Saturday, April 30, 2005

Feeling lightheaded still, but somewhat better. I'm signing the contract tomorrow. I wish there was a very compelling reason to be back in South Africa, but there isn't. Not looking forward to a whole year here, but will make the most of it, and stick to the original plan which is get on The Road To A Home. Will try to focus this website more on that area too, and less on ruminations.

Friday, April 29, 2005

What's The Last Thing You remember?

Signs of Strength

When I read about Krakauer's accounts of Man Vs Nature...I cannot help wondering how would I fare.

What a name! Krakauer. The phonetics of ice and wind and the wild are all there. Is it a coincidence that one of the world's most magnificent mountain ranges sound the same: The Karakorum Himalayas. When you read about his 23 days alone in Alaska, trying to make the summit of Devil's Thumb, he seems to have a quality few men have today: to succeed or die trying. It's the first part that has all the emphasis of course. Who can honestly claim to be this driven?

I find I compare myself to these deeds and find myself coming short, but then I wonder if he would have the same endurance, in say a swimming pool, or on a bicycle. The point is, it is about the same thing, endurance. What is different though, is that on a mountain, much more than on a bicycle, a lapse of concentration can prove fatal. On a mountain everything you do really matters. Perhaps the lesson we learn from the mountain is that this is true everywhere, not just on mountains. The mountains are there for those who neeed a reference check on what is important in life, perhaps they have forgotten who and what really matters to them.

This constant theme of derring-do, especially in the lifts me up. Krakauers account of his dogged assault of Devil's Thumb (he managed to set his tent on fire halfway through the trip)...despite facing death on a few occasions, being overwhelmed by loneliness, fear, and setbacks, he remained until he succeeded...this is especially inspiring as an achievement of exceptional strength, bravery and skill.
I put myself in a similar position and wonder what I would have done. I wonder how I will do attempting something like Mount Everest? Is it about sheer determination, sheer will? Is it about resisting and enduring prolonged misery and suffering? Could I do that? Should I? Would I be doing it as a direct comparison, as an experiment, or for the unadulterated thrill?

I think there is some value, sometimes, in comparing ourselves to others. It helps forge an identity which may not be fully realised. We find our place in the world, we find who and what we are, and also what we are not.

The other way, is the inward journey. This is usually a lonely road, which brings us to the other side, more appreciative of others, less guarded, perhaps, of ourselves.

I also look at McCandless and see that while he had an intellectual superiority (his father was a rocket scientist after all) the fatal weakness that led to tragedy in Alaska was his fear of the water. There are two reasons he died in the wild, and the one is that the waters of the Teklanika River scared him enough to turn back and wait for them to subside. I don't know if I could have survived as long as he had, or as well, but I do know I would have found a way across the raging river. I've swum in icy streams, and icy seas, played in the monstrous rapids of the Zambezi, in the floodwaters of our farm...It may have been difficult, but not too difficult to be done.

One could also argue that McCandless saw no reason to make the crossing, as the whole point of his adventure was communing with nature for an extended length of time, and of course once the river sent him back, he triumphantly celebrated the fact that he'd been in the wilderness for 100 days. He was not complaining, waiting, hoping to cross. I do think, as pointless as this point is, had I come up upon the river, I would have found a way to cross it there and then.
Maybe you get washed away, but as you do, you slowly cross over to the other side. It's strange to see such an admirable fellow whose one weakness is one of my strengths. It's an irony, but possibly a useless one.

I doubt whether I will ever climb Devil's Thumb, or any far less tricky cathedral peak. Being competitive is useful where we ask more of ourselves, where we believe we can be better. It falls flat when we search for something in ourselves that isn't there, or where all that we do is simply to prove others are inferior. If it is for ourselves, and our companions, to have a big heart, to see how far we can all go together, then it may have a useful place in our experience.

I think it was on the slopes of Kilimanjaro that my infatuation for high mountain life, fizzled. I was perched almost 6km in the air, and I didn't care. I didn't need, after that, to go any higher to find that I cared even less! Still, I am intrigued by these desolate places, and it seems the highest places are the most remote. Each landmass has its barren tower. I would like to visit McKinley in Alaska.

It's interesting how most, if not all, of the great adventurers go to great pains to record their experiences (I've recorded my Ironman experience in this blog). It shows a real need to leave a simple life...a temporary abandonment of home comforts for a higher experience, bringing back something from the lonely travails and then the sharing of the experience. Is this to and froe motion, from selfish adventurer, to humble storyteller, an ongoing process of purging the weakness, the selfishness, and the pursuit of knowing our own strenth, place, power and connectedness to those we love?

Instead of comparing ourselves to others, we can take pleasure in our own talents, our own interests, and still enjoy the pursuits of others. Share in the adventures of others when they grab us, go off on our own when they don't. Strength, it seems to me, lies in having an identity, and not needing to hold it up for proof or comparison. It is simply what it is, who we are, and we are loved or not because of this.

Signs of Weakness

Million Dollar Baby beautifully illustrated how close triumph lives beside tragedy, beauty beside cruelty, power in the place of frailty.

The Ironman, and all the courage and will that was involved there, is contrasted here by a sick and weakened corpse, confused, delirious, unresolved. McCandless' story echoes this...the 112 days of survival in the wild, undone by some seeds that upset his stomach. This is reality though, this is actuality, this is where the certainty we have comes against the rock hard reality of the world, and its certainty for us, its truth for us.

I am tired of endlessly writing. It's a distraction from these feelings of malaise. Does it do any good to write triumphantly when you're feeling weak and defeated? Does it make sense to write when you're triumphant and happy? Should one not absorb the joy, spend it all outdoors?

I have spent most of the last 3 days indoors. Outside is more of that poisonous yellow dust. There are invitations, job offers, weekend plans, new movies. Still my body reacts to these climes by producing gray slime, reducing me to slumber, a piece of felled tree trunk, lying on a bed, or a sofa. I am tired even of the sound, the jabber, of the TV.

Clear Water

To swim in the cool breeze of an empty pool
To walk alone with mountains
To laugh with beer and friends
To come unstuck
and be sent fast over highways
by iron muscles
my own steel gaze
I yearn for a return to full power
the life of my own limbs
the phosphorescent flare of clear, sharp thoughts
I need the pestilince, the plague, the poison to leave my body
take any toxic thoughts with
and undone deadly deeds
The Foul flow
hubris, sweat, blood, draining my tissues
phlegm, ink
vomit, spit it all out!
let it leak
spurt from the armpits of an octopus
or a white cell
engulf, engorge, swallow it up
or sweat it out
into the wild wild sea
with all its salt
thaw, rust, ruin - leave!
burst the blister
so that I may have clear water
for all my arms
and all that lies within

What else is out there?

I Want To Ride In The Bus Chris Died In

Ten Years Ago Chris McCandless Starved to Death on the Stampede Trail. Today Hundreds of Pilgrims Trek to the Bus Where He Perished.

Story by Sherry Simpson

Photos by Charles Mason

Before we started our small journey last year to the place where Christopher McCandless died, I wondered whether we should be traveling on foot rather than by snowmachine. It was probably the last weekend before the sketchy snow would melt and the river ice would sag and crack. If we waited a few weeks, we could hike the Stampede Trail to the abandoned bus where his body was found in 1992. Wouldn’t it seem more real, more authentic somehow, if we retraced his journey step by step?

No, I thought. This is not a spiritual trek. I refuse to make this a pilgrimage. I will not make his journey my own.

And so we set off on the tundra, snowmachines screeling across a thin layer of hard snow. The five of us moved quickly, each following the other westward through the broad valley. To the south, clouds wisped across the white slopes that barricade Denali National Park and Preserve. I wore ear protectors to dull the grinding engines. When the sun burned through, we turned our faces toward it gratefully, unzipped our parkas, peeled away fleece masks. It had been a long winter — warmer than most in Interior Alaska, but even so each day was filled more with darkness than light.

We kept on, the only motion against a landscape that seemed still and perfect in its beauty. It was the kind of day when you could think about Christopher McCandless and wonder about all the ways that death can find you in such a place, and you can find death. And then, a few minutes later, you’d look out across the valley, admiring the way the hills swell against the horizon, and think, "Damn, I’m glad to be alive in Alaska."

A few summers ago I rode in a shuttle van from Fairbanks to the park with a group of vacationers and backpackers. As we left town, the driver began an impromptu tour of McCandless’s final days. In April 1992, he had hitchhiked to Alaska, looking for a place to enter the wilderness. The van driver pointed out a bluff near Gold Hill Road, the last place McCandless camped in Fairbanks. The driver talked about the purity of McCandless’s desire to test himself against nature. He slowed as we passed the Stampede Road, the place where a Healy man had dropped off McCandless so the young man could begin his journey. He ignored all offers of help except for a pair of rubber boots. He did not take a map.

In the van, people whispered to each other and craned their necks to peer at the passing landmarks.

McCandless had hiked about 25 miles along the trail before stopping at a rusting Fairbanks city bus left there in the 1960s by a crew building a road from the highway to the Stampede Mine, near the Park boundary. He had a .22 rifle and a 10-pound bag of rice. In the back of a Native plant lore book he scribbled brief, often cryptic entries. In July he tried to leave but apparently was turned back by the roiling Teklanika River. He did not know enough to search for a braided crossing. By August, a note tacked to the bus pleaded for help from any passerby: "I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here," it said in part. In early September, hunters found his body shrouded in a sleeping bag inside the bus. He had been dead for more than two weeks. Although he had tried to eat off the land, and had even succeeded in killing small animals and a moose, he had starved, an unpleasant and unusual way to die in America these days.

The strange manner of his death made the 24-year-old infamous in Alaska as authorities tried to puzzle out his story. A 1993 Outside magazine article by Jon Krakauer, followed by the 1996 best-selling book "Into the Wild," made him famous everywhere else.

The van driver was maybe in his early 30s, mild and balding. As he drove and talked, he held up a copy of Krakauer’s book, a sympathetic and compelling portrait of McCandless. The driver said he kept the book with him always because he felt close to the dead man. "I understand his wanting to come here and go into the wild," he said. Like McCandless, he’d attended Emory University, and he and his wife had recently moved to Anchorage in search of whatever it is people want when they come to Alaska.

In a van full of out-of-state vacationers, the driver felt safe criticizing the response of Alaskans to the story of McCandless. "They called him a young fool who deserved what he got," he said. "There was not a positive letter to the editor written about Chris McCandless. It went on for days." He checked our reactions in the rearview mirror. "It was pretty chilling to read."

Through some strange transmogrification, Christopher McCandless has become a hero. Web sites preserve high school and college essays analyzing "Into the Wild," which is popular on reading lists everywhere and frequently seen in the hands of people touring the state. A California composer has written a concert piece meant to convey the dying man’s states of mind — fear, joy, acceptance, etc. A Cincinnati rock band has named itself "Fairbanks 142," after the bus where McCandless lived and died.

And then there are the pilgrims, the scores and scores of believers who, stooped beneath the weight of their packs and lives, walk that long Stampede Trail to see the place where Chris McCandless died — and never take a step beyond.

For two hours we rode along the rim of the shallow valley. Heat from the engines warmed our hands. We followed a trail used by dog mushers and snowmachiners; here and there other trails looped to the north or south. Russet scraps of tundra patched the snow, and the packed trail wound across the ground like a boardwalk. We had barely beaten spring. A Healy woman named Connie led most of the time because she knew the way. The others in the group were my friends Kris Capps, Joe Durrenberger and Charles Mason. Kris and Joe live just outside the park; Kris, a freelance writer, covered the McCandless story when it first broke in Alaska, and she’s the one who told me that people had been visiting the bus like it was Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris. Joe had visited the site shortly after the body was discovered. Charles, a photographer, came along to document the bus and to make tasteless jokes. He wasn’t alone. I suggested our journey should be titled "Into the Weird."

Now and then we rode by other trails looping across the snow, and an hour into our trip, two snowmachiners passed us before we reached the Teklanika River. They were friends of Joe’s on their way northward to fix an off-road tracked vehicle that had broken a fuel line during a fall moose hunt. Their trail curved across a distant ridge, and I admired their ease and confidence roaming around out here, where machines can break down or dogs can run away and the walk home will be long and troublesome. You couldn’t call it the middle of nowhere; the Stampede Trail has been mapped for decades. Still, you’d want to know what you’re doing, so as not to make your next public appearance in a newspaper headline or as another statistic.

The Teklanika River ice had not yet softened, and we crossed its smooth expanse without trouble, just below where it emerges from a gulch. We cruised through Moose Alley, dipped into the forest, wound across the beaver ponds, and rose along an alder-thick ridgeline. Occasionally moose tracks postholed the snow. I tried to imagine hiking here in the summer, calling out to bears and waving away mosquitoes.

We rounded a bend and suddenly there was the bus, hollow-eyed and beat up, the most absurd thing you could imagine in this open, white space. Faded letters just below the side windows said "Fairbanks City Transit System." The derelict bus seemed so familiar because we had seen its picture many times in newspapers and on the jacket of Krakauer’s book. For decades it had served as a hunting camp and backcountry shelter, a corroding green-and-white hull of civilization transplanted to a knoll above the Sushana River. Now it was haunted real estate.

We turned off the snowmachines and stood stretching in the sunshine and the kind of quiet that vibrates. A trash barrel, a fire grill, plenty of footprints, and frozen dog shit provided evidence of passing dogsleds and snowmachines. A wire chair leaned against the bus. I wondered how many people had posed there for photographs. The bus made me uneasy, and I was glad to be there with friends. It must have sheltered many people over the years who came to shoot and drink and close themselves up against the night.

Kris and I squeezed through a gap in the jammed door and climbed in. It was warm enough to remove our hats and gloves while we looked around, though an occasional draft swept through the broken windows. A bullet hole had pierced the windshield on the driver’s side. The bus was littered with messages scratched into the rusted ceilings and walls referring to McCandless’s death, which seemed to bring out the earnestness of a Hallmark card in visitors: "Fulfill your Dreams, Nothing Feels Better" and "Stop Trying to Fool Others as the Truth Lies Within," and "The Best Things in Life are Free." Also, "Keep This Place Clean You Human Pigs."

Scattered among the needles and twigs on the floor were bizarre artifacts: frayed hanks of rope, a mayonnaise jar lid, a camp shower bag, blue playing cards. The driver’s seat was missing, but downy grouse feathers lined crannies in the dashboard. A few liquor bottles — big gulps remaining of the Jack Daniels and the Yukon Jack — crowded a small stand, which also held an electronic guitar tuner, a tin coffeepot, shotgun shells, a yellow container of Heet and a can of Copenhagen. Stowed beneath were worn Sorel boots and pairs of filthy jeans, one set patched crudely with scraps of a green wool Army blanket. Were these the jeans mentioned in the book? Hard to believe they were still here considering that locals joke about dismantling the bus and selling it on eBay. It was creepy.

A stovepipe lurched from a small barrel woodstove and poked through the roof. A green tent fly covered the rusted springs of a twin-size mattress. And here was the disturbing part: the bed lodged sideways against the bus’s rear, mattress stained, straw-like stuffing exposed, the remnants of the cover torn and shredded. That’s where his body was found.

On the wall beside the bed was a brass plaque left by his parents that read:

Christopher Johnson McCandless. "Alex." 2/68-8/92. Chris, our beloved son and brother, died here during his adventurous travels in search of how he could best realize God’s great gift of life, with his final message, "I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God Bless All," we commend his soul to the world. The McCandless Family. 7/93

Three notebooks sat on the plywood table. They included a three-ring binder protecting a photocopy of Krakauer’s original Outside article with its blaring headline "Lost In the Wild." It was a Monty Pythonesque moment when someone pointed out an unrelated headline on the magazine cover: "Are you too thin? The case for fat." This kind of humor is one reason why Alaskans fear dying ridiculously: the living are so cruel to the foolish dead. It’s a way of congratulating ourselves on remaining alive.

Kris and I began flipping through the steno notebooks, which had been filled with comments by visitors, the way people write in logbooks in public cabins or guestbooks at art galleries. The chronology began with the July 1993 visit by McCandless’s parents. His mother wrote:

"Sonny boy, it’s time to leave. The helicopter will soon arrive. I wondered briefly if it would be hard to enter your last home. The wonderful pictures you left in your final testament welcomed me in and I’m finding it difficult to leave, instead. I can appreciate joy in your eyes reported by your self-portraits. I too, will come back to this place. Mom."

These heartfelt words were followed by a single sentence from Krakauer himself: "Chris — Your memory will live on in your admirers."

"Oh, gag," Kris said.

Kris is not what you would call romantic about the wilderness. She and Joe are among the most competent Alaskans I know. They hunt, guide river trips, paddle whitewater all through Alaska and Canada, and travel frequently in the backcountry. In March, they had wanted to catch some of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, so they’d snowmachined from their house near McKinley Village through the uninhabited midsection of Alaska to Rainy Pass, winter camping along the 300-mile route. I was embarrassed about my modest survival gear when I saw how well-rigged their machines were with snowshoes, a come-along and other useful equipment compactly stowed. To people like them, the adulation of Christopher McCandless is just one more reason to stay in sensible old Alaska.

Beneath the bed was a small blue suitcase, a Starline, the kind your grandmother might have taken on weekend trips. The lid was busted off the hinges. Christopher McCandless’s mother had filled it with survival gear and left it, and over the years other people had removed things or added to it. Joe dragged the suitcase out, plopped it on the bed and called out an inventory as he sorted through the jumble, beginning with a crumpled silver survival blanket: "The Jiffy Pop tinfoil thing. Look right here: saltwater taffy. Holy Bible. Cheesecloth. A map saying ‘You are here. Walk this way out to get food.’"

He was joking, I think.

"Emergency first aid kit. The mittens. The headnet. Waterproof matches. The squirrels have gotten to the Ramen. Vaseline. Sewing kit. Jungle head net. Toothpaste. Cigarette papers. Princess Cruises Suntan Lotion SPF 30."

There was more: firestarter, tissue paper, soap, a can of tuna. Then Joe grew bored and went outside so Charles could take his picture posing by the famous bus with a can of Spam in his left hand.

"That’s almost bad luck," Connie said quietly, and I had to agree.

Kris and I took turns reading aloud comments left by those who came after the visit by Krakauer and McCandless’s parents. Some were epistles, others aphorisms. The earliest dated to January 1994 and was left by a pair of Alaskans who came by snowmachine: "Cloudy, & 42 degrees. Emergency supplies in good order."

In May, people started recording more intimate thoughts:

"Like Chris, I came to Alaska looking for some answers as I near my last year in college. A very emotional day and a highlight of my summer up here in the wild land of Alaska. Constant thoughts of my family and friends."

"I’ll return next year and try to set myself free again."

"The vibes I felt from the bus made me sit and think for hours. I wasn’t able to sleep until I felt every emotion possible: amazed, sadness, wonderment, happiness, and many more…"

Charles looked over my shoulder and read. "I wish I could come in here and have an inspirational moment," he said. "I wish my life was Zenned out."

"‘Only time will tell how Chris McCandless’s life has affected mine,’" Kris read. She snorted and looked up. "It’s garbage! I mean, am I too cynical?"

We were. We were too cynical to read entry after entry from people looking for meaning in the life and death of a man who had rejected his family, mooched his way across the country and called himself "Alexander Supertramp" in the third person. I struggled to imagine the emotional currents that had carried people here to this bus, so far from their homes, to honor his memory. Later, a friend who had been born in Alaska and exiled to Maryland for five years tried to explain the overwhelming smallness and sameness of life on the suburban East Coast, where lawn care excites great interest; no wonder someone like Christopher McCandless seems adventurous and spiritual and inspiring, despite being dead.

Several visitors mentioned that "Into the Wild" had prompted their trips, but the book must have motivated nearly all of the pilgrimages, because why else would people attach any significance to the bus? They had come from Europe, California, Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota, Utah, Ontario, North Carolina.

One man made the journey after reading a book review while sitting in a doctor’s office in Ithaca, N.Y. "It was then I knew the bus was a place I must visit," he wrote. "Christopher’s story changed the way I look at a lot of things, moreover it changed my perception of ‘need.’ I will be forever in your debt Alex! May you wander your travels in peace."

A fellow from Belgium wrote: "I’ve come from Europe to follow the footsteps of a ‘pilgrim,’ as says Krakauer, and I’d almost say a prophet!" He then criticized the materialistic attitude of Alaskans and urged them to read Tolstoy "instead of prostituting their country to tourism."

I laughed at that. The Belgian and the others had themselves turned the bus into a perverse tourist destination now so well known that it’s mentioned in The Milepost. They urged each other to protect the vehicle as a memorial, to leave things untouched. "His monument and tomb are a living truth whose flame will light the ‘way of dreams’ in other’s lives," someone wrote. It was not hard to imagine that before long visitors would be able to buy T-shirts saying "I Visited The Bus" or "I Survived Going Into the Wild." So many people seemed to have found their way out here that an espresso stand didn’t seem out of the question.

Astounded by page after page of such writings, we counted the number of people identified in the notebooks. More than 200 had trekked to the bus since McCandless’s death, and that didn’t account for those who passed by without comment. Think of that: More than 200 people, many as inexperienced as McCandless, had hiked or bicycled along the Stampede Trail to the bus — and every one of them had somehow managed to return safely.

Only one person even vaguely questioned this paradox: "Perhaps we shouldn’t romanticize or cananize (sic) him. . . . After all, Crane and I walked here in no time at all, so Chris wasn’t far from life. . . . not really." But then, perhaps unwilling to seem harsh, the writer added, "These questions are in vain. We shouldn’t try to climb into another’s mind, attempting to know what he thought or felt."

Others criticized Alaskans for doing just that:

"I am quite offended when I hear that people mock his story as one of stupidity and carelessness. Every man and woman has desires and hopes for happiness in life, but sadly, only few succeed."

A newcomer to Alaska wrote, "No wonder Alaskans did not understand the call to which most men feel at some point in their lives. No wonder they did not understand Chris McCandless. If you cannot fell it, mine it, or rape it, and in the very end profit from it, then it must be ludicrous and ill-conceived. Idealism, when harnessed for good unselfish acts, results in great men; the greatest and most influential of our times. Chris was on the verge of that path..."

Many people promised in their comments to call their families as soon as they could, so who’s to say their journeys were wasted? Yet I felt exactly as a friend did as he read my notes later: repulsed and fascinated.

The practical entries, and there were just a few, were penned by Alaskans who noted the weather conditions, the river’s depth, and so on — the sort of information useful to other backcountry travelers. Jon Nierenberg, a Stampede Trail resident, left a detailed description of how to cross the Teklanika River when it runs high — a problem that had defeated McCandless. Added in pencil was the advice, "Also, there’s the park boundary cabin 6 miles away — upstream on the Sushana river. Food there. Don’t trash the place."

A few people didn’t feel obligated to join the soul-searching. "Too spooked to stay," one guy wrote. Another said, "This place is a mess." And another noted, "It sure is a long way out here. I’m glad I flew in."

But most comments were written by those experiencing some sort of emotional release:

"It’s a good place to die."

"I cried so much I couldn’t believe it."

"This bus has a sacred feeling to it and I feel grateful to be able to visit the place where Chris lived and died."

"I started my journey here hoping two things. 1) somewhere out there I would find myself 2) that I would find some hope for the future. Now I am here at the bus and I am happy because the future looks up. And I know who I am. Now it’s time to go home to the ones I love and help bring truth to the light."

"The beginning of my journey is my departure from this abandoned bus. I feel alive and free — a freedom too beautiful to express in mere words."

"I didn’t begin to understand Alex’s quest until today. Along the way I have discovered peace and tranquility and realized for the first time that the journey is the best part. Unexpectedly filled with emotion upon finding the bus, choking back tears, I can return to life and civilization with fresh eyes. Alex, you have inspired me and changed my life forever. If only there were more like you. Left bottle of Jack Daniels.

"Chris may have fucked up, but he fucked up brilliantly. Nonetheless, family and freedom would have been better."

And on and on.

Among my friends and acquaintances, the story of Christopher McCandless makes great after-dinner conversation. Much of the time I agree with the "he had a death wish" camp because I don’t know how else to reconcile what we know of his ordeal. Now and then I venture into the "what a dumbshit" territory, tempered by brief alliances with the "he was just another romantic boy on an all-American quest" partisans. Mostly I’m puzzled by the way he’s emerged as a hero, a kind of privileged-yet-strangely-dissatisfied-with-his-existence hero.

But it’s more complicated than that. I can almost understand why he rejected maps, common sense, conventional wisdom and local knowledge before embarking on his venture. Occasionally when I hear others make fun of Christopher McCandless, I fall quiet. My favorite book growing up was Scott O’Dell’s "Island of the Blue Dolphins," based on a true story about a 19th-century Chumash Indian girl who survived for years alone on an island off the California coast. How often had I imagined myself living in that hut of whale bones, catching fish by hand and taming wild dogs for companionship? It’s common, this primal longing to connect with a natural world that provides and cradles, that toughens and inspires.

Yet this is the easiest thing to criticize — the notion that wilderness exists to dispense epiphanies and spiritual cures as part of the scenery. Live here long enough, and you’ll learn that every moment spent admiring endless vistas or wandering the land is a privilege, accompanied by plenty of other moments evading mosquitoes by the millions, outlasting weather, avoiding Giardia, negotiating unruly terrain, and thinking uneasily about the occasional predator. Walking cross-country through alder thickets or muskeg may be the hardest thing you do all year, as you fight against the earth’s tendency to grab hold of you for itself.

And of course it’s hard to eat out there. A friend who trapped in his youth likens the Bush to a desert, nearly empty of wildlife. One winter he ate marten tendons for days because his food ran out. Read the journal of Fred Fickett, who accompanied Lt. Henry Allen on a 1,500-mile exploration of the Copper, Tanana, and Koyukuk river valleys; it is the story of hungry men.

May 20, 1885: "One of our dogs found a dead goose. We took it from him and ate it." May 22: "Had rotten salmon straight for breakfast. It was so bad that even the Indian dogs wouldn’t eat it. May 28: "Had a little paste for breakfast, rotten and wormy meat for dinner, rotten goose eggs and a little rice for supper… about 1/4 what we needed." May 30: "Indian gave us a dinner of boiled meat from which he had scraped the maggots in handfuls before cutting it up. It tasted good, maggots and all."

There’s a reason the Natives sometimes starved in the old days — and they knew what they were doing. There’s a reason that many homesteaders and Bush rats collect welfare to supplement hunting and fishing. There’s a reason we gather in cities and villages. So many people want to believe that it’s possible to live a noble life alone in the wilderness, living entirely off the land — and yet the indigenous peoples of Alaska know that only by depending upon each other, only by forming a community, does survival become possible.

People have been dying in the wilderness for as long as people have been going into it. There are always lessons to be learned from such sad stories, even lessons as simple as: Don’t forget matches, don’t sweat in the cold, don’t run away from bears. But sometimes there are no learning moments, no explanations. From an account in the Nome Nugget of July 30, 1901:

"The death of George Dean by starvation at the mouth of the Agiapuk river and the narrow escape of his two companions, Thierry and Houston, from the same fate makes a strange story. Without wishing to criticise the survivors, it looks as if they did not make that hustle for life which men should. They were so near the course of navigation that they could hear the voices of men as they passed up and down the river."

Why didn’t they . . . why couldn’t they . . . why wouldn’t they? And the wise Nome Nugget avoids this trap by shrugging away such unanswerables:

"But it’s a strange country, and strange things happen in it."

In 1930, not far south from the Stampede Road, park rangers found the body of prospector Tom Kenney on a bar of the McKinley River. Kenney had disappeared July 19 after separating from his partner. On September 3, searchers discovered Kenney lying on his back with his arms at his side. One shoe was off, and searchers concluded he had been salving his foot — "which would indicate that he had been in his right mind up to the last," the newspaper reported.

Kenney had traveled about eight miles downriver, making several campfires. He and his partner had been searching for a lost gold placer mine, but toward the end, Tom Kenney surely would have traded all the gold he could carry for the sight of another person, for some clear notion of the way home. He must have eaten berries. He had killed and eaten several porcupines. At his final camp, rangers found a large pile of unburned dry wood. "It is known that Kenney always kept a diary, but as his pockets were not examined before burial it will never be known whether he set down an account of his wanderings or not," the Alaska Weekly reported.

You can hear the pain of letting go in the words of a prospector and trapper named Tom O’Brien, who died of scurvy in the summer of 1919 on the Whiting River near Juneau. In the book "The Dangerous North," historian Ed Ferrell includes O’Brien’s diary entries that describe teeth rattling in his sore gums, his fever and his aching joints, which conspired to keep him from collecting water, firewood and food. Day by day he ate one meal of unheated rice or potato soup. He weakened and his mental faculties faded. Finally he realized he was suffering from scurvy, but his relief measures came too late. After two months of recording his trials, he left behind a final entry: "Life is dying hard. The heart is strong."

So many ways to die in the north, in manners grand and surprising and sad. A moment’s inattention, the proverbial series of small miscalculations that add up to one giant screw-up, delusion about one’s abilities, hubris, mental imbalance, plain bad luck — that’s all it takes.

For a few weeks last spring, I kept track of news articles reporting outdoor deaths. Over the winter, more than 30 Alaskans died in snowmachine accidents, a record. They had lost their way in blizzards, fallen through ice and drowned, been buried in avalanches, collided into each other. An intoxicated man perched on a boat’s gunwales fell into the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks when waves rocked the vessel; his body did not emerge for days. Two men suffocated from carbon monoxide poisoning after they brought a charcoal grill into their tent near Chena Hot Springs. Two young kayakers were missing and presumed dead in the Gulf of Alaska. Campers found the bones of an 18-year-old soldier who disappeared while ice fishing near the Knik Arm 15 years ago. And even as searchers looked for a man who had disappeared in the Chugach Mountains came the news that 70-year-old Dick Cook, an extraordinary woodsman described by John McPhee as the "acknowledged high swami of the river people," had drowned in the Tatonduk, a river he knew intimately. Some days it seemed surprising that people survive the outdoors at all.

And yet there we were, we crude Alaskans, scoffing and making jokes in Fairbanks 142, shaking our heads and posing with cans of Spam. We want it both ways. We want to impress others and ourselves with scary tales of death defied at every turn, to point out that Alaska is so unforgiving that a person could die just a few miles from help, and still we scorn those drawn to that mystique, those poor, foolish slobs who manage to die out of ignorance or stupidity or even bad luck. Perhaps that’s because we know that one day — just like that, really — we could so easily become one of those poor, foolish slobs ourselves.

Occasionally I paused while flipping through the notebooks and looked out a busted window to watch how the mid-afternoon sun glazed the snow. We needed to return before dark, so I started skimming the entries, my eyes catching only certain words: Peace. Solitude. Meaning.

It was hard work, resisting the longing that rose from the scribbled words. I spent some moments puzzling over this comment written by a man from Ontario: "[Chris] gave his life in exchange for knowledge and his story is his contribution to the world. I feel complete now to put this story behind me as it was on my mind for quite some time."

This may be our oldest, truest survival skill: the ability to tell and to learn from each other’s stories, whether from Aesop’s fables, quest narratives, Greek mythology, the Book of Genesis, office gossip, the wisdom of elders, or made-for-TV movies. In some ways, Alaska is nothing but stories. We have constructed many of our ideas about this place, and about ourselves, from creation stories, gold rush stories, hunting and fishing stories, pioneer stories, family stories, clan stories. Even the animals told tales in the old Story Time, which is long behind us now.

Pay attention to what people say in bars and across dinner tables and around campfires, and often they are really telling survival stories of some sort or another: How I crossed the river, how I lost the trail, how I got my moose, how I fixed my boat, how I left home for the north, how I beat the storm, how I made it through another cold and lonely winter, how I became a true Alaskan. What all these stories mean, though — that’s up to you, the listener.

We can’t know exactly why Christopher McCandless died. What matters now is what people want to believe about his death. Krakauer hypothesized that toxic seeds of the wild potato plant weakened him, and early test results seemed to support that. But chemists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks further studied wild potato seeds, as well as seeds from the similar-looking wild sweetpea, and their work seemed to eliminate the poisoning theory.

"I would be willing to bet money that neither species had toxic metabolites that would account for the fate of McCandless," chemist Tom Clausen told me in an email. His conclusions appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner but never received wide coverage. Clausen added, "I believe McCandless died not from toxic foods but from foolishness. I hate to be so blunt about the dead but he clearly went ‘into the wild’ unprepared."

But the idea that McCandless was poisoned accidentally has become critical to his legend, because it means he wasn’t stupid, wasn’t seeking death. When I mentioned the research to the bus driver, he gave me an obstinate look and said, "The question is still open." He could not surrender the "right" story.

The one thing we can say about McCandless is that his biggest mistake may have been his failure to listen to the right stories. He ignored advice about the scarcity of game, the practicalities of bear protection, the importance of maps, the truths of the land. He was too intent on creating the story of himself.

And yet, that story has such power, such meaning for so many people, that they feel drawn — called personally — to travel across the globe and hike the trail all that way to the bus to look for Christopher McCandless or Alexander Supertramp or themselves. They endure mosquitoes and rain and tough walking and bad river crossings and the possibility of bears. The burden the pilgrims carry to the bus is so heavy, laden with their frailties and hopes and desires, with their lives that don’t quite satisfy.

Well, so many of them are young, and they’re lost, somehow, just as he was.

As he was dying, Christopher McCandless took a picture of himself propped against the bus. He held up a good-bye note, a smile on his gaunt face, and from this photograph Krakauer concluded that "Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God." But only Christopher McCandless could have known what truth was in his heart, there at the end. All we can say is that whoever he was, he’s not that person anymore. Jon Krakauer made a story about him, by way of telling his own, and every pilgrim since his death has shaped him into something different as well. I’m doing it right now, too.

For many Alaskans, the problem is not necessarily that Christopher McCandless attempted what he did – most of us came here in search of something, didn’t we? Haven’t we made our own embarrassing mistakes? But we can’t afford to take his story seriously because it doesn’t say much a careful person doesn’t already know about desire and survival. The lessons are so obvious as to be laughable: Look at a map. Take some food. Know where you are. Listen to people who are smarter than you. Be humble. Go on out there – but it won’t mean much unless you come back.

This is what bothers me – that Christopher McCandless failed so badly, so harshly, and yet so famously that his death has come to symbolize something admirable, that his unwillingness to see Alaska for what it really is has somehow become the story so many people associate with this place, a story so hollow you can almost hear the wind blowing through it. His death was not a brilliant fuck-up. It was not even a terribly original fuck-up. It was just one of the more recent and pointless fuck-ups.

At 3 p.m., after we’d read through the notebooks, taken our silly and disrespectful photographs and eaten our lunches, we climbed back on our snowmachines and left. We rode against the wind as the light softened and dimmed all around. It grew colder, but it was still a good day to be outside, with spring on its way. I could feel fond about winter, now that it was dwindling. What I really wanted was to keep going beyond the bus, across the Sushana River and maybe down into the park.

As we followed our tracks home, I kept thinking about poor Christopher McCandless, entombed by the tributes of his pilgrims, forever wandering between the world he wanted and the world that exists, still trapped by other people’s desires to make him something he is not – which is why he came out here in the first place.

Too late he learned that the hard part isn’t walking toward the wilderness to discover the meaning of life. The hard part is returning from the consolations of nature and finding meaning anyway, a meaning lodged within the faithfulness of our ordinary lives, in the plain and painful beauty of our ordinary days.

Some day, I told myself, I might return. I’d do what few people do anymore, which is to pass by that junky old bus with only a sidelong glance and see what else is out there.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Certainty and Truth

I didn't think I would, but I find I can identify a lot with McCandless, both in terms of his idealism (which seems to clash with actuality) and his upbringing, which seems harmless and normal at first take.

It's interesting how he took a keen interest in running, and the author is very acute; he picks up on the fact that running is a sport where sheer determination, and perserverance offer a reward. That sort of mindless full focus pays off in running, but in life, if you invest yourself like that you can wind up in a lot of trouble. He wound up dead (the picture above was a self portrait taken not long before he died of starvation, his body was found on a bunk, in a blue sleeping bag at the back of the bus). I look at my own energy commitments, and I can see that while it is good to be able to conjure up resources like that, you can also end up squandering them if you're not contextualising what you are doing enough.

I'm concerned that I might be doing that now.

It's an interesting read, Into The Wild, because I realise the reasoning behind some of the strange impulses that drift under my skin. It sometimes feels like boldness, or madness. Like McCandless, I am fascinated by vast and desolate places.

The story is helping me construct a more realistic vestibule, so to speak, I just mean the construction of a better beginning, a better doorway into the Half Full Moon. I know what the setting must be, and the lines. I am not quite sure of the route, and the characterisation, the personal mission, and the personality, those details need clarity. I guess it sounds like I am not clear about anything!
Into The Wild seems to address a lot of the questions I have been asking about the allure of deserts, and the emptiness that drives some of us into the wild.

The emptiness seems to have no explanation, seems to be a kind of insanity, until one is able to scratch away the dust, pass beyond the ordinary surfaces that fool so many, into the deep deep darkness below.

It's good, at the very least, that all things have a certainty and truth about them. If only we can remember that when it doesn't seem so.

Useful Information?

Although I seem to be feeling better, I asked Corneli to look at my throat with a torch and she was horrified. I thought she was over-reacting so I did the same, and saw that my klein-tongetjie was discolored and disgusting.
We immediately went downstairs and caught a taxi to the doctor. I ended up running up and downstairs, having no clue where the surgery was - eventually an Oriental Medicene doctor pointed to the 4th floor.

The doctor said there was nothing to worry about, and swabbed the wobbly piece of flesh (what's it called?) with some black looking ointment. I explained that there was some pretty nasty inflamation lower down in my throat as well. He said, 'Don't worry'.

He said the visit was free, and asked whether I could recommend anywhere to study English in a fun environment. I wrote down a number for him and offered one or two other suggestions.
He also gave me some of his own Tylenols.

I've just called SAA and learned that a one way ticket back to South Africa will be about W800 000 (R4000) and a 3 month return ticket, about a third more, around R6000.

Nice to know. Now I need to get some dinner.

Cancer in Korea

'30% of men, 20% of women in Korea suffer from cancer'

If a Korean reaches the average life expectancy, the chances of getting cancer are 30 or 20 percent, depending on the gender, according to cancer statistics released yesterday.

The survey, conducted by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, covered all the nation's cancer patients during 1999-2000.

"Supposing a Korean man had lives until 72.8 years old, the average span of a Korean man, about one out of three would have developed cancer in some parts of the body. As for women, whose life expectancy is 81.1 years, the rate is one out of five," ministry officials said.

The total number of cancer cases in Korea stood at 100,889 in 1999 (57,687 cases men and 43,202 women), 100,467 in 2000 (57,417 men/43,150 women), and 109,359 in 2001 (61,927 men/47,432 women), they said.

Looking at the kinds of cancer, Korean men suffered mostly from stomach cancer with the rate reaching 58.6 per 100,000. Cancer in the lungs, liver, large intestines followed next with incidence rates of 42.1, 41.9 and 24.2 people per 100,000, respectively.

For women, stomach cancer also topped the list with the incidence rate at 30.8 people per 100,000, followed by breast cancer with 25.7, large intestine cancer with 19.6 and uterine cancer with 18.4.

Cancer is the foremost cause of death in Korea, accounting for 25.9 percent of all deaths last year.

By Lee Sun-young

Moving Across

I used a torch to shine down the back of my throat and was horrified to see what looked like half a dozen flying saucers glued to back of my throat. It's not canker sores or fever blisters or anything like that. But I felt like my tongue was stuck in my throat. I think it is some kind of bacterial infection which piggy backed on the phlegm.

This morning it was still sore, but a few hours later (I've been self medicating myself by gargling with a warm salt water) and now the swelling has gone down a lot.

I still feel very weak, but a lot better than earlier. One thing I do feel is clearer in my head. I realise that the whole thing with CDI was less about the company's policies (though I do have some real concerns) and more about the fact that I felt just so damn bad, that I needed a better reason than not feeling well to miss the evaluations.

I slept most of the morning, despite having slept well in the night, and have been reading Krakauer's Into The Wild. At least I have a good book. I am just as sick of my surroundings, which having been indoors for two whole days, never change!

Top 10 Best Airports

# 1 The top spot goes to Hong Kong's airport.

I found it to be very big...possibly because I was running late for my flight! I've only been here twice, so maybe it will grow on me.
The views from the airport terminal are quite good.

Personally I don't find airports a great distance from the surrounding city all that appealing.
Port Elizabeth's airport is the most convenient in South Africa, and Jan Smuts about the least convenient, in terms of location to the city.

Hong Kong's airport is 23 minutes minimum from Hong Kong itself, which is not too bad.

# 2 Changyi Airport - this is my favorite airport, in Singapore, even though Forbes ranks it as number 2. I have some happy memories here, and it has a swimming pool on the roof.

# 3 Incheon Airport in Seoul. Immaculate and clean and very spacious.

# 4 is Munich. I remember being very impressed with this aiport. It was early in my travelling days, and this was my favorite airport at the time.

# 5 - Kanzai, in Osaka, Japan. It's a sleek and beautiful airport. I might be going there again in a few weeks.

# 6 This is Dubai's airport. Haven't been here.

# 7 - Kuala Lampur. I have been here. It used to have a rat infestation problem. The architecture here is breathtaking.

8th Best airport - Amsterdam's Schipol. Not been here.

Copenhaagen - # 9. Haven't been here either.

Sydney - Work's 10th best airport. Haven't been here yet.

A beautiful's perhaps what I need to get out of this concrete and steel desert, the high rising sterility here, and back to open space, and sun, and stars.

Or will it?


I spent the whole day sleeping and resting, and my throat is really swollen and sore.

I went through this blog and read something I wrote in March, the 11th or 12th I think, somewhere around there. I wrote that I had had a nightmare, that I was in Korea, with no place to stay, looking for work. I realise now that that nightmare is my reality now. I'm not exaggerating. I'm really not happy. I had about 2 weeks where I was awake at night and sleeping in the day, and once I turned that around I had one good week, and now I am sick, staying inside again in the day, reading, and bored out of my skull.
Is this Korea's fault. Probably not. But it is also very hard for me to pretend that here (in Korea) is where I'd like to be for another year. It's not because of anything particularly terrible - it's the fact that I have done this for 3 years already, and so I am aware of the implications of another year.

I will give myself until next week Wednesday. If I am not feeling healthy, and in a MUCH better frame of mind, I'm going to call it quits. I'm going to get out of Korea. For now, and perhaps, forever.

If, on the other hand, I feel better, and happier, I'll stay. There are many ways to skin a chicken, many ways to live our lives, and this may not be the best way for me any more.
Chopping trees in the USA
Catching fish in Alaska/Iceland
Working on a magazine in Bloemfontein, South Africa
Building riverside lodges on our farm in South Africa
Starting a swim coaching clinic or any other business idea...

There are some alternatives to this... All are just as freaky as Teaching English in Korea sounds, or looks like on paper.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


There is a big whirlwind in my head...
Isn't there a song that goes, "I'm so diz zee..?" Or is it "You're so..."

I felt pretty despondent today. I am intellectually eager to be working, but practically that is just not on the cards. I feel extremely weak.
Slept all day today. Not sure how much of this gnawing empty-headedness is from nurofen, and how much is from the bug that's doing the rounds. I suppose I have the same thing someone else I spoke to has...who said they were sick for 2 weeks. 4 days to go.
Throat is less sore today, which I guess is something.

I'm feeling very glum. I feel like I left South Africa, triumphant and strong, and everything seems to have come undone by pushing myself back to this gray, sterile place. In fact it isn;t gray and sterile - spring and all the associated colors are unfolding. Nonetheless, the life I had, the glimpse of goodness I had back in South Africa is like a kaleidoscope, and here feels like a stained glass window at best.

I think it is unrealistic to think about things in broadstrokes now, or make plans, because I am ill, and frustrated. Really frustrated since the energy that went into the last week was a lot, a lot of it was just pouring out because if you're sick and you continue as normal, you start depleting resources...and now I am feeling quite exhausted.

Although I have 2 fairly decent job offers waiting for me, I honestly feel so confused and delirious I actually think the best thing is to make the first priority just to get back to a state of health. I can't imagine that it will take much longer than 1 or 2 or 3 more days.

More packages (books) have arrived from Amazon, so will busy myself with those.
I've had thought of going to Himachi (India) which borders on Tibet, or Angola, or simply return home. I would probably never act on impulses like that. It's just a state that I am in, and I'm really wanting to escape from it, get away from it.

I believe I just need to be patient, and clear my mind, and let nature take her course with me. Obviously, if I'm sick, I'm doing something wrong, and continuing to push, and insist on what I want isn't helping.

I read an interesting article on News24 about the headmaster of Grey College and the coach of the First Rugby team, going onto the field after a match and basically insulting and shouting at the referee. (Grey lost to Maritzburg 15-13).

It's interesting to read because I went to that school, and both those men were there when I was there, and you look at a guy like Hansie Cronje (who was Volsteedt's prodigy, in a way), and you wonder if these guys don't have a screw loose. If the power and prestige from sport basically has driven these guys, well, not nuts, but made them into partial lunatics. I don't think it bodes well for those guys at school who are not obsessed with rugby, and might have their own challenges and dreams, which the school just will not notice or care about given their fixation with winning rugby and cricket matches.
It's like being at a school that is collectively suffering from a chemical imbalance, and that's not healthy. It's possible that this was happening when I was at school, and it's still true today.
It's a very subtle thing, so it's hard to be certain about, but where there's smoke, there's often something really going on, and this article is possibly a symptom of that.
Just a thought. Part of the story is copied below, from News24:

Moments after Maritzburg College scored a shock 15-13 win over Bloemfontein's Grey College, Test referee Michael Katzenellenbogen was walking off the field when he was confronted by Grey College headmaster Johan Volsteedt and head coach Dries van der Wal.

"I was still on the field when he (Volsteedt) said he was very disappointed with the penalty count," said Katzenellenbogen on Tuesday.

"I explained to him that I don't keep a tally of the penalty count while I'm reffing, to which he replied that it was 25-6 in Maritzburg's favour.

'Came here with a mission'

"He then said the result was totally unacceptable.

"The Grey coach then accosted me and said: 'I know who you are, it's clear to me that you came here with a mission, you're a Super 12 ref's arse?'"

Katzenellenbogen has officiated in three Test matches.

"I said to them that once they had seen a video they were welcome to contact me with any complaints, but I have not heard from them," he said.

A review of the match video revealed a penalty count of 11-8 in Maritzburg College's favour.

"I am in the process of reporting them both to the Midlands Rugby Referees' Society," said Katzenellenbogen, who has just returned to refereeing after a year's sabbatical.

"If a headmaster in a suit can accost a referee on the field, what sort of example is that for schoolboys and rugby public?

"There is so much hype at schoolboy level and people forget the players are still boys.

"But there is such huge expectation to perform being placed on these boys.

"The pressure is being heaped on them by certain teachers, old boys and parents."

Volsteedt told News24 it was not his style to insult players or referees.

Van der Wal declined to comment.

Two weeks ago, Pietermaritzburg referee Llewellyn Muller was assaulted by the parent of a Westville Boys' High School 1st XV player on the same field after Maritzburg College won a nailbiter 16-13.

Incensed about incident

Andrew Nicholson, president of the MRRS, said on Tuesday that the lack of safety for referees and touch judges at school matches was reaching crisis point.

"An increasing number of spectators, teachers and coaches are becoming more and more confrontational, accosting referees both on the field and in the changeroom."

Nicholson was incensed at the Katzenellenbogen incident.

"What do these people want? Michael is a Test match referee. This is a school game for goodness sake."

(For the full story click on the title of this post)

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Come And Play

I got an email from a girl I met in Cape Town who is now in Hamburg. She commented on some writing I did for The Swimmers, which was a nice boost to an otherwise gloomy morning. I have a woollen head again, and am coughing a bit more. It was a relief to not go into Seoul today. I had mixed feelings about it, because I felt I had already prepared the material well, and I am someone who usually enjoys tests and evaluations. I also had the feeling today that it would be worthwhile to finish the course just to have the Certificate to say I did it.

I don't know to what extent we should buy into the bullshit of the world. If we are doing something that is bullshit, and we know it is, and we decide to finish it, and flash around our bullshit certification, doesn't that make you a bullshitter? Maybe it just makes you someone who thinks too much.
I am, after all in Korea, not a real teacher, teaching English in not quite the real deal schools. Roll with it.

I guess I am trying to rationalise not completing something...when I see finishing something you start as an important value, an important principle. I don't like that I didn't, but I guess, even more, I don't like to have wasted my time, and I didn't want to waste ANY more of it. Does that make sense?

Today I am teaching from 4-6pm, so let's see how that goes. Tomorrow I am meeting Michael for an interview again with GmB, and Ryan is going to get back to me on that other school deal. I just heard that LG pays about W100 000 an hour to fill in some forms (about R500)for research or something.

I reckon I should think less and write more. Anybody who knows anything about writing knows that the two are inextricably linked. I am not sure which is more pathetic - to think, or to think and write. If the writing (and thinking) is at least uplifting, prosaic, insightful, then perhaps we should put thoughts into words.

Today Ryan came to drop off the books for some classes I will give today.
It's a pity I am feeling ill today, because it is gorgeous outside. Sunny, and 22 degrees celcius. If I felt any better I'd be outside rollerblading instead of doing this.

Monday, April 25, 2005


Is it possible to find a decent job, if you conscientiously set out to do that? The whole process of doing this training course has been a slow unravelling of what appears to be a patently neurotic company.

The attraction at first lay in the fact that this Company was offering a higher wage, and coupled to fairly minimal working hours, and also a professional looking operation.
Now each of those incentives are just poked full of holes.

Today we were told that we are not actually going to be treated as employees but as 'consultants'. This is good, we're told, because it is a flexible approach towards hiring us in flexible time periods. Read in another way: we'll call you when we need you, so you take all the risk, and we get exactly what we want.
That's one shotgun hole through the higher wage thing. Here are a few more:

1. Visa trip to Japan at our own expense
2. No return ticket
3. Pay for your own accomodation
4. No bonus at the end of the contract period
5. No paid holiday.

If you add all that up it's QUITE A LOT OF MONEY. I'm guessing it's W4-5million - roughly R20 000. Now it's unlikley that you're going to make up that deficit in a 9-12 month period. Even if you could, would you want to? There's the rub.

Next advantage was minimal working hours. This seemed like a positive until we heard we'd be asked, almost certainly, to work on weekends, and have to commute to various, different locations. More than that, there is an obsessive compulsive set of regulations enforcing everything from dress code, to what we say, to punctuality. Basically you can be fired for being late for a class on two occasions. That may not seem very unreasonable, until you go through a veritable gamut of codes, rationales for these codes, tests and tests that must be studied, endless training to standadise people into CDI operated elementary school automatons. The amount of training we've done to prepare to teach elementary students is one of the most absurd, most obvious clues as to the pathological guru at the helm of this ridiculous Totalitarian System. Think I'm exaggerating?

If you think that is uninformed, or bitter - on a teeny tiny lunch break I had time to speak to an instructor who has been at CDI for a short time already, and he said, "It's very Eye In The Sky." "You mean like Communism?" "They'll call you on the phone after a class and say, 'Don't sit down in class'. It's not like Communism, it's Totalitarian." That's what this dude said. I guess he took the job because it was his first in Korea. And he's teaching in a specific field that he studied.

The training we've been doing would make sense if we had to be 100% error free because we were going on a production line, and mistakes could result in problems on circuit breakers or microchips. I mean, we are told what to do in painful, minute to minute detail. The con here is that we were recruited on the basis of us being intelligent. Tell me who is intelligent - the company who takes something moderately complex and can't simplify it and make it useful in the hands of its staff, can't generate utility, basically pushes down what to do, without understanding how to do it? Or the person required to do the job, but being instructed each minute, each sentence, what to do and say, of an Elementary School Book? Who is more intelligent? From where I am standing, both are looking like a pair of dunces.

It reminds me, for a second here, of the US sending its troops to war, but then ignoring calls from the troops themselves, ignoring their real dilemmas for armor. It's really a top down approach, with no concept of the practical nature of what your idea involves, and that causes problems. In the end, those problems are gonna come back at you and bite you on the bum.

I don't know where the raw deal ends. I don't know if it ends with the teacher, or with the student, who is being led into a language by a CDI controlled automaton, devoid of a human voice, a human heart or a personality of any kind. The bonus is you get a standardised teaching mechanism, the boogey prize is you get bored, brain dead kids. It's possible that some human beings can teach in a desert of life like this, and that some students, grilled to perfection, can enjoy the brutal bare bones of the language. But let's at least be honest then: I think CDI's mantra is Passion for Education, Compassion for Students. It should be Program Me, Program Kids.

I've just had a call from CDI asking whether I'm going to come in tomorrow for the evaluations. It's the penultimate day of training. I see it like this. You know when you were a kid and your mom said you should eat all the food on your plate, and you should finish eating everything and let nothing go to waste? I feel like I'm full, and I'm ready to say, 'You know, I've had enough and this is starting to taste really bad.' I've already spent a lot of my time and sacrificed my health - I mean that, sacrificed my health - running to and froe, really trusting that this would be a good change. The reasoning is that hagwon life is filled with corruption, and chancers. This is no different, it's just more evolved, and dressed up better. The offices and website just create a grand impression for what I consider to still be a pretty shady operation. How can you invest in people if you trust them only as far as you can control them. I haven't seen a system like this in a while. It' gets the eybrows in the air, let me tell you.
I think this illustrates a Korean attitude of standardisation, even in terms of people, where what you might produce is effective, but it has very little value, and is not very reliable. Kind've like the first Hyundai's that came out. Yes, it's a car, but it doesn't really work in the real world like most other cars do.

So the prep time is insane.

Then, is it professional? Exremely. They've got a very sophisticated computer system, do roll call on computer, and if the kid is absent a sms gets instantly relayed to parents' phones. High tech eh?
But then there's an eye in the sky, in each classroom, in itself not that bad, except that your boss is watching this all the time, and if you put a foot wrong, you come back for more blow by blow stomach churning but I'm not learning training.

The original building where I went for my training was quite spiffy. Some nice leather couches. This in in quite an affluent area of Seoul. The training schools in Cheongdam (where the Institute was born) are no different from any other school, the buildings are nondescript. As for the people, the staff that work there...well, some people are happy with mash and potatoes, some want crayfish and are happy to pay the price for it.

Me, I'd like to be balanced about what I am doing. It's a bitter blow to have so carefully evaluated a whole host of offers, and invested myself in this one, only to find it is really no different, no better. All that time spent on the subway, all the notes....urgh! What a waste of effort.
But I see there are jobs going in the Korea Herald for a Marketing Officer for the South African Embassy and vacansies to work at the British Council in Korea. And the minute I stepped into the apartment here, the phone rang and it was Michael offering me a position around the corner - all in all a very reasonable deal. Not perfect, but not pretending to be either.

There is a way to thrive in the world...the world we make. There must be, without becoming neurotic. But you know, when I was a little boy, I always did eat all the food on my plate.


The picture above, if you look carefully, is not only of a gutted and basically bombed-to-pieces Humvee, but if you look carefully, it has been fortified using scraps of metal.
The Captain who took these photos (in case someone wanted to know how or why four of his men on board died) - he has been dismissed.

It's easy to see how the army operates once you've actually been thgere and done that. The push for war, they push a no nonsense, dehumanising 'get the job done' approach, even if the job is killing people without getting killed. The army works like this - they get told what to do, 'or else', and they inflict the same view on their own men and women. Everything is fine if you obey. But what happens when the person sending you in harms way is just doing that. Sending you off, without a care about your equipment, safety, and if you query that, you're humilated, stripped of your position, and cast out. The theme seems to be, kill kill kill, kick ass (or get killed, the rest is bullshit.

The article below comes from the New York Times Today:

Recalls Captain Royer: "I'm thinking we have our most precious resource engaged in combat, and certainly the wealth of our nation can provide young, selfless men with what they need to accomplish their mission. That's an erudite way of putting it. I have a much more guttural response that I won't give you."

Captain Royer was later relieved of command. General Mattis and Colonel Kennedy declined to discuss the matter. His first fitness report, issued on May 31, 2004, after the company's deadliest firefights, concluded, "He has single-handedly reshaped a company in sore need of a leader; succeeded in forming a cohesive fighting force that is battle-tested and worthy."

The second, on Sept. 1, 2004, gave him opposite marks for leadership. "He has been described on numerous occasions as 'dictatorial,' " it said. "There is no morale or motivation in his marines." His defenders say he drove his troops as hard as he drove himself, but was wrongly blamed for problems like armor. "Captain Royer was a decent man that was used for a dirty job and thrown away by his chain of command," Sergeant Sheldon said.

"I'm checking out," Corporal Winn said. "When I started, I wanted to make it my career. I've had enough."

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Up and Running?

I'm feeling a lot better than yesterday. Gone is the woollen head, fever is mostly gone too. Throat is still a bit sensitive, and I still have a nagging cough.

When I emerged from the building today the sky was sunnier and warmer, and I immediately saw a father and a daughter on rollerblades, and I got that spring energy feeling. I want to organise a hike. I'd like to finalise work this week or next, and then do a small trip somewhere.

I'd like to get back to training too - the triathlon season is not far away now. Maybe I'll start off with a few swims and then get into the running again.

I watched a reality show this morning called The Biggest Loser, about people losing weight. I want to set a goal of losing 0.5kg a week, until I get down to about 72kg.

I also want to work on a Children's Book this year, get passionate about that and produce something tangible.

Italian Soccer Star

Cora used to play a lot of soccer.
She was at Starbucks doing report cards for her students. When I asked if she wanted to join us for dinner, can you guess what she said?
Just kidding, she said she had chicken waiting to be cooked, and so was going home to eat a homebrew.
She's a passionate young woman, and is dreaming of living in Italy. Sounds good to me.

Movie Buff

Addie works for Poly's school here in Ilsan. We invited her to join us for dinner at Spaghettia afterwards. She explained to us exactly where Michigan is. It's next to New York State, a kind've peninsula sticking up into the Great Lakes. She left early to go and watch The Interpreter with a friend.

Two's Company

The long walk home went via Starbucks. Corneli recognised someone she saw last year at the Tomato Run. I think her name is Cora. She's a pretty, decent runner, from Toronto, very into all things Italian. Addie is from Michigan, and very much into movies, and all things Tolkien. Corneli and I chatted to these two until after 8pm.

Anyone want to go Rollerblading?


Koreans Koreans Koreans everywhere...Hang on! You're not Korean. This little lady said she's from New Zealand. Looks like she's having a ball.

It's good to be out in the open air. I managed to do 10 pullups just before this picture was taken, so I'm feeling like I haven't lost all my strength and fitness. Pete emailed me to say the next triathlon is in Daegu on the 20th or so, of May. Looking forward to that.

Hilltop Temples are the norm in Korea. You get a high hill or mountain and there's a good chance you'll find one these wooden structures on top. A good place to meditate.

View towards the Han River and beyond to North Korea.

View of Ilsan from the top of the hill.