At last, I have done it! After almost half a decade of fruitless searching over three continents, I’ve finally discovered a place with a mass transit system less efficient than Seattle´s. This quest has involved visits to cities leveled by B-29 raids; overrun by the Red Army & then mismanaged by the communists; or endured Death Squad politics combined with pathetic economies. Yet somehow all these municipalities found the wherewithal to build a subway system. And not some light-rail-to-the-airport cop out either.
Initially, I feared my worse-than-Seattle search would have to continue when I saw all the conveniently placed “M” (metro station!?!) markings in my map of the downtown. But these turned out to be the location of McDonalds — American cuisine at its most unapologetic. While the transit service of Lima is a crapshoot, Ronald & his Golden Arches gang are doing an inspired job insuring the cholesterol levels at least are keeping pace with Uncle Sam´s.
Walking into a McD joint in this city, and you are overwhelmed with pictures of quarter pounders dripping with cheese and triple-stacked Big Macs. To avoid these cardiac sledge hammers, I tried ordering a simple burger & fries, but couldn’t get the message across. Eventually I ended up learning the Spanish words for “Kids Happy Meal”. Oh sure, I enjoyed spinning that cute little top around the remnants of my french fries, but it was still embarrassing. McDonalds is part of my rich American heritage and not being able to properly order a meal there was humiliating. I will never be able to look a ketchup dispenser in the face again.
Thank heavens the Colonel and I remain on good terms!
Imagine an ancient, robust structure that could comfortably hold an untold number of people, then was suddenly abandoned for no discernible reason… Actually, I was referring to the old Kingdome in Seattle. The only difference between that and Machu Picchu is the Incas had not yet discovered dynamite.
Since I had some free time towards the end of my Lima stay, I decided to book a tour to see this city of the clouds. According to the Peruvians, the place was voted one of the top ten historical wonders of the world (I tried to ask where the Space Needle finished in the balloting, but it appears to have ended up well out of the top twenty).
To get to Machu Picchu, one has to take an hour-long flight from Lima to Cuzco, which judging from the shortness of breath when attempting even simple tasks there, is only slightly lower than Mt. Everest. When jogging but a few steps up a narrow alleyway to avoid an onrushing taxi, I experienced a wave of dizziness so intense my IT career briefly flashed before my eyes. (It seemed to consist mostly of Standards Meetings and waiting for large COBOL computer programs to properly compile.)
At least there are plenty of touristy restaurants to choose from in Cuzco (and by this I mean the menus are in both English and Spanish). While enjoying a dish of raw trout marinated in lime & chili sauce, some fellow Americans came in and asked the hard-working waitress for the vegetarian menu. Now, I have nothing against those who choose not to eat meat for health reasons. Both my grandfathers consumed beef and pork their entire lives and paid the price, tragically passing away at the ages of ninety-two and eighty-eight. From this, I am painfully aware that my own carnivorous lifestyle will likely preclude my ever celebrating a ninety-fifth birthday. (Too bad, I really had hoped to see the Washington State Cougars in a major bowl game one more time.) What I don’t agree with are the people who travel the world and expect the local cuisine to align with their gastric convictions. I call this behavior The Ugly Vegetarian and always keep my distance. Fortunately, these kind of tourists do not frequent my beloved McDonalds, so contact is rare.
From Cuzco to Machu Picchu, it is necessary to hop on a train for four and a half hours. The scenery gradually mutates from a dry brown to lush green as the engine labors its way into the mountains. I passed the time by inflicting my Spanish on a friendly engineer from Columbia, who reminded me of a former co-worker whose Spanish invectives directed at IBM served as my introduction to the language.
When the train finally arrives at its destination, the tourists disembark and run the gauntlet of trinket stands to board a bus for the final leg. With the vehicle navigating through an endless series of switchbacks, you see the neighboring steep cliffs rising along with you and wonder how the Incas ever climbed this high on their own, much less how they managed to built such a remarkable site.
Since the history of Machu Picchu contains a lot of conjecture, the tour guide there stuck to the basics, pointing out the temple, sun dial, garden, residential areas, etc. Most of us were only half paying attention, instead admiring the breathtaking (pun intended) views. Clearly not a place for someone suffering from acrophobia.
One of the more interesting experiences was a large rock used for personal healing. By stepping up with your left leg first, then touching the stone with both hands, you could draw from it’s resolute strength. When I tried this, I ended up bumping my knee, though the pain did quickly recede.
Despite the lack of hard knowledge, one cannot help but speculate about why this place was abandoned. According to our guide, the latest theory is that long ago, Machu Picchu had a franchise in the Inca Basketball Association (IBA). The team, known as the Jumping Beans, demanded a new sports temple with luxury stone suits in order to keep pace with the rest of the league. When the Machu Picchu Tribal Council refused, the team moved upstream to Quillabamba and subsequently won two consecutive Lima Trail Championships. With the loss of an IBA franchise, Machu Picchu was no longer considered a “big league” town and began an inevitable, irreversible decline. Those in Seattle who are opposing the Sonic´s multi million dollar demands for a new arena should take heed.
In the Edgar Allen Poe classic The Masque of the Red Death, the Prince and his minions are partying heartily in the castle while outside the peasantry is being ravaged by the dreaded disease. Eventually Death himself makes an appearance as a masked guest, spreading the fatal illness to the horrified attendees. If the story had taken place down here, Death would arrive on a hot afternoon, be enticed with a curbside table at a fancy cafe, then spend the rest of the day nursing a mineral water with his friends Pestilence and Famine. In the laid back, live-for-today atmosphere, he’d eventually conclude that even a plague would not cause these inhabitants to change their behavior.
Welcome to Buenos Aires, where ambition takes a holiday. The name, by the way, translates to “good air”. Rather ironic when the tailpipes on the diesel buses are adorned with Surgeon General’s Warnings.
The history of Argentina is typical of what you would expect to find in Latin America. There’s a national holiday celebrating the overthrow of the Spanish, then another holiday for the overthrow of the dictator who tossed out the Spanish, and so on. The constitutions down here are about as stable as a Windows beta release. Despite an admittedly raucous past, the beginning of the 20th century found this country as one of the wealthiest in the world, ahead of even France and Germany. But then exports dropped off during World War I, the Great Depression hit a decade later, and the country never quite reclaimed its former lofty standing. The final indignity came some seven decades further on with the country’s default and collapse of the peso in 2001. Not that I am lamenting Argentina’s fall from the upper echelons. The devalued currency means everything is dirt cheap for us winter refugees from up north despite the nosedive the U.S. dollar has taken this year. It is also nice to know that regardless of what dregs the American economy may descend to, there will always be someone below us.
Thanks to a combination of diligent internet research and good fortune, I have found a pleasant apartment for my stay in a perfect location in a middle class neighborhood called Palermo. Within walking distance of my abode there are huge parks, a variety of restaurants, the zoo and the museum for Evita Peron — the country’s answer to the Kennedys. The big project for me has been improving my laughable Spanish. I’ve found a very understanding private tutor plus a neighborhood friend who has taken pity on my earnest efforts and offered to help with my everyday language needs. For listening practice, I watch Miami Vice in Spanish. However, this has caused some misunderstandings when I combine parts of that program’s often violent dialogue with the materials from my instructor. For example, the last time at Burger King, I ordered “Una hamborguesa mas pronto o voy a matarte” (One hamburger right now or I will kill you.) It didn’t get me any better service.
Within but a few blocks of my apartment here in Buenos Aires, there are three Chinese restaurants. No surprise really; Chinese food can be found the world over. But the same cannot be said of Argentine cuisine. Indeed, in the American Pacific Northwest where I hail from, cooking inspired by this country is experienced as often as a Sasquatch sighting.
The sad fact of the matter is that the food here is simply not popular in the world outside of Mongolian forced labor camps, and even there the Geneva Convention limits the servings to one meal a day.
What is the reason for this? To discover the answer, one must first visit a typical neighborhood sandwich shop in Buenos Aires. The offerings will likely be: cheese, ham, cheese & ham or ham & cheese. Detect a subtle pattern emerging here? There also are places called Pizzerías, but instead of including such toppings as pepperoni, sausage and onions (the way God meant for pizza to be served), their idea of a wild time is grudgingly tossing a few olives on top of the cheese. And if you visit a supermarket, the Exotic Spices Section will be stocked with mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard.
Personally, this has been hard to adjust to. The other day I caught myself trying to ship a box of Seattle’s Dick’s Delux Burgers (which as you know can sit for weeks under heat lamps and not lose their flavor) down to Buenos Aires via Zoom Cargo, a local freight forwarding outfit. I do not know which is more disturbing, my choice of food or freight forwarder.
Yet this does not explain the reason behind the puzzling blandness of the food. Perhaps over the past century mini ozone holes have opened up over the country, frying the Argentinians’ taste buds.
Or maybe it has to do with their dining habits. The average Buenos Aires resident has four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, “merienda” and dinner. Merienda takes place around 5:00 p.m. and is a light meal consisting of tea or coffee, a bit of bread, and a few cookies. By the time their dinner is ready, often well after eight o’clock, the person has crashed from his or her sugar high and hasn’t had a solid meal for nearly seven hours. (I am speaking from experience here. I tried a few crackers and cookies once in the late afternoon and by the time evening rolled around, felt like a Donner Party survivor.) After such a long fast, even hospital food would have gourmet-like appeal. Little wonder therefore that flavor is in such low demand. The entire country has a borderline eating disorder.
When tourists return to their home country, they used to kiss the ground upon exiting the airplane as a sign of their happiness to be back. For me, I’m going straight to Jalisco’s, a favorite Mexican restaurant of mine near the Space Needle, to kiss the Tabasco bottles. And when they bring those chips and salsa, you’re going to see a grown man weep with gratitude.
I am at the end of my two weeks here and have had wonderful weather with all kinds of good food. During the weekday, the downtown is alive with office workers, street vendors and the horses of security guards who are widely used due to the high crime rate and dearth of actual police. There are also the ubiquitous “pamphleteers” handing out fliers on everything from salvation to penis enlargement. Having reached the downside of my years (fifty), I have started having more of an interest in the former in lieu of the later.
On the weekends, the empty downtown is like a 21st century version of Peru’s Machu Picchu except that here the white people have fled and the natives are reclaiming the streets. Though I have never felt threatened, at times I’ve found myself yearning for the “safety” of South America. My guidebook says not to walk the streets at night. Sound advice. If you are out after dark, you’d better RUN.
Despite this risk, there are a few down-and-out women who hover about the hotel at all hours to panhandle the visitors. Their persistence has inspired me to devise a unique way to try and ward them off: The Mentally Deranged Tourist.
This was an ambitious undertaking. Imitating mental illness is no walk in the park. To begin with, the act has to be believable. While incoherent, mindless babbling sounds good in theory, it won’t sell. If I were that off-the-wall, I wouldn’t be down here staying at a comfortable hotel. I’d be in some institution, heavily sedated. Or still working at my old company, waiting to be outsourced.
It is also important to select a fake illness that works best for you. For example, Manic-Depressive takes too long to develop and often leaves me in a foul mood. Multiple personalities can be fun and entertaining, however keeping track of them can drive a person crazy (but wait, isn’t that what we are trying to achieve?).
After some trial and error, I eventually decided I was most comfortable with paranoia. In fact, it has proven to be such a natural fit that initially I became concerned, then decided that I was simply being, well, paranoid about my choice.
The next step was selecting a topic to be afraid of. Otherwise you end up coming across as merely ill at ease. Like former President Nixon whenever he tried to loosen up and mingle with the general public.
So what could I be frightened about? I began by considering some of my hobbies, since I would be halfway knowledgeable about them. I like to cycle, but acting like mountain bikes are out to get us strains credulity. On the other hand, I am also into stargazing and especially enjoy identifying the planets. Suddenly, my theme was staring me in the face: Aliens from Jupiter.
The resulting conversations turned out to be more of a sumo match than any kind of confrontation. I discovered early on the importance of focus and keeping the other person off balance. When they would first come up to me, sticking a paper cup in my face and asking for money, I would ask if they had ever seen the lights in the sky. As they began their woe-is-me litanies (and they do have an impressive repertoire), I suddenly plunged into the terror of an imagined alien encounter. If they continued their importuning, I began pointing to people on the streets asking, in an increasingly agitated state, how can we know if they are really human?
The results were mixed. The first “opponent” left after shadowing me for only a few yards, a confused look on her face that I found gratifying. The second followed me all the way around a large plaza, peeling off twice to panhandle other tourists who looked promising, but eventually returning. This disoriented me. In the past, when women left me for someone else, they never came back. But towards the end of our little game, as I entered my hotel, I could tell she was at least getting annoyed with my routine.
The third one, to my surprise, believed my UFO abduction tale! (This, I imagine, is how TV evangelists get started.) It made me realize that black people in South Africa — and all my panhandlers were black — often still view whites as authority figures. I finally just told her I wasn’t going to help her. She thanked me for some reason and went on her way.
After a few days, I ditched the act. While there are unfortunates back in Seattle who can make this look easy, it took far too much energy for me. Better to simply say “no” gently and firmly.
When visiting another country, it can be difficult learning the customs, eating the food and understanding any of the language. But the greatest obstacle, and arguably biggest threat to our safety, comes from a simple act we take for granted in the U.S.: going across the street.
From the time the first Australopithecus attempted to wade across a shallow creek on the African savanna and stubbed his big toe, making it safely through moving obstacles has been a hit-or-miss proposition for our species. With such things as the domestication of the horse and invention of the automobile, the risk has become much greater. Stop signs and traffic lights should therefore be regarded as two of mankind’s best and “brightest” achievements.
Unfortunately, traffic signals nowadays have become subject to various interpretations across the globe depending upon the local culture. To aid the wary — and weary — traveller, some of the those rules and suggested safety tips will be covered here to minimize confusion and avoid the possible loss of life or limb.
Argentina It’s a little-known fact that many of the forty thousand taxi drivers in Buenos Aires are former rugby players, usually angry over their too-short careers. They vent their frustration through aggressive, almost homicidal driving. Therefore, the first rule in Argentine street crossing is to look in both directions for the black and yellow cabs. If one is sighted within a hundred meters, stay on the corner until it has passed. In fact, we suggest taking a few steps back from the curb.
The traffic lights follow a red, yellow, green, yellow pattern which we will explain.
Red: Heavy cross traffic. DO NOT CROSS. Yellow (1): Gentlemen, start your engines! DO NOT CROSS. Green: Taxis are making vicious right or left-hand turns into the “scrum” of any pedestrians. DO NOT CROSS. Yellow (2): Last minute drivers frantically trying to make the light. DO NOT CROSS.
So what can a person do here? The rule is simple: wait until there are no cars coming, then make a mad dash for the opposite corner similar to a base runner attempting to steal second. Take deep breaths and keep your motions fluid. Do not look behind you and above all, do NOT stop to assist a fellow crosser. If they stumble, they are beyond help. Save yourself!
Brazil More than most countries, Brazil is a melting pot of many different races. Natives, Negroid, Asian and Caucasian. This blending is best symbolized by the traffic signals found in the town of Foz, near the world-famous Iguasu Falls.
The first thing you notice is that the signals have a double row of flashing, alternating lights. Also, there are four colors: the usual red, yellow and green with a snazzy orange thrown in for some reason. (We suspect these devices were manufactured by a U.S. company whose specialization is Los Vegas slot machines.) The local drivers somehow are able to make sense of these kaleidoscopes and know when to stop, go, or don sunglasses to reduce the glare. For you as a pedestrian, we recommend waiting until you see double green. This means it is either safe to cross, or you have just won the local lottery. Keep an eye out for any gold coins tumbling down the pole.
In regards to the other color combinations, contact a fortune teller or your horoscope to see which are most propitious for a safe crossing.
South Africa No need for special explanations; many of the stoplights simply do not work. They stand on the corner like metallic totem poles. In vain you will supplicate these traffic gods for guidance, but will be rewarded only with silence. Here you must proceed on your journey unaided, relying only upon your reflexes. Fortunately, most of the automobiles in the country are still owned by slow, white drivers.
Special Warning! People in this country drive on the left (as in wrong) side of the road. If you are from America, you’re instincts will have you looking in the wrong direction for oncoming traffic. Recall your grade school advice and look both ways.
Singapore This ultramodern city-state features charming little cookie cutter figures beneath most of its traffic lights. Below are the meanings.
Green Man: OK to cross. Flashing Green Man: Time is running short. Better get the lead out. Red Man: Do we really need to explain this one? Flashing Red Man: Don’t even think about it… Flashing Red Man In Handcuffs: Whom are you going to contact for your one phone call?
Important Reminder: Jaywalkers, along with drug dealers, serial rapists and people who chew gum in public, can receive the death penalty in this country, so pay attention!
Thailand The wild traffic here is so deadly street corner vendors sell cigarettes and blindfolds to waiting pedestrians. The locals will usually cross halfway, then balance precariously on the thin yellow dividing line while tuk-tuks, cars and towering, multi-story tourist buses go rushing by in both directions. Definitely not for the faint of heart or slightly overweight.
The key here is patience. Don’t overreact when you look down the street and see a mile-long line of vehicles storming your way. It might take a few minutes, but an opening will appear. When it does, scamper through! It’s especially helpful if you’ve had experience as an NFL running back.
General Advice If all else fails and you find yourself totally befuddled, simply follow the crowd. Try to position one of the more obese locals between you and the oncoming traffic as a sort of human air bag. And be careful not to get detached from the herd: stragglers are far more likely to be picked off.
Ultimately, you must keep in mind that you are a guest in these strange, hectic nations and confrontations are never a good idea with an adversary encased in two tons of rapidly moving steel. If the stress starts to get to you, take a deep breath and raise your right hand…to hail a cab.
The city of Pattaya where I’m staying had its origins as the Sex Capital of Thailand forty years ago when there was an American air base nearby as part of the Vietnam War effort. One of the more popular drinks in the bars here is in fact called a B-52. If we’d served the Viet Cong with a few of these concoctions early on, we’d have won that conflict.
Relationships here (if that is the right word) are very easy to find and not as formal as in the West. A popular saying is that you do not lose your girlfriend, you just lose your turn.
Yet I am finding the transition from sensitive Seattle guy to Thailand gigolo difficult. Three years of auditioning for an often difficult audience on the internet dating site Match.com, trying to prove that I am caring, responsible, sensitive, etc. has left me with lingering habits that are proving hard to break. Witness my first street encounter with a slender, long-haired lady who struck me as being on the shy side:
(Working her gum): “Hello. What you name?”
“Scott” (they have trouble pronouncing my real first name).
“Where you from?”
“A–me–ri–ca. You like A–me–ri–ca woman?”
“Yes. I respect the way they can hold challenging jobs and yet are able to maintain their independence despite…”
(Interrupting) “Where you stay hotel? We do boom-boom!” (This is the Thai slang for sex.)
“First let’s talk and get to know each other better. Communication and trust are important parts of a relationship for me.”
(A lengthy, confused pause) “No boom-boom? Maybe want ladyboy?” (Ladyboys are cross-dressing Thai men who are usually disturbingly convincing looking.)
“Er, no thank you. Excuse me…I have to, ah, go clip my fingernails.”
And with that classy exit line, I made my escape, barely avoiding getting sideswiped by a tuk-tuk as I stumbled off the curb. The brief, pseudo-friendly chat had left me reeling. I was completely out of my element and vowed to avoid similar humiliations in the future. Which I did — for almost twenty-four hours.
First, some forthright Pattaya candor is called for. The ladies are here for the money. To take a bar girl home costs anywhere from thirty-five dollars for a few hours (known as “short time”) to the entire night for maybe twice that. Note that the prices will, from your perspective, fluctuate in accordance with the exchange rate. Not that this really enters into the calculations once you’ve had three Tiger beers and the girl is rubbing your arm and looking at you like you are the most handsome man she’s seen in years.
So how does one handle an evening with a woman more interested in the wallet in your back pocket instead of anything on the opposite side of the body? Here are some of my secrets honed over the course of almost ten nights of diligent study.
Apartment Setup Toothbrushes Have three or four in the bathroom ready and waiting. Recommend you keep a separate one for each of your special friends with their name on it. Do not be afraid to leave them lying out. This lets your date know you are a bona-fide Ladies Man (called a “butterfly” in Thailand) and gives you a bit of leverage in what is, after all, a business relationship.
Wine? Do NOT make the mistake of getting some fancy-pants French vintage that you can barely pronounce. This only would confirm a Thai’s view of you as a rich wimp who cannot get girls without a barrel of alcohol. You might as well just open your wallet and shake out the bills.
Instead, consider Thai wine. Or Listerine Mouthwash to save a few baht. They taste about the same.
Condoms The real challenge here is not in avoiding the life-threatening STDs, but rather the tenacious cellophane wrapping the packages come in, which seem to have been designed to withstand a terrorist attack. Begin your efforts to open these early in the afternoon while still sober. Use a sharp knife, or if the seal is particularly resistant, explosives.
Hitting The Streets Choosing A Bar Amble slowly down the street, keeping an eye out for ones that have a few attractive faces with hardly any foreign customers, thus assuring that you will have the bulk of their attention. This is called the “lone rooster in the hen house” approach and is one of my favorite methods.
Choosing A “Date” As you enter the establishment, you will be confronted by a harem of smiling ladies. Slow down and give yourself a chance to select one that strikes your fancy. Do not worry about reciprocal feelings. Despite her attentions, she’s there for the money.
Now here is how the game is played: she will encourage you to buy a few rounds for the two of you. Do not take offense; this is part of her job. To pace yourself, go with mixed drinks, which the bartenders water down to the level of Kool-Aid.
Eventually, if you have not made any moves, she will ask if you would like to take her home. Hypothetically speaking, you now have a decision to make, but in reality you are as much in control of the situation as Custer at Little Big Horn. Do not waste precious energy deliberating. In many ways, the choice was made the day you bought the plane ticket here.
Home Again, Home Again For most of the men in Pattaya, foreplay begins and ends with the sound of their trousers being unzipped. I would like to go beyond that pseudo-Neanderthal approach with a few romantic suggestions.
Music & Slow Dancing For the first date, let her dial in one of the local radio stations to find something she likes. (All Thai music is going to sound the same to you.) Then, when a halfway slow tune is played, gently take both her hands and ask if she likes to dance. If so, try to keep it simple. The awkward, stuttering steps you learned in the junior high school gym will suffice. Pattaya is basically a bunch of middle-aged men reliving juvenile fantasies anyway. As you embrace and she rests her young head trustingly on you shoulder, run your hands through her hair and reflect that this could not happen to you in a hundred years in America. At least not without risking arrest.
I call this move “embracing diversity”. Keep this phrase in mind when you return home and are interrogated about your vacation.
Candlelight This can really make a good impression, probably because fire was only discovered in this country within the last century. However, it can be difficult to start if you are using one of those cheap lighters from the 7-Eleven. Be especially careful if you are somewhat intoxicated; you might get the fire going, but in the process lose your balance and set more than just the candle ablaze.
The Act Remember when those touchy-feely books came out with advice on how to give a woman ecstatic pleasure? Forget about them. Instead relax and immerse yourself in the moment. Get in touch with those inner feelings!
The Morning After In many ways this is one of the best times. The lady sleeps in, then takes a shower, grabs her purse (along with your money) and is gone. No guilt or remorse. No concerns regarding whether you are emotionally available or are struggling with “issues”. No demands about being respectful of each other’s needs. Just the sound of the door closing.
Suggest going right back to sleep. You will be needing the energy, for tonight the game begins anew!
Saint Mary’s is the name of an all-girls Catholic high school in Taejon where I taught English for three months way back in 1996 before abruptly departing. As part of my Round the World Trip, I decided it would be interesting to return there.
The main character in the teaching drama I endured was the difficult and rather disagreeable principal, Sister Park. In hindsight, it’s clear she did not really trust foreign instructors and had her own ideas about how the language should be taught. Having her looking over my shoulder while trying to deal with classrooms of often unruly girls ultimately proved be too much. During my final weeks of working there I sometimes harbored fantasies of splashing her with water, causing her to melt.
To my surprise, Sister Park is now the Spiritual Director of the Convent! The day I stopped by she had just left for a conference up in Seoul, so I ended up drinking the bottle of mineral water I had carefully concealed in anticipation of a confrontation. However Sister Jang, the nearest thing I had to a friend amongst the Korean staff, was still teaching at the school and we enjoyed a pleasant reunion. She had retained some of her prettiness and my first words to her were, “You are still nice looking!”
The fact that I was flirting with a nun suggested I had not fully made the transition from Thailand Decadence to Korean Catholic Abstention. This is particularly strange since my sex life had closely resembled that of the Sisters until about five weeks ago. Perhaps I enjoy the challenge. In Pattaya, I could hardly get my pickup line out of my mouth before the lady was taking me by the hand out of the bar. So nowadays I welcome situations where one’s chances of success can be measured in fractions of a percent.
Sister Jang and I had non-romantic lunch in the school’s cafeteria, whose nondescript food had remained unchanged. It was there I received a shock when one of the Sisters at first glance appeared to be my old Korean girlfriend of a dozen years before. What a blow to my masculinity, the knowledge that I had driven a woman into the Catholic Sisterhood! On closer examination, however, I concluded the lady was too young to have been my “ex”.
To have some fun and help out at the school, I taught Sister Jang’s English classes for three days, regaling the students with stories from my recent travels plus my special rendition of the Beatle’s “Yesterday”. They got a big kick out of my theatrics. After the final class on Friday, Sister Jang took me to a small, pleasant restaurant near my motel and ordered a scrumptious Korean dinner for me, explaining that she could not stay because of the Good Friday Worship Service that night. It was at that point I began to realize the effort that would be required attempting to make a dinner date with a nun during Easter Holy Week.
Sister Jang has promised to email me when the cherry blossoms come out in Taejon, giving me a reason to return in another week or two after I’ve finished seeing a bit of the country. She also says that next time she will join me for dinner, which I take as a sign of progress. Having for a few unsettling moments thought I had lost my old Korean girlfriend to the Catholics, it’s time to even the score by trying to steal one back!
Today we are going to have lunch in a Pusan restaurant in Korea. Can you say “Pusan”? If you are unable, don’t worry as that is going to be the least of your problems.
The area of the city we will have our meal in is called Haeundae Beach. Because of its popularity with foreign tourists, most of the restaurants have pictures of their dishes posted outside. As an aid to understanding what you are going to eat, the names often have Japanese subtitles. A big help for those of you who can read Japanese (and what red-blooded American cannot?).
As you scan the photos, you will notice that red is the predominant color. Meaning spicy. Meaning be careful! The Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do actually utilizes some of the local cuisine as a means of attack, so it will behoove us to make our choices with care.
Your first impulse will probably be to try and figure out what the hell the dishes are. This would also be your first mistake. If you by chance end up ordering something like octopus tentacles in eel sauce, ignorance is bliss.
OK, we’ve selected a restaurant and have pointed out the meal we want. Usually this will be some kind of stew or soup. While waiting for the order to arrive, you will notice the waiter bringing half a dozen small plates of various colored organic materials to our table, little of which resembles food as we know it. These petri dish arrangements are in side dishes, intended to be enjoyed with the main course.
Let’s get to work! Choose the dish that appears to be the most appetizing and use your chopsticks to dig out a small portion. Quickly put this in your mouth and begin chewing. Do not stop to think about what you are eating! We are simply trying to get some of this stuff out of the way without offending the waiter through gagging or involuntary regurgitation. Once you’ve got the first bite or two down the hatch, move on to another selection and repeat the process.
One of the side dishes will be a kind of cabbage in a red sauce with red sprinkles. This is called kimchi and is a Korean favorite. It is made by burying the cabbage with spices and letting the concoction ferment (as in rot) for a few weeks before finally digging it up and…you know, on sec-ond thought, let’s skip the kimchi preparation details until well after the meal.
At last the stew or soup arrives… But wait a minute! It doesn’t look at all like the picture. Where are all the scrumptious vegetables? And what is that big white thing floating on top? Are they breaking in a new cook to-day?
Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do. The contest has come down to you and the stew, and only one of you is getting out alive.
Begin the attack by deploying the bowl of rice that came along with the other side dishes. For Koreans, this is almost always eaten separately. But not for you! Take the small metal bowl the rice comes in and scrape some of it into the soup/stew. Do this in jerky, clumsy motions to make it look like an accident. What we are attempting here is to mix in the rice to dilute the napalm-like potency of the stew. Even then you must eat cautiously, following every spoonful with almost waterboarding-level self-dowsing.
Determining when you are done is a tough call. The table will look like a food fight has taken place, with enough left over to go into hibernation with. But set aside your mother’s admonitions about cleaning your plate. There are no extra points for neatness here. If you are full, call it a night.
As you pay your bill, be sure to smile at the waitress (who has to clean up your mess) and the cashier as your stomach prepares to reenact the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. As you wander out onto the street, begin looking for your next destination: a pharmacy that sells Pepto-Bismol.