahili, Omani, or Sudanese and many from mixed marriages. Naturally, many Kuwaitis come originally from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Having said that, the idea that all Kuwaitis are Semitic-looking is not true here—you can throw that notion out the window (preferably whilst driving).

Bedoon or Bedu
There is every colour of the rainbow here at GUST; some of my girls look African, talk Arabic or Kuwaiti and dress either American or in traditional garb depending on their family. Other girls look Spanish, some look like the beautiful Lebanese singers, many are Egyptian, those of Iranian descent are very Aryan-looking, some have blond hair, have whiter skin than me with green eyes, some look Indian or Pakistani with Arab names and some are Bedoon. The Bedoon are an interesting facet of Kuwaiti life. In simple terms, bedoon actually means ‘stateless’ or ‘without state or citizenship’ and this should not be confused with the more common term, bedouin or bedu which really means ‘nomad’. In layman’s terms, the bedoon are the remains of a once nomadic Bedu people who travelled all over the Arabian Peninsula, but some of these folks have settled down in the urban areas. However, many of the ‘bedoons’ have no passport or citizenship, either here or any other country in this region (Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan or Kuwait). Many of the Bedoon have settled down, but many are still without citizenship. A reliable Kuwaiti friend told me that many of the families that have settled down in Kuwait may have some branch of the family that is still bedoon.

Kuwait is made up of many tribes who belong to a much larger tribal confederation. Typical family names are Al-Enezi, Al-Mutairi, Al-Azmi or Al-Ajmi and Al-Shammari. The Shammari were once nomadic but are still part of the larger Arab confederacy of the Al-Shammar tribe whose territory once included the desert regions of Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. Last year, I had two Al-Shammari sisters in my class and their cousin. The cousin I called Beyonce, because she was drop dead gorgeous and dressed like her, but the two sisters were quite different. The older one was covered, but in colourful and trendy modern hijab, whilst the younger sister came in the latest hip hugging fashion. Normally if a girl goes from uncovered to covered this usually means that she has got married and this covering is at the husband’s request. This was another interesting topic for discussion as I asked a number of uncovered girls what would happen if they got married and their husband wanted them to be covered. A couple of more brazen girls said that—“He can go to hell!” The simple fact is that these girls would not want a ‘traditional husband’ anyways and would marry someone who was more liberal. He could still dress up in traditional thobe or dishdasha, but she may be dressed ‘modern’. In the case of the two Shammari sisters, the older covered one just decided that that was what she wanted to wear. Point in case, it could be ‘peer pressure’ as a number of uncovered girls did cover up this past semester. The girls want to be called girls or ‘banati’ (my girls) or ladies, but not women. The reality is that I have mixed classes of uncovered to fully covered girls, teenagers to mid-20s and some who are married. Some are shy (mostly the covered ones) and others are quite vocal and brazen, and touch on being hussies at times, especially when they want extra marks!

Most of the girls who are covered are from traditional Bedu families and there are varying degrees of coveredness: just the black hijab or head covering with jeans and pumps underneath, and some fully covered in the black chador with only the eyes peeking out. Some Iranian girls are covered and some are not. Some look like they should be on Fashion TV. One of my girls came dressed in a different wardrobe every day—she had panache! One day when she didn’t come in I asked—
Where’s Aisha today?
She hasn’t been here all day.” Said one girl
Oh, did she run out of clothes?” I asked cheekily.
No sir, she is a clothes designer.”
Hence the explanation for her flamboyant flair and the many new clothes, belts and shoes she wore to class everyday.

We are in the midst of Final Exams, jammed between Christmas (one day off) and the Eid (9 days off). Because it is that time of the year, there will be many long faces (and hopefully no long knives) and usual lineups at my desk asking in convincing tones no less about grades.
From one of my girls—“Sir, my father will kill me if I fail!” or another nugget—
Professor, if I don’t pass, my father will kick me out of school.”
Sir, please I need a C- or I will lose my scholarship.”
Which begs the question—“How can you get a scholarship with a C- average?
One of my cuter girls is a dead ringer for a young Kyra Sedgwick, but I call her Miss Fahaheel. Her family name is Al Dabbous. She came to my office to complain about the C+ grade I had given her.
She made a motion where she flicked her thumb from her front teeth—
Sir, you are bakheel.”
What’s that mean?
You are cheap!
Why, because I gave you a C+ average?
Yes” and then she clicked her tongue off her teeth in disgust.
I’m not cheap.” I said in protest.
I think she was thinking of the English expression of “mean”.
Or there is the usual routine where a brother or near relative will come to act as an interpreter and ask about the low grades.
My favourite response is one I borrowed from American economics professor Dan.
Student pleading—“Sir, why did you give me an ‘F’.”
Because they wouldn’t let me give you a ‘G’.

No love lost between brothers.
In some quarters, there is an underlying lack of sympathy for the Palestinians here as well. Occasionally we have student rallies or awareness days for the plight of Palestine. This is mostly because of the Arab ideal of charity or support, but more because there is a large percentage of Palestinians in both the student body and teaching staff. Many of the Palestinians and other nationalities have been here for ages and Kuwait has given some of them Kuwaiti citizenship. Since 1948 and there after, many Palestinians have come here for work and many don’t have citizenship and for the most part are stateless or have refugee status. Many of these poorer Palestinian folk were jealous of their rich, Kuwait brothers who had become wealthy though the rising price of oil. At any rate, one of my better male Kuwaiti students last year came up to me in class and made sure that no one heard him—“I will not support those bastards!” This caught me by surprise, but then Ali told me his story—“They killed my father.” When Iraq invaded Kuwait, most Kuwaitis fled to the US, UK or UAE but many thought they could stay behind and hide—until the Americans came! During the Iraq invasion, those Palestinians who remained behind in Kuwait, allied themselves with the Iraqi secret police who had come to Kuwait prior and during Saddam’s invasion in the hopes of helping Iraq re-capture its ‘lost province’. In a number of circumstances, albeit bad, some of the Palestinians ‘ratted or finked’ on their Kuwait neighbours to the incoming Iraq army. Some of these Palestinians and others, would then loot the homes of the richer Kuwaitis who were dragged away, tortured and killed by the invading Iraqi forces.[1] Many of the Kuwaitis who fled during the invasion, didn’t have time to collect their valuables and many left everything behind. You can imagine that Kuwait is not that big and we are talking about a huge invading force basically on your doorstep within minutes. The Kuwaiti Emir, Sheikh Jaber still issued radio calls from the desert to all Kuwaitis to— “make the aggressors taste the chalice of death.”
Moreover,—“We shall fight them everywhere until we clean their treachery from our land.”
The Emir’s younger brother, Prince Fahd did stay behind to fight the Iraqis at Dasman Palace. Unfortunately, Prince Fahd died under a hail of bullets and is a revered Kuwaiti martyr who I have a huge respect for in the face of such an adversary.

Later on, after the US drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait it had been reported that many poorer Egyptians (probably watchmen), and Palestinians were seen driving around in expensive Mercedes. At any rate, many Palestinians and Yemenis were subsequently kicked out of Kuwait for their support of Saddam. Most of the Kuwaitis who were captured by Iraqi forces were taken to the ‘killing fields’ of southern Iraqi deserts just north of here—Salman Nugra. Ali’s father was one of the Kuwaitis who was taken away to be killed. That is why there is no love loss over the death of Saddam in Kuwait and thus explains Ali’s bitterness towards the Palestinians. To date, there are still over 500 Kuwait martyrs missing and their remains have been coming back in dribs and drabs as families have tried to identify missed ones from small DNA samples and clothing. Quite often, students go missing in class and then they tell me a few days later that the remains of their family member had come back so they had a funeral. I don’t think Ali has had that form of closure yet.

[1] I remember listening to CBC radio news in the remote bunkhouse in Field, BC when Iraq entered
     Kuwait, thinking that this would be the end of my career as a Near Eastern archaeologist and that
     many university Phd candidates had just lost their research on Iraqi sites.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Korea: A Land of Contradictions

Being a creature that is often called “contradictory” and “illogical” (thanks to John Jacobs and brother H), I find, with some satisfaction that, at times, I am much like Korea—a land of contradictions. To predict what might happen over here may prove to be a mistake. For the most part, Korean men like to keep their women in tow (or kowtow) and prefer to have a subservient younger wife as mate for life. In one class, I made the mistake of asking my junior students to fill out their family tree and put down the occupation of their parents. This was predictable as most of the kid’s mothers were housewives. I guess this explains why we offer and adult course that is only for housewives. Women are offered the same education as men folk but many toss it out the window when they get married or are forced to by their husbands—how unfulfilling? No wonder some of these housewives tell our female teachers that they secretly wish to have an ‘affair’—I guess life at home is boring. Well, that was Mike Green's story and he's sticking to it. Most of our Korean teachers (all women) have broken with this tradition and full marks to them—hopefully this will rub off on the next generation. At any rate, men appear as brutes (esp. when they swing garbage bags or ice axes), yet they are lambs when it comes to soppy movies or songs, especially the noribon or karaoke. It is the men who are misty-eyed and sing the heart-rending Korean love songs of unrequited love (sober or otherwise) with such passion that you would hardly recognize him as “Attila the Hun’ the next day in the office. One thing that pissed me off was that the head of our hogwon, Mr. Kim had kept the return portion of my ticket from Canada. I told free-spirit Andrea about this and she went to my defense and told Mr. Kim in no uncertain terms that he had no legal right to keep my ticket that I had paid for. Another time, Mr. Head had given me the keys to Mr. Kim’s office and we found a stack of letters meant for Jan, Billy and Miche. Billy had already left and Jan was pissed off as her family had sent pictures to her and Mr. Kim withheld them from her.

Korean dos and don’ts
And Korean men do not do either shopping, pick out food or handle the cash for goods. This all became clear when I went shopping with my flat mate Jan. Entering the giant department store is quite a spectacle in that you are greeted at the door by four beautiful, tall Korean women who look like models or airline hostesses in their matching pink and turquoise tunics and skirts. So you can imagine I caused quite a kerfuffle when I haggled with a shop clerk (always women) over the price of a bottle of olive oil—something a man would never do. And to add salt to my wound, the clerk promptly gave my change to my flat mate Jan, which left me quite miffed. Korean men don’t cook either so the clerk must have thought I was an odd duck. Marriages are arranged and women are supposed to be virgins when they marry—I think most of the men are too! Another couple of observations:
·      Women who are single wear the most make-up: whereas married women won’t wear as much make-up as they are already spoken for.
·      Don’t whistle in private or public (and don’t whistle at anyone’s privates!)
·      Don’t jaywalk or attempt to jaywalk (huge fines!)
·      Don’t wet fingers before distributing school papers.
·      Don’t lick stamps at the post office.
·      Don’t kiss your loved ones in public.
·      Women can’t smoke in public.
·      Don’t wear a mini-skirt in public (esp. women—unless they work in the coffee bar).
·      Tattoos are taboo.
·      Do not give a ‘beepie’ to a femme who is just a friend.
      Being 1997, many of the North America female teachers had tattoos in various
      Place but mostly on ankles. For Koreans, tattoos were taboo. The only Koreans
      who had tattoos were the Korea mafia or yakuza. Andrea broke this rule when she
      wore a top that had a plunging neckline to her all-girl class that revealed her
      dragon tattoo on the nape of her neck. Mr. Kim had to fire Andrea over this

       Greg-eh did not heed this last advice and had a falling out with his cute Korean
       girlfriend Sunny. Greg-eh had given US teacher Miche a beeper or ‘beepie’ as the
       Koreans call them for her birthday thinking he was doing Miche a favour as this
       was before the advent of cell phones. However, what Greg-eh didn’t realize was
       that in Korea, only boyfriends give ‘beepies’ to their girlfriends as a way of
       keeping tabs on their whereabouts. I heard Sunny yell “Gul boojie maaaah!” to
       Greg-eh, which I think, translates into “Don’t fuck with me.”

I broke another rule by not attending my Saturday afternoon class at the hogwon with the teenage kids. Mr. Head (teacher) Ron Limoges had invited me to accompany him on a trip to the East Sea along with the Korean owner of one of the Americana fast food chains. I didn’t think it was a big deal so I got one of the other teachers to cover for me. The trip was quite good as we visited a couple of historic Buddhist temple sites in the mountains and got to stay at a fancy time share resort by the beach. There was a groovy spa that we went to and that was the only time I saw men with full body tattoos and Ron told me they were yakuza. Our return trip took forever and we got stuck in a traffic jam and it took us eight hours for a normal two-hour trip. Mr. Kim didn’t take to kindly to this bold act and printed out a notice for an upcoming “Meeting with Natives”. I told Mr. Head that I was going to go as a First Nations native. Of course, Mr. Kim, in his rage, got carried away with his English and the agenda was quite hilarious. Part of the printout talked about:
- “Students are not things to be experimented with.”
- “Maybe you cannot believe it but I cannot believe it either.”
- “You are a stranger and a friend from a foreign land.”
We tried to keep a straight face in the meeting but barely could contain ourselves.
Also, Baldness is not condoned so the students howl when I show them a picture of my “follically-challenged” younger brother compared to me with my huge full head of hair and beard. Initially when I applied to for a job teaching ESL in Korea, my hair became somewhat of an issue. I applied to the hogwon where Brian Rose was teaching and I had to send my passport page to the manager by fax. The fax copy wasn’t very clear and as a result, my picture didn’t look very good either. I heard later from Brian that the manager asked Brian—
Is it man or beast?
This became something of a standard joke between Rosie and me. My hair also became an issue when I was applying to EEC through Mr. Head (Teacher) Ron Limoges. Ron called me long distance from Korea to ask me questions about ESL and then he lowered the boom—
The manager is concerned about your age.” Said Ron.
Oh what’s the problem? Am I too old?” I answered thinking that maybe 44 yrs. was too old.
No, the problem is—you are the same age as Mr. Kim.”
He’s afraid you will be bald.” Said Ron.
I was laughing on the phone to this suggestion and I was thinking back to what Brian’s boss had said about me. Ron’s comments had come just before I sent a fax of my passport photo to him.
I still have a full head of hair.” I said laughing at the same time and then sent my passport picture. Ron laughed about that after when I arrived in Anyang. The real joke was that Manager Kim was the one who was bald and he feared that all men who were in their forties would also be bald.
My work schedule means that I work from 7:30am until 8:30pm. As a result, I don’t like cooking a big meal when I get home from work so I usually order kimbap (sushi) on my way home at a nearby takeout restaurant in Paktal Dong Street. However, at 8:45pm they are usually out of kimbap and motion to me that it is finished. The last few nights I have just about made it to my apartment when the kimbap shop owner comes up behind me on a motorbike beeping his horn and motions that they have found some kimbap for me—they bring it in a plastic bag and that’s what I call service. Korean food is spicy and hot—mostly meat, chicken or pork. You can also buy kebabs and friend chicken in the market. They also have a lot of seafood and tofu dishes. I often walked by seafood places where they have a mini-aquarium outside with sea urchins and sea cucumbers floating in seawater. Most of the restaurants are sit down affairs on the floor—shoes off thank you. You sit around a low table in lotus position like in yoga—I occasionally put my foot around my neck to heighten the entertainment and break the tension. There is a propane tiger torch in the middle of the table underneath a gigantic cast iron skillet into which the ladies heap endless amounts of chicken, ddok noodles, greens, cabbage and some onion. The ladies do all the cooking and we only talk as they wing food all over the show. Side dishes consists of fiery concoctions of fermented cabbage in chili pepper sauce which gives you monkey bum the next day and a breath that would melt a student’s heart—so to say.
Numerous cups of rancid yak butter tea or something evilly similar are brought to end a meal. The Koreans are a bunch of pisstanks and like their alcohol, as do the English teachers. The Koreans are known for their love of whiskey and have been called “the Irish of the Orient”. Korea’s national drink soju has a bouquet like an aborigine’s armpit and is strictly used for arm to arm combat; at the last Anyang wine festival they were hauling them out of the sewers every 15 minutes. Soju is actually quite potent and it is not unusual for Korean men to toss their cookies in the wee hours of the morning—sometimes drinking to the point of alcohol poisoning.

Scene and passing
I share a two-room apartment with Montana Jan and we have a smallish kitchen, which you couldn’t swing a cat in. Billy McIntosh shared the flat before and he was a bit of a bootlegger. We had a small bar fridge which we kept our groceries and what not in. We also had a larger regular fridge where we kept our soju and huge bottles of beer. Jan was the resident cook and she made a mean shrimp creole, shrimp jumbo and everything else that Bubba Gump made. As a result, we usually had most of our EEC staff over for dinner parties on Fridays or Saturdays. Because I had a roll-up futon, we would have the dinner in my room. I had rummaged a low square Korean table that folded up into nothing to serve the food on. Everyone would bring beer or soju so there was always a full fridge of quarts of OB Lager and soju that was left behind.
Our neighbourhood video store has some rather curious video selections including Russian and Iranian films that I have only seen at film festivals. There is no rhyme nor reason to their location in the store which prompted me to suggest to Jan—
Maybe I should offer to arrange the “foreign films” into some order.”
Jan raised her eyebrows at me—
THEY ARE ALL FOREIGN FILMS!” she retorted. Point taken.
Another curious thing—there are neither fourth floors here on an elevator run nor does anyone want to be the fourth person or to have the number 4 printed on their T-shirt or sweater as this is apparently a sign of bad luck.
More curious things—when sending mail, it is considered bad upbringing to lick the stamps when sending letters. To alleviate this predicament, the kind folks at Korean Post provide you with glue sticks even though the stamps have glue on them. I was sending letters and some Koreans gasped when they saw me licking the stamps but at the time I didn’t know I was offending anyone.
We had another night of noisy revelry on the weekend—Jan and I wondered what all the excitement was about as we could barely hear the dialogue of Pulp Fiction over the clatter outside. Our apartment affords us a bird’s eye view of the market and occasionally a glimpse of the drunken behaviour of some of the locals. At any rate, we pulled back the window to snoop and saw a Korean man weaving down the road with a gigantic Hefty trash bag who proceeded to clobber another drunkard who had an ice axe in his hand (sounds like a reggae song—“Walking down de road wit en ice axe in his hand, woy, woy”). It was after all, just another night of soju drinking entre amis—so to speak! It seems that every Sunday, Korean men don their gay apparel: which consists of heavy mountaineering hiking boots, woolen knickers, a dumb Tyrol hat, an ice axe (God knows why—the ice age left here some 10,000 years ago when they all buggered off over the Bering Strait to North America). Plus they wear these ridiculous, bright fluorescent red and yellow socks, so that they won’t get lost—fat chance of that. After finishing their descent of the nearby hillock, the men congregate in the local soju houses and drink themselves into oblivion and then take to clobbering each other with garbage bags—How quaint?—remind me not to oblige them!
We have taken to dipster diving in the local recycling bins for anything that might spruce up our place. I found some treasures the other day and Prof. William Rathje (the famed garbologist) would have been proud of my finds, esp. when I was wearing my University of Arizona t-shirt (his alma mater). I found this dusty rice cooker and some other pots for planting flowers on our roof.
The other night, Greg-eh, Sunny and Jan and I decided to go out for some grub and grog—groggy being the keyword here. I thought we were going to have a good feed or seafood or tofu—silly me! We ended up having this seafood platter brought with the critters still alive and kicking. I almost lost my own platter when I bit into a crustacean. To top off this epicurean delight, we quaffed down a mystery brew that was brought in something that resembled a ceramic toilet bowl. Lord knows I didn’t want to be talking to the big white telephone just yet. The beverage was mokoli but reminded me of chebuku, that Zimbabwean drink you have to strain through your teeth. The concoction proved deadly and upon rising too quickly one was prone to keel over—not yours truly—I just drank more, only to pay later for my oversight! After three bowls of this, we decided enough was enough and there was still no sign of my tofu soup—that explains why I got slightly tipsy. We stumbled out into the night and somehow I managed to weave my way home without getting hit by a garbage bag.
School is fun.
The majority of my classes are school kids who spend all day in school then come to our hogwon (private school) from 3-8:30pm for English classes, plus they come on Saturday afternoons. On evening, I complained to my flat mate Jan about the number of students shuffling down our street at Paktal Dong at 10:30 at night.
I guess they’ve been out drinking.” I said with a smirk as they were carrying their heavy backpacks.
No, they are just coming home from their private tutors.” Remarked Jan.
At this time of night.” I added.
Yes, they do private classes from 8pm to 10pm.”
I remember teaching at a girl’s Middle School and having a 7:30am class on Monday mornings. I thought the teenage girls would be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but most of them had their heads down on their desks—trying to sleep. I was curious—
Did you girls party all weekend?
No teacher.”
What do you usually do on your weekends?” I asked.
We have private English classes on Saturday.” One answered.
Okay—what about Sunday?
One girl woke up from my questioning—“I slept.” She said meekly.
You slept all of Sunday?” I was flabbergasted.
Yes teacher.” Chimed in others and they nodded their heads in agreement.
I felt sorry for them as I think they have way too much schooling and not enough time for fooling around.
Nevertheless, some of blighters are extremely smart and most of them are excellent artists. They are perfectionists and remind me of my nephew Conor—they have their coloured pencils arranged in a certain order and heaven forbid if you give them an old box of crayons to use. Boys will not sit next to girls and vice versa—roles are clearly defined even at this young age. Bingo is a big hit as are games involving playing cards. Part of our job involves giving the kids English names otherwise you would only have Parks, Kims, Lees or In Kyung or names you couldn’t pronounce. So, there are a lot of kids with names like: Emily, Jim, Andy, Bill, Constance, Roman, Fletch, Silver (?) where’s Trigger and there’s even a Paul and Claire. I am referred to in the most reverent of terms—“Teacher” or he who must be obeyed, especially when he has a beard and towers over everyone. Truth be told, I can barely fit into the small student’s desk. Most of the children have never seen a man with full facial hair and I am often called Santa Claus and they all want to touch my beard. Quite often, the children come up to ask me a question under the ruse that they can just touch my hairy arms. I think the biggest tragedy in Korea would be if there were no mirrors as both men and women spend inordinate amounts of time in front of mirrors preening themselves. In actual fact, there is no need of this as the Korean women don’t need any makeup and most ‘western’ women would kill for the Korean gals pouty lips! Both Miche, Jan receive unwanted attention because they are buxom babes and Andrea because she is tall, blonde vixen. All the Korean doctors and men want to have classes with them. Jan came back one night from her “doctors” class a little worse for wear and out of breath. I guess it was her last class and they had been drinking. Her trousers had smudges of dirt on them, her top was ripped, her hair was tousled and she had bits of green bushes in her hair.
What the hell happened to you?” I asked wondering what she had been doing.
I jumped out of a car as it was driving.”
What for?” I enquired.
I thought the doctor was making an advance on me so I jumped out.” She answered trying to catch her breath.
What about this?” I said removing bits of green bush from her hair.
Oh, I fell into a bush when I jumped.
I could just imagine the scene.
What do you expect you sex bomb!” I added jokingly.
We had a good laugh about that and I think that was her last evening class.

We had to give out student evaluations last week and I started out on the wrong foot. I erred in writing up their evaluations in red ink, as apparently this is a no-no. I found out that red ink signals that you are unfriendly or it can be misconstrued as such—tsk, tsk! I had to redo everything I had marked in red with blue ink—much to my chagrin. Luckily, the all-knowing Mrs. Park showed me my errors and caught me before the parents would have seen it. My desk mate Justin and I have bets on for who is going to hang themselves first—I think he has the edge! He has taken upon himself to learn Korean (Hangul) as he is quite dedicated at it. So much so that he is learning the alphabet and is learning how to write all the teacher’s names in Korean. He wrote out my name and one of the Korean teacher’s names in the Hangul characters. At first, I thought this was quite good and I was going to wear my name tag to my classes. I asked one of the Korean teachers what they thought of Justin’s translation into Hangul characters. Teacher Che (Chey—her name should really be pronounced as Chew-ay –like “whi chew-ay you going Billy?”) looked at my name and then turned it upside down—a rather auspicious beginning. I knew something was wrong when a native speaker is turning your name around to see which way is up. Hmm, I thought, maybe this was not such a good translation. The last thing I wanted to wear into class is something that translates into “I am a stupid jackass” or “big turd”. I thought I would seek out an expert opinion so I called upon the services of the all-knowing Mrs. Park. This was no better. She took my nameplate and turned the card so that she was reading it in reverse—yikes! I was beginning to wonder what the heck Justin had written—so far he had managed to stump two native speakers. This called for action. I decided that I would write up an evaluation on Justin’s grasp of Hangul with the help of the beautiful Miss Che. I managed to cajole an evaluation out of one of our secretaries despite her protests—she thought Justin would not appreciate my ‘dark humour’—HA!! I got Che to write up an evaluation in Hangul and I added my English comments and then hid it under the glass on Justin’s desk. When he saw it (finally) he couldn’t believe his eyes as I had given him 2’s and 3’s on his report, knowing full well that we were never to give the students anything under 3 or 4. He laughed and showed it to everyone and said he would frame it and take it with him—good sport—dreadful Hangul. Justin is a bit of an odd sort as he is the oddest Jewish Yank from the Bronx that I have even met. He has spent the last few years in Australia so he now has a peculiar Aussie/Bronx accent with Aussie sayings—the worst of both worlds—Aussie chauvinism and American savvy.

Monday, November 7, 2011

First impressions of Korea (1997)

The Land of the Neon Crosses

February 1997--I arrived in South Korea in the dark and the mood was rather gloomy—sort of the thing you would expect from a set for the filming of “Seven” or “Strange Days ‘as the atmosphere was dank and oily. Cars and taxis whizzed by at 100 mph with no particular care or regard for oncoming traffic—especially in our lane. I was picked up at the airport by a cute, yet diminutive Korean gal in a short tartan skirt—Miss Gum. She caught me of guard when she jumped in the back seat with me although it was a sedan but I was too sedated from the long distance flight to really notice her beauty in the dark.
As we cruised into Anyang, I noticed a proliferation of purple neon crosses that dotted the bleak dystrophic cityscape –sort of a McDonalds approach to Christianity. At first, I thought they were hospital signs but on closer examination they were, in fact, churches. I have never been in a place where there were so many churches—some of them rather miniscule, much like everything here. You will find churches in the oddest locations: sometimes they are on the top floor of a furniture store. Their architecture is very futuristic and they would not be out of place from a backdrop scene from “Blade Runner”—very angular and pointed. They are a weird combination of styles with stairs that lead up into nothingness. As we drove on through the metropolis, I noticed that there were a lot of Nazi symbols, i.e. the swastika. For a moment, I thought maybe we had missed a turn and we were in Idaho at the Aryan Brotherhood’s redoubt. Not to worry, these swastikas are the reverse form of the ones Hitler liberated from the Buddhists back in the ‘30s. The Korean swastika is called tcholl and it signifies that there is a Buddhist temple where one can relieve themselves from the earthly cycle of material things or samsara through prostration (not relieve their prostate gland).
One of the Korean teachers here, Esther has a belt buckle with a huge cross on it that she often wears while teaching in class. Unlike in the west where a crucifix is worn as a fashion statement, here in Korea, Esther is a practicing Christian and she described her church as “deeply gospel” (whatever that is). My good Jewish friend Justin has a bit of a crush on Esther and made the mistake of asking her out for a date on Easter Sunday. Well he got his wish-a date at her ‘deeply gospel’ church for the Easter Sunday service—how romantic! At any rate, it sounds like it was quite a wild time as the church has video cameras set up all over the show: one on the pastor, another on the choir, and a roving one. They also have a person who is in charge as a video coordinator for the service. During the service, they pan around the congregation and pick out first-time visitors and flash them on the huge Jumbotron video screen that is behind the choir-nice-eh! I guess they called out Justin’s name but he tried to hide behind the pew to escape notice. Fat chance of that since he was probably the only ferengi at the otherwise all-Korean church service. He was definitely the only Jewish visitor in the audience of the converted. I only found this out the following day at work when he sheepishly told me the story of his romantic date.
Life in Paktal Dong Market
I live on the second floor of a small apartment complex that is smack dab in a busy little area called Paktal Dong. It’s quite a riotous place and resembles more of a circus: constant noise, cars and trucks hooting, fire engines roaring up and down the narrow street. You don’t have to walk far to by anything: there are shoe stores galore, snack places, kebab and pot sticker or mondou sellers abound, sushi joints, Korean restaurants, pizza and fried chicken shacks. There is fresh tofu available either at my local mini supermarket or kiosk. There’s a coffee bon from whence you can order fresh ground coffee or copy as the Korean’s say and it is delivered by sexy, sleekly, scantily-clad long-legged Korean maidens of some sort of ill-repute who may offer more than just coffee and cream on the side, so to say! Nevertheless, it is a carnival atmosphere with shoes stores stereos competing for the loudest sound amongst the cacophony. You are lucky to get 3 hours sleep here at any time as the racket goes on till three am. I’ve been known to fire my water gun out of Jan’s window when things get out of hand.
When I phoned my dad and told him of my address:
Paktal Dong, Anyang-shi, Kyonggi-do, he said—
Aren’t you missing a ding in your address?
All humour aside, back at our Paktal Dong market, today I saw a dog pack which is very rare in these parts, unless they are stuffed in jars at the butcher’s shop. However, I’m afraid these curs would not have made much of a meal. These feral brutes (all two of them) were not much more than a fuzzy pair of rats with tails and I think a Mexican Chihuahua would have given them a run for their money. I think I shocked the poor little things when I tried to talk to them in English—they scurried away to wreak further havoc on our noisy market area.
Moving Day in Paktal Dong—this morning I looked out from our spacious apartment to see what all the ruckus was about. Apparently, we have new neighbours moving in across the way. At first, I thought they were moving out as there were three people who were leaning out of their window looking at the luggage below. They were, in fact, waiting for this conveyor belt truck to back up to their third floor apartment. Now normally this wouldn’t be such a big deal but the streets in our Paktal Dong market are only big enough to squeeze two very compact Hyundai cars into. This conveyor belt truck managed to block the entire street—a very busy market day street at that. There was no end of excitement for the cars and pickups at either end of the street. Nevertheless, the conveyor belt started and it is quite a neat gizmo hat allowed the people to load their gear at street level and shuttle it up to the third floor through the window—brilliant! I have never seen such a moving method, especially for heavy fridges and furniture—sure beats lugging it up three sets of stairs.
The Blessed Marmite
I have just had the pleasure of meeting my friend Brian Rose from Taejon, some six hours south of Anyang. He didn’t know I was in Korea and had been calling my friends (John Jacobs and Anne Webb) in Vancouver wanting to know my whereabouts. He thought something had happened to me—yes, I had come to Korea. Fact is, I had phoned his place in Taejon and left all the particulars with his Korean roommate who didn’t think my phone number was worth keeping or passing on to Brian. Rose is much the same sans beard and he can’t fathom how I have gotten away with keeping my beard—Ha! I may not make any headway with the Korean women but at least I won’t look like a complete fool and be laughed at. Rose was very miffed that I had brought over my mega CD boom blaster but was pleasantly surprised by the quality. I brought over 70 CDs with me and he has left a whack of blank cassettes for me to produce my own version of “Trance Planet series”. This paled in comparison to the excitement that he displayed upon seeing my jar of Marmite on the fridge top—you might think he saw a vision of the Blessed Virgin. No, it was the blessed Marmite! He said, and I quote—“I can go a year without dark beer, women and crosswords but I can’t go another year without Marmite.” The thing that impressed him most was my jar of Marmite I had bought it in a funky store in Itaewon. Making toast is quite a ritual as well. A real toaster would cost anywhere between 75-100,000 won (~$100 US) for a toaster—is nothing sacred! I use the old camp method: start up the propane two-burner, put bread on metal strainer, heat slowly over flame, burn the edges and then stick the bread with a fork and finish off toasting. By this time, Rose was salivating about the Marmite and proceeded to just about consume the whole jar on a couple of pieces of toast—the wanker! I told him he was eating toast and not putting tar on a roof shingle—sheesh wallah? Luckily I ran out of bread.
Scene and passing in Korea
Brian came to visit on the weekend. Rose also pointed out that Koreans spend incredible amounts of money on clothes and how they present themselves in public. Yet, if you were to go into their homes, you might think they were living on welfare. Their homes are bereft of any accoutrements that would signify that they have money—it all goes for presentation in the work place.
Our staff at ECM consists of a motley crew: Justin the Jewish guy from Brooklyn with an Aussie accent but looks and acts like a MOSSAD agent, sex slave Dave, Montana Jan (former cook and bottle washer from Alaskan King Crab boats), broom stick waver Brian from California with his sexy Korean girlfriend, the Southern belle Miche, fill your boots from Fredericton—Andrea, the bluenoser brothers from Antigonish—Billy and Greg-eh, the Canadian hoser from Banff (me) and finally, Mr. Head from Alberta—Ron Limoge.
I have taken a particular fancy to writing down or photographing signs that have been translated into English. I am quite amused by one of the stores at the end of our Paktal Dong market called “Mother Devotion”. Now at first glance, one might think it is a Catholic bookstore or something along those lines, but in fact, it is a kid’s educational toys and local witchdoctor store. Moreover, it is rather curious that in the same store, you can procure a traditional remedy for whatever ails you and get a toy or child’s book for the child that ails you, handy isn’t it? Another dandy is “Baby Hunt”. No, this is not a child search programme for wayward children but a chain of children’s clothing stores. Speaking of traditional medicine, we have a traditional Korean doctor below us with his two pretty assistants—the Miss Kims. The taller Miss Kim, joined me in a game of slo-pitch, dressed in a cocktail dress and cowboy boots—quite the outfit. Maybe Charlie Finlay should consider this attire? The southpaw Miche stymied us with her pitching and her side whalloped us. The shorter Miss Kim is a cute as a button and has arguments with the taller Kim when I visit the doctor’s office. My flat mate Montana Jan Eaton and I get to inhale all sorts of weird and wonderful odours, i.e. ground deer antler (which has the same effect as making tea from my week-old socks) musk glands and something that smells like pot.

We also have the occasional cockroach but they don’t stand a chance as I have my trusty Smith & Wesson to dispatch the hated arthropod. The Smith & Wesson was left behind by the former tenant Billy and it uses ball bearings as ammo. I’ve become quite a deadly shot and have threatened to use it on late night revelers who frequent the street outside or for Korean men who have this annoying habit of walking into our apartment unannounced! This happened to Jan the other morning as she was sleeping. She heard someone at the door and turned to see a strange Korean man in the doorway. I have taken to locking the door behind me when I leave for my morning class. My friend Brian had the same problem in Taejon as a man walked in on him while he was in bed. So now I have a loaded pellet gun in the house and have memorized Clint’s famous line—“Do you feel lucky punk?
We had a bit of a panic the other day with regards to Miche’s laundry. Miche or Michiko is a southern belle from the Carolina’s and she and my flat mate Jan are what one would politely refer to as “full figure girls” so to say. Apparently, Miche had washed her one bra that she brought from the US and someone had stolen it. At first, she blamed me and the other Canadian guy Dave as stealing it. The only crime Dave was guilty of was canoodling in public with Miche. I was dumfounded and told her that two of my man boobs wouldn’t fit into one cup and why would I want one. She then reckoned that the hogwon boss had nicked it. What for—in case he wanted to go to the Rocky Horror Picture Show? At any rate, she would have to order a new bra from the US as the Korean lingerie stores don’t stock her size and besides, the Korean women are not as busty. I guess size does matter.

Well, things are looking up—I am now a “Registered Alien”. I knew there was something different about me, now it’s official. The Korean officials even went as far as to fingerprint me and asked for a mug shot—but I am innocent! Andrea, the other new kid on the block almost got us into trouble at the registration centre with the stern-looking officials. It didn’t help matters that we had to wait forever in a lineup from hell to apply for the “alien registration”. The setting is very Kafkaesque, much like the scene from “The Trial”—grandiose oblivion. You enter a glass cubicle or rather we got stuffed into a tiny glass cubicle—all three of us, Andrea, our trusty Korean director-Rocky (aka Jae, Roc-Koh) and my own largesse frame. We had filled out the forms—both printing and writing our names out in longhand. The agent did not like the way Andrea and I printed our names in English so he corrected them for us. I quipped to Andrea—
This guy doesn’t even speak English.”
Andrea started laughing.
If he doesn’t speak English, how can he know how to print our names?” I added
Andrea’s laugh got louder, the kind of laugh that penetrates bank vaults—everyone must have heard her. Little Rocky was not amused. He told Andrea—
Do not laugh!
This was no laughing matter to Rocky but he just made Andrea laugh harder at the absurdity of it all. Next, we were taken around a corner office where a man grabbed my hand and starting rubbing ink all over my fingertips. We were fingerprinted and will probably appear on “Korea’s Most Wanted” with Elliot Ness (Tea) as the host. I have never been fingerprinted before and this is a bit much since the only crime I have committed (so far) is posing as an ESL teacher.
My former friend Justin and I had a falling out the other day over a proposed trip to the DMZ area with North Korea. You see, South Korea is still in a state of war with the North since 1950 no less. On the 15th of each month, there are bomb drills and air raid sirens that go off as if you were in London during the Blitzkrieg. Police cars cruise the streets with sirens blaring advising the populace to seek shelter—“If any member of the family should die whilst in the shelter, put them outside, but remember to tag them first for identification purposes” (thanks Frankie). At any rate, I find this whole thing ridiculous in light of the fact that there are American forces bases all over the country, US satellites overhead and AWACs everywhere and I find it hard to believe that the US would not know when the North was going to invade. The South is afraid that the North will succeed in building a tunnel into the South. Be that as it may, Justin wants to organize a day trip to the famous DMZ (De-militarized zone) in the world—all organized by your neighbouring USO office—how quaint? You see the South Koreans can’t go to their own bleeping border but everyone else can—that is if you are properly dressed.
Here is some of the dress code for visiting DMZ:
1)    No t-shirts, tank tops, shirt (tops) without sleeves.
2)    No dungarees or designer jeans (darn!)
3)    No shorts of any kind, i.e. Bermuda, cut-offs or short-shorts.
4)    No mini-skirts, halter-tops, backless dresses (how risqué-I thought this was de rigueur for DMZ)
5)    A favourite—No item of outer clothing of sheer variety!!
6)    No shower shoes, thongs, flip flops…tennis shoes are acceptable but must be in good condition.
7)    No military clothing
8)    (My own) No t-shirts that say—“My mom went to the DMZ and all I got was this f****ing t-shirt.
9)    Just in case you forgot—“Personnel are reminded that shaggy or unkempt hair (i.e. me) is not permitted.”
I guess #9 let’s me off the hook for going on this stupid thing as my hair has never been kempt (Mein unkempt, bitte?)
This begs the question—why all of this bullshit with regards to dress, shoes and hair?
Apparently, the South Koreans (& US) say that the North Koreans regularly take photos of ‘unkempt southern visitors’ and use these photos for propaganda purposes—Who the hell cares what some hermit supposed Stalinist kingdom thinks? This is where Justin and I fell out as I wasn’t going to get dressed up in casual attire, spiffy shoes and have kempt hair so that some friggin’ commie North Korean can take my photo. Korea—the land of contradictions continues.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

In defense of Lamu, 2011

Lamu still on my mind
Dhows for hire.
My favourite paradise isle has been taking a beating in the western media of late with regards to Somali pirates and kidnappings off the northeast coast of Kenya near Lamu. It’s a real pity because I have so many lovely memories of the island. The biggest fear one would ever think of in venturing to Lamu was not succumbing to Somali pirates but rather to malaria—funny but how times have changed?

In the past, any trip I made to Africa and Kenya would not be complete without visiting this fabled island. Over time, Lamu has become something of a second home to me and second nature. Its unique Swahili architecture, people and Islamic customs have always been a magnet for me and many others who made the sojourn up the quiet Kenyan coast. Many travellers have enjoyed its crystal clear waters for swimming, endless white sand dunes, funky laid-back atmosphere and authentic Swahili cuisine, and during the 1980s and 1990s; it was referred to as the “Kathmandu of Africa”. Despite the recent bad press, I will try to romance you with a pleasant state of mind which I like to refer to as “Lamu on my mind”. Now before I get too involved in the story telling, I should tell you that I have been to Lamu many times dating back to its halcyon days of the 1980s. I am constantly reminded of my times there and those images are forever etched on my mind.
Getting there
To get to Lamu entails a longish, bumpy bus ride from Malindi or a shorter flight into the small airport on the mainland. Only a few hardy travellers or locals take the coastal bus these days—most others fly into Lamu. There are daily flights that service Lamu, either from Mombasa, Malindi or Nairobi. Sometimes, if you book online, there may be a package deal that involves flight and accommodation. Either way, each trip ends at Makowe on the mainland and your trip has not ended as you still have to take a dhow to get to Lamutown. Normally this would not be such a big smelly deal but going to Lamu in the 1980s was a big deal. This was the zenith of travelling on the cheap in Africa and everybody and their brother was doing it—even my brother! Whether you fly to the small airport or take the bus, you still are required to arrive in Lamu the traditional way—by sea-going dhow. These dhows are not your standard little wind-blown dhows for beating around mangrove swamps or going fishing in, these are the big assed jifrazi coastal dhows with diesel engines that can accommodate between 20-30 people.

Entering Lamu
Quite often, the tide is down upon arrival and this precipitates a mad scramble to get your gear down the slippery brine and coral encrusted concrete steps and onto the awaiting dhow. At times, it’s a bit like walking a tightrope to get from the slippery stairs of the pier to the equally slippery wooden frame of the dhow and then drop down onto an already wet seat. If there is no wind, then the dhows use their noisy diesel engine to ferry you to the enchanted isle of Lamu. As you travel across the short strait, vast tracts of mangrove swamps surround you and one could easily envision an evil crocodile lurking in the shadows, waiting to feast on our sunburnt bones. We braced for the lurching ride and tasted the salty brine that showered us whenever we crested a wave. It was about a twenty minute ride and then like a mirage, the bleached skyline of Lamutown came into view. There is something quite romantic about arriving at a small coastal town in Africa on a dhow and over the years, I have never grown weary from this small journey. Over the years, it has become a rite of passage of sorts—part of the “African experience”. On the distant horizon, the outline of coral rag buildings rise up out of the hazy water and look like bleached bones topped with darker makuti roofing alongside palm trees swaying gently from the on-shore breeze.

Upon disembarking, the arrival scene at Lamu’s main dock probably has not changed over the centuries and it is truly memorable. There is the usual hugger mugger of well-wishers, touts and other neer-do-wells who were waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting souls as soon as they alighted.
There was the usual pitter patter of the “dhow boys” and hotel touts:
Habari ako?
Main dock Lamu.
Welcome to Lamu.”
Where do you stay?
Hi, my name is Ali Hippy.”
Do you want to try traditional Swahili meal?
Let me take your bags, I am Livingstone Rasta—you need guide?
Mzee, where are you from?
Karibu sana!”
I have cheap hotel for you.
My friend…” and so on
“The Kathmandu of Africa”
Since the 1980s, Lamu has experienced the many ebbs and lows of tourism. At its height in 1982, there were really only three options of where to say in Lamu: either the ultra-expensive Petley’s Inn for the well-heeled, or further along near the famous white sand dunes you would find the very posh Peponi’s for the beautiful people or the only ‘traveler’s’ hotel—New Mahru’s Hotel. In the old, pre-internet days we would spend time catching up on our journals or post card writing while waiting for our breakie to arrive. I’m sure nowadays, most people will have their laptops or typing out text messages on their Blackberry’s. Times change but the atmosphere doesn’t. According to the Lonely Planet series, Lamu has been called “the Kathmandu of Africa”, owing to the fabulous seafood fare, and other traditional Swahili fare that became legendary amongst overland travellers during the 80s and 90s. The appeal of Lamu came from the mouth watering Swahili dishes that ranged from fiery Indian-inspired curries, coconut rice and freshly caught seafood that Kenya’s east coast was known for. Local legend maintains that the famous American writer, Hemingway hung out for drinks in Lamu at the Olympic Restaurant in between hunting trips to Kilimanjaro. If it’s African fare that you seek then the Red Star Café is the place for you. Since the 1980s, it’s been the groovy place where all the beautiful people hung out drinking chai or Nescafe coffee whilst smoking their filter cigarettes, eating ugali or chewing the narcotic weed miraa with the locals. Over the years, guesthouses and restaurants have come and gone: New Mahrus, Pole Pole, Kilimanjaro, Rainbow Lodge, Kenya Lodging, Olympic Restaurant, Pancake House, Kenya Cold Drinks, The Equator and Mr. Ghai’s Curry House.

Whisper's Cafe
However, I am glad to see that some of the eateries still remain: New Star Restaurant, Olympic Restaurant, Bush Gardens, Whisper’s Café, Petley’s Inn, Stone House Restaurant and Hapa Hapa Restaurant. If you sit at the back of the “Dhow Restaurant” next to the long bar, you might just catch a piece of history as the sign for “The Equator” restaurant has been incorporated into the back wall. In 2000, Whisper’s Café was a recent addition to Lamu’s sumptuous cuisine and it can be found on Harambee Street. It has the latest Italian Espresso maker and excellent selection of dessert bars, fruit sorbets and a nice menu featuring traditional Swahili dishes. It has a pleasantly cooled tiled patio out back, bordered by huge lime coral walls, sheltering palms, false banana plants and ferns. Whisper’s is a pleasant place to write postcards or your next travel book. Many people complain about the slow service in most of the restaurants and cafes in Lamu but it’s pole pole (slowly slowly) and after all it’s “African time”.

In the past, one of the perks of travelling to Lamu was that you were never sure if you could get accommodation or if the place you stayed in the year before was still operating or if your favourite café or milkshake shop was still running. The advent of the Internet booking has taken the mystery out of finding accommodation in Lamu and there is plenty to choose from now. All toll, I’ve stayed in shared rooms with a/c, shared dorms without a/c, or on rooftops in mosquito net. On one occasion during busier times, I shared the ground floor of a traditional Swahili House called Tamasha Lodge with a German traveller and later, a large group of us shared a sprawling, two stories, 7-room Swahili home complete with garden and turtle with six other travellers. In recent trips, I went upscale and opted for the newly refurbished Stone House as they had a rooftop restaurant that had a view you would die for—the vista stretching out to distant Manda Island.
Stone House Hotel

Stone Tower arches.
Stone House rooftop restaurant

On recent trips to Lamu, I usually stay at the Stone House Hotel in the old town. It’s a traditional
Swahili house that has been refurbished. The rooms on the top floor are more airy and this keeps the
mosquitoes at bay. I’ve stayed in the larger “honeymoon suite” and it is quite romantic with wooden
shutters, which open to an unending scene of swinging palm trees, and baying donkeys. You can lie in
the larger bed and gaze out through the mosquito net towards Manda Island, which glimmers in the
distant haze of another torpid Lamu day. Most rooms are equipped with a huge en suite bathroom with
bracing shower, antique Swahili chests and drawers; tastefully hand-woven rugs grace the floor. The
hand-carved, wooden Swahili beds are a sight to behold with delicately carved wooden footboard and
larger headboard with glass tiles incorporated into the design. The top floor of Stone House has two
larger rooms separated by an Islamic arch. The larger room was adjoined to ours and there was another
ornately carved queen sized Swahili bed with soft pillows to catch the afternoon light and a place to read a book or gaze out the window.
Stone House, top floor sitting area.
I have often ordered aromatic afternoon coffee or tasty Kenyan masala chai while sitting here catching up on diaries or writing postcards from this enchanting isle. The star attraction of Stone House is its rooftop restaurant. It has a palm roof, with stucco arches that allow a constant flow of sea breeze to cool you down and affords lovely views of nearby rooftops. It’s a good place to cool your heels and either sip on a fruit shake or partake of their excellent Swahili fare. Even though I have stayed away from Lamu for long periods—it always feels good to be back in my Lamu.

Bajuni friend

Old Lamu Friends
Quite often whilst walking along the promenade that hugs theLamu waterfront, it’s not difficult to run into some of my oldLamu friends. Near the main dock, I often hear the unmistakable lilting high-pitched voice of an old Lamuan friend—Ali Hippy. He is really only a couple years older than me but he has the physique of a mini sumo wrestler. His retort now is—“Ali Yummy, good for tummy” and apparently good for his tummy too! He has rounded out now, needs a cane and can be found corralling his usual band of victims for his famous ‘Swahili dinners’. From the looks of Ali, he hasn’t missed too many of his meals either? Further along, there was a familiar face with a huge toothy grin standing beside Ali Hippy. It was an old friend who I haven’t seen since the 1980s. He’s a Bajuni friend who has lost just about all of his former curly Afro locks but still has his trademark warm smile and toothy grin. We exchanged stories and I mentioned to him that I had last seen him in 1988 when he ran the Rainbow Lodge. In subsequent talks, he told me in sad tones that the lodge has since closed down and he now works for the Olympic Restaurant. When I saw him a year later, the Lamu economy had worsened and the little money he made came from carrying huge 100 pound bags of cement from the dock to a building site. I felt sorry for him and the tough times that Lamu and Lamuans have had to endure over the years--it has not been easy with the decline in recent tourism.  
Street Life in Lamu
One cannot talk about Lamu without mentioning the street life, as there are no cars so one has to walk everywhere—it’s part of the allure of Lamu. On these narrow high-walled streets, there is barely enough room to squeeze by fat tourists let along a donkey cart piled high with cement bags or fruit for sale down the coast. The donkeys seem to have free range of the streets and one can often see them leaning up against a coral rag wall, sleeping out of the hot rays of the equatorial sun. One has to be careful of these open sewers especially at night when there is no power and you have to guide yourself by flashlight down the narrow streets. Local men shuffle by in their white kanzus or brightly covered kikois or kangas, with a Swahili cap atop and patchy shirts. The Lamu women who are Muslim are usually fully covered with a black abaya and are called Bui Bui. All manner of commerce takes place on the crowded streets as well as gawking by tourists. When the sun isn’t too strong, it was easy to saunter off up the narrow streets, past the main dock en route to the sandy beach road to get to the sand dunes and famous white, sandy beach just past Shela. Once there, we might stop at the very expensive, exclusive Peponi’s Hotel for a mid-day Schweppes’s Bitter Lemon under an umbrella to get out of the fierce sun. Peponi’s is just opposite Manda Island Beach Resort and the area that has received so much attention in the media lately for kidnappings and shootings. I find it all of this bad news slightly unbelievable in that Lamu has been a respite for peace and tranquility amongst the hurly burly of Africa for many years. In recent times, the Somalis have made their presence felt from the Gulf of Aden around the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean. Of late, their terrorism has stretched down the coast and into Kenyan waters and sovereignty. Somalia has become a haven of mayhem. Somalis have been responsible for the recent spate of bar bombings both in Uganda and Kenya. The streets of Kenya are awash with “dirty pirate money” from Somalia. It’s a true international crime when the Al-Shabab or whoever this rag-tag army from Somalia owes their allegiance to have incurred in bringing their ‘kidnapping games’ to this idyllic part of Kenya. Let’s hope that the Kenyan army and security forces can soon put an end to this reign of terrorism and return Lamu back to its rightful claim of “Paradise Isle”.
Near Takwa ruins, Manda Island.