Delhi

Everyone is Indian. The very cause for surprise is itself a shameful shock. The first Indian I contact, handing him my visa, spends ten minutes reading through my books and pointing to the pictures. No one in the long line of passengers behind me thinks to complain, we wait for him.

I buy a prepaid taxi and a fat tout takes the receipt, walks me to the airport parking lot, asking: This your first time in India? Where you from? How you like India?

And I: I come here once a year. I am from London, Manchester. India is great but has some problems.

He sees a policeman in the parking lot then gives up his game, leads me instead to the long line of taxi-cabs spewing black exhaust.

shanty

In the old city the street urchins fill the streets, their skin is far darker than most other Indians, their hair clumped up, their bodies covered in dirt so thick that when they move a cloud of dust follows. All over the streets are dogs and cows, desiccated with humongous sagging udders. The streets are as dynamic as a Wagner opera; I try to balance every new sight, sound, smell and the scorch off the sun into some comprehendible narrative. A street girl has her hand in my right pocket, loquacious women walk by with their bellies and stretch-marks exposed to the sun, I step over an undulating stream of piss coming from a small boy facing a brick wall, smashed cow pies surrounded by swarms of flies on the sidewalk, the tusk of a bull nearly guts the neck of a man dressed for club hopping, riding a motorbike.

hills

An old woman holding a lifeless infant in her arms slaps my wrist and begs for money. A red jewel in her nose, she speaks in Hindi gesturing for food. I stand awkwardly, as if I had come to a best friend]s birthday party but forgot to buy a present. The eyes of the street urchins burn my back, wondering perhaps Where does he keep his money? How cheap is the American? Her begging has drawn too much of a crowd, I say ceallo and keep walking.

Tai ho, meaning, praise, victory, but according to the Indians, its connotate is closer to “it is written”. In the Philippines, the way to accept one’s fate, no matter how miserable, is bahala na, happen what may. It is written. Sleeping on the sidewalk, Tai ho, bahala na, radical acceptance, it is written, it is written.

children

New Delhi is no better. Thousands of people living in the slums are displaced and bulldozed in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth games, the place looks as fake and its people as displaced and desperate as the poor in Beijing a year before the 2008 Olympics. Squatters in boxed houses are at every intersection, new shantytowns spring up overnight to get turned out in the morning. The slums are terrible labyrinthine eyesores to man and God, the people there live in tremendously difficult conditions—but the slums are a community, they have schools, doctors, and some reasonable sanitation. To bulldoze these eyesores for a sporting event is to ferret out the population, to separate the squatters from a way of life they at least find bearable, to cast them under bridges, to divide and conquer.

Renewed, I take to the streets. Dogs, piss, cows, shit, camels, geckos, touts, urchins, legless beggars, singing street children, dancing street children, cockroaches, fleas, dirt, exhaust, heat, the sun, heat, heat so unbearable, heat so inescapable.

I find refuge in a coffee shop at Connaught place. The air conditioning makes my breathing easier. This is what civilization means—air conditioning!

I meet many Indians, most of them named Raj. Raj I invites me for a drink, just before leaving for Moscow to marry his mail-order bride. Raj II is retired but has traveled the world, asks me about massages in Thailand, but I realize he really means sex massage.

Raj III is in the India Gate Park in the middle of the night playing Cricket alongside hundreds of other players and watchers. He tells me that the nightlife in Delhi only exists in parks; it is a city on the verge of change. He tells me the government is getting rid of the cows, gentrifying everything for the Commonwealth games. There is still no where to go when the sun sets.

Even in the backpacker’s district, no stores are open at night and the disposition of the young men sitting about does not seem pleasant. There are very few bars but there are coffee-shops, where I overhear conversations: “Don’t go to study in the United States, all the professors there are Marxist, they only want to take away political rights” comfortably, sipping a mocha latte, breathing easily from the high air conditioning, as far away from the detriment of the slums as one can get in body and mind.

Buying $6 hotel rooms, sleeping to the sounds of bulls mooing, touts shouting and horns honking, waking up covered in sticky sweat, I navigate the traveler’s district of Pahar Ganj. Touts follow me the moment I step out of the hotel room, offering marijuana, claiming they are trying to practice their English, selling marijuana. To them, a traveler who comes to India without hoping to get as high as possible is an anomaly.

The kids here have no idea how to properly jip a foreigner of their money, even the drivers don’t know where the popular places are, and the kids selling drugs lack any tact. Perhaps there is just too many of them. “Sir, sir! Wear your backpack on your front!” is always a dealer. We learn to ignore them, their bedraggled faces become as tolerable as the hum of a refrigerator.

TajII

I eat samosas from street stalls wherever possible, I make friends easily; we travel around the Taj Mahal talking politics and romance. We pull pranks on the touts. We sweat profusely, in the rain, marching in the sun, waiting in lines, on the trains. At night urchins are asleep everywhere, on the gravel, on ladders, on rooftops, on the walls that follow the street. We tread very softly, walking among scattered eggshells, stepping on faces in the dark.

I spend a week in Delhi, with resignation and acceptance. July 16 – 24.

Advertisements

Korea’s Nightlife II

Koreans have a common phrase for their friends on nights out, 눈이 너무 높아요 [your eyes are too high], which means they have high standards. For foreigners this phrase is commonly inversed. Experiencing this reversal on ground level is an unpleasant and disheartening experience: casually one will be having a riotous time in a club or bar, and a group of foreigners, usually white men, will come in and proceed to hump any muscle they can find, or like the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, any entity that seems capable of sustained movement.

This happens mostly in places with younger university areas that are Westernized, but not Westernized for foreigners, such as the area around Hongik University in Seoul, the area around Busan University in Busan, and Rodeo road in Daegu. Some westerners complain that the girls in these clubs are sterile, racist, or even “dead inside.” They’re young college kids raised in a society far more conservative, far more dedicated to family values, than any place in the West right now—why would they want you to hump their leg?! You think the army uniform really makes a difference?

For those who think different, I’ll pass on the advice an Irish guy in Hongdae’s club Coccoon told me: “Go to Itaewon’s club Helios, guaranteed one night stand.”

So the next day, in Helios…….

Helios and other such foreigner bars and clubs in Seoul, which respectively lie in Sinchon and Itaewon, are casually described as “meet packing,” which means people can easily meet each other, but this description is probably more accurate given its insinuated homophone, “meat packing,” as in, a place where one can persuade members of the opposite sex to be their pumping, sweat-glistening myoma for the night. As my gay acquaintance once opined, “an ass is an ass is an ass.”

Even in Korean clubs, the annoyance of the foreigner is outstanding. As I join in circle dances with Koreans, meet others at the bar, or simply stand around imbibing the lights and sounds and people, there always seems to remain one outstanding object in the room: A foreigner, usually white, making a complete ass of themselves, drunk and doing every kind of ridiculous dance they can think of, humping whatever they can find, and when they find nothing, they hump nothing. While this is sometimes entertaining, usually it is simply annoying and incurs a domino-effect of eye-rolling with every Korean in the room.

An old white Afrikaner giggles his body, intersecting his movements with groups of young women. A short black kid from Louisiana humps a Korean girl who has fallen on the ground. A young tall GI tries shakes everyone’s hand, then proceeds to scream angrily at everyone until the bouncer kicks him out. Another GI, shorter and full of muscles, slides his way behind unsuspecting young women, holds one by her stomach and begins thrusting himself at her; the look on her face is appropriate.

At all of these displays I cannot help but think of George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant,” where the young Orwell, a British officer in Burma, feels persuaded to kill a harmless, beautiful creature, simply because the natives expect him to do it as a symbol of power. Are these men also trapped in their own foreignness, and for some reason feel the injunction to make obscene displays of power by always being the center of attention, by claiming their rights over the women, by leaping on-stage without any understanding of what it means to actually dance and enjoy the aura of the club?

One night I meet three fellow expats, perhaps the first I can claim some pleasure in making their acquaintance. Allie, the Korean from Germany studying her “roots,” Ashley, the girl with a thick New York accent locked in constant conversation with her Korean boyfriend, and Lalli, a girl from Tennessee with a doll’s curled blonde hair. All three of them are “hybrids.” all speak Korean, not particularly well, but they speak it and refuse to speak English unless they are provoked to do so. They date Korean, eat Korean, speak Korean, and participate in Korean clubs without immediately looking for the first white person to talk to. I find all of this promising and inspiring; I have found some fellowship to combat the blatant disinterest in Korean culture.

The expats and I spend the night in clubs, never quite the center of attention anywhere we go, yet never off the dance floor. Ashley’s boyfriend and his troop show up, though none of them dance. The things she has to say about her boyfriend are befitting for a young Korean wearing a shirt that reads “COMPTON” in wavy white letters: “He calls me every five minutes, wanting to talk. I have to baby him through everything.” “Why are you with him?” I ask. “He’s hot.” she tells me.

Gwanju
Gwanju

Empty stools as I am sitting at a bar in Gwanju, the capital of radical politics. I meet a quasi-communist getting her masters in German literature. We talk among a group of her friends, my Korean tumbles out of me like falling blocks; I look outside and the sun is already up. I ask directions to the nearest sauna. When I get there, men seem to be having a riotous time in the “Males only” section, I feel them trying to touch my shins, which are poking out of a small warm cavern.

Korea/Nightlife I

The subways in Seoul usually stop running at around midnight, and don’t start again until around 5:30am or 6 o’clock. The large bulk of people out past midnight who don’t have the kind of money to pay for a taxi stick around sleeping on park benches, passed out in the parking spaces near the sidewalk, breathing heavily in a large DVD room designed for quick sex, snoring in a PC room with their neck tilted back and their mouth gaped open. Most clubs that seem weak at around 11pm or even 1am stay strong and exuberent until the sun comes up. To effectively party in Seoul, I must adapt to the night in its entirely. Debauchery will not be half-assed.

In Hongdae, the district around Hongkik University, I venture to the Noise Basement, a club that is so packed even on Sunday nights that dancing becomes a purely relative concept. Here I immediately meet a middle aged woman from Osaka, an older white guy who dances in ridiculous fury, and a black man from London named Alex. In clubs especially, foreigners tend to aggregate. Together we begin to suspect locals of using us as some type of status symbol, though we may intend to use them as some type of sexual object.

Alex begins to disclose his disappointment in much of the Korean nightlife, and immediately I see his reasons manifest in the crowd around us. Every time he begins to talk to a Korean girl, whether she has friends in the club or not, Korean men stare at him with such intensity that he is forced to confront them directly: What are you looking at? He yells once, and they merely shake their head at him.

I decide to test the toleration of these so called “liberal art students” by finding a tall Korean girl in blue hot-pants, woo her with my fancy patter, then hook her with: “I have a friend here who you should meet. He’s here from London (he has a great accent!), he’s about my age but way more muscular.” At that point I take her to Alex. What]s that? Not the person you were expecting? Something wrong about my description? I watch her joyful expression suddenly shift to total confusion and panic when she discovers that he isn’t quite the Beckham-like figure she was perhaps envisioning. I do this with another girl, and Alex seems to play along this time, meeting her with a smile while trying to ignore the grimace of the Korean men around him.

Hongdae, anytime

As I have been told on many occasions, Japanese women seem to be the most typical catalyst for burgeoning gigolos. Indeed, the woman from Osaka reflects anything but the mundane sterility of the Korean girls in the bar, in fact, at her first dance with a Korean girl, she whispers in her ear, tugs playfully at her shirt and spirits her out of the club. I immediately propose a toast to their love, but speak too soon, as the Japanese woman immediately returns with that pissed off look I notice upon myself when fooled by a woman’s hips.

We have a drink anyway, the Japanese women confiding in me that she has been in Seoul for five days, and each night she has gotten close to getting lucky with a girl, but they never want to go all the way. I feel for her, certainly, but am also satisfied that a great drinking buddy has returned to share in the squalor.I, Alex and the Japanese woman watch as the only white guy in the room dances briskly from girl to girl.

Bupeoung

In Bupeoung there is a gigantic underground shopping mall, and a sprawling nightlife jam-packed with Korean youth. Unfortunately, this great district of Incheon once devoted to clubs and wild bars has been almost completely replaced by “night clubs” for young Koreans, which are substantially different from a regular club. Night clubs are really “booking clubs,” usually with a stage of dancers and tables full of alcohol and food.

Here is my extremely biased take on them: They are for the upper-class youth—since it’s expensive as hell to even step foot inside, let alone order any alcohol—who are either extremely shy or who don’t put much effort into actually walking up to someone else and talking to them. Here the waiters combine tables of women and men, so that customers don’t actually have to find a reason to talk to someone, or introduce themselves, or even get up out of their chair. Sadly, Bupeoung has been overrun with night clubs, which makes it nearly impossible to meet locals unless you carry wads of cash and get someone else to do the introductions for you.

I ended up in a bar alone for most of the night, until two Canadians came in. Racially they were completely Asian, later I found they were Chinese, and suddenly the fact that they were joining me in my pathetic loneliness made more sense. They seemed to be having the same problems as me, finding the Bupeoung nightlife sterile, and that Bupeoung had especially disintegrated into a gentrified version of an otherwise seedy nightlife.

Very often as I walk alongside a new white friend, Korean women have time and again jumped out to talk to him only to completely ignore me, the shorter, racially mixed person standing next to him as if I were some impure “Western” wannabe with the same urge for the foreign as them. Their predictable leaps from the sidelines impose a barrage of the same lines: “Where you from?” “What is your name?” “Oh, I love your country!” while I, usually caught in mid-sentence, find myself trying to nudge in from the girl’s backside. These sudden coos have ceased to provide any amusement to me, and when I am so conspicuously ignored because I look more like the girl’s maid than a traveler, I feel the need to take vengeance. Such justice I have served in several ways.

Once, while trying to take a picture of a drunk man passed out on the street with some new friends, Korean girls popped out and began casually ignoring me, apparently fascinated however by the country of origin my friend’s had–the same as mine, the United States. What sweet revenge I imbibed that night! After I had let their performance carry on for some time, I whispered in my friend’s ears, confessing that I had seen certain marks on the lips of these Korean girls as they spoke, and that we should make sudden retreat if ever we hope to return home with our bodies free from inflammations.

Perhaps this was despicable, and is even less excusable since I had very little to drink that night, but—BUT how delicious it felt, how satisfying it was to see the spring in their step turn to fall, how entranced I was to see my white friends make their escape, and I quickly behind, looking back at the girls finally with a devilish smile, one that made them recognize instantly that I had been the incendiary of the terrible fire that would lay their plans for the night to ashes, that their total exclusion of me because of my mixed race, dark skin and refusal to give away my American accent, would doom them to a forgettable fate.

Yoido Church

Yoido Christian Church

 

This morning I was in high-spirits and took to the Yoido Christian Church, a mega-church about the same size as Christian Central in Las Vegas, but supporting far more members—about 830,000! It is the largest Christian Church in the world.

 

We went to the one o’clock service, and of course, sat in a traffic jam of unflinching church goers before finally arriving at our destination. The church lies between large financial buildings, in the “Wall Street” district of Seoul. The first thing I begin to ask is: What is a Church doing in a large financial district—the largest church in the world, in fact?

 

We went primarily to see Mr. Cho, David Yonggi Cho, who is the leader of the church, and according to my twin brother, the only decent reverend who doesn’t merely ask for money or misrepresent factually about every historical person he can think of in the thirty minutes he has at the podium. As Mr. Cho began speaking, I began to wonder what the other preachers must have been like, since this Mr. Cho proceeded to do everything I described above, and then astounded the audience with advertisements for his DVDs. Aside from the usual astounding bullshit one casually hears and claps their hands to at a sermon, he actually claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald had no political agendas when he killed Kennedy, but that he did so because he had a fight with his wife and that Kennedy just “happened to be in the neighborhood.” Really? A guy who was so socialist he moved to Russia, a guy who had attempted to kill political leaders before, really had no political leanings to do what he did? It was really because he wasn’t spiritually fulfilled?

 What’s more, Mr. Cho went on to say that the richest people in the world, like Rockefeller, were extremely poor until they started giving “thirty, sometimes forty, sometimes fifty percent of everything they earned to the church!” and then proceeded to tell a story about a poor woman who was an alcoholic and never gave money to the church, and how all her generations of sons and daughters were eternally cursed because of what she did, while some other guy (American!) gave tons of money to the church, and all of his sons and daughters were made into lawyers and doctors and were rich. Indeed, it seemed no great coincidence that this church resides in the “Wall Street” of Seoul, and it was almost too predictable when, as soon as the collection bags were passed around, advertisements for Mr. Cho’s DVDs ran on the giant projection screens while the choir sang to the ads, and men in the aisles with DVDs began to tug at the church-goers.

 Keeping in mind not only the history of Mr. Cho, but the history of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, the sermon couldn’t be more of a shock. From it’s somewhat mythical beginnings within the houses of devoted protestants, The church was brought to the level it is today by Cho, via political alignments and religious campaigning. I believe with any church this size, any bullshit will remain unquestioned, which is actually why Mr. Cho has been brought out of retirement so many times: infighting among the other reverands. Mr. Cho’s politics are clearly espoused in his sermon: according to Cho, the previous president of Korea “certainly went to hell,” as will “any professors who become political.”

 So why this tendency toward totalitarian epithets in a Christian sermon? Cho obviously aligns with the Grand National Party of Korea, the conservative wing that exerts a near total control over the media. Like the U.S. state and PBS, or Henry Kissinger and ABC, the media in Korea is controlled by someone appointed and approved by the executive branch of the government, an occurrence that does not change with the elected leaders. That explains why the last president was cursed to eternal hellfire. As for the professors? There has been an ongoing controversy in Korea concerning Professors who demand a greater democracy, and who are being fired for speaking out (http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/358604.html). According to contracts signed by professors at Seoul National University, Korea’s top University, professors cannot be political, but must protect education from politics by keeping inactive. Obviously, this only means they must only preach the politics of the state, not their own. Because these professors speak out, they are not only fired, but, according to Mr. Cho, cast into an eternal hellfire by the Almighty.  

 Speaking as an atheist with five preachers in my close family, one of whom had his own radio program and another who has published twelve books dedicated to Christian leadership, I don’t feel very guilty about saying that going to this church was a genuinely horrendous experience, more horrendous perhaps than any church in the States, though they certainly come close to this atrocity. Perhaps the only redeemable point of interest was when the Korean Christians all simultaneously began speaking in tongues. I’m not sure if I am able to talk about this respectfully, so I won’t even talk about it. You can imagine perhaps what a giant auditorium of cacophonic paroxysms might sound like. 

Travel 2009

Here, on my fourth extended excursion, the first joys of travel are removed in such a far off distance that their pleasure seems now remote; they are glanced-at provincial gestures that can never be recovered. The ‘innocent abroad’ typical of American travelers has lost its relevance to me, the irony of it turned now into melancholy and irreversible cynicism.

“Traveling makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” —Flaubert

I no longer trust guidebooks beyond the maps that they contain, I find them loathsome youthless instruction manuals unfit for the effusing of the soul that travel exhibits among strangers. Should I bring my collared shirts for summer? How much will this cost? Where are the bars friendly to foreigners? These questions are not that which spur the endless fascination, the love of being acted upon by others, the indulgence of an omnivorous curiosity, of travel.

The eloping couple makes my companions in this realm. The runaways, the derelicts, the outcasts, the beggars, the pimps, the hos, the Johns and the Tricks, the drugged out hippies, the drunkard staggering, the innocents abroad, the lost, those whose homes have been reappropriated by the rich, those who, as I, find everything resembling “home” torn apart by bulldozers to make new hotels for tourists, new shopping districts for the wealthy, new restaurants with over-salted ethnic delicacies. Those without a home join me, those who are welcome no more, those whose home is theirs, not ours. We aim at them anew, the open windows of their limousines are our spittoons from the overpass.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century traveling was a grand pre-requisite of cultural capital before young bourgeois students (usually men) took to their studious careers. In some ways not much has changed, but travel is now largely democratic, which is why someone like me can spend three months traveling with a salary of about $13,500 a year. The luxury of travel, however, is never lost to an absence of funds. It is given up instead for the ubiquitous photograph, where the only memory recalled is that supplemented by photographic evidence. Travel is stripped away by walking the common path, by finding excuses to learning the local language, by staying in one’s hostel/hotel and tourist neighborhood, never braving the so-called “diseased slums,” the seedy alleyways and bars, the sites that put one face-to-face with the moral and historical questions that once defined what it means to travel.

Already our experiences are commodified, we are already planning how to exaggerate our stories, how to gain a higher chest among our peers, how to return home and eat ethnic foods while declaring “oh, but I’ve had the real thing before, this is only some cheap American rip-off,” how to pronounce names with adequate emphasis on the “correct” syllables. We are already deciding, to put it simply, how to blog this to the world, hot to omit facts, how to make ourselves seem tolerable, kind, and respectful to traditions that we are glad to merely try on, as if window-shopping. Traveling has become all about us.

“Why do you travel?” We are commonly asked. “Why not go home?” when the road becomes scabrous and our feet turn to welts and bites. What makes us unable to sit and be satisfied? I say it is because our hearts leap about in anxiety at home, because we are frustrated, as the many travelers before us, with the gnawing ennui of the homeland, because we seek, as Joyce, to escape the certainty of those with religion, academia or ideology, because we desire, as D.H. Lawrence and Henry James, to discover a place and peoples with some dignity and realistic grasp of the world, and because we need, as Kerouac, to understand desperation, loss—to go without itinerary, plans or certainty. To travel is to be rid of certainty. As Whitman said, “certainty…falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.” We travel to do what we can against those who believe they live in the best of all possible worlds, as a servant might in a household that they have never stepped out of.

As with my travel blogs of the last four years, I excuse politeness and toleration for sincerity and suspicion. I make no claims to be a terribly wise traveler, only a terribly honest one. Traveling is an investment of time, money, and means the risk of disease or having to sleep on a park bench. Many travelers, mindful always of this investment, seek to derive the greatest output from their “adventure,” always “discovering” the “fascinating cultures,” the “memorable people” and the many photo opportunities that await them. After their trip, they then proceed to tell these stories with loathsome insincerity, mentioning always their “fascination,” unaware that they are merely reproducing the catalogs and advertisements of commodified travel that we are already too familiar with. I will have nothing to do with this narrative of fascination.

This summer I will be in Korea for one month and India for two months. I can think of no better way to begin than with Whitman:

“Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune, Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, Strong and content I travel the open road.”