Quin's Progress


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Sunrise, Sunset

CheruquinIt’s holiday time, and once again, people everywhere are talking about miracles. So, gather ‘round, children, and I’ll tell you a tale of a truly rare wonder. An occurrence of such extraordinary unlikeliness and infrequency that seeing a giant octopus piloting Halley’s Comet like a chariot across the Golden Gate Bridge would seem banal by comparison.

It's a sleep mask.  Don't be afraid.

My favorite sleep mask.

I’m talking about me getting out of bed before dawn to see the sunrise. Not to compare this to the big, faith-based marvels that inspire our various winter festivities, but anyone who knows me, has worked with me, or tried to get me on the phone, much less up and dressed, before double-digit hours in the morning, will confirm that, for me to voluntarily haul my carcass upright and into motion while it’s still dark out, when the building isn’t even on fire…well, it’s gonna take nothing short of a forklift miracle.

But, such miracles do occur now and then. Usually as a result of peer pressure. And, to be honest, I always feel like I’ve been tricked; defrauded out of my early morning snuggle time by the promise of beholding tangerine magic that never quite delivers. But, I keep falling for it.

Rajendra and Bhawani.

Rajendra and Bhawani.

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The terrace behind the Taj Mahal.

It all started years ago in India, when my friends Rajendra and Bhawani told me it would be simply inexcusable to miss seeing the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. I was pretty sure the Taj Mahal would look amazing at any time of day, so I politely declined. They were so persistent, though, that I started to worry that I might actually miss something astonishing if I didn’t make the effort. Accordingly, I dragged myself out of bed in the wee hours, grumbled resentfully through the dark streets of Agra, and followed Rajendra and Bhawani to the foggy marble terrace behind the Taj Mahal, where Rajendra said the view of the sun bursting over the horizon would be most awe inspiring. And we waited.

DSC00372There’s a river winding through the sands behind the Taj Mahal, and as dawn approached, daylight started to illuminate the land, and nearby villagers came out to the bank of the river…and squatted down. From above on the terrace, I had to squint to get a good look at them. It was getting lighter and lighter out, but we still hadn’t seen the sun come up. But, the lighter it got, the more villagers came to the river and copped a squat, and the clearer it became what they were doing.

DSC00398

Oh, hayell no.

I turned to Rajendra and said, “Are they doing what I think they’re doing?”  My friend Jennifer tried to lighten the mood, knowing well how much of a morning person I’m not. “No, I think they are taking pictures of the Taj Mahal! They are getting down low to frame the shot!” Bless her. She’s such an optimist.  I looked at Rajendra, the arch of my eyebrows demanding an answer. “Please tell me you didn’t drag me out of bed in the middle of the night just to come watch people poop on the river bank!” Rajendra laughed nervously, and said the people were, indeed, relieving themselves. I turned away in exasperation, and in the opposite direction, saw…the sun! It had come up on the other side!

DSC00383

On the other side.

“LOOK!” I shrieked and pointed, and Jennifer and Rajendra and Bhawani and I ran around to the front of the main tomb building, just in time to see the fat, amber yolk of the sun climb into the Indian sky over the tip of the red marble monuments on the, yes, east side of the complex.

DSC00400

Looks exactly the same at 3 p.m.

“Why were we back there watching people go to the bathroom in the river when the sunrise is over here!” I whined. Rajendra looked positively nonplussed. “I don’t understand, it usually comes up over there, I don’t know what happened this time,” he said. Well, that could happen to anybody. You know how unpredictable the sun can be.

Sunset in Koh Samui, Thailand.  And no one had to get up early to see it.

Sunset in Koh Samui, Thailand. And no one had to get up at an unchristian hour to see it.

After that, I swore I wasn’t getting up to see any more damned sunrises. Sunsets are just as good—no, better, because no one has to get up earlier than they want to, and they virtually demand to be accompanied by a relaxing cocktail. That’s definitely more my speed.

Fast forward to last year. I was on Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea. For some reason that made perfect sense to me at the time, I booked a hotel on the east coast, on the opposite side of the island from the main town. Unbeknownst to me, the hotel also happened to be next to a large, volcanic tuff cone named Seongsan Ilchulbong, also called “Sunrise Peak.” You can see where this is headed.

Seongsan Ilchulbong.

Seongsan Ilchulbong.

It was off-season, and when I arrived, it looked like I might be the only guest in the place. So, when the English-speaking gentleman the owner had dispatched to meet me upon check-in (that’s Korean hospitality for you) told me that they had set up a special sunrise viewing terrace just for me on the side of the building facing Seongsan Ilchulbong, and would be waiting for me at 5:15 a.m. with coffee and pastries and blankets for snuggling…well…it would have been rude to say no.

So, up I got. At least, this time, I didn’t have to go very far, and I didn’t have to watch anyone at their morning toilet. And there was coffee and pastry. That made it much more bearable. But, the sunrise still failed to deliver the advertised spiritual epiphany-inducing chills. In fact, as if sensing my bad attitude, it failed to show at all.

This is what it looked like just before dawn:

Before dawn.

Before dawn.

And this is what it looked like just after:

Just after dawn.

Just after dawn.

Pfft.  I shoulda stood in bed.  I renewed my vow that the only sunrise I would ever see would be one on the end of a long and festive night of carousing, not one I had to crawl out of bed for.

Anton.  Just look at that smile!

Anton.  And bakso.  Both wonderful!

Then came Anton. Anton is a professional driver (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004371273617&sk=about), and when he doesn’t have a client booked, he kills time doing airport runs from the Yogyakarta airport in Java. That’s how we met. We hit it off like a house fire, so I hired him to drive me around and show me the sights.

It's a tofu brand.

It’s a tofu brand.  No comment.

Lucky for me, he also knows all the good local places to eat, and introduced me to a bunch of Indonesian dishes I might never have discovered otherwise, like “bakso,” a wonderful meatball soup with noodles.  And a popular local tofu brand, called “Poo.”  No river bank required.

Borobudur.

Borobudur.

One of the most notable sights near Jogja is a massive, 9th century Buddhist temple called Borobudur. When I told Anton I wanted to go see it, he said we needed to set out at 4 a.m. to get there by sunrise. Oh no, I told him, nothing doing. I don’t care about the sunrise. We can just go around noon. He said okay, but knitted his eyebrows and looked down into his bakso. After a couple bites, he said, “Quin, if you want to go later, we can, but it will be very hot and very crowded. I don’t think you will like it.”

Borobudur.

Borobudur.

If there’s anything I hate more than getting up early, it’s oppressive heat and crushing crowds. He had my attention. I proposed we go at, like, 8 a.m., and avoid the heat.  Now, we were negotiating. He argued that we would still have to set out at 6:30 to get there by 8, and it would still be hot, and with all that discomfort, we wouldn’t even be rewarded with the sight of the sunrise. So, why not go a couple hours earlier, see the magical sunrise over the temple, with the Merapi volcano in the distance, and then get in and out of the temple before the bus tour groups show up and the heat gets too bad. He knew a secret, special place up on a hill over the temple where we could watch the sunrise, and it wouldn’t be crowded, and we wouldn’t have to pay the entrance fee the hotel near the temple charges to let people watch the sunset on their terrace. I reluctantly agreed.

That’s right.  Anton talked me not only into getting up, but into climbing a mountain before dawn!   He really is a wizard.  And this was my reward (if the video below does not show, click here):

Bee coming in for a landing on Buddha's head.

Bee coming in for a landing on Buddha’s head.

I have to admit, it was pretty cool. And we got in to Borobudur in time to see the giant bumblebees perching on the Buddha’s head–Buddhabees–before the stone got too hot in the sun for them to land. Point: Anton.

A week later, I asked Anton if he would take me to Mount Bromo, the big, active volcano in east Java.  It was a couple days’ drive away, but he was willing.  On the second day, Anton started preparing me for the idea that I would have to get up and trek up the mountain before dawn.

Buddhabee.

Buddhabee.

“Why,” I asked. “It’s a volcano, it’s open all day. We can go in the afternoon.

No, we can only drive up so far in my car, and then you have to take a jeep, and the jeep drivers only work in the morning.”

I bet we can find one who would be willing to go later,” I said confidently.

High tech security system on the wall at the lodge.

Cool high tech security system on the wall at the lodge at Mt. Bromo.

When we got up to the lodge at the edge of the ash plane surrounding the cone, Anton checked with his contact, who confirmed that it had to be a pre-dawn run. I was so annoyed. Anton assured me that, once again, the heat would be so ghastly in the afternoon, that the trade off of getting up early would be worth it.

Anton, freezing to death in the jeep.

Anton, freezing to death in the jeep.

Now, Mount Bromo is up at almost 8,000 feet, and it was really cold that night. It was the only time I broke out my packable down jacket in the entire year I have been on the road, so I was especially skeptical about this heat avoidance claim. But, there was nothing to be done. Anton–who ordinarily stays in bed while his clients meet the jeep driver for the trek up the mountain—after advocating so hard to make me go early, had to get up and go with me.  We froze our assets off in the dark in the back of the jeep, as it lumbered off-road across the moonscape to the side of the volcano, and began to climb. About two-thirds of the way up, the path was so jammed with jeeps and motorbikes, that we had to stop and hike the rest of the way on foot. This did not improve my mood.

Here comes the sun

Here comes the sun. From the opposite direction. Again.

Anton walked along a few paces ahead of me through the crowd, cheerfully offering falsehoods of encouragement, like “just a few more meters and we are there, Quin!” when we were clearly nowhere close.  Finally, at the top, there was a big, curved amphitheater carved into the hillside, from which you can look down onto the active, smoking cones of the volcano. And that is a truly remarkable view.  But, once again, the sun came up on the opposite side! Tricked again.  You would have to climb over the back side of the viewing platform and look out across the plains in the other direction to see the stupid sunrise. So, all that effort, and the sun came up in the wrong place.

P1110962Within a half hour after the sunrise, 99% of the people and the jeeps they came in were all gone. So, if we had waited, we could have driven right up to the top and hopped out of the jeep right at the amphitheater steps. P1110971And it wasn’t that hot. And I refuse to believe there isn’t a jeep driver willing to make a few extra bucks after the sunrise run is over. But, it sure was a marvelous, otherworldly sight. I’m just fairly sure it would be equally marvelous at noon. Or, even 9 a.m. Whatever. I’m not bitter.

P1080167In the meantime, I am back to my commitment to a “sunset only” policy for 2015. Sunsets are just more glamorous. And I’m more likely to be glamorous at the hour that they occur. I think we can all agree that’s an important factor.IMGP1939  So, for me to get up voluntarily just for another sunrise, well…it would take a miracle.


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Sex, Mermaids & Tangerines

Jeju1Jeju Island.  Semi-tropical, volcanic island off the southern coast of South Korea.  Favorite honeymoon and golf getaway venue for the better-heeled Korean, Chinese and Japanese set.  Also, the setting for the most infuriating Korean soap opera finale of all frickin’ time.  If you’re a K-drama fan, you know I’m talking about the last scene of the first season of IRIS.  Okay, hang on, let me catch the others up….

IRIS

IRIS

All you need to know, is that the couple in the following clip both just retired from active spy duty with a South Korean government intelligence agency so they could finally live a quiet life together.  For 20 episodes, they were star-crossed, kept apart by the lies and malevolent agendas of various Svengalis, as well as their own conflicting loyalties.  Every time they were about to get together, something would tear them apart.  They even each thought the other was dead for a while.  So, they’ve been through quite the wringer.  In Episode 20, the final chapter, the Baddie gets his comeuppance, the two lovers quit the spy biz for good, and run off to Jeju Island for some long overdue R&R&R (rest & relaxation & romance).  He casually proposes and asks her if they can have five kids; she jokes that she can’t take such a random proposal, with no ring, seriously.  So, later, he leaves her a note to meet him at the lighthouse, and he goes and gets a ring.  She knows what’s coming, so she happily goes and waits for him, wistfully reflecting on all they’ve been through.  Then, this:

What.  The.  Hell!  They killed him in the final scene?  After 20 episodes of spectacular betrayals, intrigues, and narrow evasions of death at every turn?  When, finally, all obstacles to their love had been cleared from their path?  With her, standing on the lighthouse platform, waiting for him to come propose to her properly, right there in his sight as he bleeds out?  Aww, man…Korean soap operas have a tendency to have less than the full Hollywood happy endings, but this was just uncalled for.  I was so mad, I watched Spanish telenovelas instead of K-dramas for two months afterward out of spite, as payback for that beaver tail slap to the face.

The infamous lighthouse

The infamous lighthouse

But, I got over it.  There are, after all, a host of other K-dramas with happier scenes filmed on Jeju Island—or Jeju-do, as it’s called in Korean.  In fact, the tourist maps have all the film locations noted on them, so fans can easily find them.  Naturally, I made a beeline to the infamous IRIS lighthouse.  I even parked my rental car in the spot where they filmed his car screeching to a halt after he’d been shot.  It gave me closure.  I can move on now.  I might even watch the second season.  Maybe.

Jeju MapBut, back to Jeju.  The southern tip of South Korea shatters into a spray of little islands, and Jeju is the largest, and one of the most distant, of them.  Still, it’s a snap to get to, with ferry service from Busan, as well as practically hourly flights from Busan, Seoul and other major Korean and Japanese cities.  I took the 45-minute flight from Busan, and the ticket only cost me about $40 USD on Jeju Air.

Jeju Dolharubang

Jeju Dolharubang

Jeju has a personality all its own, very distinct from the mainland.  The local saying goes that Jeju-do is a land of “Three Abundances: rocks, wind and women”–because of the rocky lava landscape and the Dolharubang (ancient stone statues sprinkled around the island), the windy climate and the fact that Jeju women are more plentiful and dominant in its society than men–and “Three Lacks: thieves, locked gates and beggars”—as the community values are such that there is no theft or begging, and thus, no need to lock the front gates.  I can vouch for the Three Lacks, but from what I saw, I think they need to revise the Three Abundances to read “women, tangerines and sex museums.”

embraceThe place is lousy with “museums” of all kinds, actually, due to an apparent special tax benefit for museum owners.  But, on an island of roughly 700 square miles, there are three fairly large scale museums devoted to sex.  In the town of Seogwipo (pronounced “soggy-po”), there is the somewhat clinical, yet still X-rated, Museum of Sex and Health, as well as the World Eros Museum, devoted to erotica.  But, the biggest, and best known, is Jeju Loveland in Jeju City.

leg archLoveland is an adults-only sculpture park, started in 2004 by art students from Hongik University in Seoul.  The 140 sculptures in the park are all sexually inspired; some are more graphic than others, and some are even interactive.  boobie mountainsWith a few exceptions, the tone is humorous and playful, and encourages visitors to lighten the heck up about sex.  From the gaggles of giggling grannies I saw gleefully frolicking amongst the interactive exhibits, I’d say that message was received, in spades.

She's dropping a red chili pepper into a giant clam.  Subtle, no?

She’s dropping a red chili pepper into a giant clam. Subtle, no?

fanny fountain

There’s a snack bar at the far end of the trail through the park.  It’s adjacent to a giant, mosaic-tiled posterior—complete with butterfly tattoo–peeing into a pond, next to which a comely maiden rides astride a rearing, phallic steed.  Because, you know…that kind of sight can make a person a bit peckish.  As I approached, an apron-clad auntie came out of the snack bar and insisted I try a sample of some fragrant, fresh baked goods she had in a basket.

Bag o' Dicks

Bag o’ Dicks

They were little cream-filled waffles shaped like boobies and wee-wees.  Of course.  What else?  Although, I personally felt the joke would have been carried home a little better by some kind of Bavarian cream filling, these were filled, like almost all pastries in Korea, with sweet red bean paste.  Anyway, I always feel obligated to buy after I accept a sample, and they weren’t bad, so I went inside to buy one.  But, they only came in bags of three.  So, I bought and, yes, ate…a bag of dicks.  And, I thought about Louis C.K. the whole time.

I may have to tweet him about this.

jeju1More ubiquitous than, and some would argue equally salubrious as, the sex museums, though, are tangerine orchards.  For centuries, Jeju has been famous for–indeed, practically synonymous with–tangerines.  The island is, literally, covered with tangerine trees.  jeju3The climate and volcanic soil on the eastern side of the island, near Seogwipo, are perfect for citrus cultivation.  In the IRIS video above, notice that, when the girl is sitting by the window reading, she’s got a big basket of tangerines next to her, and there’s a giant pile of peels on the floor.  Oh yeah, you don’t go to Jeju and not gorge yourself on tangerines.  It just isn’t done.

Historical records indicate tangerines were offered as tribute to the king as early as 476 A.D., in the Baekje Dynasty.  They were prized not only for their sweet taste, but also for their value in oriental medicine.

Smell-evision at the Jeju Citrus Museum.  Push the button, and the fragrance of different citrus blossoms wafts out.

Smell-evision at the Jeju Citrus Museum. Push the button, and the fragrance of different citrus blossoms wafts out.

Once the royals got a taste of Jeju’s tangerines, they couldn’t get enough, and demanded a huge tribute of tangerines each year, to the point that the local governors requisitioned the fruit on all the trees on the island, including those in people’s back yard gardens.  Here’s a groovy 3D video they had at the Tangerine Museum (yes, they had a tangerine museum, complete with “Smell-evision”) of a dramatic reenactment of the ancient King first learning about the wondrous tangerine:

Got that?  Good.  So, civil servants would run around the island during the bloom, and count the buds on the trees, and then show up to collect exactly that number of fruit at harvest time.  If your tangerines failed to develop, fell, or got eaten by bugs or birds before they could be collected, you had to pay a fine for the missing ones.  If your tangerines were of inferior quality, you could be charged with mismanagement of tangerines, stripped of your property, and converted to a person of the slave class.  Harsh, no?  So, during that time, people who didn’t want to take the risk, would pour boiling water on tangerine saplings, to kill the tree before they could be held responsible for it.  But, on the flip side, if a slave managed to plant some tangerine trees and yield some good fruit, he could be elevated out of slave class to a citizen.  Later, when the tangerine industry started to be a profit center for Jeju residents, they called tangerine trees “college trees,” because if you planted enough, you’d be able to afford to send your kids to college.

Tangerine Tree Root Chandelier, as tangerine trees are the root of Jeju's economy

Tangerine Tree Root Chandelier, symbolizing tangerine trees as the root of Jeju’s economy

There are several varieties of tangerines grown on Jeju, and citrus stands dot the roads all around the island.  I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some.  Tangerines have been my favorite fruit since I was little, when we had tangerine and tangelo trees in our groves in Southern California.  I have many fond memories of sitting under the trees in the sunshine, sweet tangerine juice running down my chin, my hands and arms all sticky, as the honey bees buzzed whimsically around.

fruit standSo, first thing, even before I went to Loveland, I stopped at a roadside stand to buy some tangerines.  The farmer sent his helper running up to the house to fetch his daughter from her homework to come help, as she could speak a few words of English.  I’ll spare you the play by play, but suffice it to say we had a minor disagreement about which, and how many, tangerines I would be taking home with me.  tangerinesI wanted the plumper, dark orange ones with thick, dimpled skin, and he seemed to want to unload these sad little greenish, golf ball-sized, shiny, thin-skinned ones that didn’t look appetizing to me.  And, he insisted I had to take at least a kilo, which is a lot of tangerines.  Finally, by the time his poor daughter had smoke coming out her ears from trying to translate the exchange, I agreed to take a kilo, and he agreed to split it half-and-half between the two varieties.

The sour ones

The sour ones

And darn it, he was right.  The ugly little green splotchy ones were sweet, juicy, brilliant ruby and delicious inside, whereas the big fat orange ones that had attracted me were sour and dry, like the Naranja Agria you get in the Latin markets back home for cooking rather than eating.

The good ones

The good ones

Shows you what I know.  I had to go back later and apologize to the farmer, and get some more of those yummy little ones, after I hoovered through what he had given me in one day.  To his credit, he didn’t gloat.  To my face, anyway.

One of Korea’s uniquely charming traits is how it can embrace modern progress, charging headlong into the high tech future, while at the same time, its historical and folk culture remains intact.  This is evident nowhere plainer than on Jeju-do.

Seongup

Seongup

jeju1I’m not talking about self-consciously quaint reproductions of old-timey traditional burgs filled with souvenir shops, although there are some of those.  No, Jeju’s got the real thing.  There are entire villages of inhabited thatch-roofed, mud and stone hut compounds surrounded by low walls of stacked lava rocks to keep the pigs and chickens from taking off.  Seongup is one such village.

Air-conditioned mud hut

Air-conditioned mud hut

People still live and work in these anachronistic communities, and not just to provide atmosphere for the tourists.  It has been their way of life for generations.  They do add modern conveniences here and there, though.

Because livestock is kept inside the walls of the homesteads, they put stone pillar gates–called “jeongnang”–at the entrance, and block the gate with one to three wooden poles to keep the animals in when they aren’t around to mind them.

Jeongnang

Jeongnang

They also use the jeongnang poles as a message system to communicate with the neighbors, as well as any camera-wielding tourists who may wander in.  If all three poles are up in the gate, it means “Don’t come in.”  Two poles up means the owner is out for a while, but will be back in a bit.  One pole up means the owner is not in the house, but is somewhere close by.  All three poles down means the owner is home, and visitors are welcome.  Remember, no locked gates on Jeju-do.

haenyeo4The most defining cultural feature of Jeju-do, though, is the Haenyeo.  The “sea women.”  Specifically, women free divers.  If you drive along the coast, chances are you will catch a glimpse of a group of black rubber-suited figures popping their heads up from the surface of the dark, clear sea, whistling like trains in the distance as they exhale their long-held breath.  These are the haenyeo.  Jeju’s mermaids.  They work in tight sisterhoods, diving for as long as two minutes at a time without the assistance of air tanks, to hand-gather abalone, oysters, mussels, octopi, urchins, and any other edible, useful or saleable sea creature or plant they can find.  They even dive when they’re pregnant, and well into old age.  Some of these broads are in their 70s, and they’re still hauling their entire extended family’s livelihood out of the sea with their bare hands, every day.

These haenyeo statues are dotted all along the coast.

These haenyeo statues are dotted all along the coast.

haenyeo1As early as the 17th century, women were the breadwinners in Jeju, diving for marine products from the sea in the morning, and tending family farms in the afternoon.  This came about in part, because so many of the island’s men blew away when out to sea to fish (remember, wind is one of the Three Abundances), but also for a much more practical reason.  Under the early laws, women weren’t taxed.  So, Jeju’s women took to the seas, and the yield from their day’s work was more profitable, because they weren’t taxed.  Soon, they figured out that women were more suited to diving; they didn’t get cold so fast, because of higher body fat.  As a result, gender roles on Jeju reversed, with women assuming the place as heads of the household.

A Haenyeo Village

A Haenyeo Village

They created a sure-fire matriarchal society on Jeju-do.  Confucian traditionalists on the mainland didn’t like that; women were supposed to be inferior and submissive.  So, they tried to ban women from diving.  But, the Jeju haenyeo ignored them, and went about their business.  So central were the haenyeo to the economic health of the island, there is a saying on Jeju when someone has a baby:  “if it’s a girl, we’ll roast a pig and have a party; if it’s a boy, we’ll kick him in the hip.”  Not that the haenyeo didn’t have any use for men in their circles.  You know…as pets, to keep warm at night.

Look how tired she looks.

Look how tired she looks.

The haenyeo were also critical to the anti-Japanese resistance in Korea.  They continually staged protests and fought against the Japanese occupation in Jeju in the 19th century.  In the 1930s, Japan had turned Jeju-do into a military base.  The haenyeo organized two years of full-scale rebellion against Japanese oppression of Jeju’s fishing and marine industries, rallying thousands of villagers to stand up for their rights.  It is considered one of the three most significant anti-Japanese movements in Korea’s history, and the only one lead by women.

Casting of a hanyeo's face

Casting of a hanyeo’s face

At the height of Jeju’s marine product export economy in the 1950s, there were as many as 30,000 haenyeo on Jeju.  They made good money, and sent their daughters to college instead of having them follow in their flippers to a life in the sea.  As a result, by 1970, the number of working haenyeo was down to 16,000.  Today, there are fewer than 6,000 haenyeo still plying the waters around Jeju-do.  Two-thirds of them are over 60 years old, and over a thousand of them are over 70.  But, they remain the pride of Jeju.  So concerned is the community that the haenyeo are dying out, they have established a school, where anyone who wants to learn the haenyeo trade is welcome to enroll.

If it wasn’t for Dale, and my extra-buoyant figure, I’d give it a whirl.  But, I’d probably end up like this crusty old bat (note the tangerines):