Antidote To War

Yes, we’re back! Survived, actually thrived, for a month in South Korea and have returned to a lingering winter, the prospects of paddling and biking season held at bay by wet slushy conditions and cool temperatures. Also back with my personal prescription to end warfare in the world. It’s really a pretty simple solution – I’m shocked it hasn’t been promoted by politicians. Well, I take that back, I’m not shocked by anything political any more. But first, a quick update on the month.

It was a two-part experience.

Part I – the Paralympics, during which we hunkered down in an AirBnB in Gangneung (on the northeastern coast) and yo-yoed back and forth between Olympic venues to watch Sawyer’s races and various other events like hockey and downhill skiing. Our little apartment mirrored the living space for as much as 90% of Korea’s population – the 15th floor of a high-rise apartment building in a thicket of identical buildings. These fields of apartment towers rise up in every city in the country. They house small, efficient living spaces, well soundproofed, with no containment on showers, with little attention to chairs and tables. Ours did have a dining table and chairs, a nice bed, and bedding for others on the floor. Our host was incredibly sweet, stocking food for us, dropping off gifts, and very helpful with directions. Eli and Ruby and one of Sawyer’s old school buddies, Fletcher, all showed up during that phase to witness the events, add their personalities to the mix, and generally ramp up energy levels.

We interspersed going to events and ceremonies with outings to a couple of national parks, temples, and local sights, getting to know our surroundings, becoming more comfortable with local transport, and sampling local markets, squid ink ice cream, exercise stations along city trails, steep hiking trails and incredibly friendly and helpful locals. The highlight, of course, was Sawyer and Jake’s silver medal race in the 10K event late in the week of competition. They were denied an earlier bronze medal because of a pretty sketchy disqualification protest, but brought home silver in style. The medal ceremony was one of those proud parental moments for the books. Too bad the Paralympics are so ignored by television coverage and general interest, because it is an inspiring and powerful display of overcoming odds and heroic effort at an elite level. And the personal stories of tragedy and commitment are pretty incredible. As Sawyer suggested, we ought to schedule the Paralympic games ahead of the actual Olympics and give it the coverage it deserves.

Anyway, the good news is that we all got to participate in it, got tours of the athlete village, benefited from all the schwag showered on Sawyer and the team, and mingled with other families/athletes doing the same.

Part II – After the games, we traveled the country with Sawyer for another two weeks. We had a rental car, which made it pretty luxurious and nimble by comparison to depending on public transport. Luckily the navigation system (we named it Karen) got us wherever we desired (mostly). Just type in the destination and follow directions. If we’d had to depend on paper maps, we’d probably still be in Seoul! Also turns out that it is incredibly helpful to have a 25-year-old with a good phone along these days. Sawyer saved us on numerous occasions when it came to finding a room, deciphering a town, locating a restaurant. Would have been pretty different without him. We covered a lot of ground, only missing the southeastern quadrant of the country. Mostly we hopped from national park to national park, hiking trails, visiting temples, getting doses of culture. We stayed in a variety of AirBnB and motels, mostly at $50/night, either cooking in our rooms, or going out for Korean food. Again, little emphasis on beds and chairs and tables. Rooms were often just a warm floor with mats and blankets and a bathroom with uncontained shower drainage. Workable, but spare. We did have a couple of nicer rooms, with beds, chairs, balconies.

Our travels took us all the way south to the island of Jeju, which was quite tropical by comparison – palm trees and blossoming cherry trees, volcanic peaks and lava tube caves, sea food everywhere (think live octopus and squid). We rented bikes one day to cruise through some islands – no bikes big enough for Sawyer or me – pretty much a BMX experience. Recreation, South Korea style, is a very social affair. Peaks generally had 30-50 people on them, all taking selfies and talking at high volume. Tourists arrived literally by the busload and trails were packed with Koreans all in the same outfits – stretch pants, trekking poles, big hats, day packs.

Rather than try to chronicle our time, I started a list of Korean observations. So, in the interest of saving space, here’s a sample:

– Koreans pour their friend’s drinks, never their own – a symbol of the Confucian/Buddhist emphasis on community over individual;
– Koreans are helpful to an excruciating degree;
– I never felt threatened or unsafe anywhere;
– Recycling is routine and expected, from food waste to cardboard, and from apartment buildings to ferry terminals;
– They may pride themselves on Korean beef and pork, but we never saw livestock, anywhere;
– Always park your car straight and between the white lines, and always back into parking spaces;
– Bread isn’t easy to find – have to go to bakeries for it;
– Korean restaurant food comes fast and is served REALLY hot;
– Korea may be the only country on earth with an extensive and impressive penis park (really!);
– Trails in Korea feature steep stairways bolted into rock walls – there isn’t a switchback in sight;
– Not a book or magazine in view – screens everywhere;
– Paths and trails and city parks have exercise stations for workouts and stretching, and they get used;
– Smog is the biggest downside to Korean life – masks abound;
– Nature in solitude is not a thing – recreation is social;
– Motel rooms come with toothbrushes, razors and toothpaste, a vanity table complete with hair spray, dryer, and cosmetics;
– Holidays in Korea seem somewhat random and unexplained;
– Trails/nature is manicured – topiary, paved walkways, aisles of flowering trees, pagodas on lakes;
– Nude public baths are the norm, and refreshingly so;
– Obesity is not a thing.

So, here’s my strategy to produce world peace. One word – travel.

Once you experience a place, a culture, a local history, a people, it is really hard to imagine visiting the terror and devastation of warfare on them. It’s that simple. From a distance, and through the fog of propaganda and ignorance, it’s easy to stereotype a culture, to demonize them, to basically dehumanize them. In essence, it’s easy to fall prey to the hype and disinformation fed to us by people in power with ulterior motives. Once you go there and meet people, share a water bottle with them on a hot trail, get directions from them in a strange city, find out about the backdrop of history that informs their culture, appreciate just how much like you they are, it’s well nigh impossible to imagine dropping bombs on them, leveling their cities, throwing thousands into refuge camps, ruining lives by the score, killing civilians.

I know, it’s simplistic. It’s naive. And you can come up with examples of warfare and horror visited on people by neighbors who know them intimately. But it is also undeniable that visiting a place, whether it’s downtown Nairobi, the shores of the Yucatan, the markets of Seoul, or the mosques of Istanbul, mingling first-hand with the streams of culture and religion and custom and history there, coming face to face with the reality of how fundamentally the same we all are, when the politics and drama are stripped away, it becomes much more difficult to perform the act of dehumanization it requires to visit death and destruction for political purposes on those same people.

The whole time we were in South Korea, I kept flashing on the tension we are experiencing with that part of the world. With the posturing and threat bandied about as if there are no casualties that come from such behavior. With the legacy of conquest and conflict that has been visited on that country – from the Mongols to the Japanese to the Korean War – each one flattening the country, erasing history, burning and pillaging and terrorizing the population. How the peninsula has been razed and rebuilt repeatedly. How incredibly resilient it has been, and how warm and accepting and helpful it remains. And I leaven that with the vitriol spewed by politicians, and the absolute disregard for any nuance of understanding or compassion, never mind any reckoning with history or deeper introspection.

That’s it. Travel. Experience. Be there first hand, meet people, get your hair cut, buy food from a stall, look at art, walk the beaches and trails, shake hands, watch parents with their children, take pictures of each other, laugh at the awkwardness of trying to order food off a Korean menu – then go back and see how you feel about pushing the “big button” and raining hell down on that part of the world.

Probably won’t get me the Nobel Peace Prize, but there you have it . . . Al’s Rx for peace on Earth!

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