Saturday, September 24, 2016

Lady Heroes

When I was in college, one of my closest friends was raped. She didn't tell me about this for year or more, because she said that she thought I would judge her. I was absolutely horrified, both by what had happened to her and by the wrong assumption she had of my potential reaction. To be sexually violated is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, and one which in other cultures attaches as much stigma to the victim as to the perpetrator – witness the so-called "honor killings" of raped women by male relatives in the Middle East. Yet how does being horribly victimized in any justify the reciprocal victimization of someone else?

 Pregnancy is dangerous for many. Delivery has been deadly for generations of women; though considerably fewer in developed countries nowadays than in the past, there are still deaths from the accompanying trauma. To come into a pregnancy not of one's own volition is a horrible stress--fear at the outset, fear of rejection for being victimized (even in Western societies), fear of what lies ahead, from the physical challenges to the financial burdens, fear of being alone. But the old rote caveat to justify even "exceptional" abortion ("except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother") is sophistry, and actually feeds on fear rather than allaying it.

The psychological wounds inflicted by rape will not heal overnight, and may leave scars that linger for decades–the event cannot be expunged by surgery. Likewise, even in the worse case when a young woman has been sexually victimized by one of her own relatives, the evil that has been done to her cries out for legal justice, social compassion and ongoing counseling. Those of us who have enjoyed healthy relationships with male relatives hesitate even to imagine how hard it is for someone to live fearing the touch of a man who should be providing both emotional and physical protection, not tearing it away. After my first round of graduate school, I was in a Bible study with a girl who had been systematically abused by her father for a decade. He had cheated worldly justice, dying young, leaving his daughter shattered. She had no conventional model of a good father-daughter relationship at home; it was not until she became a Christian that she met the real Father, and saw in Jesus someone who like her was a suffering innocent, who knew her pain firsthand. She couldn't undo what had been done to her, but she could intelligently and compassionately reach out to those similarly victimized: she became a foster mother to children taken out of abusive situations by DFACS, and has since adopted several.

 What would you do if you might die in the process of allowing someone else to live? Many months ago now, one Briton and three 20-something Americans received the French Legion of Honor for their bravery in successfully confronting what most consider a would-be terrorist on a train--they are credited with risking themselves to save others. Not all such confrontations end so happily (witness the passengers who attempted to reclaim their hijacked aircraft on September 11, who are memorialized at the crash site in Pennsylvania), nor must needs be in opposition to human violence: every day there are cases of "ordinary heroism." In these situations, strangers pull people (and animals) from floods, fires, and other hazards, and many humbly respond upon public recognition that these were simply matter-of-course actions, the natural responses of any caring individual. And occasionally, such good Samaritans lose their lives trying to save others’, and are mourned for their sacrifice. A missionary named James Elliot once said, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." What Elliot could not lose, and what he ultimately was martyred for, was his faith in Jesus as the savior of humankind. But even non-Christians through the millennia have found Elliot's logic persuasive, choosing what they hope is a lasting reputation for honor and selflessness in death over a dubious extension of present earthly life. Isn't withstanding the temptation to sacrifice a fetus in exchange for the possibility of prolonging one's own life a noble action to celebrate?
I hate death. It's an evil, an unnatural blight. We Americans in particular are so afraid to talk about it or think about its reality that when new housing and retail developments are created nowadays, the allocation of space for cemeteries or memorial parks is completely overlooked. We speak about someone "passing away" rather than consider that their bodies are rotting or burnt to ash, and that our own will be, much sooner than expected. We slather ourselves with "youth preserving" serums, covet elective plastic surgery (which most of us can't afford), and gush over celebrities that don't look their age (or, in some cases, their original sex). I don't contend that we each oughtn't to look our best or maintain good health--but it is essential to realize that no matter our best (and costliest) efforts to stave it off, death comes. However, it doesn't always come when medical professionals say it will. For all the advances in medical knowledge and technology, so much about disease and human health is still unknown. My late father was, my stepfather, my sister, my brother, and my aunt are medical professionals (three doctors, two nurses), and all extremely well-informed about what can and will kill someone, and likely when. But each would say (probably gratefully) that the experts aren't infallible when it comes to such forecasts--people get well unexpectedly, just as they fall ill. And some die in a split second, like my externally-healthy father, jogging cheerfully on a gym treadmill.

I celebrate women who have stood strong in the midst of profoundly challenging circumstances, resisting what may seem to be a quick fix to their prior miseries and current ills, recognizing that legendary bravery is not only achieved by the strong, but by those who cherish the least of these while in the throes of weakness themselves.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Korea Part I (Friday To Tuesday)

It's difficult to drink apple juice out of a can when one is being shaken like dice in a cup. The first hour or so out of Detroit wasn't wholly smooth, and I wondered if I would be able to sleep at all.

Several of the movies I'd wanted to see in theaters and somehow never found time for were available as in-flight movies: I watched the Coen brothers' Hail Caesar and the latest James Bond outing, Specter. I also liked the Korean film Violent Prosecutor. Three good films at one go! On this rescheduled flight, I was relocated to the middle seats, on the left aisle. The only other person on my row was a young military man on the other aisle, leaving two empty seats between us. What a Godsend! We each had room to relax, and I was able to lean over on my computer knapsack to doze for several hours.

About an hour before we landed in Seoul, another young military fellow (engrossed in a video game of some sort) who was sitting on the aisle opposite me let me step over him and his baggage to sit by the window. I kept consulting the digital map on the seat back screen, but I think I could have determined our location by what I saw from 30,000 feet.

Ribbons of reflective oil extended from the Chinese coast, and clouds collected over treeless flat street-ribbed islands. A toy ship with a thin line of smoke trailing from its stack steamed towards the mainland. Out above the gulf, the giant wing of the plane wobbled in the clear air, and tiny airliners zipped thousands of feet below us at 1000 mph (relative to our speed) in the opposite direction. White cat fur clouds clumped on the blue carpet of the sea. We descended, and I could see more splinter-sized boats, their reflective wakes curved like fingernail clippings. As we took a deep turn for Incheon, the shadow of our plane appeared below on the water.

Most people had their window blinds drawn—only one other shade was up, on the opposite side of the plane. It was dark and cool inside, the plane ten seats across in coach. I pressed my forehead to the plexiglass, absorbing the rattle and roar of the engines and the bright blue and white of the outdoors. Twenty minutes before touchdown, we banked right, and I knew Korea was ahead of us. Our shadow grew and slowed. A tiny, bald island appeared, then a larger one, with broad beaches and mountains. Then another mountainous island, still bigger, forested and farmed. The water was
teal colored. The buildings on the islands were roofed in green and red and blue. Suddenly, we were over the shore, the edge marked by huge factory towers and white windmills, their trios of blades spinning lazily. A child who had been silent all trip started crying, probably awakened from sleep by the changing air pressure. Below were acres of greenhouses. A golf course. Forests. Mountains. And hundreds more greenhouses—I’d never seen so many! Neat fields, and more blue, green and red rooftops.

Incheon airport was the most modern, clean and efficient I’ve ever visited, all glass and steel. It's enormous, and they are in the process of constructing another gargantuan terminal. We were through customs in a matter of minutes with digital scans of my index fingers and an unflattering photograph. At the baggage claim a polite uniformed airport employee assured us individually (in English and Korean) that our luggage would be unloaded momentarily—which again, was in a matter of minutes. Giant HDTV screens in the center of the carousel showed pretty Hallyu stars advertising various products. Ellie met me right outside the claim area, and I exchanged cash at the kiosk. She took me through a cathedral-like atrium to find the metro ticketing machines. i observed that people simply left their luggage parked outside airport restaurants, not fearing that it would be snatched. One of the shops sold metro cards, and soon we were on our way through Seoul and on out to the village where Ellie was staying.

On the pristine metro, the steel doors and escalators were decorated with an assortment of pretty etched patterns. The cars were lined with seats, with most standing passengers clutching short handled hanging straps. The package rack above the seats was actually used for packages. The only raised voices in the system were the few sellers of small items that boarded and hawked their wares. Everybody else seemed locked into a meditative state. Ellie told me that no one laughs out loud in public, nor do most people talk audibly on their phones, preferring instead to text silently, play games or watch dramas while riding—a whole host of people glued to their electronic devices. As in Russia, no one makes eye contact, and the only noises besides the soft exclaiming of the recorded female voice announcing the next stop in Korean and American English (and, irregularly, in Japanese or Chinese--metro stops were also announced visually on digital signs) was a whisper of quiet conversation and a sniff, cough, or sneeze, to which no one responded. It was like a cat sanctuary—every occupant studiously ignored the presence of every other, conscious that they themselves were well groomed.

Everyone wore properly fitting trousers or skirts, most had sensible shoes, no one with flashy jewelry or bright colors. Relentlessly conventional seemed the common sartorial motif. The only ripped trousers were artfully slashed jeans. Everyone's backpacks were positioned correctly, shoes neatly laced. Hair was combed and clipped, particularly that of the occasional young soldier in camouflage (all males are required to serve two years in the military). It was a preppy atmosphere. There was no aroma of body odor whatsoever, and I saw many younger people wearing braces on their teeth, but only two tattoos. In the entire period I was in Korea, I would see only one case of multiple ear piercing, on a middle-aged man who in bright red pants and matching glasses with shiny alligator shoes. He stood out from the crowd.

Except for in downtown Seoul, the trains ran above ground, and I was busy staring out the gently green-tinted windows. Ellie told me that “yellow dust” from China was blamed for the city's smog. Advertising signs were everywhere. Foreigners were not. If my peculiarly Caucasian face was being stared at, it was too subtle to notice, outside my peripheral vision. Highrises paraded along the Han River, filling up the valleys with tall white columns. A paved bike path ran the entire length of the Han. Every unbuilt and unforested square inch of space was used as a garden, and trees covered the rock-ledged mountains.

We changed trains several times, guided by an app on Ellie’s phone that told us precisely which door on the trains to use in order to position ourselves properly for a quick transfer at the next station. Everything in the stations was handicapped accessible. Even the stairs in older stations had been retrofitted with wheelchair lifts, and textured rubber matting had been installed to guide the visually impaired. All the elevators worked. There was no graffiti. I would eventually see three blind people navigating the metro maze with canes (one was a uniformed student carrying a musical instrument case), and watch several deaf people signing on trains. The stations were full of clothing and coffee shops, all of which took credit cards—many would be shuttered the following week for the Thanksgiving celebration of Chuseok. Every stop had a mirror where people could check their appearance (women frequently touched up their makeup at such points, but almost practically everywhere else)—in Ellie’s town, the big wood-framed cheval glass was sponsored by the local interdenominational divinity school.

Ellie’s village was an hour from Seoul, on the river. Her four-story apartment building stood near a small grocery store and a 7-11, and the single room, which she was subletting while the regular occupant is away for several months, measured approximately 10x10. The washing machine and the heating/ac unit sat opposite ends of the 3x10 enclosed porch, and the relatively spacious bathroom was approximately 3x6. Cozy, with a single eye on the stove in the kitchenette, and a cabinet for shoes next to the door that doubled as a small pantry. In the garden of the house next door, an obstreperous little dog lunged on a chain underneath a fruit-laden grape trellis, wearing a gully into the dirt with his claws as he barked warnings at every passerby.

 After plying me with melatonin (a practice she discontinued after the third night), poor Ellie had to listen to me narrate all my dreams. The first night I woke myself up pleading, “No, Mums, please don’t send my cat to Japan!”

Saturday, the two of us went in to Seoul, where we walked around the Buckchon Hankok Village neighborhood, where a bunch of Joseon-era tile-roofed houses are preserved (many still private dwellings), and then took a free tour of the area. We ended up in a shopping district, where I bought an apron embroidered with cats, and we providentially got a just-vacated table at a popular restaurant, where we ate delicious fried pork cutlets along with the usual side dishes of kimchi, pickled radishes, and other assorted piquant concoctions. Prices include tax and tip, which makes splitting the bill awfully easy. The traditional metal chopsticks weren’t as stiletto-skinny as I’d been led to believe, so I was able to eat properly and not embarrass myself.

Sunday we returned to Seoul with a divinity student friend of Ellie’s, this time to the popular Gangnam area, which because of its reputation for good cram schools, has extremely high rental costs. We went to a Presbyterian church’s English service, a floor below the main sanctuary, and then took an elevator up six floors to the church cafeteria, where ladies were dispensing industrial quantities of soup and rice to a packed hall of parishioners who were eating at long lines of tables. Ellie and I changed into the trousers and tshirts we had brought with us and set out for Bukhansan National Park, a small mountain range where we planned to hike. It took longer than expected via public transportation to get to the park, and most of the local hikers—all nattily kitted out in brand-named hiking gear, looking like models from REI and LL Bean catalogs—were coming down the slopes as we set off into the woods. The trails were well-marked, and many featured stairs constructed over steep stretches of bare rock. As we went up the mountain to stop next to the bell house of a brightly-painted Buddhist monastery, I felt increasing sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of Koreans and Americans who had had to fight on similar, unimproved terrain. It was tropically humid, and carrying more than the small water pack I wore would have been torture. A grey-garbed monk was ringing another enormous bronze bell as we walked down the mountain in the twilight; he struck the embossed side of the immobile instrument with a wooden ram, and it clanged discordantly. A flock of orange and white cats roamed at the bottom of the trail, and the many brand-named outdoor equipment shops in the village below were now closed—all displayed huge posters or cardboard cutouts of particular Kdrama stars wearing their parkas and boots. We ate supper at chicken and beer (we had Coke) restaurant and then rode the bus back to the metro, where we picked up our church clothes from a rental locker where we’d stashed them.

Ellie was tired the next day from my repeated somnolent soliloquizing, and so we stayed in and watched Kdramas, then walked via the bike path to a nearby hole-in-the-wall eatery which served fried tuna patties. I had no idea one of my favorite childhood meals was traditionally Korean—they tasted very similar to my mother’s, although hers were less greasy, and she didn’t serve them with radish kimchi, only ketchup. Most Korean restaurants don’t do take away for dine-in customers (many if not all regular and fast-food restaurants regularly deliver, even McDonalds), but we were happy to find that this place anticipated our not being able to consume the huge stack of patties they served us, and bagged the leftovers for us to take home. Most Korean meal portions are sized and priced to be shared between two or more. There were sorghum plants on the verge of the parking lot outside, and fishing shacks sat along the river that Ellie explained can’t be newly-built—legislation now prohibits construction within a certain distance of the water’s edge—but have been grandfathered in as the legacy of generations. Out on the river, water skiers were being pulled by rental speedboats.

Afterwards, Ellie and I went to a curiously angular coffee shop (owned by a funny world-travelling photographer who mistook me for every other white American he'd ever met, greeting me with a cheerful “nice to see you again”) to meet some folks she knew from the divinity school. One, a middle-aged former missionary to Nigeria, told me that after the Korean War, the whole country was denuded of trees—either torn down by battle or cut down by civilians desperate for fuel. In evidence of good forward-thinking, in the 1950s the government sent out platoons of students to plant trees, which restored the devastated forests of the peninsula. I had a major hot flash while we were talking, and would have doused myself in ice water if it had been available, but I was sipping a tall glass of freshly made golden kiwi juice, and that would just have made me sticky.

The ex-missionary told me that while Koreans may seem German in many respects, their church services tend towards the charismatic. Furthermore, there are more than 100 types of Presbyterianism in the ROK—churches split all the time. Confucian values have transferred into Christian practice, with the scholars at the top of the social hierarchy, which has contributed to a phenomenon of well-paid, but dictatorial senior pastors. This has also affected the appeal of nondenominationalism—if a divinity school, for instance, isn’t affiliated with a particular church, it has difficulty finding funding.

While I was lying on my air mattress that evening, mulling the day, the clothes on the drying rack between Ellie and me began to sway gently. The sensation from the earthquake was a pleasant rumbling, given I was comfortably supine on the floor (rather than standing next to breakables). A second, stronger earthquake shook the building half an hour later, but there wasn’t any subsequent trembling. This was good, because I didn’t know where my anti-nausea wristbands, which I had worn on the plane, were in my suitcase. Despite its most recent nuclear machinations, North Korea wasn’t to blame; the tremors were emanating from around Busan.

The next day, Ellie had to teach, but I went off on my own, sans metro app (it was only available on Android) to find the Korean Folk Village, which some American friends had recommended. The bike path was less traveled than it had been on the weekend, when dozens of cyclists had whipped around the curves in tight pelotons. Is there an unspoken rule in Korea that one’s activities must be clothes-obvious? The bikers were all dressed as bikers (jerseys, spandex shorts, and helmets), just as the hikers had been togged out as hikers (in full mountaineering kit, wearing high-tech backpacks, boots, sporty active jackets, and sweat-wicking trousers, and carrying treking poles, like they intended to scale Everest), and the businessmen were wearing ties and the adjummas were clad comfortably frumpy. When I walked by the minihouse construction site (you can buy prefabricated tiny houses in Korea!) a middle aged employee unzipped his trousers and proceeded to pee off the side of the hill—apparently guys do this everywhere. Must be convenient. But there were restrooms all over the place, and without exception, every one was stocked with toilet paper and soap, which I consider a mark of high civilization. I joined a handful of locals waiting for the train on the open platform, where I sat and listened to a chorus of enthusiastic roosters from the surrounding gardens. The profound humidity had finally broken. A KoRail train of oil cars rushed past us toward the city. Minutes later, a short musical fanfare indicated the arrival of the passenger train.

On the car, where I was relieved to find a seat (being that far out in the country has its perks), a jolly tune on a traditional instrument announced upcoming transfer stations. At the end of each car was an area reserved for the aged, infirm, or pregnant, but if those seats were occupied, people in those conditions had no expectation of seating. Hale and hearty young men remained engrossed in their smartphones while older women stood. Ellie later explained to me that offering one’s seat to and holding a door for someone isn’t done in Korea, because it is perceived to create an obligation on the part of the recipient. Some people were wearing surgical masks—an increasing number had started to cough and sniff. (I kept having to catch myself from saying "bless you" every time someone near me sneezed.) Some of the bikers on the path also had worn masks or bandannas over their faces; the bankrobber-bandanna-with-sunglasses look is more than a little creepy when viewed at velocity—a faceless figure rockets toward you, and it’s hard to merely step out of his right of way and not to run screaming. There were three beggars, at separate points, on the train—the first of the remarkably few I was to see in the city. The first two were dirty middle-aged men carrying hats. Each looked to be suffering from alcohol abuse. One sang an old song, but I didn’t see anyone giving him or the other money. Later, another chanting beggar boarded, this guy a younger man missing most of his fingers, who seemed more professional than the drunks. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed another young man seemed to slip him a bill.

Getting to the Folk Village was an odyssey. It turned out to be clear on the other side of Seoul, and although I changed trains without incident, it took hours to travel the distance. And at the final station I couldn’t find the exit which the website had recommended—it was as if that number didn’t exist. I walked in and out of several other exits and stopped at an upmarket boulangerie for some fresh pastry before I eventually spotted a young couple from another Asian country who looked vaguely confused, and followed them to the correct bus. The bus was a regular city bus, and it paused at every possible point before it finally turned in to the village parking lot. This gave me an impromptu tour of that part of Seoul, which appeared to be an area into which foreigners seldom venture. It wasn’t as gentrified as the tourist sections, but chaotic and colorful with thousands of people in the middle of ordinary life—women climbed on the bus carrying shopping bags redolent of fish and soybean paste, there were tiny restaurants and businesses everywhere along the streets, all bearing large signs, stacked on top of one another—is there anyone in Seoul that doesn’t own a business of some sort?!—creating a messy, busy shopping district jammed with traffic and noise. Stores were dedicated to electronics and hanboks (for both adults and children) and street clothes and vegetables and everything else. There were battered older twentieth-century two-story structures and shiny new taller twenty-first century construction (mostly medical centers) on tiny plots of land. Gas stations sat near auto-repair shops, half-finished highways lunged up, and new posh apartment buildings were gradually replacing older dilapidated dwellings.

The traditional village—to which many of the houses had been imported from their original locations—reminded me a lot of an American “medieval renaissance faire.” The landscaping wasn't dissimilar from the Maryland Faire, with leafy trees fluttering above the streets and old-fashioned houses and people in traditional costume and games for the kids. The historical depth wasn't great—about the level to be expected at a jousting match or archery demonstration. There were few visitors at the village (probably because of the impending holiday) and fewer costumed staff, who were mostly engaged in cleaning or weeding the garden patches. The colorfully clad "magistrate" was sitting in his seat of office on a dias above replicas of traditional interrogation devices and texting on his phone. It would have been interesting to know the history of each house, how much of it was original, how it was disassembled and reconstructed. The wooden beams in them were awesome—hand cut from huge ancient trees. It would also have been interesting to learn what sort of wood was used. Too, how often did thatch have to be replaced? Was there a particular manufacturer of the aristocrats’ decorative roof tiles, or like southern American plantations and their bricks, were these all usually manufactured on site? And there was one persistent puzzle: I was awed by the sizes of the earthenware fermentation jars which sat by every house (from peasant to lord, there doesn’t seem to have been that much fundamental difference in diet or the basic layout of accommodation—the dwellings for those higher up the social scale were just bigger and somewhat finer in construction materials). These jars were too large for a single person to throw--many reached my chest. Were they coil built? How were they fired? Were they imported? They looked like rough domestic ware, certainly far removed from the fine porcelains of China. Although the village usually featured small demonstrations of crafts from metalworking to silk-spinning, pottery making wasn’t among them.

There were signs at intervals in the village listing (in Korean) what Kdramas had been filmed on site. I got my picture taken with a cardboard cutout of the four friends from Sungkyunkwan Scandal (which I liked a lot, despite the fact that one of the lead actors has since proven himself to possess the sexual hubris of many others in his profession). One large circular clearing was dedicated to a display about locally-filmed dramas: gilded casts of the actors’ hands filled two cases, there were examples of costumes, and a set of cutouts and then huge reproductions of posters from famous shows recorded at least partly on site curved around the circumference. Yes, I recognized almost every drama. I hope that I don’t experience the Chicago problem henceforth: I may be failing in all other mental areas, but I have an almost photographic memory for places and objects, and so didn’t much enjoy the Batman movies filmed in Chicago after my visit to that city, as the director played fast and loose with the geography, relocating bridges I knew well and creating a tossed salad of the downtown layout.

Throughout the village there was no mention of slavery or the feudal system, though there was a folkways museum with elderly animatronics and minimal English captions which discussed varieties of kimchi, the multiple festivals which dotted the lunar calendar, the communal building and communal farming practiced by the peasantry, and the worship of ancestors as a key part of life. Domestic cooking and the innovative Korean floor-heating systems were depicted as relatively static, with everybody having an identical buried iron cookpot. Truly? Who made these pots? How often did they need replacement? How much did they cost? On the porch of one house was a small display about the woven straw shoes of the peasantry--how often did they wear out? And who made those impressive black scholarly hats, and how did their shapes evolve? What jewelry makers were there? Were there cobblers who traveled as in frontier America, or did they live in particular communities? Since last year, the traditional stepping-stone bridge across the village's small river has been closed for safety reasons—I guess they got tired of clumsy tourists falling on the rocks or into the water and threatening to sue. Besides cooped chickens, a lonely cow with a large wooden ring in its nose and a pungent and anti-social donkey in a pen, there were two depressed looking dogs (examples of native Korean canines) were chained in a small concrete enclosure, where they had relieved themselves. On the other side of the folkways museum was a courtyard with a collection of more than a hundred fermentation jars, all tagged with their contents and thankfully capped with modern tops, which minimized the pungent aroma. I didn't eat at the food court, though I'm sure they had some tasty offerings--I was happy with my previously-purchased pastry.

I had found there was a free shuttle from the village to a much closer metro station, but I missed it. Meanwhile, my phone charge had dropped to 7%, which was certainly not enough to get home. So I wandered along the road until I spotted a cafĂ© with an open electric outlet and stopped in to buy a tiny bottle of apple juice for $4 (and juice up my electronics). Then I found a bus stop and started homeward. Which trip took even longer than the outbound journey, because I found myself on the wrong train, twice. The first time, a nice Korean infantry officer who had been to Fort Benning and visited Atlanta got me turned back in the proper direction—he told me all about his trip with his wife and daughter to New Zealand), and the second time I accidentally boarded an express train for the end of my metro line, so a sweet family at the station got the local officer to point me to the platform for the all-stops train heading back in the opposite direction. I was dead tired by the time I got home, and so infinitely grateful that I’d had a chance to recharge my phone, as by that time in the evening, Ellie had begun to message me, asking where I was!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Flight Disruption

To Delta Airlines:

As a result of the delay and subsequent cancellation and rescheduling of my flight, I missed a tour for which I had pre-paid (96,000 KRW, plus an international transaction fee of $2.58), which was both non-refundable and non-transferable, and the tour itself could not be rescheduled. I want Delta to refund this amount. This is my only vacation for the year (I have been saving my leave days since January, working even when sick), and losing a day of my vacation, plus missing this tour, to which I had been looking forward for weeks, did not start my holiday on a positive note. Frankly, Delta should also refund me for my lost vacation day, given that I am an hourly employee working for a small company with no benefits, but calculating that loss would be harder to document, and after all this hassle I am exhausted. I will say that on the one prior occasion where I offered to give up my seat on an overbooked DOMESTIC flight, I was given a $400 voucher, which makes the $200 voucher you all offered as recompense for the Detroit to Incheon delay seem rather pitiful. I look forward to getting the reimbursement as soon as possible. If you all refund this promptly, I will note it on Facebook and my blog, where my respective 500+ contacts and the public have been privy to the miseries that ensued earlier. Thank you.

 Ah, where to begin?

We arrived in Detroit on time, if not a few minutes early. I found the next departure gate and settled in for the two hour wait until the commencement of boarding on my final long (12.5 hour, not 13.5 hour) leg of the journey to Seoul. At the moment that we were scheduled to board, the plane, which had been inbound from Shanghai, pulled up to the gate. It would take an hour to clean, restock, and refuel it, we were told. I was a bit impressed that it could be turned around so quickly; an hour was not a problem in the larger scheme of things. It took half an hour longer, but again, not a biggie. We finally loaded and taxied out to the runway in what seemed like a torrential rainstorm.

I was on the left side of the plane on the aisle, one row behind that fronting the middle main cabin exit, a door beside a bulkhead. There weren’t any passengers on the exit row (it was premium economy seating), and only one girl on my row, a young African American lady curled in the window seat, clutching an ice pack to the appendix area of her stomach. I gave her some extra-strength acetaminophen. In the center of the plane there was a galley where the flight attendants were busying themselves after the safety announcements. It’s raining hard!” I overheard one attendant remark. “Not as hard as it was in Minneapolis the other night,” another responded. They were about to sit and strap themselves in when the captain came on the intercom at 6:35. The storm had shut down the airport, so we’d be sitting still until the wind abated. Bad weather—nothing to be done but wait until it passed. People sighed, but a storm is a storm.

Not long thereafter, the captain came on and said that a maintenance issue that they thought they had fixed had cropped up again. So we needed to return to the gate, but there was another plane ahead of us at the gate, which was inoperable anyway because of lightning. And then water started leaking into the plane directly in front of me – gallons all over the rubber floor. I didn’t think this was the maintenance issue we were turning around for. I was also glad that I was the only passenger that could see the water as it ran across the aisle into the galley.

The captain said the fix (a valve in the engine was malfunctioning) would take another hour. Meanwhile, the flight attendants came around to pass out pretzels, peanuts, and water, since it was past dinnertime and we all were getting hungry. The air conditioning finally came on. The captain explained that the problematic valve was that responsible for engine deicing, which is kind of essential when one is flying at 30,000 feet in -40C temperatures. Everybody was on their phones texting and on the internet, discovering to their disgust that we were out of range of the airport WiFi (which wasn’t spectacular to begin with).

We waited. With the hour almost over, the captain announced that it would be another 45 minutes. By the time it’d been 2 hours since the first maintenance announcement, I had tweeted the company that they needed to offer some sort of compensation—we were almost 4 hours behind schedule, putting us arriving in Seoul about 11 PM Thursday night. My DMZ tour required me to check in at 7 AM Friday morning. Time was getting short.

The Delta people responded that it was a weather-caused delay, so there wouldn’t be any vouchers issued. Oh, horse puckey. I sent them the flight information and told them to talk to the pilot and crew, who could directly confirm that it was maintenance, not weather, that had been keeping us on the ground.

Time continued to pass, and there were further delay announcements. After we’d been sitting on board for more than 3 hours, we finally deplaned. Turns out that Delta was flirting with a deadline—federal regulations prohibit passengers being held on an inoperable flight for longer than 4 hours, or the airline incurs a $27K fine (per passenger!).

The flight was rescheduled for 7 AM the following morning. They had us stand in line for motel vouchers  and meal vouchers (two maxed at $15 each). I ended up with four adjummas, the ladies who had looked so severe sitting at the gate area near me. We stood in line together again for the shuttle to the motel and then again to check in (it was a clean place, not totally fleabag, but not four star--the lobby smelled of stale smoke). We ended up going to (a very late) dinner together at a more upscale hotel near that where we were staying. The adjummas were a trip. Two lived in the northeast: one was a widow of 11 years who spends days at the Y doing yoga and playing cards, and one (a cardiac nurse) confessed to having the married name of Smith. The two others were from Louisiana and Orlando, respectively. They chatted about their children and grandchildren. One told me that Korean women—not men—don’t want to get married nowadays, wanting an education and career, and so men are having to import brides. Interesting. I knew this was a problem in China because of the one-child policy, but I didn’t think the Koreans were dealing with a similar situation thanks to other reasons. We finished supper about 11:30—we pooled our vouchers to make them go further—and crossed the parking lot back to our lodgings, where we’d arranged for 4:30 wakeup calls.

I’d taken my shower—never have I been more grateful for having packed extra underwear in my carryon luggage, since our checked bags were stuck at the airport—and was just about to crawl into bed when I heard an explosive “boo YAH?!” around midnight from down the hall. This was not the Marines going over the top, but the oldest of the adjummas with whom I had just had dinner discovering that Delta Airlines had sent her an email to the effect that our replacement flight had been postponed again, until 10 minutes till 11 – putting us (provided it left on time), getting into Seoul at 1 PM on Friday. Which of course means that I could not go to the DMZ as planned, and that the $95 I spent on the reservation on that tour had vanished meaninglessly, as it was nonrefundable. I canceled the wakeup call.

 I wrote on Facebook (whereon I had been cataloging my ongoing woes) that if Delta were an individual, I would recommend s/he be hanged by the nose hair from the highest yardarm.

The next morning, unencumbered by the usual luggage concerns, I was able to observe how profoundly money differentiates people at the airport, a distinction which isn’t normally so obvious in other situations. The wealthy don’t have to wait in long lines—the TSA beckons those in first class ahead of economy at security. They can even pay to be pre-screened ($85 for 5 years) which puts them in an expedited security line once there—a line without the belt and shoe removal, the extraction of laptops and liquids, the general divestment of anything and everything that might set off detection equipment. The higher classes board planes first (which is not something I envy them, as despite the cushy seating it means they have to sit on the plane 20 minutes longer than everyone else, but as they can also disembark first, I suppose it averages to the same length of time). Besides the really obvious benefit of more comfortable reclining seats, their money has purchased perquisites that are laughably limited, but can make a huge difference over the journey, from the higher-level meals and beverages, to the larger toilet stall. I wonder how many people become communists while stuck at the airport? The snack counter prices there are extortion—the $15 voucher I had for breakfast was only enough to buy two chocolate bars.

As we boarded the midmorning replacement flight, Delta gave every passenger in economy a notice saying they were issuing a $200 flight voucher for future travel. I also sent them the message at the top of this post, along with a copy of my tour payment confirmation email, asking they refund my money for that lost adventure. Thus far, I’ve only gotten a boilerplate email from them saying that they are inundated with complaints associated with the August 8 database outage debacle. I can only imagine. Thank God my cousin got back from Iceland, where she and her daughter were marooned at that time—with my panicked second cousin fearing that she would be late to arrive for her freshman year at college!

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

1 Mile

Well, I’m in Detroit. Glad I checked my ticket before trying to get on a plane to Seattle. The Detroit to Incheon flight is 13.5 hours long, which is the longest flight I’ve ever taken, but when one is going literally halfway around the world, it takes a while. The passengers seem to fall generally into two categories: Korean civilians (the large majority) and a multiracial assortment of American military personnel. And then a cross-section that are families with children who have a non-Korean parent and a Korean parent who are clearly either going to or coming from visits with family. There are also quite a few grim-looking adjummas traveling alone or in pairs who may be darling in person but who share my superficial resting face—grim, forbidding, don’t-mess-with-me-or-I’ll-bite-your-head-off. I walked a mile (clocked on my iPhone) to the other end of the terminal and back to purchase an overpriced ($7) smoothie, but it was good and I saw real strawberries going into it. One cannot survive on a chicken biscuit and a tiny bag of airline pretzels alone. The plane that we are supposed to take to Incheon (it flew in from Shanghai—a double-decker behemoth) just slid up to the gate, and it’s going to take them at least an hour to deplane, refuel, etc.  And I just discovered that my computer does not have the files on it that I was planning to edit during the flight. Of course, I also hope I can sleep—the young African American military man that I sat next to on the plane here who is also supposed to be on this flight told me he was also functioning on 2 hours’ rest and (in his case) a caffeine pill, and hoped to sleep on the transpacific leg. He silently endured a full bladder in the center seat so that he didn’t have to wake me as I dozed on the aisle, and then booked it by me to the bathroom the moment they extinguished the “fasten seatbelt” sign. His arms were sleeved out in intricate tattoos, which included a cardinal and an outline of the state of North Carolina.

A little dog near the Delta counter barks maniacally every time the elevated tram goes by. It’s silent as trams go, but there’s a lot of ambient noise in the terminal, though thankfully not as much as in Atlanta, where I left my earplugs in for most of the layover. The regular announcements that warn about unknown persons and unfamiliar objects in English (and, oddly, Chinese, though the terminal signs are bilingual in English and Japanese) are bothersome enough—there’s the birdflock sound of conversation, the loud squeal from the aircraft outdoors, and then the particular announcements that our plane is delayed. And then “hmmm” the tram goes by and “yip, yip, yip” the little dog starts up again.

How can anyone look less than disheveled when traveling long distances? I know the usual tricks of wearing comfortable clothes and drinking plenty of water, but being shoehorned into a seat that is too close to the back of the preceding row for even a short person like me to be able to bend over in (I wanted to rest my head on the drinks tray in front of me, since I didn’t have a bulkhead beside me, and I discovered this wasn’t physically possible), in a steel tube for half a day doesn’t do wonders for the psyche, or the physique. Humans are by and large an unlovely lot. We’re really not attractive creatures, and age removes what benefits of energy youth had temporarily given us. I was getting dressed this morning in my “off to the mountains” gear—my hiking boots, my cargo pants, my long-sleeved shirt and my sweater tied around my waist—and my pale, untoned belly really bothered me. Rubenesque, but with wrinkles, that’s my current look. And hopefully rough-and-ready, like an adherent of Teddy Roosevelt. Am I the only female who occasionally imagines herself in Spanish-American War combat gear? 

Saturday, September 03, 2016

3 Cups An Hour

The edge of erstwhile Hurricane Hermine whipped through Augusta yesterday, flinging rain hither and yon. I was having the best night's sleep I've had in weeks, a natural deep rest sheltered by at least five Grandmommy quilts, a pair of foam earplugs, and the white noise of the air purifier in the corner of my room.

Whenever she can snag my attention, Trixie tends to lead me with little chirping sounds and beckoning looks in the direction of need...mostly towards her food bowl, because despite the fact that she's flirting with a weight of 10 lbs, she's convinced that starvation is imminent. My standard response to her efforts at allurement is, "Timmy's not in the well."

 When I awoke yesterday, Trixie was trilling anxiously at me, and lo and behold, the well had come to Timmy! There was an audible dripping in the hallway, and probably half a gallon of water had either soaked into the rug or pooled at the entrance to the kitchen, and more was coming down from the top of the door frame from little bubble fissures in the paint. Not good. I rushed to get towels, threw the wet end of the rug over a piece of ersatz kitchen furniture (a metal folding chair), and went upstairs to find the origin of the water. It was getting in through a spot in the roof in the walk-in attic, running down the wall studs and into the room below. My mom came over and climbed a ladder to throw towels at the damp insulation, and I handed her a plastic bin to put under the drip. For the next four hours, I clambered up the ladder to empty the bin every 30 minutes.

From an average of 3 cups an hour, the flow gradually slowed as the rain abated. Downstairs, I had installed another plastic bin and a portable fan, but the need for these disappeared as the water was caught upstream. The paint pealed off the edge of the door jamb, though. And the roofers we contacted had already had more than 100 calls about leaking roofs before they learned of ours, but at least we are now on their list. And praise God this happened while I was home – my damp-sensitive laminate floors would have been destroyed, never mind damage to my Persian rug and water in the walls and insulation. But of course it would happen right before I am due to leave for Korea. God forbid it rains again before my poor mother can arrange for the repair. But we do need the rain--I've been having to drag a hose around my back yard daily, dousing my banana tree and potted garden.

My volunteer cantaloupes, which appeared out of the compost I got from my stepdad, have been delicious, and my broccoli (though it never floretted) has been a tasty addition to my scrambled eggs every few weeks (the leaves are edible and taste exactly like the traditional florets). My cucumbers are astoundingly fecund but closely resemble squash, and taste bitter. I think they are actually the sort that people use to make pickles. I've given so many to my mother she's unwilling to take more. My two dozen tomato plants are taller than I am, but have altogether produced a total of seven smaller-than-cherry tomatoes and one tiny irregularly-shaped regular tomato. My bean vines are verdant, yet I have found fewer than ten beans over the course of the summer. I have one surviving pepper plant. It has bloomed several times, but there are no peppers on it. On the other hand, my mint and parsley are doing quite well, and my banana tree is really pretty. Not so my single surviving rosebush, which has contracted the same mite infection (the cursed Witches Broom) that caused me to uproot and discard its thorny cousins. It will be following them to the dump after my return from Korea.

I have decided what to take in my suitcase, and have put most of it in ziplock bags, but I haven't actually packed yet--it's all in neat stacks in my closet. If I forget something, I can get it at my destination, so I'm not panicking about overlooking anything. I went to the men's section in Walmart and bought myself another pair of 31x31 cargo pants, which I plan to wear on the plane with my hiking boots (one of my girlfriends and I are planning a 14+ mile mountain hike). I supposed to stay at a hostel in Seoul Thursday night, since it's impractical to commute 1.5 hours each way Thursday evening and Friday morning to my friend's flat outside the city from Incheon airport and then to the departure point for the DMZ tour. I hope I don't sleep through my alarm! And I also hope that I don't get sick – when I made my final rounds at the consignment shops today, there were germy little elementary school kids hacking and sneezing everywhere I went. Mobile petri dishes, children.