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Stranger in a Strange Land Newsletter: December 2005

Dear Readers:
I've gone from Mr. Yang's organic tangerine farm, to Mr. Kim's organic egg farm, from one cheap and uncomfortable overnight spa to another, then for one week I dished out the cash to pay for a single room in a motel, and now I'm in Jiri-san, the most famous mountain in Korea, at a vegetable farm doing all kinds of work. My birthday is on December 3rd and this will be the first time I'll be away from home on my birthday.

And hypothetically, if you are in the Eastern Standard Time Zone of the US and would like to, hypothetically, send me an e-mail with birthday wishes you would have to send it by Friday night or, at the latest, early Saturday morning for me to read it on my birthday because it is 14 hours ahead here, hypothetically (wait no, that one I'm certain of). Anyway, I am here in Jiri-san in southern South Korea working on a WWOOF farm for a man who is often very, unintentionally (I think), insulting but gives me plenty of food, a bed to sleep on, and WORK and is thus a lot better match than the other WWOOF farmers I had. And I am now in the location I really want to be: Jeju the so-called sub-tropical island was not the place for me. Well, read on for more detail but I'll just say now happy holidays, happy season of shining light into the darkness, and take care wherever you are in the world.

All the best to you all,
Yours,
Eli


Here's the news:

I was fired from volunteer work. The first time was upsetting; it was the second time that was really traumatizing. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and my mouth closed for this one in Jiri-san. My friend Trey, among others, tells me I have no tact. While I agree, that was in fact the trigger which set off my expulsion from each farm, I've also gone over it so many times in my head and realized that not only was I fair in my objections (honestly, not that that really matters on issues of tact) but most importantly each place kinda sucked, and I would have had to leave soon for my own health anyway. I only wish I had kept my mouth shut for a little while and not been so suddenly and unexpectedly given the boot.

I've also gone over it and realized that Mr. Yang wasn't such a bad guy, in fact I think he was a pretty cool guy. He truly wanted me to have a good time on Jeju, he fed me well, and he knew how to treat his ancestors. The only problem is I honestly don't think he enjoyed his work and therefore couldn't imagine that I would like to do work and understand work. After four days of always being given the same busy work on the farm I just had to try to say something as gently as possible about wanting to do work that was really HELPFUL to his farm. It's a little heartbreaking to talk about the lackluster, defensive way he replied: as I said I honestly don't think he liked his work or understood that I did want to work. With that said, by that time I was very angry at him for being so negligent that whole week and now saying, "Well, if you feel that way maybe you should go to another farm. What about Mr. Kim's farm where you stayed the first night?"

Worried about the fact that I would be staying at this unheated place in the middle of nowhere, alone, and with what appeared to be not very much food, I still went there with Mr. Yang two days later on Saturday. My fears were assuaged when we arrived and there were many people there just sitting down to lunch and everyone seemed so happy and the food looked so colorful.

Mr. Kim grew organic eggs, had an organic vegetable garden, educated large groups of young school children who came to his farm, was often written about in the newspapers and magazines, and seemed well liked by all. I found him to be a real asshole. I don't know what else to say. Not only were all my fears about the farm itself true (plus the hot water wasn't working, though every day or two Mr. Kim said it would be coming along in a day or two), but as far as I can tell Mr. Kim never put in any effort to fulfill any of the three things agreed upon by WWOOF farms: food, work, and shelter. He allowed me to sleep on a wooden floor in a nice, clean (albeit roach infested) room and eat the eggs and vegetables that grew on his farm. I rummaged around to find an actual mattress and a little bit of other food.

He did help by driving me to the highway five or ten minutes away so I could hitchhike into town. But when I called him later that day and asked where and when I could meet him so he could drive me back (I didn't even know the address of the farm) he said he was done with work, and suggested I get help from the friend I had hung-out with in town or from Mr. Yang. And he hung-up. Mr. Yang sure wasn't anxious to help me out, but he did drive me back to Mr. Kim's farm and he bought me some dinner even. Like I said: not really a bad guy (though I haven't gotten into how he almost put me in a life and death situation with his negligence...).

Anyway, I woke-up around 8:15am and went to Mr. Kim right away to ask what work I would be doing that morning. He was mildly interested in how I had gotten to the farm but in regards to work, he just said to go take my time having breakfast and talk about it later. I had some eggs. Then I made a list of all the questions I had for him such as: "Where am I?" "When will the hot water be available?" and "What work will I be doing and when?" Before I could get to the question about my work (granted it was at the bottom) he literally shouted something about business he had to attend to and literally ran away. I just decided to relax that morning in my room rather than try to ask for work for a third time: if he really wanted me to work he could ask.

In the afternoon some more of his friends came by and I made them spaghetti with the ingredients I had bought in town out of desperation. They, in response, drove me into town, and took me to an overnight spa, where you soak in a hot tub or two, sit in a sauna or three, and then sleep on the floor with blankets and pieces of wood you place under your neck for a pillow (all fairly uncomfortable but relaxing and nice in that environment). Then the next day they told Mr. Kim to give me the day off, offered me a few well paying jobs for after WWOOF, drove me to a couple tourist spots including "Mysterious Road" where visual doesn't match physical and ones car rolls uphill... Then, they drove me home. That must have been some really good spaghetti.

And as Mr. Kim was shouting at me the next morning to leave the farm right away, I thought of these friends and there willingness to help, and thought that everything would be okay. Though my gut said otherwise, I decided in my head mid-morning on Wednesday that it was a good time to ask Mr. Kim to pay for my food bill. Earlier he had told me that there was a television crew coming to do a piece on his farm and they wanted to interview me about WWOOF. He apologized for how terrible the food, hot water, and heating situation has been and that I didn't have to do very much work that day in exchange. If I could just talk to them, say some nice things about WWOOF, and let them take some pictures of me working, that'd be greeaat! In my head, that seemed like a good time to ask for some money.

But I knew actually it was never a good time to ask Mr. Kim for money. But I did anyway and it escalated quickly. He said I hadn't done any work. I said I have and currently do want to work. Well, he wanted me to leave, right away. And so I had to.

As I said I took comfort in the fact that my friends both from Mr. Kim's farm and a great friend from the local university would be able to help me. And they really tried to think of ways for me to stay and work somewhere on Jeju Island and I felt so lucky to have all these people helping me. There were three people there all talking, in Korean, about what I could do. Occasionally, they told me what they were talking about. The main idea was for me to work as an English teacher for little kids. But in a day or two I realized that wasn't at all what I wanted to do.

The really unfortunate thing was that none of them could offer me the simple and very valuable help of allowing me to sleep on their couch or something. I've found in Korea and Japan both that people are very helpful and generous but there is often a serious barrier to staying at even a close friend's house for even a night or two. They reasoned that the over night spas were the cheapest places to sleep so I slept there a few nights and they began to loose their charm. When we spoke later and I told them I didn't want to teach they wanted to know how they could help me then. My plan had been WWOOF, that hadn't worked out, and now I had no idea what I was going to do on Jeju and had no idea how they could help me. I started to have no idea what I was going to do in Korea? Why am I here anyway?

Rightly so, that brings me finally to some of the questions that you readers have given me. "Why Korea?" has been the simplest, most common, and most difficult! One person just asked me generally about why I travel, if I'm running away from something, "or desperately seeking something?" Yeah, we have some serious readers at the Stranger in a Strange Land Newsletter: they're not here to mess around. As it turns out, when I really question myself they're all the same question, so that makes things a little easier.

The truth is, on one level, I totally didn't have to come to Korea: it could have been any country with a language, alphabet, and/or culture that interested me. Languages truly fascinate me and I enjoy the process by which I learn them just by chilling in a country for awhile. I could write a lot about that, and it is happening here in Korea! I still don't know much but I can see myself learning more and more each day and I love it. I spent most of today with people who spoke almost no English, doing simple, real work like picking napa cabbage and cleaning chestnuts and seeing old women actually making kimchee and, while trying not romanticize about it, I am still in awe about how cool it all was.

So there's the adventure: languages, culture, people, history, beautiful scenery, pretty girls, and all that good stuff! The landscaping season was over, most of my friends had gone to colleges far away, and I had fully recovered from Japan: why wouldn't I travel? But again it could have been a lot of places. Why Korea?

I don't want to wake up tomorrow, find myself an old man, and realize I haven't done anything. I don't mean haven't done anything, I mean basically haven't done anything. I'm not afraid of "selling-out," accomplishing nothing, or not living my life at all. I'm afraid of almost living my life. "There's a big difference between all dead and mostly dead," as "The Princess Bride" wisely tells us; the same goes for living. Another quote, this one from the song "The Christians and the Pagans": "You find magic in your God and we find magic in everything." I wanna find magic in everything: I heard there were shamans in Korea and shamans are the ones who find magic all over the place. And I figure if you can do that, and work with the Other World, you can actually do some good in this world. If I did that I'd feel like I did something. I'd get to the end and say, "Sweet. It's a done deal: I did what I could. And some of it was pretty good."

You ask and I'll answer, really. Alright, more specifically? Am I running away from something: I have with travel in the past but I honestly think I'm going where I need to go and seeing what comes next. Desperately seeking: I don't know if it's desperate but I told you I'm looking for something. Then this person also asked if "traveling makes me happy" and I'll have to say: of course not. Following my heart and stuff like that make me happy, and sometimes that includes travel. Then, then this reader had the gall to ask: "Are you happy?" I set a limit at this point and choose not to answer this one. Iíll answer your question, even some personal one, but I set a limit.

Readers really feel free to write, ask questions, praise me to high heaven, tell me I smell to high heaven, or seriously tell me if you were offended or what not. I'll read what you wrote and probably answer your questions. Thank you so much for reading this.