Chuseok, 2004

Ilsan Lake Park – Photo by Seok Hwan Jeong under Creative Commons

The platform was quiet after Will and I stepped off the train to transfer. We were far out in the suburbs of Seoul, where the metro lines run above ground, and the moon shone brightly in the sky like a pale lantern. I stood there in my t-shirt with my hoodie hanging over my shoulder, enjoying the cool air after a long, wet summer. Those were the first breaths of autumn air I had taken in Korea.

It was the day before Chuseok, a holiday celebrating the harvest, and Will had generously invited me to spend it with his family. He was my roommate at the international dormitory where I was staying. A Southern Californian who had come to Korea to reconnect with his own language and culture, it would be a rare occasion for him as well.

Will’s uncle picked us up near the end of the line in Incheon. He was eminently friendly but had a tired look about him — above his buoyant smile, his eyes and cheeks looked heavy. Will called him halaboji, “grandfather,” because he was more that kind of figure. Together, we ate a simple meal of rice, soup and saengson-jeon (egg-battered fish) in anticipation of the feast we would have the next day. Then we went for a few turns in a nearby park. Night had fully fallen, but as was so often the case after dark in Korea, the place was alive with people.

Early the next morning we carved a wide route around Seoul on the sunny highway. The road was empty; everyone else who was traveling for the holiday had likely already arrived where they intended to be. Will’s family were gathering at one their relative’s homes in Ilsan, just northwest of the capital. There were about a dozen people across several generations, and all of them welcomed us warmly.

Inside the apartment there was a large folding screen and low tables upon which carefully sliced fruit and other offerings were stacked. Pictures of family members who had passed were set up on the table as well. I would come to learn that on almost all holidays, Koreans take time to honor their elders, both living and dead.

Will’s family was Catholic and so this ceremony, I was told, was somewhat non-traditional: we sang hymns before bowing deeply, foreheads touching the floor, and wordlessly paying tribute. Then the family did something I did not expect. In silence, all of us shuffled out of the room, and shut the door. “This is when their spirits eat,” one of Will’s aunts said to me in a near whisper out in the hallway.

About a minute or so passed before we re-entered the apartment and began to feast for ourselves. I suspended my disbelief and wondered whether the food had been in any part altered by the presence of spirits. Perhaps an apple slice would have a nibble taken out of it, a shot glass of soju would be half-full?

It was barely 10 o’clock but the spread was huge — fish, kalbi, bulgogi, side dishes of every variety. One of Will’s younger cousins twisted open a 2 liter bottle of beer and began to pass glasses around. By noon, Will and I began to insist we could eat no more. “But that’s only the first round!” one of his aunts said, laughing cheerfully.

Before attempting more over-nourishment, we all piled into a couple cars and drove to Lake Park, a large, man-made recreational space in the middle of Ilsan. Will, his cousins and I rented bikes and pedaled through the crisp air. I felt my heart beat faster, shaking off the laziness of the morning. We cruised and laughed, racing against each other only half seriously.

It’s been eight years since that first Chuseok, and I have never seen any of Will’s relatives since. Will and I, once on opposite sides of a 200 square foot room, now live on opposite coasts. But on that slow and simple autumn day, we all shared a few moments that I will carry for years still.

Chuseok (추석) was Sunday. Read more about the holiday at Wikipedia.

The Aloha Spirit

Waikiki

It happens almost every trip: not long after touching down in a place, I begin to imagine settling there — even for just a little while. I imagine what it would be like to walk the streets until they are familiar, to make this neighborhood my neighborhood, to make that cafe the place I stop each morning. Usually, as J and I explore the place over the ensuing days, the imagining turns into something stronger. It becomes a desire to stay, a loathing to leave. It doesn’t often matter how different the destinations are, from each other or from our own home. I felt it as strongly, say, in San Francisco as I did in Budapest.

But I have never felt it quite as strongly as I did in Hawaii.

Looking down on Honolulu from Diamond Head

At the end of August, J and I flew to Honolulu to stay on the island of Oahu for a week. I knew it would be beautiful, I knew the water would be clear, and I knew the food would be delicious. But knowing and experiencing are two different things, and as soon as we emerged from the airport, there was a feeling that ran through us like a breeze and eased us into a slower rhythm. In the seven days we spent on the island, I felt a greater sense of wonder — at the beauty of mountains, of the ocean and its many-colored fish,  and at the kindness of people — than I have in the past two years.

Wiping out at Populars breaks off Waikiki. Photo courtesy of Greg Rose.

Tako & Poke at Ono Seafood in Honolulu

People talk often of “Aloha” in Hawaii, not as a greeting but rather as an attitude, a vibe. And I felt it as much out on the waves as I did on the highway. People seemed to respect each other’s space, instead of trampling over one another.

Hanauma Bay

Nuuanu Pali Lookout Point

I took along a new camera to help preserve my memories of the place, and filled it with shots of the island’s four points: South (Waikiki), East (Kailua and the Windward Coast), North (the North Shore), and West (Makaha and the Leeward Coast). We ended our trip in the direction of  the sunset. From our lanai we watched paddle boarders go way out past the surf in the calm of early morning, sheets of cool rain pass over the beach in the afternoon and the sky turn clear and cool with the onset of night. Things change quickly on the island, but there is always a sense of continuity.

Giovanni’s famous shrimp truck on the North Shore

As we hopped into a cab on our way back to the airport, our taxi driver asked how we were doing. “OK,” I said, “Just sad to be leaving.”

When I told him that we were going to Washington, D.C., he said, “I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t want to be going there either.” It was sweltering and boggy back home. “But there are nicer places than Hawaii,” he added.

I hesitated for a moment and then looked out the window. “I’m not so sure.”

Turtle Cove beach in Makaha

A Smooth Ride, Straight Into Night

Eleventh Street, NW

1.

The metrorail conductor’s voice sounded like it should have been on the radio. Late night radio. It was smooth like smoke; it purred and crackled. The conductor spoke slowly, and made his announcements with a playful formality. In front of the station names he added a definite article, even when one was not called for — as if the stop were someplace famous, someplace everybody knew and had longed to arrive at. “Customers, welcome aboard the Yellow Line train,” he said, as we pulled away from the platform. “The next stop is, The Gallery Place, Chinatown.” You could almost hear him smiling over the hiss of the P.A. The conductor was an entertainer.

It was morning and I was anxious about the day ahead, but the conductor’s voice calmed my nerves. I swear it sounded like he should have been playing Wes Montgomery or Charlie Mingus over that P.A. system. It made me smile, too. We left the L’Enfant Plaza stop and rounded a gentle curve. You can always feel that curve, even though the tunnel is dark. It makes you lean just a little. The train emerged into bright sunlight. “Customers, the next stop is The Pentagon, the first stop in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” the conductor said, in that soft, low voice. I looked out at the Potomac and saw the breeze churning up the water. The silver buildings of Rosslyn glimmered on the far side of the river.

At The Pentagon stop, he made another announcement. “This is the Yellow Line train to Huntington.” His voiced lifted at the “–ton”. Cheerfully, smoothly. “Also stopping at The Crystal City, and The Washington-Reagan National Airport.”

The train swayed as it left the platform, and later, as the doors slid open I almost forgot to get off at my stop. I wanted to ride it until we reached the terminal. I wanted to meet the conductor, ask him if he’s ever been on the radio, tell him he should be. I’d never been to Huntington.

2.

I walked from the bar and picked up the cab outside the hotel, where I always do. It’s impossible to find a cab anywhere else in that part of Virginia. But next to the hotel there is always a huddle of drivers, standing outside next to their cabs, smoking cigarettes and passing the time. They laugh and joke a lot. The drivers are all men, and they are all from Ethiopia.

I came up to the group and asked if one of them could take me into D.C. They all nodded at the one whose car was in the front of the line. There is a system, a code of the cab-drivers, and it should never be violated. One of the rules is that a cabbie will never get ahead of the line. Even if a customer approaches his cab first, the cab driver will shake his head and point you to the person at the front. That way he knows that when he is at the front of the line, he can count on getting the next fare. Cabbie karma. Capitalism of the common interest.

My driver was a slender, handsome man. Sitting in the back seat, I saw only his profile, but he had a lean, narrow face and spoke in low, gentle tones, not altogether unlike the metrorail conductor. We exchanged questions about each other’s days, and then I asked how long he’s been a driver. It was his second week.

“How do you like it?” I asked. It’s a question I’d often put to cab drivers.

“It’s alright. There’s money in it, if you’re willing to put in the hours.”

I told him I’ve heard other drivers say they sometimes drive fourteen, fifteen, sixteen hours just to make enough to be able to pay the daily rent for the cab and turn a small profit. “I could never do that,” he said. “It’s too much on your body. I think 10 hours is the most I could do.”

He told me he also has a day-job, managing transportation at a hotel. “But before that I used to work at IBM, doing IT.” His voice sunk lower, and there was a long pause during which neither of us spoke. “Then I got laid off.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s alright. My wife was really happy.”

I thought I misheard him. “Was, or wasn’t?”

“She was. I used to work really big accounts, Visa, Citibank. Something would go wrong and they would call me at any time of day or night — midnight, whatever. And I would have to go and fix it. The crazy thing was, our child was 6 months old, and we had just bought a condo. And then I got laid off and my wife was happy! She said, ‘God will give you something better.'”

He laughed. “Can you believe that?”

He seemed happy, too. We drove into a tunnel, into the wash of orange streetlights, and emerged at the intersection with Constitution Avenue. I asked the cab driver where he was from, though I already had an idea.

“Ethiopia,” he said.

Ndemeneh,” I said. “Or should I say, Ndemenot?”

“No, ndemenot is only for people much older than yourself, a sign of respect.”

“I see.”

“Where did you learn Amharic?”

“From other cab drivers. I only know a few words,” I said, and rattled them off — Hello (to a male), Hello (to a female), Hello (to an elder) and Thank You.

“It’s good!” he said. “If you keep practicing, your Amharic might be better than some of the Ethiopians I know who’ve lived in the States a long time.”

We talked about family, about how it’s nice to have the people you love nearby. He had family here, in D.C., and up in Canada. Many of the other cabbies I’ve talked to are here alone, I said, with all of their family back in Addis Ababa. All the while we rode up Twelfth Street. Heading north, it’s like climbing a wave, slow undulations building and building until you reach the apex, or are stopped by a red night. The inertia you build when you hit a succession of green lights feels unstoppable.

But finally it stopped, and I got out of the cab, stepping into the humid night. “Thank you,” I said, “it’s good talking to you.”

“You too,” he said. And he wheeled off around the corner, probably all the way back to the hotel.

Hideaway

A D.C. Back Porch

Once or twice a month, J and I retreat from D.C. to a little burg in Northern Virginia where her parents live. It’s quiet — populated mostly by folks entering their golden years — and offers a respite from the continuous, nerve-rattling wail of sirens that permeates our apartment in downtown. We wake up late in the morning, often after her parents have already risen and gone out for a walk, and brew coffee in the silent house. As Mr. Coffee burbles, I watch the strong brew sluice from the basket down through the tiny hole at the top of the pot. I pour myself a steaming cup-full and then take a step out onto the porch.

The sky down here is wide, only slightly narrower than its Midwest cousin due to the hills, and met at the edges by angular rooftops and the verdure of thick leaves fully unrolled for the summer. The sirens are replaced by birdsong. There’s such a diversity of tunes that J’s father is now dipping into ornithology, studying the variations of pitch and timing that give away the origins of these flying minstrels. He’s also been growing tomatoes, peppers and strawberries out back. They’re pretty tasty, too, if the animals don’t get to them first.

This must be what it’s like for folks who have a vacation home, I often think to myself. A rustic cabin on a lake, this is not. But there’s always good home-cooking when we arrive.

The city and the country give and take. Walking the D.C. streets, when I’m afforded the free time, fills my mind with color and fascination at the churning of people in a place steeped in history. There are brightly-painted brick row-houses and gnarly cobbled streets. The culture and demographics are undergoing a painful but historic shift. D.C. also drains me — of energy, of breathing space, of a broader presence of mind. That’s what I come out here for. The dust has time to settle and I can see what’s behind me, and up the road for at least a little ways. Maybe I’ll even notice a fork I hadn’t seen.

Staying out here amid the quiet is always tempting option. Fleeing for even more remote locales, all the more so. And while Thoreau might have us stay in the woods, even he returned to Concord. So as we make our return migration, there is always the idea of the hideaway. A place where nobody knows our name.

Morning on Castle Hill, Budapest

Úri utca (Lords' street), Budapest

J and I wound our way up to the top of Castle Hill along the cobblestone path, just as we had done the night of our arrival in Budapest. Then it had been dark, and some of the stones had been covered in a treacherously thin glaze of ice. But our empty stomachs and the nine hours of plane travel — plus six spent fitfully trying to sleep in Amsterdam’s airport — had urged us out into the fresh night air.

Now, six days later, it was a pleasantly cool and grey morning; there was a slight mist in the air that I had to continually wipe from my camera lens. Compared with our earlier night walks around the Royal Palace grounds, the place was thronging with tourists. But we muddled through them, past the bronze sculpture of the mythical yet menacing “turul” bird, and a field of ruins being slowly unearthed. From a platform raised above them, we caught our first view of west Buda in the full daylight; we had seen it once before on Christmas Eve in the drizzle and the dark, and the lights of the buildings then seemed to float disembodied in the inky fog. It was clearer now, and the whole panorama unfolded. It was a surprisingly hilly region, in stark contrast to the flatness of Pest,  and dappling the landscape in the distance were haphazard clusters of houses. They looked as though they had been shaken out from a great cup, like sprinkles on a bundt cake.

While Pest and the Castle District of Buda where we stood were known to possess the architectural marvels of the city, this view was impressive in a special way. Below in those homes were the quiet and unknowable machinations of thousands of lives, linked to eras of both great human inspiration and destruction (a land impacted by Franz Liszt’s compositions and the shells of Soviet tanks), now appearing settled in a grey and calm moment. And beyond the mist, the whole stretching expanse of Western Europe.

We meandered the full length of Lovas út gazing at this scenery, occasionally turning our heads to look at the splendid old homes and down the alleyways. Invariably, J and I debated over which apartment we would want to live in, taking into account how the leaves of the trees — when they reappeared — would obscure the vista. There was one unit with a tiny deck and an appropriately small sitting hammock, which I liked. J picked out the deck two floors above where there was a small and simple table, just large enough, perhaps, for a couple of cups of coffee.

At the end of the street we turned toward Úri utca, Lords’ street, and a stunning view of the patchwork diamond roof of the National Archives building — looking like a shiny plate of ornamented clay, gold and turquoise scales. As we walked down the avenue, I found myself wondering where the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (who I’d been reading during our trip) might have stayed when he visited Budapest. I imagined the street bustling with life and the clacking of carriages and pull carts, as must have passed often that April in 1934. We went up between the conical pylons of Fishermen’s Bastion, designed, according to my guidebook, to resemble the tents of the ancient Magyars. From here we could see the whole of Pest, no hills to hide any corner, and behind us the jagged, sawlike steeple of the Mátyás Church.

Before descending into our final afternoon — we planned to tour the Opera House, an amazing and ornate structure — we found our way to the green exterior walls of the Ruszwurm coffee house, the city’s oldest, and ducked inside. I had a slice of cake with raspberry merengue and gel, while J had a double chocolate cake named after the cafe. We both ordered cappuccinos, and as at every kávéház in Budapest, they came served with tiny shot-glass size cups of water — a detail I loved. I tried to imagine all the people — the writers, aristocrats and diplomats — that likely inhabited this cozy space for brief moments; or in successions of moments, writing, dawdling, meeting with friends, and then one day never returning. But it was difficult without a firmer grasp on the history of Hungary.

While I was thankful for many things we chanced upon during our trip, among them was a new spark of curiosity and a morsel of knowledge about this part of the world. I had a feeling that we would be returning — an urge, really, already developing. It would be warmer, I think, with foliage on the trees, and some time not too far away.

The Elsewhere Illness

It was a little more than a year ago that we peeled away from the tarmac of South Korea’s Incheon International Airport, bound for Hong Kong. Early that morning J and I had hoisted our bags onto our backs, snapped a parting photo of the door to our Seoul apartment — Unit 703 — and then lumbered down to the metro. We were both sad and excited; after a final exhausting week of preparing to leave our adopted home, we allowed the plans we had set in motion to carry us forward.

We landed in a foreign world. While J had visited the tropics in other regions, neither she nor I had experienced this part of Asia, and its features were fantastic. The machinery of the city was stitched together over spits of land. It was cut into steep peaks and nestled into jungle, with Hong Kongers traversing it unblinkingly via boat, tram, underwater train, careening double-decker or soaring cable car. The humidity was so impermeable that we woke each morning in our air-conditioned hotel to fine drops of dew on the comforter.

The end of the line at Shek O, Hong Kong Island

It was overwhelming — and wonderful. We slurped strong milk tea and drank fresh mango slushies; we ate delectable crab congee; we cooled ourselves in the waters of a tiny bay after a sweltering hike along “The Dragons Back”; and we versed ourselves on the history of the qipao, the stunning, form-fitting dress that is iconic of Hong Kong. The heady mishmash of experiences had us buzzed for the road ahead through China, India and Southeast Asia. It seems strange now that barely three weeks later, in a hostel in the middle of Xian, the momentum was broken.

We were considering a change of plans after reading reports that dengue fever was rampant in Delhi, and one surprisingly cheap plane ticket would have taken us back through Incheon. Suddenly, I found myself aching at the thought of returning to Seoul.

“I can’t,” I said to J. “If we go back, I don’t think I’ll be able to leave again.”

***

It’s been called lots of things, but the nuance is different with each turn of phrase. “Wanderlust” is a common encapsulation of it; “the grass-is-always-greener syndrome” is another, although that’s more negative. What I was suffering from — and continue to be afflicted by — is what I call “the elsewhere illness.” It’s that involuntary habit of losing yourself in where you were, or where you would like to be. It comes suddenly but its effects linger, like a chill or a heart palpitation. You might spend an afternoon coping with the residuals, finding that spot on a map and then just wishing to relive the feelings that place brought. Or you might just scroll through flight times on the Internet for a while, hovering over the “purchase” button when you find the one you like.

It’s not always that self-indulgent. One of the most wrenching fits of it I ever saw was after a friend of mine back in high school named S, who had come to the Seattle area from Korea to live with her father, opened a care package from her mom. It had clothes and some books, and a short note. After reading it, she just knelt down on the carpet for a while and cried — wishing, I’m sure, to be back with her mother for even just a moment, to reclaim her old life.

A few days later, S and I drove down to shore of Puget Sound, and with the waters of the Pacific at our feet, I pointed northeast and said, child-like, “Korea is just over there.” She cracked a smile. That’s the bright point of the elsewhere illness; it can inspire a feeling of connectedness, or drive an ambition to move onward and upward.

But the great irony of the elsewhere illness is that while it may push you out the door and onto the road for adventure, you continue to carry it. The problem then is obvious: even when you arrive, you’re never fully there — the present is obscured by restlessness. There were times while living back in Unit 703, usually in the morning, that I would look out our window onto the quiet Seoul neighborhood below. Occasionally I would see people watering their roof gardens, or jumping rope in a morning exercise routine. I would try to just be still and take it all in, reminding myself of how I had dreamed of making the city my home for years. But I could never quite focus, and there were many other times I spent sitting in that apartment feeling just plain homesick.

The View from Unit 703, Seoul

Negotiating a balance between a passion for “elsewhere” and desire to be happy — I might even say “settled” — in my daily life has been my work since moving to Washington. Admittedly, what I have often felt since arriving here has been akin to the ache that struck me in Xian. It isn’t helped by the way I’ve chosen to keep up my Korean listening skills: listening to a downloaded radio talk show about — of course — travel. For a change of pace, I decided to try listening to a different show one week, this one called “Blue Night with Jeong Yeop.”

The first show I listened to as I rode the train home from work. It opened with bit of moody piano and an easy beat; then a narrator, presumably Mr. Jeong, piped in with an even moodier, ponderous tone. “Sometimes people ask us, ‘When was the happiest moment in your life?”” he said. “Most people who are asked this question hesitate — not because they can’t think of a happy moment, but because they can’t figure out how to separate them, how to pick the right one.”

Here he added: “You don’t have to agonize over it, though. Because the right answer is, ‘That moment hasn’t arrived yet.'”

It was cheesy, but it made me chuckle. The train came up out of the tunnel and onto the bridge across the Potomac, and briefly the evening sunlight filtered into the car where I sat. A few moments passed before the train sank down into the earth again, and pulled ahead.