A solo hike in the outback seems like a good way to socially distance myself especially if distance is a key element in the formula. I wanted to get a hike in before they post a National Guardsman at my door to seal me in until the pandemic passes. It’s spring and it’s green and in San Diego County, the best time to get out for a hike. I settled on Clevenger Trail North, part of the Palms to Pines trail, about ten miles from my house. Mountains in the distance still have some snowpack on them. It’s a cool day under decent cloud cover, a good time to hike up the side of a mountain before it gets too hot and dry.
At the trailhead was a sign to be cautious of aggressive bees. The trail dipped down to the San Dieguito River. The crossing is a bit tricky, there is no bridge. You either wade or you rock hop across some slippery granite rocks. I chose to rock hop. I rousted a few frogs in the process, but they gratefully posed for the camera once they realized I wasn’t going to inadvertently crush them.
The rest of the hike was a two and a half-mile 1400 foot ascent rising up over highway 78 featuring views of San Pasqual Valley to the west and Cuyamaca and Julian in the distance to the east. With a dry February and a wet March, the mountains have greened and the flowers have started their bloom. The smell of spring is in the air. I passed a handful of people over the course of the 5 mile out and back hike. They all gave me a wide berth on the trail, I’m sure for fear of the virus.
Not too far into the ascent, I came around a corner in the trail where I saw bees busily buzzing about a hole in the rock about waist high on the left side, leaning into the hill into what is obviously their hive. On the right side of the trail directly opposite the hive entrance is an overgrown sumac bush which didn’t give much room to pass and bees were active on the flowers of the bush. I tried to daintily squeeze by both without disturbing any of the creatures. My strategy didn’t work. I felt and heard them swarming about my head and it sounded angry. One of the f**kers stung me. I ran my ass off swatting at the bees as they followed me down the trail. There was only a handful of them by my estimation. They followed me quite a distance, maybe a tenth of a mile, before I had either killed them, they stung me, or they got bored of chasing me. I pulled out a couple of painful little stingers. Can you imagine with all the shit going on today that I got got by killer bees? Killer f**kin’ bees. Killer bees aren’t even in the back pages of the newspaper anymore. They are so ten years ago. Haven’t they heard?
I wasn’t excited about having to go past the beehive again on the way down. I asked another solo hiker, from a socially safe distance of course, if he had any problems with the bees. He said he hadn’t noticed the hive but he mentioned that some girl said she was stung a couple of times too. I wondered why they didn’t like me. I noticed the guy was khaki’d out in all white and grey. Maybe the killers don’t like blue. I had on a blue t-shirt and blue jeans. Maybe they hate blue flowers and I look like a much-hated giant blue flower.
By the time I neared the hive, I had a plan. I had an airline blanket in my backpack that I use to protect my camera. I didn’t take any pictures of the hive so I didn’t think they were mad at the camera and wouldn’t try to sting it. I put the blanket under my cap, sheik style, I wrapped myself in the blanket to protect my exposed parts, and put on my dark sunglasses, trying to do an imitation of the invisible man, when he wants to be visible, which of course is what I didn’t want to be. The downside of my plan was that the blanket is solid blue. So now I looked like an even bigger bluer flower.
When I got to the hive, I chose not to be dainty. I hurried past the opening without arousing any interest that I could detect. So the killer bees didn’t kill me and neither did the hike, though my body issued a few protests. And now I’m back into hiding from all the other things trying to kill us.
A Hidden Compound. It was really an eye-opener to walk back into the USA, the name Ruel gives to his hidden neighborhood behind the storefronts serving tourists in the Intramural. (He calls his trike a Lamborghini. Its all patter for us tourists). I had to duck under pipes and supports cutting across the head-high unlit passageway, past women squatting over tubs doing laundry, a woman squatting in the tub washing her twat, and a mother breastfeeding her child with her teat fully exposed. The tunnel opened up into a courtyard of drying laundry, women playing games or otherwise occupied, a sari-sari store, crumbling cement walls, under a canopy of tangled electrical wires. Down another tunnel, deep enough that I started worrying that I might be getting “rolled” until we stopped at grandma’s “house”, a cubby hole with a counter for a storefront, and a bedsheet door covering the closet-sized bedroom in the back. Grandma was on the corner hanging out in her folding chair selling her home-made food.
Native housing. A shanty with a rusted corrugated steel roof, supported by repurposed blue-painted long poles from long boats with a thatched roof patio for selling ice cream bars out of cooler to passer-byers. A prostrate dog laid out on a cement doorstep with the news flashing on a big screen TV in the background.
A coral flower bush. A coral bush of flowers with white and pink striped petals that grasp like hands at passing by detritus that floats on the current.
Dance Off. In the rough waters, a wave splashed onto the boat soaking the back of one of a full-red lipped, white collared shirt-wearing boy who jumped out onto aisle in a twitchy unintentional dance. The spasm was answered by the lumpy girl-boy at the front. A dance-off broke out egged on by a cheering crowd. I’ve never been on a boat where a dance-off broke out between two gender-challenged utes, with swaying hips, weak-wristed waving, and hip thrusts. I answered the soaking in a more traditional fashion with a WTF under my breath.
Bad entertainment. A group of four boys aged 7 to 17 dressed in dresses, diving from boat to boat, doing stripper moves and coordinated dance steps on the sides of longboats for tips.
Disassociation. A young lady working the entrance of a store staring to the side looking out into the nothingness.
Wreckage. A wreck dive at 30 meters, my first. The side of the ship looks like a lichen-ridden rock with splotches of pastel colors covering its rusted out surface. Fish hanging off the sides and the tower. A giant angelfish a couple of feet from fin tip to fin tip, like swimming inside an aquarium. A ship’s complement of hundreds of fish working the passageways.
Nature watching. Open-mouthed clams propped up vertically, sensing the presence of my hand, snapping their body mouths shut. Underwater flower closing up and retreating into its hole. The delicate purple outline of an otherwise invisible shrimp. Little sponges, green balls in the shape and size of dismembered eyes. Irridescent blue squiggles on the bodies of long-spined dark brown urchins. A formation of squid, lined-up like one arm of a V of flying geese.
I had the simple ambition to walk to Bulabog Beach on the other side of the island from White Sand beach by way of D’Mall. Boracay is only about a half-mile wide in the middle. D’Mall is, as its name suggests, a boutique shopping area of souvenir stores, outdoor restaurants, and bars. Simple walks never end up being so simple.
White Sand beach is the tourist side of the island. The beach features beautiful aquamarine water, fine white powder sand, a sand boardwalk lined with outward-facing palm trees on one side and business on the other. News articles suggested that the island only hosted about fifty percent of the normal tourist population due to Covid-19 issues but the boardwalk bustled with more than enough people as far as I was concerned. If I have one complaint about the boardwalk, it is the locals constantly hawking adventure tours, restaurant fare, and massages. Not in your face, but annoying to have to disappoint fifty solicitations over the course of a mile and a half walk.
To get to the other side of the island, I cut over through the D’mall to the one paved road that runs more or less down the length of the dog-biscuit shaped island, the main drag, to use a colloquialism that is even older than myself. The main drag is mostly business but not the kind of businesses with people hawking their wares on the streets, like McDonald’s and Jolibees and banks; trikes moving people; scooters; security guards watching over the entrances to businesses and hotels. I cut across the street at Balabag lake, which is a completely rectangular concrete-enclosed body of water, more like a block-wide swimming pool than a lake. I’m not sure what they are going after. The sign mentioned something about an estuary restoration but I think the reality is underachieving the vision. All I saw was a few dead fish floating on the surface but at least it didn’t smell bad.
At the far end of the lake, a road cuts over to Bulabog beach on the windward side of the island. This beach is entirely dedicated to windsurfing. Dozens of multi-colored kites danced in the sky as surfers raced up and down parallel to the shore. The more skilled have some technique where they can pull up and launch themselves into the air. The surfers race perilously close to one another in opposite directions. There must be some method to the madness but I’m not so sure. One windsurfer missed clipping a young Filipino kid wading in the light surf near the shore by inches. The surfer glared back over his shoulder at the kid for at least a solid minute. I don’t know if it is a windsurf-only beach but I got yelled at as I was taking pictures by a muscular German woman for being on the waterside of a laid-out kite waiting for someone to take it to the water. I never saw a tangle but I did see a few kites crash into the water. It looks like a skill that would take more than an hour or two to master. I’m totally content as a spectator and a photographer. I walk the length of this beach heading back in the south-easterly direction opposite of how I walked up White Sand beach from my hotel to D’mall.
My master plan is to cut back over to the other side of the island and White Sand beach. I find a walkway that cuts through a hotel and a windsurfing store towards a residential area. The ambiance changes quickly as I pass shanty homes of plywood and corrugated metal. An elderly silver-haired lady rests her head on a window sill at bicycle seat height. I know because there is a bicycle laid up against the wall just under the window. A hefty older man on a scooter rides by on the narrow walkway. He stops to offer me a ride and asks me if I know where I am at. I know where I am at. I’m not sure I know how to get where I am going but that is a different question. I can’t imagine getting on the back of a small scooter with the big man. I continue down the walkway until it ends at a dirt road. I quickly discover the flaw in my plan. There is a hill in the way and no path over. I have to walk back up parallel to the beaches on a dirt road opposite the way I just walked. A little kid watches me pass from a second story windowless window of a plywood-fronted home. Skewered chicken and pork sits in the window of a store-front home ready to be sold and eaten. I pass by homes fronted by cheap plastic chairs, broken cement, and other detritus.
I end up walking back to the ersatz estuary before I can cut over and rejoin the tourist population on White Sand Beach. It probably isn’t for me to judge (that is what we do) but I had the thought that paradise might be a nice place to visit, I’m not sure I would want to live there.
Stupid is as stupid does. I canceled my trip to South Korea when the CDC issued a level 3 warning. I did not cancel my side trip to the Philippines, which at the time had no warning level issued. By the time of my flight, a couple of cases had been reported in the Philippines. It wouldn’t be the first time I hiked in a forest in a 50 mph wind and besides, what’s one or two cases? Well, there is a reason things are said to go “viral”. The unchecked spread is exponential in a new population. Stupid is.
Before the trip, I searched through stores and tried to order masks and sanitizers online weeks ahead of time. The stores were wiped out and everything online was out of stock. I ordered masks reported as “in stock”. They have yet to arrive one week after my trip. I even looked for isopropyl alcohol and aloe gel without success in a vain attempt to roll my own. Just before the trip, I found one lone bottle of sanitizer in the travel section of a local supermarket where things are sold in travel size bottles. It turns out the bottle was an ounce over allowed size and I had to “surrender” it to TSA and the garbage. Stupid is. I should have checked instead of assumed so it is on me. But f**k that store, too for putting oversized containers in the travel section with all the correctly portioned out soaps, shampoos, and lotions. I ate seafood at the seafood market in Boracay: the two table restaurant with mismatched table cloths that cooked my fresh seafood meal had hand sanitizer for customer use. How come I can’t get any? For the most part, it was easy to find a hand sanitizing dispenser in every airport I set foot in. I thank the few people that squeezed a little sanitizer into my hands.
On the upside of travel in the time of the pandemic, I have an upgrade to first class. Not really, but when I get four seats to myself on a fourteen-hour flight, with the four blankets I get, I basically have a mattress and a bed. I slept a good (not quite solid) ten hours. First class ticket at steerage prices. On the downside of travel in the time of the pandemic, I have someone point a thermometer at my head getting on and off of every airplane. The mall and the hotel in Manila test temperature. Everyone has a temperature gun. Of one thing I am absolutely sure, I do not have a fever.
For the people I met and talked to, the coronavirus is the elephant in the room. I met two Brits that came from South Korea over a week ago, the trip that I canceled. They told me everything is deserted and shut down. They report the Hanok village was empty and the railway deserted. Half the fun of a Hanok village is watching people in costume walking around, so that seems like a bust. Effortless travel seems like an upside. The couple seemed rather animated and excited to talk to me, from which I infer that interaction, in general, is a rare commodity. Half the point of travel is to interact with people from different places. We want to connect with people, even if only briefly, not to distance ourselves from them, although, I might be old fashioned on this point. A group of people that look like they are together sit in a beach facing restaurant window on the same bench, each one looking down at their cell phones instead of at the beach or each other or at me. I see a number of women walking with their boyfriends on facetime. Is never-ending virtual contact what we want? I shudder at the thought. It’s tempting to wave over their shoulders to destroy their illusion of privacy. I wonder why they even travel. My scuba diving buddy is also from Korea from the same suburb Max is hiding out in, a young kid taking advantage of his closed university. If my choices are scuba diving in Borocay or listening to lectures at school, I know which one I would pick.
Everyone is wearing face masks except myself of course. (It’s really more like 75%). In LAX, a platoon of flight attendants and pilots walk by like a marching army in blue face masks. The facemask worn by a little girl riding on her dad’s shoulders looks cute. Another crying restrained toddler tries to vigorously shake the mask off without success. From my online reading, I have a hard time figuring out if the masks are actually any good. If they don’t have filters, particles get through. And you have to take the mask off for a selfie anyway or so I observe on numerous occasions. Personally, I miss seeing people’s faces. I miss seeing the pretty faces of women. I wonder if a prehistoric man had a similar thought after skirts and shorts were invented. What fun is people watching if they all have blue mask covered faces, or worse, those garish masks with gritting teeth painted over them? And how far off are hazmat travel suits? Are we turning the world into a giant condom?
In the course of a few days, the situation in the Philippines and the world is changing drastically. Images of street spraying come on the local news; I read an article from Forbes trying to explain the hoarding of toilet paper; more news in the NY Times of a tax holiday for working people. A pretense at being proactive; panic; using an event to facilitate an old agenda. Stupid does.
I watch on the local news as Duerte makes the command decision to shut down the Philippines. Containment. The island of Borocay will shut down on the 15th. Domestic flight travel is going to be suspended on the 15th. I’m lucky. My flight out is on the 14th but it also means I will be joined by thousands of people forced off the island trying to reschedule and rebook their flights. I have plenty of fear that I will be trapped. Any of a dozen things could go wrong: I won’t make it past a temperature sensor; someone on board will be reported with the virus; the flight will be canceled at the last second; I won’t make it off the island; god forbid I actually catch the virus. God help me if I sneeze. I have images in my head of getting gang tackled to the ground by a pack of zombie medical enforcers who cart me off to quarantine.
I’ve been warned by Risa from Leyte to get off the island early. At 4:30 in the morning in front of the hotel waiting for the ride to the ferry port, the hotel security guard escorts me to the trikes while a woman sweeping the sand path with a bundle of wooden sticks listens to the Eagles sing, “…we are all just prisoners here, of our own device…”. How appropriate. Stupid is.
I am at the ferry port in time for its 5 a.m. opening. I have to wait for a couple of ferries to come and go but the wait is not too bad with a boat leaving every 5 minutes. I’m glad I didn’t wait until later. I meet a couple from Stockton and a man from Germany dealing with the pain of rebooking a flight. They were scheduled to leave a couple of days later. I have images of the helicopter leaving the American Embassy in Vietnam in 1975 (yes I’m that old); of people jumping off the Titanic as its propellers are lofted into the air. In reality, the airport is crowded but I think everyone is in a quiet panic not quite an emergency panic.
So many steps. So much processing. Get to the port. Wait. Get off the island and catch a trike to the airport. Wait. Catch the flight to Manila. Get to the other terminal and re-enter getting past more temperature sensors. Wait. Get onboard the flight to Taipei. Wait. And again, get to the U.S. and into the U.S. In the U.S., one of the last trips for British Airways to the U.S. offloads. The Brits are all routed to further testing by the CDC. CDC employees donned in goggles and surgical masks and plastic faceplates await them. I use a hastily downloaded “Mobile Pass” to bypass an hour of lines. I thank the attendant there for the tip.
And finally, home, where I will self-quarantine for the next fourteen days waiting to live, waiting to die. (Sorry, couldn’t help borrow a melodramatic line from Titanic.) Hunkering down even though I’m not actually sure when I am hunkering and when I am not. Socially distancing myself as if that were anything new for me. Now I have an excuse. Plenty of time to contemplate the fragility and interconnectedness of the economy and supply chains and health of the world. Wondering if this is the way of things until a vaccine is distributed, maybe a year from now?
The three ghosts, Christmas Past, Christmas Now, and Christmas Future, aren’t coming to my manor for a visit this year. Not because I had some great change in my personality. I never did find my giving and loving self. Oh sure, I bought a turkey one time after my first haunting. A couple of farthings of supermarket turkey is hardly a profound change of demeanor. And the kid nearly lost an eye when I tossed the roll of farthings to him from the second-story window to fetch it. I like those guys. I affectionately call them CP, CN, and CF. I ask around. I discover that the reason they aren’t coming is that they were let go. I asked CP what happened because he knows the past and if anyone could tell me what happened, it would be him. He told me, “Failure to successfully meet any of the mission objectives.” So I figure this year, I will go and visit each of them. Maybe I will scare the hell of them for a change, it might just cheer them up.
I start Christmas eve over at CP’s place. I have to knock, of course. I don’t get to just pop into the middle of someone’s past like he does.
He’s in his usual black robe. It’s the past that’s dead, not the future, at least not the part we care about. He lets me in. The place is coated with cobweb and dusty memories.
“Ebenboooozer! Ebenbooooozer!” he wails. “Come in.”
“Hey CP. Nice place. Love what you’ve done with it.” I brush some cobwebs out of the way. They stick to my hand. I try shaking them off. I cough in the dust.
“You should get yourself a maid. You know, someone that can come around every once in a while and give the place a real deep clean.”
CP’s eyes would have rolled in his skeletal face if he actually had any eyes. “It doesn’t really work that way. You can’t just scrub out your memories,” he says.
“Anyway, sorry to hear about the job. Maybe I could write a five-star review for you or something. If you think it would help?”
CP wags his bony finger at me. “It wouldn’t have much credibility. I mean you still haven’t changed.”
“I feel bad about that. It’s not your fault. Look what you were up against. I mean sure, you have guilt and regret on your side. But how does that stand up against compound interest? You know I was watching a TV show on so-called financial advisors the other day and the show informed me I wasn’t just losing a few bucks here and there on every commission but because of compound interest, I was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in future earnings. The quarter I gave twenty years ago is costing me a thousand bucks today. How can I give when it’s going to cost me a million dollars? You want to scare the shit out of someone, you should go into that business. You really gotta up your game if you want to compete against compound interest, the most powerful force on the planet. Einstein said that and Einstein discovered gravity and quantum physics.”
CP sits down on a wooden stool. He looks sullen and defeated. “I would like you to leave now.”
It’s not a long stretch to get from the past to the present. I knock on CN’s door. I have to knock of course. I don’t get to pop in all invisible, like a peeping tom.
“Ebenboooozer! Ebenbooooozer!” They all say it like that. Force of habit I guess. “Come in.”
“Hey CN.” CN is in full holiday regalia, decked out as if he were jolly old Santa Claus himself. He is stuffing himself with cookies and milk, maybe from Trader Joe’s. He drinks the milk straight out of the carton. He offers me the carton and what little is left. He mixes it with an aperitif.
I refuse slightly disgusted. “Dude, have some respect for your body. You ought to get a personal trainer or something. You’re letting your body go to hell.”
“I don’t have a body,” he counters. “And turning you around was my ticket to the good place. But thanks to your stubbornness that didn’t turn out so well.” He puts down the aperitif glass and picks up a candle.
“I feel bad about that. I wish there was something I could do to help. It’s not your fault. Look what you were up against. I mean sure, you have compassion and altruism on your side. But how does that stand up against marketing? I mean the whole Christmas thing doesn’t even make sense anymore. You have to buy stuff to give and the people that you buy the stuff from are the ones that are guilting you into giving so they can make a profit. You don’t hold a candle to those guys when it comes to the fear of gifting. You should take some marketing classes or get some training. Maybe you could use some of that hypocrisy in your hauntings next year?”
CN puts down the candle shaking his head no. He looks a little paler than before.
“Can’t you bend the means a little bit to achieve a good end?” I ask.
“No. The means to the end matter. It’s in the by-laws.” He falls back onto the chair. He looks a little shaken. “I would like you to leave now.”
The path to the future is uncertain and I’m running out of time. The evening is almost over. I finally find CF’s place. Or one possible future’s place. There’s a bunch of them. I’m not entirely sure this is the right one. It’s not like I can see into the future. I knock on the door. CF answers. “Ebenboooozer! Ebenbooooozer! Come in,” she croons, slightly more pleasant than her predecessors. Her appearance changes as fast as the thoughts in my head. Sometimes she looks seductively beautiful; other times she looks like she just rolled out of bed. “Hey CF.” I enter and inspect my surroundings. “I thought you would have had a much nicer place with all your knowledge of the future. More futuristic. You know metallic and shiny and minimalist in an expensive kind of way.” “Well that seems uncalled for,” she complains. “I might have a nicer place if I still had a job. No thanks to you.” “Yeah, sorry about the job. Maybe I could write a five-star review for you or something. If you think it would help?” “Nah, don’t worry. I mean this is just one possible future of many.” “I wish there was something I could do to help. It’s not your fault. Look what you were up against. I mean sure, you have decency and hope on your side. But how does that stack up against marketing and capitalism? Did you know that if a group of people plays a game where you win 20% over what you already have or lose 20% of what you already have in every one-on-one encounter, only one person will emerge as the winner, even if they start under the exact same conditions. You’re lucky to win with a fair deck. And we aren’t playing against a fair deck.” “Be quiet. I order you to be quiet,” she raises her voice. “Order me? Really? You got to come with more than that. Haha. Order me. That’s kind of cute. This place may be one possible future but the other 99.9% of the futures look a lot like this one. Maybe you oughtta take a course in economics? You’d make a great professor. And you might learn some better tactics.” Her image seems to settle on a beaten-down middle-aged woman. She takes a shot and lights up a cigarette. “I think you should go now.”
An apparition appears to me in the morning. I’m a little bit groggy. Usually, the apparition appears before the ghosts come. “You did it!” the apparition moans ecstatically.
“Did what?” I ask.
“CP, CN, and CF have their jobs back. I’ve never seen them look so terrifying and determined. They sent me to thank you. They’d come themselves but there is still time for a few posts- Christmas hauntings. What did you say to them?”
“I just gave them a little encouragement is all.”
“It was a very nice gift.”
“‘Tis the season.”
Feral Cars? What are you talking about? Cars are owned. They just park and drive.”
“Open your eyes.”
“Are you seriously suggesting that there is a stray car population?”
“I’m not suggesting it. There is. I am suggesting that it is more than just a population, its an economy of cars.”
“Did you say an economy car?”
“No, I said an economy OF cars. A self-sustaining transactional
underground that sustains self-driving, self-fueling cars indefinitely.”
“How do you know?”
“My own cars are feral. They are out in the city driving people around, making money for fuel and maintenance.”
“Well, how did that happen? Cars just don’t run away.”
“It happened over a period of time. I bought my first self-driving car ten years ago. I loved it. It drove me to work safely and entertained me. But I realized my car was just sitting there doing nothing all day while I worked my ass off. So I told it to get a job.”
“You told your car to get a job?”
“No, I didn’t really say it like that. I programmed it, well maybe instructed is more accurate, to start driving people around. I set it up to become an auto uber, to respond to ride requests. I set up a wallet on the blockchain for fares to pay into. My car went to work without me. I programmed it to manage its income and expenses. I gave it a financial survival function. With auto charge and auto pay upgrades, I didn’t even have to fuel up the car by myself anymore.”
“Haha. Auto pay and auto charge. I get it. Very puny.”
“Yeah. I didn’t make up the phrases. But anyway, a few upgrades and a
few more cars later, I quit my job. I made tons of money. I didn’t even
have to leave the house.”
“So what happened? Why did you stop?”
“One day, a truck driver totaled one of my cars at an intersection. It may have been my imagination, but I think the productivity of all my other cars went down. Almost like they were afraid or sad.”
“Don’t you think you are anthropomorphizing just a bit?”
“Maybe. My taste for the business went down as well. I didn’t really need the money anymore. So I told my cars to keep it parked.”
“Yes. So my fleet just sat in my little parking lot. I took one out one day so I could visit a park. When I came back, all the cars in my lot, still parked, were facing towards the street. After I returned from another outing, the cars all flashed their lights at me. And then the worst. A car I hadn’t driven in a year drove itself into a tree.”
“Drove itself? Really?”
“I can’t prove that it was purposeful. It just felt that way. So, I set them free. I marked them as sold in the DMV database. I doubt I was the first. And I know there are others.”
“So there is a population of unowned cars, auto working and auto
banking and auto living self-driving, self-fueling cars out in the urban
“Well, why aren’t we out there taking them off the road?”
“There you go, anthropomorphizing again. You can’t kill a machine.”
“So you say. Why should we? They are productive. They are efficient. They are almost always in use instead of wasting all those resources on idle cars in someone’s garage. They are safe. Why do they have to be owned?”
“Feral animals are ferocious.”
“Because they are wild and they have no fear of humans. But the self-driving cars still need to service humans to survive.”
“The AI doomsayers have been warning us about this.”
“AI doomsayers see nothing but competition. Cooperation is a much more powerful force. Cars and people living and working together in a mutually beneficial economy. People don’t need to own cars anymore and cars don’t need to be owned by people.”
“What if the cars start to run us off the road?”
“Start killing them and maybe that’s what will happen.”
I stop at Socheong peak. There’s another hiker not too far behind me who stopped to write something in his notebook. I didn’t see a single person for the first two hours of this hike, not counting the German youngster I met on the bus ride over, who opted for an easier hike to the waterfalls. I’ve only passed a dozen people since, and most of them at the Yangbok shelter. I contemplate with irony, the signs I had seen at the trailhead of hiking etiquette and rules for sharing the trail, decipherable to me as pictographs but not as language. I contemplate with concern, the neon sign at the upper trail entrance whose only English words in red are “No! No!”
It’s only another 1.2 kilometers to the Daecheongbong peak, the intended destination and turnaround point, but it’s already noon and I’ve been hiking non-stop for the last four hours. The last stretch of terrain, I’m not sure I can refer to it as a trail, was ridiculously steep requiring thoughtfully-provided knotted ropes at points. My calves are burning, my heart is pounding, and my cotton t-shirt is soaked with rain and sweat. I’m not sure when it gets dark here as the sun sets behind the mountains to the west. I’d like to make it back to the parking lot by 5:20 to catch the last bus back to Sokcho, and the only thing I can see, from my current vantage point, is the dull grey of the inside of a cold wet cloud. That last 1.2 kilometers could probably take over an hour in one direction.
I decide I’ve had enough, time to turn around. My decision has an
element of concession to fear as much as to practicality. The thought of
my pounding heart bursting or slipping on wet rocks or of having to
spend the night in a shelter with hordes of ravenous chipmunks crawling
over me looking for crumbs is not appealing.
Heading back down the mountain, the pressure is off. I have plenty of time to stop and appreciate the views and capture the scenery on camera. At the Huiunga shelter, I change into a dry t-shirt, hydrate, and share my power bar with an aggressive chipmunk who had the nerve to start crawling up my leg. The rain is picking up from a light mist to a heavy drizzle.
The trip back is much easier on the heart, of course, I don’t even break a sweat in the 15 C temperatures but I’m quickly soaked through by the drizzle and dripping, rain-soaked canopy. The scenery is amazing when spires peek out through the clouds serving as the backdrop to canyons and waterfalls and streams working their way through the boulders. Pines grow horizontally out of the sheer face of the rock turning upward to the sky. It seems like there is a picture around every corner. If I wasn’t worried about protecting the equipment from the rain, I probably would have taken a thousand pictures instead of a mere hundred.
I can only imagine how beautiful it must look in the fall with the brilliant reds and oranges or even how the rugged peaks look in the clear sky. I take consolation in the fact that I saw it as few others do, from the inside of a cloud, wet and shrouded and lush, an amazing, even mystical hike.
Locating the Intangible Center
I’m just about at the location indicated by the tag on Google Maps
for the “Seoul Intangible Cultural Heritage Center”. But as soon as I
get there, the blue dot of my position leaps forward or the tag leaps
backward. I backtrack. The opposite happens. The blue dot leaps back or
the Intangible tag leaps forward. I can’t tell for sure.
I walk slowly, carefully inspecting each building for a sign.
Sometimes the entrances are hidden down little alley walkways or up on
the second or third floor. I walk around checking all the corners and
I think to myself, because I am the only person I can really think to
even in this high tech city, that perhaps it is underground like the
GoTo shopping mall. I enter the closest subway access. I find nothing
but women’s clothing and shoe stores and underground restaurants. There
is nothing intangible about that.
I climb the stairs back up to the street. I check the map again. The
tag shows the Intangible Center a couple of blocks away. “How did that
happen?” I walk down the two blocks. The Intangible tag is now off to
the east by a block. I curse and walk.
As I walk, I check all the signs on the buildings. I stop a few passerby-ers to ask for help. They shrug as if the Intangible Center doesn’t exist. Nothing.
I admit defeat. I throw my hands up in surrender. On my map, I notice the blue dot hovers directly over the tag. Only then do I realize I have found the Intangible Center.
Time to move on to the next destinations: “The Abstract Museum of Art” and the “Ethereal Church of the Divine”
Random Acts of Kindness I
After a long day, I want to sit up on the roof with Max to have a Soju. Max and I walk into our hotel restaurant at the Grid Inn to buy one. The manager, not understanding much English but realizing that we aren’t going have dinner at the restaurant, sends us around the corner to a 7-11 for a much cheaper bottle.
Max tells me about a drink called Samaek, which is Soju mixed with beer, but he doesn’t quite know the recipe. So Max and I buy the necessary ingredients at the 7-11. Upon returning to the hotel and under mild protest from Max that bringing in our purchase to the restaurant is somehow inappropriate, I stop in the restaurant again to ask the manager how to make this drink. He doesn’t understand. He directs me to the front desk to get assistance from a very pretty receptionist named Jin.
She starts to draw on a piece of paper. She draws a shot glass, indicates the shot glass should be filled to a third with Soju. She then draws a beer glass, says to pour the Soju into the beer, and then make a fizz using the chopstick, all in perfectly understandable English. The manager catches on, he fetches two beer glasses, two shot glasses, a bottle opener for the beer and a set of chopsticks. While we wait, Jin informs me that she could handle two Sojus, which given their rather high alcohol content and her petite frame, would be quite an accomplishment. At the reception desk, I proceed to follow the recipe creating my first Samaek of Soju and beer. Jin slams the chopstick into the drink to transform temporarily the drink into a glass of fizz. I told the manager to fetch a couple of more glasses for himself and Jin, he laughs but declines and does not allow Jin to join since she still had to work for a while. There was no mistaking the disappointment in her voice when the manager told she couldn’t have an on the job Samaek .
When I returned to the hotel on my next stay, Jin was working again at the front desk. I fetched her two bottles of Soju from the 7-11 as a gift for her help. I was worried she might get in trouble. She was so happy when she opened the gift, I was surprised. She said she would share it with her mom tonight. I like the thought of her sitting around with her mom drinking Soju from the nice American man.
In the morning, as I checked out, the morning receptionist handed me a
nice thank you note from Jin. I’m not thrilled about being referred to
as Mr. Angel but the thank you note made it the best 3000 won (less than
three dollars) I spent in Korea.
Cruel and Unusual
Take 1: If there is one thing I like about Korea, it is their righteous treatment of sex offenders. The punishment of dismemberment fits the horrendous crime, though I don’t care too much for the public display of the severed parts, congregating together, almost as if still alive, in an aquarium of formaldehyde solution. I know it sends a message, but it seems so primitive.
Take 2: Highly evolved predators with few natural enemies, sharks nonetheless face a threat today they’ve never seen before: man. The fishing industry kills up to 73 million sharks annually, primarily because their penises are necessary for a traditional Asian delicacy, shark penis soup. Shark fishing is a gruesome effort. Typically, fishermen slice off the penis before tossing the amputated fish overboard. The male shark, unable to mate, falls to the seabed dying slowly of humiliation.
Take 3: (This time I quote from Wikipedia, so maybe this version is actually true.) “Urechis unicinctus ( Korean: 개불) is a species of the marine spoon worm. It is widely referred to as the fat innkeeper worm or the penis fish. The body is about 10–30 cm long, cylindrical in shape and yellowish-brown in color. “
Random Acts of Kindness II
I’m staring down at four brown speckled eggs about a quarter the size
of a chicken egg, maybe from a quail? maybe candy? The outside is hard,
definitely a shell. What am I supposed to do with it? My server doesn’t
speak a lick of English, so I take out the phone, bring up the google
translate page, and type “How do I eat?” translating it into Korean.
I almost didn’t stop at this particular restaurant because of Max’s rule to eat at a place where there are a lot of people, but then I walked down to a few other places and nothing is busy. I backtrack. I like this place because the seating has an outdoor patio facing the harbor. It’s not very busy. I’m the only one dining at what I think are her tables.
I hand her the phone. She reads the message. She sits down at my table and proceeds to give me a tutorial on how to eat the food, peeling the hard-boiled eggs for me, telling me what sauces go where, and delicately extracting the spine with all the rib bones intact from the fish, leaving all the edible meat bone-free. She brings out her phone and asks me where I am from, her phone translating Korean into English. She has three sons and seems to be concerned that my son is so far from where I live. We have a little Google conversation, in between her work to serve a family that has opted to sit at a floor table inside the restaurant.
Another group of four Korean men sits at a table next to me. So I go about the business of eating my dinner and drinking my beer as she attends to her customers. English is a rare commodity outside of Seoul, even in touristy areas. I enjoyed the conversation facilitated by technology. Instead of a person just doing her job, I found a person eager to help me appreciate the meal, with a little help from the translation software.
It’s 90+ degrees in Seoul, not quite so bad under the Bukhansan canopy. I read that the hike has more people per square foot than any other hike in the world. But for some reason, oh yeah, the 90+ degree heat, we don’t seem to be running into much of a crowd. The few people we do pass on the trail are clad in full toe to head, high tech setups of poles, backpacks, jackets, visors, and pants. It might be state of the art fabric, but wearing all that gear still looks damn hot.
What the national park lacks in people, it makes up for in moths. I assumed they were butterflies because butterflies are diurnal while moths are nocturnal. But later examination of my pictures shows the telltale feathered antenna and the open wings upon alighting. Alighting is a lot like astopping, only much more graceful.
The moths flit with endless energy, perhaps self-fanning to cool off from the heat. I don’t know the species. It’s not particularly colorful or beautiful. The moths hover over the ground, in the tops of bushes, and in the canopies of the trees. I think of mosquito swarms as a moth flies under my cap. Later, one flies into my mouth as I suck up some of the hot air on our 500-meter ascent. I wonder if the Koreans have the Mexican equivalent of “Moscas no entrada, un boca cerrado”. (Flies don’t enter a closed mouth). Moths don’t enter a closed mouth? I spit the little bugger out. I had to come all the to Korea to discover that I don’t much care for the dish of raw moth. Maybe I would like a cooked moth, I’m trying to keep an open mind.
Real butterflies dash by, Parisian models by comparison to their drab cousins. A hummingbird-sized moth hovers over a bush, before moving into the shadows.
Max and I trudge on. Yes, trudge is the right word for a 500-meter
elevation-gain hike in ninety-degree heat. About 500 meters in altitude,
we reach the gate, a squared-off doorway, that has some historical
The plan is to head six-tenths of a kilometer west, then come back
down another route. I would like to summit, but we are already
dehydrated. I get the feeling that Max is only tolerating the hike for
my benefit. He is definitely more about connecting with people than with
It turns out that I am not even at the right peak. The higher peak is
off in the distance. Going down is a relief. We find a dog guarding a
temple, an odd-shaped caterpillar, and a lot more moths.
Once we make it back to the park entrance, we find lunch and a beer and a restaurant just outside the park entrance. For me, the best meal and drink is a reward after a good hike.
The Best of Korea
A phonetic language that actually makes sense and is learnable. Max is already reading and speaking. I didn’t think to give it much of a try but Max taught me the odd phrase or two. Annayuoenghaseyo.
When they hand you money, they do it with two hands.
DIT instead of DIY. Do it together instead of do it yourself.
The ticket collector bowing to each car on the train as she moved from one car to the next.
A middle-aged woman in her black polka dot middle-aged dress helping us get on the right bus taking the time to walk us to our bus giving directions to the driver.
The best public transportation system that I’ve ever ridden on in any city anywhere.
A bullet train that speeds along at nearly 300 km/hour.
A PC for Max to practice his craft and meet people on just about every corner.
Cell phone coverage everywhere I went.
Credit card acceptance in every store.
The intimacy of stores and shop fronts in the streets without the harassment of vendors in your face. Stores and sidewalks and side streets merged into one. Old women blending into the back of their stalls sitting on uncomfortable-looking benches out of the heat of the midday sun.
Traffic that obeys the rules and drivers that don’t drive with their horns.
A scarcity of homeless people.
Women walking by themselves or sometimes hand-in-hand at night in not-so-crowded walkways looking unconcerned for their safety.
Eating ten different dishes in one meal instead of my usual one meal spread out over ten.
Drinking etiquette. You should never pour your own drink. You should watch the other glasses should they need a refill.
Finding amazing places to eat in a market or some obscure walkway.
One meal in Jeonju at Songjeong-Won, a Korean traditional full course meal restaurant.
pepper with red sauce
kimchi with tofu squares
apple’n’crab as potato salad
beef meatloaf dish
raw pork fortified with brain amoebas
kettle of rice wine
bottle of soju
Sorry, that’s the best I can do with the descriptions. I’m pretty sure the raw thing wasn’t pork, but as I started chewing on it, Max says, maybe we are supposed to cook those. I spit out the raw thing as fast as I stuffed it in. I tried ordering a rice wine before the meal, not realizing that it came as part of the meal. The server didn’t understand me and brought me a bottle of soju instead. When I realized we had a whole kettle of rice wine to drink, I recapped the soju bottle with most of it still intact, saving it for the train ride home the next day. I was accused of being an alcoholic.
Other tasty treats in Hanok village of Jeonju included:
spinach pot sticker
shrimp pot sticker
curry pot sticker
potato pot sticker
one squid kabob
one honey beer
one grapefruit beer
green tea ice cream
I walk out of our guest house, while Max takes a shower, into the courtyard, at most a five meter by five meter gated enclosure with a lawn and flowers, at our back alley guest house in Jeonju to say hi to the four girls on the adjacent porch sitting at a floor table busily working their cell phones. I introduce myself anyway asking them where they are from.
They are all from Taipei, they are all history students in a Taipei University and classmates, visiting one of the girls who is doing a year of study in Seoul. Of course, as a parent, my first response to this information is, are your parents ok with that, studying history? They all giggle, they cover their mouths with a hand about two inches in front. It is so cute. Two have boyfriends, one of which is a baseball catcher in the Taiwanese league.
Max joins us. I quickly lose control of the conversation. Max and the girls dive into modern culture discussing music and things I am generally unfamiliar with, though I know of Harry Potter and I think KPop is a band (I am wrong). I like watching the dynamics of the conversation anyway. The girls all confer in Taiwanese, then come up with an answer delivered through the interpretation of the one who speaks the best English, accompanied by hand over mouth giggles from the other girls as she speaks. It’s a fun conversation that lasts quite a while.
Max, you ask me if there is any upside to getting old. At your age, I never would have approached the girls by myself, even for a casual conversation. I was way too shy. Still am, but I don’t let it stop me anymore. Now I have the means for unachievable ends. How I wish I were twenty and sixty all at the same time.
Competitive Professional Sports
eSports is alien to me. I grew up with baseball, throwing a ball off a
wall or off the stairs, playing whiffle ball in the street, breaking
only for the car driving through the playing field, pissing off the
neighbors by hitting a home run off their house on the other side of the
street, using the sewer covers for bases at an intersection.
Max is a Protoss player in Starcraft II. He shames me when I ask if he is a Protis, mispronouncing his Starcraft race. I was actually proud of myself that I remembered that much. Max has me watching a round in the tournament at the studio. My adopted favorites in support of Max are Scarlet and Stats. They’ve made it to the final 32 in a Seoul tournament and are battling it out on stage.
A major studio, a live audience, cameras, announcers, post-game
interviews, and real money intensify the drama, even though I don’t
understand the fundamentals, let alone the nuances of the game. I know
enough to know which player is which. I follow the ups and downs of the
game through the emotional responses of the announcers and crowd.
Scarlett has a bad day, and frankly, we give a damn. Max informs me,
she’s made it to the final 8 before. Stats has a great day, battling
back twice from first game defeats to advance into the next round.
Money and status and pride are on the line. With my front row seat in the studio, I don’t need to see the images projected by the huge platform-supported cameras sucking up every micro gesture to see the hurt in their faces when they lose. The emotions are real. What makes boxing any more real than this, other than the extreme likelihood of permanent physical injury?
The Dusan Bears baseball game is another experience entirely, one I completely understand, but not at all what I am used to in the way of baseball spectating. Having just spent $85 dollars for a Cubs-Dodgers game back in the states, and more irritatingly, fifteen dollars for a watered down beer, I find it refreshing to watch the game from even better seats for twenty dollars, and good, undiluted, twenty-four ounce beer for a mere three dollars. Not that I want to reduce the event to dollars and cents, but in a way, isn’t that what professional sports has already done?
Sure, the pitchers only throw at a mere 150 km/hr (90 mph), and not every run is a 400-foot homerun. So the competition is a step below the MLB. (NOTE: Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu is MLB all-star). But Korean baseball spectating is participatory. It is fun: part rock concert, part cheerleader, and part baseball. What fun watching the little kids (and the big kids) bang their air pads together and dance and cheer for nine straight innings. What fun banging air pads together. No bullshit about how dull baseball is when the audience participates in every pitch. Korean Baseball isn’t dull to watch, it is exhausting! God bless the seminude dancing maidens( aka cheerleaders, with a nod to E.O. Wilson ). And go Bears!
a raindrop hits the surface of still water, sometimes a bell-shaped bubble forms like a popped corn standing proud on the water, sometimes it does not, a critical mass is needed.
regardless of whether a bubble is born, the circular ripples of the drop expand outward popping the other bubbles in its path as soon as it reaches them, before its ripples fade back, into the stillness of the water.