Saturday, October 11, 2008

Deep Thoughts

I decided to record some Deep Thoughts from Jack Handey.

-I remember asking my grandfather, when I was a child, about sex, and he said "Instead of telling you about sex, let me show you something", and he took me out to the pasture and there on the ground were my parents, having sex.

-It takes a big man to cry, but it takes an even bigger man to laugh at that man.

-Maybe in order to understand mankind, we need to look at the word itself: "Mankind" is made up of two words; "mank" and "ind". What do these words mean? It's a mystery, and that's why so is mankind.

-I bet one legend that keeps recurring throughout history, in every culture, is the story of Popeye.

-If ever you catch on fire, don't look in a mirror, because that will really panic you.

-We tend to scoff at the beliefs of the ancients, but we can't scoff at them personally, to their faces, and that is what annoys me.

-If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is "God is crying." And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is "Probably because of something you did."

-I think a good gift for the President would be a chocolate revolver. And since he is so busy, you'd probably have to run up to him real quick and give it to him.

-Just because swans mate for life, I don't think its that big a deal. First of all, if you're a swan, you're probably not going to find a swan that looks much better than the one you've got, so why not mate for life?

-I believe in making the world safe for our children, but not our children's children, because I don't think children should be having sex.

-If you're in a war, instead of throwing a hand grenade at the enemy, throw one of those small pumpkins. Maybe it'll make everyone think how stupid war is, and while they are thinking, you can throw a real grenade at them.

-I think a good product would be "Baby Duck Hat". It's a fake baby duck, which you strap on top of your head. Then you go swimming underwater until you find a mommy duck and her babies, and you join them. Then, all of a sudden, you stand up out of the water and roar like Godzilla. Man, those ducks really take off! Also, Baby Duck Hat is good for parties.

-I wish I would have a real tragic love affair and get so bummed out that I'd just quit my job and become a bum for a few years, because I was thinking about doing that anyway.

-If God dwells inside us, like some people say, I sure hope He likes enchiladas, because that's what He's getting!

-Instead of studying for finals, what about just going to the Bahamas and catching some rays? Maybe you'll flunk, but you might have flunked anyway; that's my point.

-If we could just get everyone to close their eyes and visualize world peace for an hour, imagine how serene and quiet it would be until the looting started.

-I hope that after I die, people will say of me: "That guy sure owed me a lot of money."

-Instead of a trap door, what about a trap window? The guy looks out it, and if he leans too far, he falls out. Wait. I guess that's like a regular window.

-If you go flying back through time and you see somebody else flying forward into the future, it's probably best to avoid eye contact.

Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Remembering South Korea

Several things stick out in my mind when I think back to life in South Korea. One is "hectic". Korea is a nation on the move. Nothing closes. People barely sleep. There is no such thing as "rush hour" because every hour is just as insanely busy as the previous one.

Another thing that sticks out in my memory is "delicious". Korean food is absolutely fantastic, and I have had a hard time trying to find something similar here in North America. I realize why it would be impossible to have authentic Korean food in Canada, and that is because our health codes are just too strict. Still, I would love to go back and eat some kalbi and kimchi and shabu-shabu. Look them up. They're delicious!

South Korea (formally the Republic of Korea or ROK) is a republican-style democracy of just over 55 million people jammed into a mountainous peninsula about the size of Denmark. It has 3 major cities; Seoul (the capital), Daegu, and Busan. These aren't the only notable cities.

Because of the rippled geography, most of the land in the ROK is mountainous, so every valley and plateau has a city stuck in it and the result is that the entire country appears to be paved. This is true in some respects, but there are areas between Seoul and Daegu that are wooded and quite serene, and the entire area along the DMZ between North and South Korea is practically untouched by civilization! This is an ironic benefit of the 60-year standoff between the two countries.

Regarding North Korea, most South Koreans don't care too much about their Stalinist brothers to the north. They believe that the western media is alarmist and biased, and I never met a South Korean who actually believed that there would be another war on the Korean peninsula. Most laugh at the idea, and many feel that the presence of 50,000 American troops in South Korea only serves to inflame the situation.

Instead, South Koreans believe that one day North Korea will run out of economic and political options and will collapse, much like East Germany in 1991. South Koreans are somewhat against this scenario, as they know that they will be burdened with a huge amount of economic responsibility as the cost of re-unification between the two Koreas will undoubtably be born by South Korea. Even if the international community were to donate billions of dollars to bring North Korea up to speed, in the case of re-unification South Korea will be saddled with the social and economic costs of caring for millions of poor, uneducated, and starving North Koreans who will flock to centres like Seoul in search of a better life. This is the scenario most South Koreans believe will occur in the future, and they are not particulary happy about it.

At least, these were the results of my discussions with Koreans on the situation. Most Koreans are happy to talk about it and it is not a taboo subject. In fact, most Koreans are happy to talk about anything, particularly in English. Koreans come off at first as aloof and even rude if you are a stranger to them (the result of having millions of people jammed into a small space), but I found that they are approachable and open up right away. Whether on the subway, in a store, or at a bar, it was very easy to approach Koreans and say "Annyong-Hasseyo" (hello), at which point they will start asking questions and even blush a little (the girls will, anyways).

And once a Korean is friends with you, they are friends for life. Friends and family are synonomous in Korea. To be friends with someone means they are part of your family, as well, and Koreans will go to the ends of the earth to help out their friends and family. It's a culture of honour and sacrifice and is heavily based on loyalty, and the benefit for a Canadian such as myself was that even though I haven't seen my Korean friends in three years, I can still call on them whenever I want. That was a nice change from our cold and impersonal North American culture, where the individual has loose connections to friends, tighter connections to family, and very little connection with society as a whole. In fact, in North America I find myself often alone and without a safety net whereas if I were in Korea today I would have three dozen people to entertain me and catch me if I fall.

Another thing I remember about Korea was the crazy expat community. The vast majority of expats in South Korea are ESL teachers, with a few U.S. soldiers thrown into the mix. And like any ethnic minority, they all tend to band together (it's hard to critiscize other minorities in our own countries who do the same). And what do westerners in the late 20s and early 30s like to do when they are together in large groups? If you guessed "drink" give yourself a prize.

Korea seems like one big bar nestled between Japan and China. Koreans drink a lot. Visitors drink a lot. Everybody drinks a lot and I started to distrust people who said "I don't drink". And man, did we have some wild parties in Korea! Because all us expats were in the same boat, we all had a common ground for getting along, and hordes of us would permanently take over a bar and make it our 'spot'. One such place was the Wa-Bar in a Seoul suburb called Suji.

When we first took over the bar, the staff and owner spoke no English. Several years later they could speak to us in modern slang, and the owner even gave me the shirt off his back the night before I left!

One last thing I remember is that the expat community was very helpful to newbies who just landed in Korea. Every person newly in Korea arrives slightly bewildered, utterly confused, and not sure what to do next. It is a completely foreign culture, after all, and is absolutely terrifying at first! My advice is to get to know other expats right away (check out Dave's ESL Cafe forums for info on expat hangouts all over Korea). The expats will help people get oriented, befriend them, and watch them grow into confident members of the expat community.

When I first arrived I was completely dazed but thankfully other westerners who had been there awhile got me oriented. By the time I left, two years later, I was a veteran. I loved watching new people show up all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and completely unsure of where they were, and over time I would watch them transition into people with their own experiences of Korea (and the ability to read the alphabet...which, for some reason, I noticed that it was mostly expat males who picked up this skill while most of the females hardly bothered trying...can't explain it). It was a strange existence, making friends with other expats from all over the English speaking world. I considered some of them to be the best friends in the world while I was there, and then I would watch them rotate out never to be heard from again. I did the same thing.

That's all I can think of right now. I'm sure I'll have other posts about Korea in the future.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Port Hardy As I See It

Port Hardy is a small town on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Before I go any further I do have to explain the difference between Vancouver and Vancouver Island, because most people say "Oh, what's living in Vancouver like?"

First and foremost, Vancouver is a city of 2.5 million on the MAINLAND while Vancouver Island is that big ISLAND off the west coast of Canada. The city of Victoria is on the island, as is Nanaimo, Comox, Courtney, and Tofino. Port Hardy is nearly 700 km north of Vancouver!

Now let's get back to Port Hardy. Like I said, it's a small town of rougly 3500 people, yet it's the biggest town on the 'North Island'. It's part of what is called the Tri-Port Area, which encompasses the towns of Port Hardy, Port McNeill, and Port Alice. These towns are all within a 30 minute drive of one another yet they are all far removed from any cities.

Campbell River is the closest thing to a city, and it lays 250+ km to the south. You need to drive for 2 1/2 hours over a mountain range on a single-lane highway to get a cup of Tim Horton's coffee or a Big Mac...or purchase any clothes, or see a movie, or even eat at a decent restaurant!

Port Hardy itself is made up of the town and two outlying areas, Storie's Beach and Coal Harbour. Then there are three First Nations reserves surrounding the town. They are people of the Gwaksak'la band. Or the Gks'wa'llk' band, or something along those lines. There's a lot of Ws and Ks with apostrophes stuck between them.

Port Hardy was founded on natural resources and national defence. Fishing, logging, and mining used to be the main job resource in the area, but 10 years ago the huge open-pit copper mine closed down and hundreds lost their jobs. More recently Western Forest Products (WFP) closed down its Port McNeill operations and many more people lost their jobs, leaving only the commercial fisheries to support the local economy. The fisheries have had a couple of bad years due to dwindling stocks, government mismanagement, and the slumping US economy, so the money that is there is just barely enough to support the region.

Despite all this Port Hardy holds its annual festival every July celebrating it's heritage. These are FiLoMi Days (Fishing, Logging, Mining). It's pronounced "Fe-lo-mee" Days, but lately has been jokingly referred to as "Blow-me Days" (although the odds of that happening in Port Hardy are slim).

When I first moved to Port Hardy the locals warned me about the cougars. There were apparently hordes of cougars rampaging all over the north Island, devouring unsuspecting cyclists from France (perhaps the French are a delicacy?). I was sufficiently petrified to not wander around at night but after a couple of years I realized that the cougars in question didn't inhabit the surrounding forests but the local pubs. After seeing some of these beasts of prey gyrating pitifully at the bar, sporting hairstyles from 1982 and enough makeup to audition for a role in The Evil Dead, I decided it was better to take my chances with the felines in the woods.

You get the picture.

The town itself has a couple of conveniences for people either living or visiting here. There is a grocery store (Overwaitea...I'm not kidding, that's the actual name of it), an A&W, a couple of movie rental places, a government liquor store as well as three private "Cold Beer & Wine" stores, and 4 restaurants of varying quality. My advice for dining out is to go to Sporty's on Market Street. Not only is the food decent and the ambience very nice, but it's also the only joint in town that hasn't been closed once a year by the health authorities!

If you're expecting to find romance in Port Hardy then you're in for disappointment. Assuming that you're a normal person, who showers and has at least a rudimentary sense of style, have no substance abuse problems and have a job, then the available pool of eligible singles here is non-existent. You will have no problems picking up an overweight junky wearing jogging pants and gumboots if that's what you're looking for (this applies to both men and women, gay or straight).

That's not to say that there are no intelligent and attractive people here, it's just that they are all 'spoken for', or they've moved away to Victoria or Vancouver. If you're single I wouldn't advise moving to Port Hardy. Despite a great job and an awesome two-story town house on the beach, I can't hack being single in this town.

For the nature enthusiast Port Hardy is a paradise. There are lots of trails for all levels of hikers and you can find a dozen different geographies packed into the small area. For instance, as you lounge on sandy Storie's Beach you have a great view of the Rocky Mountains on the mainland across the sea (about 40 km away), a primevel rainforest at your back, and several river valleys dotted around the area loaded with elk, deer, bears, and cougars. Around the industrial fish plants you will find boats and sea lions and from the shore you can spot the occasional humpback whale or pod of orcas.

The weather is PERFECT from about May until September, but then the rainy season hits and it doesn't stop raining until the following May! In December and January it usually snows for a couple of days but then the rain washes it all away. There's none of that -40 C weather common to Ottawa and Edmonton and Saskatoon, nor does the thermometre ever go above +25 C in the summer. Personally I don't like extreme heat and the fact that in the middle of August I'm still tucked into blankets at night is very nice. The beautiful and perfect summers come at a cost, however, because after September you won't be spending much time outdoors.

The people here are friendly and despite their rough exteriors they are quite intelligent. There is a certain fatalist sense of humour common to the locals and when I first moved here two years ago I couldn't understand it but now I find that the local people really crack me up.

Living and working in a community for an extended amount of time is the best way to get to know locals and I have to give the people of the North Island a lot of respect. As a rule and not just a generalization the people of the area are hard-working, honest, friendly, and quirky. I have never felt threatened nor have I ever feared that I would be ripped off. In fact of everyone I know in Port Hardy I can say with conviction that I trust them more than I trust some of my own acquaintances back in Ontario. These people display some of the best qualities of personality and values I have come across during my travels of the world. Just don't expect good customer service!

That's the nuts and bolts of Port Hardy.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Time To Go

In 2009 I'm going to either the Ukraine or Russia to teach English.

That decision came to me during a pathetic bout of self pity in which I locked myself in my apartment for an entire weekend and thought about what I wanted to do with my life.

Self-pity and pathetic introspection, memorable for getting drunk on your own and reliving events in your memory that may or may not have actually happened, are periods not generally associated with making good decisions.

It started on the Friday, and I replayed in my head everything that had led me to where I am now. I was engaged when I moved here from Ontario. My fiance, J, and I had been together for six years. We had met while working at a resort in Banff, Alberta. She was from Nova Scotia, and I was from Ontario, so we bought a crappy '87 Honda Civic and drove from Alberta to the Atlantic. We taught English in South Korea for 2 years, got to travel Asia, experience the Tsunami in 2005, and generally had a crazy life experience.

Next, we lived in Kitchener, Ontario, for a year, then came out to Port Hardy to monitor the commercial fisheries. Our wedding was set for July 2008.

Then she cheated on me.

Thank god that happened before the wedding. She had actually been having an affair with a 50-year old skipper of a fishing trawler for months but she left me in April 2008.

So then I found myself single in a town of 3500 people. I dated a couple of girls, but nothing serious.

So then I started thinking about changing my life (again). Where would I go? Victoria? Vancouver? Back to Ontario? Then a Russian friend of mine on Facebook sent me a nice message, just saying hello.

And that's when I started to think of getting outside the box, so to speak. What's for me in Canada? My friends and family are in Ontario, but they're used to me being gone. I'm 32 and have no assets, and within a few years it will be too late to do the things I've always wanted to do.

I want to see the sights of Europe and the World War Two battlefields. How am I going to spend thousands of dollars for a lightning 2 week tour of Europe?

So I started doing research. Yes, teaching English in eastern Europe is a big industry! It doesn't pay well but if I wanted money I could stay in Port Hardy. It pays enough. And demand is fairly high. And why not?

What a great idea! I'm off to Russia to teach English!

The Monday after that weekend I emerged from the dark recesses of my apartment with a renewed sense of purpose and what felt like a renewed lease on life. Ironically enough it was cloudy and raining outside, but no matter. I quickly made an excuse to hang out with my friend T and 'casually' exclaimed that I was moving to Russia. I couldn't wait to see the look on her face when I announced this ludacrous plan for adventure. I'm such an adventurous guy, aren't I?

To my disappointment she simply shrugged, said "Cool" and continued to talk about her experiences as an At-Sea-Observer on west coast fishing trawlers (more on that later).

Okay, so T didn't bite but she's got her own plate full of problems to deal with in Port Hardy. I know, I'll announce to my other friend, S (who happens to be T's roomate).

S wasn't around for some reason. Maybe she was at work. I felt somewhat deflated that people were going about their usual lives. I was going to RUSSIA! Come on people! Who goes to Russia? Isn't this exciting?

I told about 10 other people over the course of the next couple of days. Some were somewhat sympathetic (or at least acting) but most simply shrugged as if to say "Ya, well I'm going to buy some vegetables tonight. Big deal".

For about two weeks after that fateful weekend I embarked on a propoganda campaign with the goal of forcing people to be wowed by my decision. I think most just grew sick of it.

It's not my fault, really. I had been stuck in Port Hardy for over two years and I was, well, bored. I was getting out of there and off to something completely ridiculous but for everyone else life in this small town would continue, with or without me.

I gave my notice to my boss (again, not much of a response except for a sarcastic "Nas Drovviya") and then prepared to dive back into the world of international ESL.