Last night we went to a surprise party. A successful surprise party. As in, “What are you doing here, Sarah?” As in, I’ve never been part of any group yelling “Surprise!” so loud and so enthusiastically.
Because my friend Melissa is incomparable, outrageous, unlike anyone else. She is the most copied person I know; I’ve seen girls change their entire style after meeting her only once. She is an inspiration. When I was applying to colleges, St. John’s (a fancy, hippie-dippie private school in Santa Fe) wanted me to write an essay on someone who’d inspired me. I wrote it about Melissa. I got in, thanks to Melissa, who never went to college because she was too busy defying people’s expectations and raising 3.5 kids better than any young mother I’ve known. And did I mention that she can dead-lift over twice her body weight? Bad. Ass.
So of course every single person from her gym would show up. Of course her friends would drive down from Salt Lake. Of course. And it was one of the best parties I’ve been to in a long time, everyone friendly and wild and kind. Everyone happy to be celebrating Melissa, because that’s what she deserves.
I’m not even sure if she knows how strongly I feel about her, because we don’t really talk like that. We’re very different, always have been–she was a bright red, dyed-hair, driving to Salt Lake, going to shows and drinking punk-ish type of teen, and I was an orchestra geek who smoked pot and listened to Pink Floyd and Modeste Mousorgsky with a series of steady high school boyfriends. But we’ve always just…gotten along. Enjoyed each others’ company. Understood each other, and hung out. You know, what friends are for.
Anyways, this is a vignette I wrote about her when I was 17 or so. It got published in our high school’s annual literary magazine, The Literary Harvest. I don’t know that she’s ever read it.
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We are green and purple together. The numbers 5 and 8, respectively, and we are brilliant. We’re freaks, or middle children. We come from tribes and synagogues, and the goddamned, blessed tabernacle. The holy trinity, and we have crazy mothers, angry families. We flee. Kidnapped, but mostly runaways. We slur our words together on sharp points. We are alcoholics, druggies, sluts. Whatever you see, right? We are what you make of us, because we’ve already done it, now we’re just waiting to be recognized. We are so much and so little. Always leaning, leaning for that strong shoulder, that masculinity. Silently, carefully, leaning for each other. Even when we don’t talk for months, when we live in different states. We have a mutual agreement that it’s better not to lift the bandage , lest salt should get into the wound.
We are old. Never were we children, just younger adults. And we have babies now, and jobs, and a mortgage. We have lessons, and no time, and futures that go in and out of focus. They always wondered about the two of us. I didn’t realize that we looked so different, because we were really the same. When you get right down to it. Even our friends, they ask, they doubt. People on the street, they accept it, being doubly blind. Not best friends, or lovers, or even sisters. Just us, that’s all. Two of one, a sort of union, separated by six months exactly.
Because we have that wire. That thin, humming line that stretches between you and I, so that no matter how far you go screaming out into space, I can always tug, and float you back in. I can finger it when I’m nervous, and remember that you’re always on the receiving end, should I need that.
And if they call us bitches, so what? Because you have that voice, and I this laugh, and we some massive, radiant energy. They always remember. Those two girls, right? And how old were they? And what were they doing? They don’t forget us, because we never forgot ourselves. Simple, really. Just one plus one. Five and eight. Green, and purple.
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Together. Happy birthday, Melissa.
Hey, Friends. Let me tell you a story. It’s about me having even more photos from the cabin to post. Are we sick of those yet? It’s about me making new friends and spending my evenings drinking, dancing, and listening to music, instead of at home, blogging. It’s about me working two jobs, Friends. Moral of the story? I haven’t been posting as often as I’d like. And now all of my cabin posts will not be in a row. Imperfections: How Sarah Learns to Deal With Them. That’s probably the title of the story.
Whitney, on the other hand, is on vacation! Lots of time! Lots of time to write long, interesting posts about world travel. No resentment here, Friends; she deserves it. So settle in with a cup–make that an entire pot–of tea for…another post from Whitney in Korea!
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When I studied abroad in Paris (five years ago – wow!), one of my friends from the program was from Korea. I remember her trying to explain to us Americans how South Koreans viewed the North as she said, “We feel like they are our brothers and we want them to stop suffering”. That statement has always stuck with me and was one of my most revisited memories while touring the Demilitarized Zone last Saturday.
The Demilitarized Zone is an area of land that buffers the North/South border, cutting the Korean peninsula in half roughly along the 38th parallel. It runs about 250km long from coast to coast, is 4km wide and is heavily guarded. Much of it is fences and walls topped with barbed wire and speckled with guard posts looking into dense jungle, while the most famous section is called the Joint Security Area – a compound right on the demarcation line where North and South Korean officials hold meetings on “neutral” grounds. On a tour organized through Osan Air Base, Tim, Andrew, Daniel and I visited this area along with a few other stops, only taking pictures when told we were allowed to.
The first stop was Imjingak – a site with memorials dedicated to separated families, a place for displaced Koreans to pray and honor their ancestors, and the site of the “Bridge of Freedom”, built to return over 12,000 Korean War prisoners to the South (now only about 100ft long), everything expressing wishes for peace, healing and reunification.
The next stop was at a sort of military observation post, providing a brief opportunity to look out over the DMZ. From there we could see the only two towns that are located in the DMZ – the “Propaganda Village” in the North and “Freedom Village” in the South. Both have tall towers that fly huge national flags, waving them in each others’ faces. We were not allowed to take photos here, but I have a decent one of the Propaganda Village from later in the tour. From there we went to another location where we weren’t allowed to bring cameras: one of the four known tunnels that North Korea has dug underneath the DMZ. Tunnel #3, which we visited, was the largest of the four – large enough to allow 30,000 fully armed North Korean troops to pass through in the space of an hour, should they use that tactic to invade. We stowed our cameras, donned hard hats, and marched down a 30% incline to reach an opening to the rock-carved tunnel. North Korea ordered the tunnel walls to be covered with coal dust so that when it was discovered by the South in 1978 (thanks to a tip from a North Korean defector), North Korea could claim the tunnel was actually a mine shaft: a 1,635 meter mine shaft that happened to pass under the DMZ. Some of the dynamite scars show that North Korea was intentionally directing their missive toward the South.
After the tunnel we came to the northernmost train station in South Korea: Dorasan. This station was built to connect the Korean Peninsula to the rest of the continent’s rail system; running through North Korea, the network eventually reaches Western Europe.
North Korea allowed this train to run, one symbolic time about ten years ago, from Dorasan to Pyeongyang and back again. The station now sits empty but for the occasional burst of people armed with cameras deploying from tour buses. We paid 500 won each (about 50 cents) for a ticket to the platform where we took pictures of ourselves casually lying down on the tracks and made half-hearted jokes about running away from a Northbound train, knowing that such a train is not likely to run for decades to come. This giant advertisement from Korail, the Korean railway company, expressed a sort of obligatory hope that the station was not constructed in vain. Note: the small sign pictured in the bottom right corner of the ad indicates that Pyeongyang is 205km away and Seoul is 56km in the opposite direction.
After Dorasan Station we had lunch and were then driven to the trip’s highlight: the Joint Security Area. As I mentioned before, this is a heavily militarized compound straddling the border where the North and South hold political meetings. We were led by an American Army soldier who told us when we were and were not allowed to take pictures. The photo below shows the blue buildings (considered neutral territory) where meetings are held, as well as some of the People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) buildings, the three gray ones in the center and on the right. The biggest gray building, in the center on the far side, had two brown-clad North Korean soldiers peering at us through binoculars – one standing on the top step just outside of the doors, and one inside on the ground floor. The soldier leading our tour said the one inside was scanning our faces to make sure that none of us were politically important peoples or celebrities disguised as tourists. He also told us that North Korea conducts about 1 tour of the JSA to every 10 tours on the South Korean side.
Because we were being watched so closely, we were instructed not to make any gestures whatsoever toward North Korea or its soldiers so as to give them as little material as possible to be used as propaganda against South Korea and the United Nations Command. We had the opportunity to enter the blue building that you see above (the one with the door open) and see the table where diplomats meet (and conduct “bladder wars”, where no one gets up from the table for hours and hours). We were told that no meetings have been held there for some time. The Republic of Korea’s soldiers (ROK = South Korea) are standing in a modified taekwondo position that allows them to react quickly if necessary and also looks tough. This stance is known as “ROK Ready”. The soldiers positioned halfway between a building and an open corridor are placed so because it allows them to duck and cover quickly, or signal with their hidden hand without being seen from the North Korean side if they see something unusual.
That’s right, I stepped to the North Korean side of the table with everyone else, when instructed we could. I was in North Korea for about three minutes. Then we left the building and took to the bus once again for a drive through the JSA. We stopped at a checkpoint where we were only about 100ft from the border (the white posts in the picture below), and just a couple kilometers away from Propaganda Village (the picture below that):
Propaganda Village, most recognized by its humongous, 31 meter-long, 600 pound (when dry) flag, has no real inhabitants. The buildings mostly exist to show how “well” North Korea is doing, however, when lit (a rare occasion), the light is brightest at the top “floor”, and becomes gradually less bright in the windows below, showing that there are no walls or even floors within the buildings, as they were not made to actually have people in them. Sometimes people are seen in the city, mostly to raise and lower the gigantic flag. I didn’t hear how many people that requires.
Propaganda Village is countered by South Korea’s Freedom Village, of which I have no pictures because when we drove by, we were in a “no photography” zone. It has a tower similar to the one pictured above, flying the South Korean flag. It also has actual inhabitants who make their living by farming; as many as 17 acres per farm in this area compared with the 1-4 acres in many other regions of Korea means for a greater yield and pretty decent money – especially because the government buys the crops that don’t sell. That incentive, along with a government subsidy, means residents make at least $80,000 per year. Not bad living, as the residents are exempt from taxes and conscription, but the town also has serious restrictions. Residents must be direct descendants of people who lived in that valley before the Korean war, only women can marry in, and everyone has to obey a strict curfew and be present in the town for a certain number of days per year. (Reminds me of Alaska and the PFD in some ways.)
The drive back from the checkpoint concluded our tour of the DMZ. We saw most of what there was to see (for the public, anyway), and most of what we didn’t see, I imagine, looked like jungle. The cool thing about the DMZ is that, as it has been basically untouched by man since the end of the Korean War in 1953, it is essentially a 60 year-old wildlife preserve.
The most mind-blowing aspect of the day was how close we were to such an oppressed nation. Propaganda abounds on both sides of the border; South Korea directs balloons toward the North that are filled with candy, American dollars, and pamphlets criticizing Kim Jong Il along with news of world events. This sort of propaganda speaks, in essence, of the truth. Propaganda from North Korea to its own citizens demonizes the United States, portrays the South Korean government as puppets of the West, strongly emphasizes the property of “juche” (North Korean independence and self-reliance), and places North Korea at the center of world events. Its military is strong but its people are starving; any money earned (whether by legal or illegal means) and most of the humanitarian aid received goes to bolstering its military forces while very little is used to help its citizens. An NPR article I recently listened to pointed out that Kim Jong Il is concerned not with building a healthy country with a successful economy, but with maintaining control of the populous.
Tim and I agree that we don’t expect to see much change in political relations on the Korean Peninsula during our lifetime. My Korean friend’s description of how the South beholds the North will be with me, it seems, for a while.
There is more than one school of Road Trip philosophy. Some people pack their snacks and lunches and plow straight through to their destination, stopping only to gas up or take a leak.
I prefer to stop for lunch, stretch my legs, and see a small part of this country that I wouldn’t have otherwise visited. Small Town America, I guess it’s called.
On this trip–Salt Lake City to Deckers, Colorado–we took I-15 eastward towards Cheyenne, then turned south, crawled past Denver (worst. traffic. EVER.), and headed into Pike National Forest. On the way there, we stopped in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where I hoped to find a quaint, road-side diner. (I live for quaint, road-side diners).
And there was quaint-ness to the town, sure, but no diner to be found, and no people out in the hot mid-day sun. It was eerily quiet, with church bells chiming noon, giving a very Sunday feeling, though really it was only Tuesday. In the end, we settled for a colorful but dingy Mexican restaurant, which, come to think of it, is probably just about as representative of Small Town America as anything else these days.
On our way back home, we stopped in Laramie, Wyoming. Say what you will about its reputation, Laramie is charming as hell. Kevin said he felt like we were closer to the sky, high above the mountain ranges we normally look up to from down in this dry salty valley.
The sky was astonishing–electric blue with bright white clouds–and with no mountains to cut it off in either direction, it was immense. Here’s further proof:
Road trips are such classic American fare, something I’ve never been able to duplicate elsewhere. The wide open spaces (even in this modern, developed year, 2011), the small towns, the gas stations with public restrooms, the rest stops with travelers and visitors from all over, stretching their legs, walking their dogs, refilling their water bottles.
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Some day I would like to travel all across the US, and write about it. Because blue sky like this, and church bells on a Tuesday, and listening to the Beatles, and books on take, and NPR (while you’ve still got the signal)…well, that’s something worth sharing.
K, so maybe we actually got back Friday night, and I just haven’t posted a damned thing. And I have so much to post! Here, a list about it:
-on the road (Rock Springs, Wyoming AND Laramie?!? What WHAT?)
-cabin eats (mmm…bacon…)
-mountain vengeance (I shot a gun, friends! And liked it!)
-lazy days, long walks, and wild flowers
Hey, speaking of lists…remember my other blog? I don’t, most of the time. But I’ve got some collaborative ideas in the works. Stay tuned for that, friends. Also for the afore-mentioned posts. I’ll try to get one up tonight, but my time is being re-devoted to practicing stringed instruments, and also I have to read, like, AN ENTIRE BOOK IN SPANISH by tomorrow evening. Ah, lack of foresight…
Oh, and July is over. This means school people are getting ready to head back to school. And Kevin is leaving for Spain in less than two months. But let’s not think about that now. Let’s remember the good times, and the patriotism.
Many, many thanks to Ms. Whitney. That was awesome. That blog about Korea, I mean. I want more already.
Also thanks to Rachel Getts, Librarienne Extraordinaire, who came to my party and took both of these pictures.
As promised, and without further ado…a blog from Korea! ABOUT Korea! Written by my oldest friend, Ms. Whitney. Enjoy!
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Hello and thank you for welcoming me as a trans-pacific writer for Ms. Sarah’s big world blog. My name is Whitney and I am pleased to share stories of my first travels to the Asian continent. It has become increasingly evident that this 5-week trip will bring me insights on two cultures; while I am here to travel new places and see new things, my visit is entirely inspired by Tim Wilde, the love of my life, and an officer in the US Air Force. His being stationed at Osan Air Base affords me the occasion to make (what I feel are) interesting observations on Korean culture as well as that of American airmen. Being a foreigner to both, allow me to share some of what I’ve seen during my first few days.
My non-stop flight from San Francisco to Incheon International Airport left on Thursday, July 28th, at 11am and deposited me in Seoul on Friday, July 29th, at 3pm. There is a 16-hour time difference between my usual location and Tim’s, and though the flight was 12 hours, I “lost a day” upon crossing the International Date Line. My return flight across the Pacific (which, according to those I know who’ve experienced it, has caused worse jet-lag than any other flight they’ve flown) will leave Seoul at 5pm on a Sunday, and I will arrive in San Francisco at 4pm on that same Sunday. Trippy right? In any case, I feel a little disoriented at this point, but am able to sleep through the night, so let’s consider that a WIN.
One thing that struck me while on my 12-hour flight was my American need for personal space. After living in Paris for a year, being crammed into a metro between the backs, bellies and armpits of half a dozen other people, I got used to sacrificing personal space so that as many people could fit into a car as possible. In the US, I commonly see that we are reluctant to allow others to encroach upon that 18-24 inches of requisite buffer while on the bus, subway or while being herded like cattle out of ridiculously crowded concert venues. This need for space also shows itself when on airplanes. I find myself commonly hoping, after taking my window seat on the plane, that one of the two remaining seats in my row will remain empty so that I don’t have to sit elbow-to-elbow with someone else. If the middle-seat person arrives and the aisle-seat person never shows, middle-seat person scoots over to the more desirable seat, giving us both a little more room. On my flight, however, a Korean woman sat in the middle seat next to me, and when the aisle seat remained empty, she was content to stay in her assigned seat. This blew my mind. It seemed to suit her, however, and she was unperturbed when I basically had to lay my head in her lap to fish for something in my backpack on the floor. As Sarah would say, “different strokes for different folks”… is it tasteless of me to twist that rhyme into “different needs for different breeds”?
In any case, the flight was harmless and I managed to watch 4 full-length movies and a Simpsons episode back-to-back, something I’ve never endeavored to do in my life. I arrived at the airport and Tim met me there, despite historic heavy rains the previous day (some parts of Seoul were receiving 2 inches per HOUR when I left the US and streets were flooding and mud was sliding…), so we got on a bus and came to Osan Air Base (not in the city of Osan, I’ve learned, but in Songtan). And so comes my first introduction to overseas Air Force culture.
I regret not having taken many pictures to share: an amateur move in the world of blogging, I suppose. Despair not (I tell myself), many will come. I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera to some activities anyway, as military intelligence has restrictions on where such devices are allowed to be. Squadron bonding events (called “roll calls”), when held in “the vault” (secure military intelligence room with no windows), do not welcome cameras, mp3 players, cell phones etc. I was surprised that I was allowed in to the roll call, as this sort of tradition (adopted from fighter pilots and adapted to intel gents) can be pretty exclusive. Introductions, consumption of goods (read: alcohol and bacon-jalapeno popcorn), war story rituals and naming ceremonies were among the main activities, and the roll call concluded with the passing of the mayoral gavel from one “patch” (boss) to the next. These men and women, being trained in the ways of the US government presentational system, were prompted throughout the evening with, you guessed it, a powerpoint slideshow.
After the roll call, we piled into half a dozen cabs and left base for the pedestrian streets outside of the main gate. We popped into a couple of favorite bars, one of which served a mixture of soju (rice vodka, essentially) and Sprite, along with something that made it glow green, from tea kettles. I suppressed my worries about what cancer-causing elements may be in a drink that makes things glow green and downed shots along with the rest of the gang.
I hope to elaborate on more drinking gimmicks in a future post. This one, I realize, has become somewhat lengthy and I thank and applaud you for continuing to the bottom of it (especially if you’re one of Sarah’s readers and don’t actually know me). The rest of my first week here has consisted of a series of goodbye dinners and drinks for the resident patch (again, boss) who is outta here and heading to Italy. My next adventures will be with Tim’s brothers, Andrew and Daniel, who are arriving for a week-long visit this afternoon. The three Wilde Boys and I are heading to the demilitarized zone which separates North and South Korea on Saturday. Check in again for commentary and photos from that field trip!
Tomorrow morning Kevin and I hit the road for Colorado. Camping, friends! Actually, we’ll be staying in a cabin. But still, there will be fishing. And shooting rifles (a first for me), and floating down a river on inner tubes. We’ll be back by Sunday. Expect lots of pictures.
And in the meantime, expect more guest blogs! It’s lovely to have friends who travel and write eloquently and enjoy sharing. Sharing means caring, after all.
Example: these flowers at the bus stop this morning were particularly lovely in the rain.
I just couldn’t keep it to myself.