All posts for the month September, 2008

Two weeks ago I went to a meeting in Seoul, South Korea. I’ve never been to Korea before and knew very little about it, apart from the fact that the country was split and that North Korea was an isolationist regime with nuclear ambitions which sounded rather scary. Last time I had the chance to visit the country, the security situation was looking dodgy and I decided not to go on grounds of safety. Of course this time everything was calm and negotiations were looking positive. This all changed while I was there as North Korea unsealed its reactor and stated that the USA had reneged on its commitments, but this had no noticeable effect in Seoul.

I have previously visited Beijing in China and was impressed by mile upon mile of high-rise apartment blocks mixed in with commercial developments, separated by very wide avenues which offset the crowding to give a feeling of space.  Seoul was similar, though the buildings were taller, more closely packed and more modern (at least in the areas we passed through on the way from the airport in our plush limo-bus).  Apart from the idea that if someone were to push just one tower block over, the whole lot would go down like dominoes, it struck me that there is very little space for recreation.

The city of Seoul is spread out along the Han river in the northwest of southern Korea, quite close to the demilitarised zone which separates the north from the south.  I found out a little of the chequered history of the country when I visited the famous palaces which housed the royal family until 1910, and the museums nearby.  These palaces are reminiscent of the Forbidden City in Beijing, with very ornate carvings and bright colours.  Many of the palaces have been damaged by invaders during the 20th century and are in the process of being restored to their former glory.  Civilisation in Korea goes back thousands of years, and encompasses the roots of Japanese society, a fact which has only relatively recently been admitted in Japan.  It’s clear that Korea’s modern history is one of repetetive conquest, and there seems to be quite some remaining resentment with nearby neighbours, particularly Japan, which invaded in 1908 and annexed Korea in 1910 until the end of the second world war in 1945.  At that time Korea was divided into the North, administered by the USSR and the South, under the control of the USA.  There followed a few years of calm until the North invaded the South in 1950, triggering the Korean War.  This happened 10 years before I was born, and was sufficiently recent that I have childhood memories of its horror, presumably picked up from adults who remembered it.  The two parts of Korea are still officially at war, though both would seem to want to make peace.  As ever, they are pawns in larger conflicts.

To some extent my visit to Korea was more a question of running the gauntlet than enjoying the ride.  I was not comfortable with the food and was a little concerned about my health.  In the event my health was fine.  The food was another matter.  We stayed in a wonderfully posh hotel which has its own theme park attached, and at the start of the week I ate mainly in the bar, which had a small selection of poor imitations of American staples including a club sandwich, with a fried egg in it.  The sushi was apparently wonderful but not to my taste.  Breakfast was the saving grace; the hotel offered by far the most comprehensive and exciting breakfast buffet I have ever seen, with cereals, breads, fruit (including fresh lychees), eggs, omlette, meats, noodle bar, asian salads and more.  Later in the week I discovered the lunch buffet, which was another step beyond amazing with its selections of sushi so attractive that even I had to have some.  And the desserts were beyond my dreams.  What a lovely idea to offer small glasses of pulped fruit juices as a dessert, and in so many varieties, including the relatively familiar mango to raspberry and others.  All this for a mere $70 or so (ouch!).

We had much less success in the hotel’s extrordinarily expensive and poor posh Chinese restaurant.  What a load of rubbish!  Sea slug, or sea cucumber, is something which I shall not be trying again.  Imagine having a really bad cold and not enough to drink, then blowing your nose.  Enough said?

One night we ventured bravely forth around the lake to a part of town where there was a concentration of restaurants, lit by brightly coloured neon signs.  Operating the well known (?) principle of game theory by which you find the first restaurant which “will do” and then select the next place which is better than that one, we chose a Korean barbeque restaurant which looked clean and had reasonably happy-looking clients.  Our table had two tubes descending from the ceiling, which turned out to be an extraction system for BBQ smoke.  The waitress knew two words in English: “beef” and “pork”.  This turned out to be enough, and we ordered several different kinds of beef and one of pork.  Along came a bowl of hot coals and a huge tray of fascinating salad leaves (large, fresh and succulent looking) and peppers, and bowls of strange sauces and all things strange.  The salad I decided to leave, on the basis that I didn’t know if the water was to be trusted – shame, but I have to be careful.  The meat arrived and was cooked for us by the waitress.  We dared to sample it and dip it into odd things while drinking Soju from small glasses.  Soju is the local spirit and is made from sweet potato.  We were quickly pleased.

I was impressed by the helpfullness of the few Korean people we met in the street.  Twice we were approached while looking lost by people whose only interest seemed to be directing us where we wanted to go or explaining how the efficient, clean, bright and nice-smelling underground system worked.  There were a few unwanted taxi touts at the airport but apart from that we were hardly hassled at all.

And the hotel brought me a birthday cake without being asked!

Lemongrass's Korean birthday cake

Lemongrass’s Korean birthday cake

I’m skulking around a garden in the grounds.  I don’t have permission to be here and I’m trying not to be seen.  There are some safe places and others which I should keep clear of, such as the track past the old house; people might see me out of the windows.  Away from there, no-one is around and all is peaceful.  I’m the one doing the haunting: this place is important to me.

The garden is beautiful and green, with bushes and tall trees.  Parts are wild, parts more formal.  Here, there’s a pattern of stones inlaid into the lawn; a long curve.  I think there’s a lake nearby.

I need to go into the outhouses by the track, but just beyond the building, a father is walking with his child.  Perhaps if I am quiet?  I creep inside and around the corner, but the child senses me.  His father tells him to wait, while he checks.  I hide around a corner and hope he won’t be thorough.

Almost, he doesn’t see me, but then looks around my corner and recognises me, knowing I have no right to be here.  I want to explain how much I belong here, how I can help look after the garden, but I can’t find the words.

Waking early in the morning I have time to think about my dream and catch a little of it in my memory.   Half awake, I begin to find words to tell the man how I can make my contribution in return for being allowed to stay in the garden.  I have a portfolio of drawings and maps which will be helpful in maintenance and planning.  I have a feeling for what needs to be done, perhaps.  I imagine beginning to dig out the part by the lake where the wall is failing, and imagine my work being discovered and someone leaving materials for me to use.

It’s an important dream, I recognise, and not hurtful or very disturbing.  I think it tells me about my desire to belong.  I remember liking to be at school when no-one else was there, and feeling a sense of belonging.  I took it quite far.  I found where the cleaners kept their key, and got several copies made.  I used my key carefully, and was never found in places I shouldn’t have been.  I gave a copy to my friend, but he used it to break into the science lab and steal an old hand grenade.  He came back another day to put it back, not realising the teacher was in the lab, and was caught.  He confessed where the key came from, and the teacher’s reaction was interesting: he kept quiet.  I wonder what his insight was; he never discussed it with me despite the fact that we were quite close.

I had a similar experience at my next school, a little different as the oldest pupils were allowed a key; I just got mine a little early.  I seem to remember that when I was in the top class, a teacher said there was no need to give me a key, seeing as I already had one.  When I left that school, I often returned and used my key to get into secret places; I stayed the night several times sleeping in the loft of the gymnasium!

Later again I worked in a research lab; now I had free access to a large lab site and often spent all night walking the eerie corridoors and peering into the labs.  Once again, I liked to be there when no-one else was.

Part of the feelings associated with this story are to do with belonging and part perhaps explain my desire for hacking.  Computers maybe in the past, but locks certainly.  I have a great relationship with doors and keys.  I still have a Halls and Catering knife from Loughborough University, the end of which I carved into a working copy of the master key for my hall of residence.  Students used to come to me to let them back into their rooms if they locked themselves out.  The measurements for that key are drawn on a piece of paper sealed and buried under a tree on an island in a reservoir in Leicestershire.  The lattitude and longitude were once built into the structure of my bed in hall.  There are electronic doors at my office which open without the need for me to use my keycard, and forget to report that I’ve been through.  This is pointless, as there are no restrictions on access.  In the old tradition of hacking, I’ve rarely ever used my skills to do wrong – it’s not the motivation, and I don’t have the need.

Remembering a dream is so rare for me, and this one has a wonderful feeling, as well as a sad one.  I’m glad to have been able to write about it.