Archive for January, 2012

The twenty-third of January was New Year’s Day in the lunar calendar – known to most people in the West as Chinese New Year. Well: Chinese, Korean – same thing, right? In Korea the holiday is called Seollal and consists of the day itself, the day before and the day after. While Christmas and solar New Year’s (aka Real New Year’s) are also public holidays in Korea, they’re not really special events. Seollal and the late summer harvest festival of Chuseok are the times when Koreans return to their families for food, ancestor worship, games and gifts.

This year’s Seollal fell on a Monday, which resulted in a four-day weekend (no worker-friendly days off in lieu in Korea). The day before – Sunday (in case you don’t know the order of days in a week) Habiba and I met our friend Graeme and his friend Dylan. We went to a tourist information centre near City Hall where we played some of the traditional games that always crop up at the two big holidays.

One of these was yutnori, a game that involves throwing up four stick that are flat on one side and rounded on the other; depending on the number of flat sides up (or down, depending on your point of view) you can move one of two counters around a board a certain number of spaces; if you land on the opposing team’s counter you can send it back to the start. Habiba and Graeme won.

We threw arrow-like sticks into urns and Korean hacksack was also there. Then we dressed up in traditional dress – they just went over our normal clothes. The usual hanbok was available, but we boys all chose royal and noble costumes.

After that we walked past the entrance to the Gyeongbok Palace and walked around Bukchon, an area with lots of coffee shops and shops selling crafts, nicknacks and jewellery, as well as old-fashioned, single-storey Korean houses (hanok). We had coffee and played cards.

While walking around this area, we saw a cat lying on its side on someone’s doorstep. We realised that the cat was sick. It was breathing with difficulty, foaming at the mouth a bit and it periodically spasmed. It wasn’t blinking at all and obviously had no strength to get up. A couple of young Korean guys had also stopped and they got on the phone and got in touch with some sort of animal centre. One of them found a bit of newspaper and plastic sacking to cover the cat with to try to keep it warm. We waited there for maybe forty-five minutes in total.

We didn’t know what had happened to it. We speculated that maybe it had eaten some poison or that it had been hit by a car and was suffering from shock or even that it had rabies. Habiba was quite emotional and my voice caught when I talked about some of my family’s cats that had been affected by poison. The van that took the cat away belonged to an organisation called Karma.

After that, we headed to Insadong, where the street of souvenir and craft shops is. It also has lots of restaurants and we met another couple of people, Jacky and Chris, for dinner. We shared two big pots of soup – heated at the table on portable burners – one of dalkdoritang or spicy chicken soup, another of beef, mushroom and Korean dumplings. And we got drunk on lots of bottles of makkeolli.

It wasn’t a late night, though, and we took the bus home. Habiba cried a bit again and wondered out loud why the innocent should suffer. I didn’t really say anything, as the honest answer to that is, basically, that shit happens. Nature is full of danger and disease and death, but we humans tend to forget this because of the comfortable world we’ve built for ourselves. I had appendicitis last year, a condition that, if I’d lived in an early time, probably would have killed me and that would have been perfectly in keeping with the natural order. In simple biological terms, humans become fertile in their early teens, so a lifespan of thirty-odd years gives people enough time to raise a couple of children (the lucky ones that survive) to maturity before dying – their evolutionary purpose fulfilled.

Still, it’s not pleasant to see a fellow mammal suffering (yes, mammal – remember that just a couple of weeks ago we were happy to hook fish out of a river and let them suffocate in the air). One of the things that distinguishes humans from other animals is not our empathy or compassion – it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to say that other animals possess these things – but the breadth of our empathy and compassion. Animals (cute, furry ones, at any rate) seem to occupy a place in our minds that is evolutionarily reserved for children.

But enough of such pretentious and, indeed, portentous rambling. Overall, this Lunar New Year’s Eve was pleasant – and if not pleasant, then at least it stimulated the emotions and the mind.

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This post contains images of a graphic nature.

About a month ago, I slammed my thumb in the heavy metal door to our apartment. I was closing the door with my right hand, pulling it towards me, and I didn’t realise that, as I was leaning with my left hand on the door post, that my thumb was in the way. It made a bit of a liquid crunch.

Very quickly, I got a big black bruise under my nail, filling about half of it. Obviously, the initial injury hurt like the proverbial motherfucker (assuming that ‘hurt like a motherfucker’ is a proverb). This faded away and I was left with a half black thumbnail that didn’t seem to be causing me any problems, so I left it.

I read later that you should get the blood drained by a doctor if the bruise covers more than a quarter of the nail. The technique is to bore a small hole in the surface of the nail – a heated paper clip is apparently a good tool for this.

But I didn’t do any of that. Instead, I waited to see if it would grow out.

Well, it did, to a certain extent, but the problem I discovered on Wednesday was that the nail wasn’t being replaced with new nail – a gap was growing at the base of my nail between it and the skin. The nail itself was bulging a little from the blood underneath.

On Wednesday, then, I started picking at some flakes of what might have been skin in that gap and dislodged a few granules of dried blood. I resolved to try to scrape out what I could, so, armed with a pair of scissor that I gave a good clean and in the privacy of one of a bathroom on one of the upper floors at work, I started digging out the dried blood. One thing led to another and I ended up peeling away the thumbnail from the bottom, revealing a dense scab underneath.

I took away an oval of nail extending about halfway up the thumbnail. In addition to the compacted scab there was a fair amount of old liquid blood, which I squeezed out and washed away, which was followed by some fresh stuff. Under the scab there was a flat white surface, which I initially interpreted as nail that had grown under the scab, but which I’m now sure is bone. Apparently, the trauma to my thumb had killed the flesh underneath.

Now that I’ve cleaned all the blood away, there is a pulpy bit of flesh poking out from under half of the remaining nail; next to it is a flat pink bit of flesh. There are a couple of pockets leading away to the sides under the skin and under the nail. Most of the remaining nail is attached to the meat underneath, but the flat bit of flesh I mentioned has a shallow space over it, from where I’ve squeezed out a bit of pus – although that seems to have cleared up in the past twenty-four hours. And there’s the bone – which isn’t as hard as you might think and gives a dull, unpleasant feeling when you touch it that is just short of being pain.

I’m keeping the whole area as clean as I can, washing it regularly, avoiding using the thumb, putting antiseptic cream, a fresh plaster and some protective tape on it two or three times a day. Since I removed the nail and scab on Wednesday, some skin has already started growing over the bone from the left hand side. And, surprisingly, the whole thing hasn’t caused me any pain; it’s sensitive, running hot water over it isn’t nice, but cleaning it and poking at the dried blood hasn’t hurt at all.

Because of all this, I’m not planning on seeing a doctor about it in the immediate future. If it gets more infected or painful then that might change, but I think I’m doing as much as can be reasonably done. Also, I don’t have insurance, so it’d be expensive and the doctor would probably want an X-ray.

I don’t regret removing the nail, either, as I’m sure all that scab was preventing the skin healing and the nail regrowing. We’ll see how it develops over the next few weeks.

And now, some pictures.

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Talk about preaching to the converted. I didn’t read Christopher Hitchens’s polemic for any challenge to the way I think about religion, but rather to see what arguments against belief he might cite that I wasn’t aware of. I suppose I also bought the book because the writer had been in the news recently, having revealed that he had cancer. Then he died, and I decided to read the book.

Over its fifteen or twenty chapters, the book argues mordantly and resolutely that belief in god (and Hitchens consistently gives the word a lower case initial) is a force for evil in the world, a non-sensical idea invented by primitive peoples of the Middle East millennia ago, in the name of which atrocities have been and continue to be committed.

Each chapter is an essay arguing this point in a specific area. Subjects include the monstrousness of the Bible (a quotation show the biblical Moses ordering the slaughter of the wives and sons of defeated soldiers and taking the daughters for slaves); the fear and hatred of religion for sex and the condoning of the genital mutilation of babies; the insipid fear of modern western religions of condemning Islamic totalitarian fiats against free speech in non-Muslim countries (Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses is a friend of Hitchens’s); the speciousness of the argument that some of the worst atrocities of history have been committed in secular regimes (Hitchens argues that the fascists of Europe and Stalin’s Russia were not so much non-religious as quasi-religious; their deifications of their leaders, their extermination of all dissenting views, their use of regime-aggrandising propaganda and imagery were all features adapted from religion); and the human heroism and inspiration of Martin Luther King Jr, a preacher fighting against the biblically ordained separation of the races and supported by many communists and rationalists.

As a read, it’s pretty entertaining. Hitchens’s erudition is impressive and there are various anecdotes from his life as a reporter that show that he is widely travelled and has conversed with people of many faiths and backgrounds. He has a sense of humour that often takes the form of presenting some damning information then saying, ‘I’ll leave the reader to decide for himself …’, which is a tiny bit grating. The chapters are short enough to be read in a single sitting, but long enough to explore the issue in some depth and provide some interesting facts.

God Is Not Great concludes with a rallying call for a new Enlightenment based on science, reason and humanism. This chapter was necessary, but feels like an afterthought, as Hitchens doesn’t spend much time describing how this might be brought about – but that would be another book.

The tone struck throughout the volume under discussion is combative and it focuses on extremes of religiosity – primitive superstitions, Islamic terrorism, exploitation of the gullible, textual uncertainty (the seventy-two virgins promised in the Koran to martyrs may, apparently, really be sweet white raisins), barbarous abuses (like African bishops who tell their flocks that condoms cause AIDS) – that most intelligent, moderate believers in whatever religion would agree with Hitchens on. It doesn’t really address the simple faith in faith that many seem to possess. Thus, God Is Not Great may only serve to sway the opinions of those who are already non-religious.

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Yesterday, Habiba and I went to an ice fishing festival at a place called Hwacheon, a couple of hours drive from Seoul. The journey and tickets were organised by Seoul Hiking Group, and, along with about forty other people, mainly foreigners, we were accompanied by Habiba’s friends Aiden, Tae-gyu and Hayley.

Habiba had been to a similar event last year and had reported that it had been extremely cold, so I dressed accordingly, with two pairs of my thickest socks, a loose pair of Habiba’s leggings under my cargo trousers and six layers on my top: vest, two long-sleeved T-shirts, a hoodie, my olive jacket and my waterproof jacket. Also, I had my scarf and my two pairs of gloves (the inner pair being a disposable set that I’d got from the Jeju biking trip – another Seoul Hiking Group event).

It may have been a little too much. The weather, while cold, was sunny and calm not unpleasant.

We were given a fishing line and hook on the bus. The fishing line consisted of a short pole with a kind of twisted ladder at one end, around which was wrapped the line. The hook was a three-fold hook with a fish-shaped weight.

Once at the festival, we walked across the frozen river between two enclosures and up to the special, foreigner-only ice fishing area. In here, the five of us each claimed one of the many holes drilled at regular intervals in the ice – which was maybe a foot thick. The foreigners enclosure was maybe the size of a five-a-side football court and held a few dozen people. The regular ice fishing zones were about the same size, but were packed with a few hundred Koreans.

Basic technique consisted of lowering your hook into a hole and hoping. There was no bait. You were supposed to jerk your pole up a yard or so every few seconds. Nothing much happened in the first area we tried. When we moved a few feet away to a new area, we had much more success. Habiba was one of the first of us to catch something – a fish (trout, I believe – or sancheoneo, in Korean, which would literally mean mountain (san) stream (cheon) trout (eo), I think) about eight inches long.

I spent some time squatting over the hole watching the water below. Visibility was very good (barring ice that collected regularly on the surface) and I could see down the six or seven feet to the brown, rocky bottom. I jiggled my line and every now and then I saw a fish swim past and attempted to hook it. This didn’t work very well. The fish weren’t particularly interested in the hook and sinker.

I took to using the official technique and not long afterwards felt a tugging on my line. I pulled it up and pulled out my own fish. It was hooked through the scales on its flank. I tried grabbing it by the tail, but it flopped out of my grasp. I held it by the head and body instead and tried to unhook it from the barb. This didn’t work so I had to rip it off. Then I posed for a photo and put the fish in plastic bag, along with the others our group had caught.

The five of us caught eight fish – me, one; Habiba, two; Aiden, two; and Hayley, three. At the entrance to the ice fishing area was a place where caught fish could be barbecued for a thousand won each (about 55p). The staff cleaned the fish and wrapped them in foil, then they were put on grills over burning charcoal blocks. Then we ate them. I have no idea which one was mine, but, it has to be said that in this day and age, catching, cooking and eating your own food is a pretty rare event. The others exclaimed about how delicious the fish were; I thought they were fine, although some bits were very bitter.

After that, we looked into doing some of the various activities on offer. There were inner tube races down a slope, tiny sleds that you were either pulled along on or propelled with a pair of sticks, ice soccer (which involved kicking a puck, rather than a ball), quad bike, go-cart and skidoo races, a zip-line and being spun about in an all-terrain vehicle. We did none of them – they were too expensive or the lines were too long.

We tried ice skating, though – something I’ve never done. The boots were, apparently, less than helpful in that they didn’t go over the ankle and therefore didn’t provide any support. I staggered around half of the course with my ankles bending this way and that as my legs went in and out. It was pretty tiring and frustrating – it seemed ridiculously difficult. I stripped off my two jackets for a second attempt – which went a little more smoothly. Everyone else had had enough by that point.

Getting to the ice rink – which wasn’t a rink, but part of the frozen river – involved walking across the ice. It crackled and creaked alarmingly as we stepped foot on it. The ice was pretty clear in many places apart from trapped bubbles and white fractures running through it.

The general weather conditions seemed far from cold enough to generate the amount of ice in the place. When I asked at the information centre, it appeared that there were no special chemicals or refrigeration techniques used. The river was blocked by a number of dams – I don’t know whether these were permanent – and the lack of flow allowed the water to freeze. There were a number of snow sculptures on one bank and these were clearly made of artificially produced snow. Walking along the river, we saw a fish lorry – a smallish lorry in which you could see, through windows on the sides, hundreds of farmed fish. These were being pumped into the river through a big, orange hose.

After ice skating, we got food and then it was coming up to five o’clock and time to head home. So that’s what we did. The trip had cost us ₩41,000, plus a bit extra for skating and food. We arrived back in Seoul fairly early and Habiba and I even had time to go shopping and finish watching 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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New Year’s Eve saw Habiba and me meet some friends at British-style pub in Itaewon for dinner – most of us had fish and chips (I also had one beer). We then repaired to a cocktail bar for a couple of quite tasty drinks – a Green Fantasy and a Chocolate Martini, for me. And finally, we headed to a party at someone’s home nearby. Whilst there I had one shot of something fruity, two or three cups of wine and a few of beer.

My roleplaying buddy Matthew joined us towards midnight – and he discovered an area of of common interest with the host Moira – international peace and development. I chatted to a trio of Canadian guys – one who could pass for Korean, but is actually Vietnamese and Chinese (but Canadian) and his white visiting friends.

At midnight, we counted down and were happy.

On the way home I started feeling what I like to think of as ‘nauseous’ – although some authorities state that the correct adjective is ‘nauseated’. When we got out of the taxi, I was sick into a drain. I slept well enough, but in the morning I felt wretched. During the course of the day, I vomited maybe another seven times – usually with nothing coming up other than a bit of thick, orangey stomach juice. Habiba and I just watched TV all day; eventually, I started to feel better and managed to eat a good meal for dinner (one of Habiba’s soups).

The previous day, before meeting for dinner, I’d gone to Itaewon early and spent a bit of money at What the Book. I bought – finally – the tenth and last book in Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Crippled God. I’m a bit wary of reading it, as the series has declined since the early books – or at least, my interest in it has declined. I also got an issue each of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Realms of Fantasy. I did some writing, too.

If I have a New Year’s Resolution, it’s to concentrate on creative writing again. It’s a project that I’ve neglected over the past year in favour of working on my roleplaying game and running a campaign. The RPG has been a challenging project, and one that I feel I’ve struggled to do justice to – although it’s also been lots of fun. It’s with a certain amount of relief that I’ve decided – once the current scene and its aftermath have been played through – to stop running the game. I’m going to suggest a weekly gaming night of Scrabble, Munchkin and whatever other things people want to play – maybe even a different RPG. I’ll only be able to participate in this for a few weeks until Habiba and I leave the country at the end of February.

The time that I’ll save not working on the game will be ploughed into working on stories. The last time I was writing, I was working on a piece about hunting fairy-like creatures. I will return to that, but right now I’m working on a new one. And when I say ‘right now’, I mean it almost literally: I paused work on it here at the local Starbucks because I was feeling tired and I thought writing this blog post would wake me up. The coffee has probably helped, too.

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