Add This

Thursday, December 30, 2004

A plea from Banda Aceh

The world seemed suddenly very small when I learned of the earthquake and tsunami in southeast Asia. My immediate thought was of my newfound friends living in the region. Although they are devastated by the losses, they are responding quickly to the need for relief and supplies. This urgent message asking for help arrived today from my colleague Eddy Suprapto, president of the Alliance of Independent Journalists in Jakarta, Indonesia.

He writes:
"The disaster, which occurred on December 26, 2004, also hit eight Asian countries and seven African countries, has been estimated of claiming more than 80.000 death. According to the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Indonesia, it has been estimated that at least 45.000 people were killed in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam.

AJI, an organization of journalists in Indonesia affiliated to the
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), has members in the affected areas, namely eleven (11) in Lhokseumawe and 25 in Banda Aceh and a security officer of the AJI office in Banda Aceh, excluding AJI members in Jakarta who have relatives in Aceh.

Currently, we are monitoring their existence and their families. From the latest report we received, all of AJI members in Lhokseumawe have been found safe, while in Banda Aceh, only nine (9) people have been found alive, and 17 went missing.

Therefore, we call on the community to participate and provide assistance for our colleagues who become the victims. Financial assistance can be sent to:

Account Number: 446-1479


Name of Bank: BNI Senayan Branch


Address of Bank: Jl. Gatot Subroto Kav. 55
Central Jakarta 10210

Other assistance can be sent to:
Secretariat of AJI Indonesia
Jl. Danau Poso Blok D1 No. 29
Bendungan Hilir Jakarta
Indonesia 10210
Phone: +62-21-5790-0489 / Fax: +62-21-573-4581

Jakarta, December 30, 2004
The Alliance of Independent Journalists
Eddy Suprapto

For further information, you can contact us at:

The Jakarta Coordinating Post
Eddy Suprapto (62-818-774-724)

Ulin Niam Yusron (62-818-912-361)

Abdul Manan (62-818-948-316)

Lensi Mursida (62-815-943-5493)

Yulia Siswaningsih (62-815-1322-0269 or

Lina (62-812-839-0035)

The Banda Aceh Coordinating Post
Nani Afrida (62-812-696-0395)

The Lhokseumawe Coordinating Post
Zaenal Bakri (62-811-671-971)

Ayi Jufridar (62-811-672-648)

The Medan Coordinating Post
Dedi Ardiansyah (62-815-3313-0251)

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

My holiday wish for you

Hard to believe the year is coming to a close. At times it seems as if it were just yesterday that I left the comfort and security of regular employment to launch my own thing. Other times it feels as if I've been doing this forever.

Once again the start of the year finds me with some interesting opportunities. But before I make decisions about where my career takes me next, I'm going to take what remains of the year, unplug and spend time with my family and friends.

It's easy to get so close to and consumed by work that we can forget what's most important in our lives — in my case, the love of three little boys, my husband, my extended family and many friends and colleagues.

My wish for you this holiday season is that you take time to unplug from our electronic world and frolic in the snow, go ice skating, read something you enjoy, tell stories by the fire, take an afternoon nap, give extra firm hugs, and remember to tell the ones you love just how much they mean to you. Because the greatest gift we can give is our time. As the French playwright Jean Anouilh wrote: "Love is, above all, the gift of oneself."

I look forward to picking up our conversation in January, dear reader.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Monday, December 20, 2004

Confessions of a Christmas snooper

They get it honestly. I was the best of the best when it came to snooping for Christmas gifts. I shouldn't really care. After all, it's their surprise they've blown, not mine. But I am a little bummed and I think the boys sense they've let me down a bit. (Although that's not likely to keep them from snooping in the future. I know it wouldn't have stopped me.)

No one ever tells you how short of duration is the whole Santa Claus magic for parents. It can be as short as 8 or 10 years. And the age drops with each successive kid. Ryan and Patrick are, of course, on to the whole mom-and-dad-as- Santa scene. But keeping it real for Michael is proving to be a greater challenge this year.

That's because my snoopers obviously did not inherent my finest snooping quality — stealth! I had the ability to sniff out the most bizarre hiding places. I grew up in an old house (built in the 1920s) that had a creepy old basement. For several years, my parents took to hiding our Christmas gifts in a back storage room for which you needed a skeleton key to enter. It was sort of a crawl space, reeking of mildew. My heart pounded wildly whenever I turned the key, my overactive imagination sure that the basement troll (or my older brother) would pop out and frighten me. Did that stop me from snooping? No, sir.

We had a pop-up Starcraft camper that my dad kept in our equally creepy (and dark!) detached garage. One year, I found the keys to the camper in the junk drawer and decided to check it out. I crawled inside (since it was kept in its lowered position) with flashlight in tow and there I found the treasure trove of Christmas gifts.

I'm not sure if my parents knew of my activities. I believed that my movements were so stealth-like, with everything put exactly back in its place, that they never knew. After my boys' activity this morning, I'm guessing maybe they knew all along and just didn't say anything.

I'm not sure why I was compelled to snoop. I know that I'm not proud of my activities. My mom and dad always did their best to make Christmas special for us, despite some lean years. And they always succeeded. Looking back, my snooping leads me to believe that I doubted their ability to know my heart's desire, which is silly because they always knew.

And that's a little what I'm feeling today, that my boys doubted my gift-giving prowess. So I'm left today trying to figure out why I did what I did. And here's what I've come up with: I think on some level I don't like to be surprised. I like to be the one doing the surprising and I like to have all the information (it's the know-it-all in me).

Of course, I'm also sure there's a very big part of me that proudly (and perhaps wrongly) believes my loved ones incapable of surprising me. I fancy myself quite gifted at picking up signals whenever plans are underway. And maybe that's why my loved ones don't bother. I ruin their pleasure or they're afraid of disappointing me.

It's been a long time since my husband and I have exchanged gifts at Christmas. It's pathetic, I know, but we always seem to have a good reason. We're saving for a new house, renovating the kitchen, buying new furniture, carpet, TV, computer, bedroom suite, fill in the blank…. But while we were out on our annual shopping excursion for the boys this weekend (actually while we were sitting at the bar at the new Hoggy's at Crocker Park), we came to realization that we've got to change our ways — in many ways — in 2005.

Maybe it's a little early, but here's to a better year in 2005! And here's to learning how to enjoy life's little (and big) surprises.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Citizen journalists

A fellow panelist from the Trends in New Media panel in Korea was Oh Yeon ho, CEO and founder of OhmyNews,an online news organization driven by citizen journalists, or what he calls news guerillas. Launched in February 2000, it is, according to Mr. Oh, now the Internet's largest newspaper with 33,000 citizen reporters and more than 35 full-time reporters.

Mr. Oh founded OhmyNews in response to the massive media power wielded by big media in Korea. "Our weapon is the proposition that 'Every citizen is a reporter.'" And its working since the site has rapidly grown from its initial 10 reporters and 700 news guerillas in just four short years.

Here's how this two-way journalism works:
Anyone can register and contribute to OhmyNews, but must first agree to its code of ethics, agreeing to only write facts and not slander. Of the 150 to 200 posts received, about 80 percent will be accepted. Those whose work is accepted receive a small fee (20,000 won or $17), but Mr. Oh is very clear that these citizen journalists are not writing to make money: "They are writing articles to change the world. We give them something that money cannot. We make OhmyNews a public square and a playground for the citizen reporter and readers. Traditional papers say, 'I produce, you read' but we say 'we produce and we read and we change the world together.' That's the power of Ohmy News.

It certainly has clout. Right after the 2002 South Korean presidential election, Ohmy staff reporters got an exclusive interview with President Roh Moo Hyun. "This surprised not only the Korean media market, but also the whole nation," said Mr. Oh during his presentation. It was the first interview the president-elect granted to the domestic media after his election.

In March of this year, 200,000 people gathered for a candlelight ceremony in the center of Seoul to express support for President Roh (who was being threatened with impeachment), an event covered by 20 staff reporters and several citizens reporters. Using text, photo and video, Ohmy published a special edition of the weekly paper. "We broadcast the event live on OhmyTV and updated text articles every 30 minutes during the six-hour demonstration," said Mr. Oh. "About 400,000 OhmyNews readers participated in the demonstration online and more than 80,000 comments on the one issue were recorded on our site. With this kind of coverage, OhmyNews is challenging and changing the traditional media formula of how to write and how to edit." Oh showed footage of the demonstration, which clearly shows what real-time reporting should be.

But is this a successful venture? According to Mr. Oh, the Sisal Journal survey of media ranked OhmyNews the sixth most influential, up from 10th in 2000. And last year the site broke even financially.

Mr. Oh talked about why this concept took root in South Korea and noted several things:

• Korean readers have been disappointed by the mainstream conservative media and have sought alternative sources.
• Korea's Internet infrastructure is superior to most other countries — 75 percent-plus broadband penetration allows for easy use of multimedia.
• South Korea is small enough in size, allowing a team of staff reporters to reach news scenes in a few hours to verify citizen journalist articles. Yes, that's right they are edited and checked for accuracy.
• Korea is a "uni-polar society," meaning the entire country can be engulfed by a couple of issues, making the news guerilla approach particularly effective.
• Korean citizens were ready. They are young, many in their 20s and 30s, active and reform-minded.

And that young, smart, sophisticated and information-hungry population is now driving how news events are covered, in some cases actually participating in the coverage.

Now it seems there may be a citizen journalist site taking root here in the states by none other than Dan Gillmor, a veteran newspaper journalist and tech writer for the San Jose Mercury News. According to this piece on the recently launched OhmyNews International, Gillmor is leaving his post to start a citizen journalist venture. In his Dec. 9 blog he wrote: "I hate the idea of leaving (the newspaper). But I'd hate not trying this even more."

"I hope to pull together something useful that helps enable — and demonstrates — the emerging grassroots journalism that I wrote about in my recent book (We The Media, 2004). Something powerful is happening, it's in the early stages and I have a chance to help figure this out."

And we'll be watching closely.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Creating a Christmas card

Every year I wonder if I'll have the time, energy and inclination to send Christmas cards. And every year after I've decided there's not enough of all of the above, I start to feel that familiar twinge of guilt. It usually begins right after Thanksgiving and persists as I open card after card with adorable kids' photos and news from friends and family afar.

And so I decided again that there are simply too many people scattered across the country that deserve at least to know that they are in our thoughts as the year draws to a close.

Since Ryan and Patrick were very small, I've always done a photo card. The many aunts and uncles, cousins and friends enjoy seeing how they've grown. But as the boys got older, I was running out of original ideas. I took to getting a group photo on our summer vacation, which worked well because we were usually at the beach, the boys were happy and I could snag them for a few moments without requiring a change in outfits.

But we didn't vacation this year. In fact, the sad truth is that we never once made it to a beach this summer — surely a Hoke family first (and something not to be repeated). While I still had my neighbors digital camera after Korea, I took to taking a few photos of the boys, very random, very unplanned. And the one I chose for this year's card is now on my desktop and makes me smile whenever I sit at my computer. I sent it to Danny at work and he said it makes him smile as well.

The boys aren't dressed in any holiday finery. Honestly, my guys don't do holiday finery. They will grace their grandparents' presence on Christmas Day with a pair of wind pants or jeans, though I'll insist on a pair without holes. In fact, they are in sweatshirts or T-shirts, but it's their faces that make this photo. All three are smiling naturally (as opposed to the typical teeth-clenched "are we done yet?" grin). Ryan is looking every bit the pre-teen he is. I see an older, teenage version of Patrick in his maturing face and little Mikey...well, he's kneeling behind his brothers but has him arms around their shoulders and a big grin, the same dimple as his dad revealed in his cheek. Around his mouth are remnants of the chocolate cake he had for dessert that night. And visible on his chubby little fingers are the marker stains leftover from school.

I know plenty of moms who would die of embarrassment or freak if they saw the photo. Not me. That's Mikey — messy face and all. And that's my boys when they are relaxed and enjoying each other's company.

Anyone who knows them will probably smile when they open their card … just like Danny and I do when we look at the photo.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Katie, Katie, Katie — pull-eeze!

I never turn the TV on the morning. It's too much of a distraction for the kids and since we're always pushing just this side of tardiness, I can't afford to have them distracted from the morning routine for nary a moment. But, since it was a snowy night, I thought I'd turn on the Today show and scan the crawl for any closings. No such luck — for the kids anyway.

But there was Katie Couric, about to interview Jim Carrey about his role in the new kids' flick, "Lemony Snicket." If you have a kid somewhere in the age range of 8-12, I'm guessing you know of what I speak. Patrick, at age 10, is very into those books right now and he's going to see the movie with our neighbor on Friday. Thought I'd see what Carrey, who has my newfound respect as an actor after watching him in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," has to say about the movie and his role.

Instead, I nearly gagged as Katie giggled her way through a waste of airtime. Carrey can be thoughtful in his remarks and, clearly, he had something to say about this role. But Katie either giggled over him or tried to inject her theories on child pyschology through literature and film instead of letting the poor guy respond. The interview was about Katie (who I think was actually flirting with Carrey), not the movie. It was embarrassing to watch, both as a woman and a journalist.

Now, I can't reveal anything else, but I will share this quote from the current spirituality book I'm reviewing. I think it cuts to the core of our humanity:

"If your life is not flowing, stop stepping on the hose."

Friday, December 10, 2004

This one's for the girls

Okay, ladies, let me say one thing about my experience in Korea that I found, shall we say, “less than.” Our Asian counterparts are not quite with us when it comes to equal treatment of women.

My SPJ colleague and fellow freelancer, Sally Lehrman, warned me about this. She said it’s not necessarily an overt anti-female feeling, it’s found more in the subtleties. But since I was both American and a speaker at the conference, she guessed that I wouldn’t see it quite as much.

But see it I did. My first inclination was the first day we were in Korea. When I researched the hotel beforeheand I saw it had a fitness center and decided to bring my running gear along. Figured I was on a roll running about five miles a day in the month leading up to the trip. It would be nice to keep it going at least once or twice while in Korea.

However! When I visited the fitness center, two young Korean gentlemen, who barely spoke English, informed me, “No women. Men only.”

“You’re kidding!” I responded, laughing.

Oh no, they most certainly were not kidding. So when my friend Mac came to breakfast the next morning after his workout I snipped, “Hope you enjoyed it because some of us aren’t allowed in the fitness center.”

I was on a mission that first day to learn as much as I could about how women are treated. Our tour guide, Erin, informed me that most young Korean women today are more career-minded. So times they are a-changing, however slowly.

But when I was getting in an elevator in the Korea Press Center to return my camera to my hotel room, I was startled at how I was pushed aside by Korean men who sought to both enter and exit before me. Apparently holding the door, the elevator, etc. is not required or expected. In fact, it’s not unusual to get bumped about on the sidewalk as well.

While visiting a Hyundai Motors production facility, we walked into a state-of-the-art auto factory and found an elderly woman on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor. This in a factory that prides itself on being 90 percent robotic. There were hardly any women working in the facility. As our young male tour guide told us, they have to stay home with the family. Of course, he also pointed out a hot new red sports car Hyundai manufactures and said, “You can use it to pick up girls and get lucky.”

Sonya, Ann, Susan and I all looked at each other horrified and amazed!!! We had headsets on so we could hear him and not the noise from the plant.

“Did he just say get lucky?” I shouted to my journalistic sisters, my mouth hanging down to the cleanly scrubbed floor (no doubt by someone's Korean grandmother).

I must say, however, that there were times when I was included in the all the male fun and I think it’s because I was one of the only women to present at the conference. My colleague, Inday Espina-Varona, chairperson of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines was scheduled to speak about the wretched state of safety for journalists in her country, but was unable to attend due to the murder of another reporter.

And one member of the Vietnam delegation, whom Mr. Kang proclaimed the most beautiful woman at the conference, gave her country’s report because her English was better than the head of the delegation.

I, however, was called upon to give toasts, several of them. “And now we have a toast from Mees Wendy.” It was great fun and I’m delighted they included the women in the fun.

There’s no question that we left our Asian colleagues with a very positive glimpse into our brains, energy and enthusiasm for journalism, Korean culture and certain kitschy '70s tunes.

And that’s a pretty good thing. Upon returning home, my friend Ann Augherton and I both received e-mails from the Koreans addressed: Dear Wendy Beauty and Dear Ann Beauty.

On a completely unrelated note. I couldn’t pass up sending you here for Jon Friedman of CBS Marketwatch's best and worst of journalism 2004. Here are a couple of highlights to tempt you on:

“KEEPING THE FAITH: To Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker. His reporting about the Iraqi prison-abuse scandal at Abu Gharib represented the best work by any journalist this year. (Amen!)

CLASS WIT: To the creators of Their Bush-Kerry skit, to the tune of "This Land Is Your Land," is my favorite memory of the 2004 campaign. (Good for a few giggles, particularly the Hillary cameo at the end. Caution: You may find your 5-year-old singing, “You’re a right-wing nut job” in the wrong company.)

THE FUTURE - MAYBE: To you blessed bloggers everywhere. (You bet, baby!)

MURDERERS' ROW: To the columnists at the New York Times. To the disgust of the "red-state" mindset, I think there isn't a more gifted group anywhere in newspapers.” (Ditto!)

Thursday, December 09, 2004

A prayer for Terry

May God watch over you today as you undergo surgery to remove cancer. May he guide the skilled hands of your surgeons to find it all. And may he protect you from any in the future. Give Terry the strength of mind and body to recover fully. And keep watch over Kim and Mitchell as they nurse you back to health. We are blessed to have you in our lives and call you friend. May God continue to grace us with your life and love.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Widening my perspective

On the drive in to Seoul from Incheon International Airport, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I expected an exotic experience and even though it was 10 at night, the sites seemed all too familiar. The expressway looked similar to any other expressway in the U.S. Signs on the highway were the same Crayola green as in the states.

As we neared the city limits, one of the first establishments to pop into view was an Outback Steakhouse, that Aussie-inspired (though Tampa-based) bastion of the bloomin' onion. Closer to our hotel we chuckled at the Dunkin’ Donuts and KFC, but delighted in the proximity of Starbucks. One can never be too far away from Starbucks and a grande café mocha.

Ah yes, how delightful to see such wonderful Western influences as Domino’s Pizza, the Coffee Beanery and Tea House and, of course, McDonald’s. This is America’s influence in the world. One has to believe there must be a market for such eateries in foreign markets or they simply would not survive.

Our influence, I've come to believe, was evident on a deeper level — in the dogged pursuit of freedom, particularly press freedom. And that’s one of the very best exports we can model. Our colleagues in Asia are the freedom fighters of their day, pursuing freedom with no less fervor than our forefathers did, often at great risk to themselves or their families.

It’s inspiring and humbling in a way. But if my week in Asia — not nearly long enough to explore these relationships in detail — revealed anything it’s that we share more in common with humankind than not. We all want to support our families, engage in work we love, find opportunities for learning, worship our God or no God, and ensure a better future for our children and grandchildren.

Are there differences among us? Absolutely! But it’s those differences that can also serve as bonds of strength between us.

I’m an eternal optimist and I confess it emerges more strongly at this time of year than others. My hope for 2005 is that Americans take more of an interest in the larger world. No human is an island and certainly we can no longer afford to think ourselves as independent from the rest of the world.

So take a little time in your day and read a bit of news from outside our country. Travel if you can. Talk to foreign nationals. Scour the ‘A’ section of your newspaper for foreign news. Read the national dailies more frequently. Pick up The Economist from time to time. Peruse the International Herald Tribune. Tune in to the BBC. Or simply visit Google News and search by geography.

You won’t be sorry. Your perspective will widen, you’ll start to frame questions in your own mind about how, why, where and when the U.S. is engaged in the world. For example, how involved was the U.S. in the Ukrainian elections? You might want to read this article in The Guardian. And don’t miss its newsblog, which I find better than anything U.S. papers are doing. For the most part, American traditional media are still wringing their hands while demonizing bloggers and are missing out on how to create a symbiotic relationship with them. But that’s fodder for another post and another day…

Haven’t checked in a while, but I was buoyed today by this horoscope of mine. Onward and upward, fellow Virgos!

August 22 - September 21
A business opportunity in a distant state, or perhaps even in a foreign country, could be in the works, dear Virgo. It could, however, require a lot of travel, or perhaps even relocation. You may have mixed feelings about it, but you're not likely to turn it down. This could be a real break! Your health over the next year should be robust and glowing, and you'll have the energy to take on just about any project you want. Onward and upward!

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Land of Morning Calm

When I left for college in 1985, a great aunt gave me a set of “worry beads” she had picked up at a Greek festival in Columbus. I wasn’t a worrier by nature, but I found that holding and twisting the cobalt beads was soothing in a very primal way. I still have them hanging on a leather strand in my office today, easily within reach.

There’s a comfort that comes in twisting and handling beads that has its roots, for me, in the rosary. It’s a way of occupying my hands, which always seem to need something to do, while allowing my mind to explore deeper thoughts — prayer, contemplation, dreams and even nightmares. I carry my rosary whenever I travel. If I’m feeling uneasy or simply thankful, I say a few Hail Mary’s, a Glory Be and recite my special travel prayer.

Korea brought out a different spirituality in me, a realization of just how connected and how similar we humans are. If I were to describe what I seek in terms of spirituality it would be a calmness of mind and spirit, even as I’m unsure if that is possible for me. My nature is more like a comet hurling through life, hoping to gather everyone along in my light. Though I wish to calm myself, I wonder if extinguishing that ball of fire would alter me unrecognizable or worse — extinct.

Nevertheless that doesn’t stop me from envying those who are of a quieter mind. Perhaps I feel they possess something I cannot — the meaning of life, the secret to happiness, the wisdom of knowing what's to come. I don't know if that's true, but it's what my hyperactive imagination believes. My Korean friends possessed that quietness and grace that eludes me.

While I am a born-and-raised Catholic, I find aspects of other faiths very appealing, particularly as I get to know more about them. The Jewish Day of Atonement and the peacefulness of Buddhism I find quite akin to my spiritual sensibilities.

Peace, calm and quiet were found at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju Province, even amid throngs of tourists. Originally built by Kim Dae-seong in 751 in honor of his earthly parents, it was restored to its present beauty in 1971. It symbolizes Buddha’s land on earth. As we entered the site, my new Korean friend, Mr. Park (himself a Buddhist), explained that we were walking along the path of enlightenment.

As we walked across the Haetalgyo Bridge, I stopped for a moment to take it all in. The day was glorious and the mountain view spectacular. To the right was a small trickling waterfall, to the left a reflecting pool with a tiny island in the middle.

We walked toward the main worshipping hall and up 33 very steep steps. Mr. Park explained that there are many steps to enlightenment, but that we cannot hope to find it in this world. We can get close but, ultimately, enlightenment is found in another world.

Mr. Park later wrote that his heart was opened by his newfound friendships. It seemed to me as if his heart already was open since he was so willing to share his country’s culture and history with us. He seemed to anticipate my questions. In the front courtyard of the main hall were two pagodas. “They are quite beautiful, aren’t they?” he said, walking up from behind me. Dabotap represents elaborate splendor of the mundane (or seen) world and Seokgatap represents the beauty of the inner spirit. It was hard not to feel the balanced elegance standing between the two.

Greeting us inside the courtyard was the monk with the friendly face whose chosen name was “One Who Swallows Stars.” If ever I could figure out how to post photos on my blog, I’d share a beautiful one of him.

I chose to explore the vast temple on my own, walking in and out of many conversations. Occasionally one of my Korean friends would find me and explain another point of Buddhism. A group of us(from Korea, Taiwan, Cambodia and Indonesia) even offered a prayer to Buddha for peace.

I slipped off my shoes and quietly walked inside a temple where the golden images of Buddha sat at the altar and the subtle smell of incense burned. We were not permitted to take photos once inside the worship hall and two highly efficient Korean women made sure we didn’t. There really was no need. It was a place you commit to memory more than capture on film. As we marveled at the centuries-old place of worship, a monk came in, unrolled his prayer mat and began his prostrations. I couldn’t help feeling a little as if I were intruding on something sacred, so I quietly slipped out and back into the courtyard.

I found Robert Leger (one of the many Catholics on the trip) carefully stacking rocks in a prayer garden situated in a shady side courtyard. These mini sculptures were each crafted in prayer and the hope is that the one whose sculpture stands will have his or her prayers answered. Similar to my beads it was occupying the hands with a task, while offering up a prayer.

Robert and I wandered over to the gift shop and perused the Buddhist artifacts. I can still see a painting of a beautiful Buddhist woman. I don’t know who she was or what relevance she had to the faith, if any, but her countenance was stunning. And then I found display after display of the wooden Buddhist prayer beads. I picked them up and rolled them through my fingers. They were larger than my worry beads and my rosary, but the effect was the same. I’m kicking myself now for not having bought them. Someone called my name for a group photo, the spell was broken and I never made my way back to that part of the temple.

Guess I’ll just have to return to get my beads.

Monday, December 06, 2004

In the name of freedom

The road leading to the Demilitarized Zone is called Freedom Highway, an oxymoron you realize as your drive toward North Korea. The late afternoon sun glints off the water of the Han-gang and the Imjin-gang rivers as the western banks expand and contract with the landscape. But posted every 500 feet or so are military guard posts — each manned with a South Korean soldier at the ready, rifle in hand. And between the lookouts, rolled barbed wire fencing line the highway and the riverbanks. Hardly a welcoming view.

If ever there was a place where I felt I was in a foreign land, it was in Paju City and the Dora Observation Post at the DMZ. Throughout the week I asked fellow journalists how they would describe what we saw and the word most frequently cited was "bleak." The land is spent, there's nothing for miles except rolled barbed wire, soldiers, jeeps and harvested rice paddies.

We stopped at Imjingak, oddly enough a mini-amusement park, where we had 10 minutes to see the Bridge of Freedom, where POWs marched from the North into the South after the armistice was signed. It doesn't look like freedom. It looks like a steel cage. As I raise my camera with telephoto lens, the guards in the post, lift their rifles in hand and start yelling, "No photo! No photo!" I snapped anyway as did most of our group. The photos are hazy and eerie and, though utterly unintentional on my part, convey the bleakness of the region. In one photo, an empty train is emerging through the bridge, but from where?

I was unable to see the faces of the soldiers while driving up Freedom Highway, but once we got to the main Dora checkpoint, I looked out the bus window and saw the faces of boys. It made me shudder, mostly because I thought of my own boys still young and yet growing toward adulthood ever so quickly.

Once we passed the checkpoint, we were told we were no longer allowed to take photos. My colleague Terry Harper and I snapped photos of the checkpoint from inside our bus and some of them have a Zapruder-like quality to them. A military escort led us across Unification Bridge as our buses wound their way up the mountainside, dodging spiked barricades set up along the way. We passed minefields in which the only safeguard was a low wire fence and signs featuring skull and crossbones.

Once inside the Dora Observatory, we viewed a model of the DMZ and could look out the large windows into North Korea. Last year, the American delegation was singled out from the rest of the forum and taken into North Korea. That proved a source of contention among the other Asian delegates not permitted such access. This year, we remained with our Asian colleagues and viewed North Korea through the high-powered binoculars at the observatory.

Our guide told us that the South had posted billboard of propaganda aimed at North Korea, enticing its citizens to come over to the South, the land of freedom.

There's a haze that hangs in the air all over Korea. And that afternoon it was quite thick, making it difficult to see anything but a small building here, an empty shack there. We strained to see the North Korean flag and many tried to photograph it hanging in the stillness. I looked through my viewfinder and opted against shooting. I chose, instead, to record the starkness of what I saw in my notebook.

From Dora we went to Dorasan train station, a new state-of-the-art train station that President Bush visited not too long ago. I stood in front of the sign that says, "Pyeongyang 205 km" and had my colleagues snap a photo. There was no one at the station and then suddenly, as if on cue, an empty trained pulled up. It's part of the infrastructure the country is building for when reunification takes place — a goal many South Koreans support. But for now it appears ghostlike, with trains that go nowhere.

There's a new industrial complex currently under construction about 18km from the DMZ. It's known as Kaesong City and is a big effort of the South to bring commerce and industry to the North.

We think, here in America, that we understand issues of security. But I don't think our general population has any notion of what it means to have your very security threatened on a regular basis.

Though South Korea felt very safe to me — and at times very western — there is evidence of the fact that this is a nation still technically at war, though the armistice with the North still holds 51 years later. Lining the block on the street outside the U.S. Embassy in Seoul (a very ugly building), are buses of police in full riot gear. Their job — their entire shift each day — is to remain in those buses, in that gear, in the event something happens outside our Embassy.

As we neared the Koreana Hotel after an excursion to the Korean Folk Village, I was shocked to see rows and rows of police in full riot gear at the ready. It was a startling site to my unitiated (or maybe naive) American eyes. There was a civil servant protest taking place and these officers were ready for anything. In the end, it was a peaceful protest, but it was a reminder of how a situation and indeed our very security can change in an instant.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Hold the kimchi

I'm an adventurous eater. There's very little food I don't like and even fewer I'm unwilling to at least try. But the Korean diet was, at times, a challenge. It's not that I didn't enjoy the food, but I was never really sure what I was eating and so describing it has been a challenge.

Perhaps I was poisoned early on. A month before my trip, my brother-in-law told me about kimchi, Korea's national dish. I've been describing it as fermented cabbage, garlic and spices. But really it's any variety of salted vegetables (cabbage, cucumber, radish) covered with a mixture of fish oil, garlic, red pepper paste and spices. The mixture is put into giant clay pots and left to ferment for an indeterminate time. My brother-in-law, who was in the Marines in Korea, claims kimchi pots were buried in manure in the ground and left to ferment. "It's nasty stuff," he told me. Somewhere in my subconscious, "kimchi = nasty stuff" must've hovered.

My Korean guidebook says it can become addictive. Certainly it is served at every meal, including breakfast. But, the book says, "Most foreigners either love it or hate it." I fall in the latter category. Gave kimchi the old college try, but it's not for me — too spicy, garlicy, cabbagey, etc. Our tour guide, Erin ("It's a good Irish name, no?" she said), told us that McDonald's in Korea serves a kimchi burger. Yuk! (Erin, an incredibly good sport enduring the unending questions and dumb jokes from journalists, was eventually nicknamed "The Kimchita" by our colleague from Russia. And every group photo, of which there were many, evoked "kimchi" in unison from the subjects.)

Our first Korean meal was at the Korean Folk Village. The remaining two women in our party hadn't yet arrived, so Sonya Smith, a senior at Cal State U., Long Beach, and I bonded early. Our stomachs were iffy, and Sonya is a vegetarian, which proved an even bigger challenge for her as the week wore on.

We opted for a dish called, and I know I'll misspell it, bimbimbop. Essentially it is white sticky rice and vegetables mixed with red chili paste. It was delicious and Sonya and I could probably have survived on it all week. I was grateful to young Mr. Yu who, at that first meal, gave me a lesson in using the metal chopsticks that are the standard in Korea.

My other favorite dish was bulgogi, meat barbecued at the table. It was good when rolled into a dried seaweed tortilla with a little rice and spicy vegetables.

We ate all manner of treasures from the sea, some I enjoyed, others I didn't. Shark fin soup was a gelatinous mixture in need of seasoning and I think I had more problems with the texture rather than the taste. But I could have consumed gallons of pumpkin porridge. In fact, any of the vegetable dishes were truly wonderful.

My favorite place we visited, though we only stayed for a short while on the last night, was Suwon City. It's in the center of the Korean peninsula and, like much of Korea, combines an intoxicating mix of ancient and modern.

We enjoyed a traditional Korean-style barbecue dinner (no shoes and seated on the floor), which proved tough for some of the American men, but they managed. We enjoyed grilling galbi right at our table, beef-ribs seasoned with sesame oil, garlic, toasted sesame seeds and pears. It was delicious. And there were plenty of mashed potatoes so my friend Sonya had something to fill her shrinking belly.

Suwon also is known for Bulhui, what Koreans call healthy liquor. It's made from 12 medicinal materials, including red ginseng (one of the country's largest exports), mulberry and Chinese matrimony vine. They claim it gives no sign of hangover. Near as I can tell, they are correct. We drank many toasts and did many "love shots" with Bulhui and I felt fine the next day, a good thing considering we were flying out.

But as much as I enjoyed (mostly) expanding my palate, I found myself craving McDonald's french fries, something I rarely indulge in here at home. In fact, during my layover in Minneapolis, I made for the Golden Arches for a large fry and "Coca-Cola Lite" as they call it in Asia.

And when my husband asked what he should make for dinner the night I got home, I suggested something along the lines of hamburgers on the grill. He made pork chops instead — and they were delicious.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Down and out this week

Well, the traveling and holidays were bound to catch up to me sooner or later. And they did, with a vengeance. After a lovely trip to my sister's new house for Thanksgiving, I suspected we were in for trouble when Michael wouldn't sleep on the car ride home. He was talking incessantly because he was overtired.

By Saturday night, the flu bug set in and I spent most of the night walking the upstairs hallway back and forth from Michael's room to my room. By Sunday morning, I could barely keep my eyes open and would fall asleep on any chair.

When the alarm went off at 6 on Monday morning, I got out of bed, walked a few feet and said, "Oh boy" and crawled back into bed. Michael was already on the mend, but I had planned to keep him home from school. My hubby got the other two boys ready for school while I crashed again.

Not too long after he left for work I heard the garage door opening and Danny climbing the stairs to tell me that Ryan threw up in chorus and was home. So now it was me in bed, Ryan on the couch and Mikey running the show. He was terrific, fetching popsicles and water for his big brother, letting the dog in or out, grabbing an extra blanket or pillow or kleenex. At 5, Mikey was up to the task of taking care of the family.

I tried once or twice to get out of bed and at least check email, but my body felt like lead and I quickly had to crawl back under the covers. And then I remembered a conference call scheduled for 4 p.m. with what I hope will be a steady new client. Somehow, I muscled my way into my office, gulped some water and was able to successfully convince them of my enthusiasm for the project, enough that they are flying me to their offices in about a week.

All the while I was on the phone, my head was spinning and I was sweating profusely. But by the time the call ended, I was feeling slightly energized by the possibility. So I mustered up the strength to walk downstairs and engage in life again. I must have slept 20 of the previous 24 hours (no doubt due in part to leftover jetlag) and it was time for Mom to get back in the saddle.

Meanwhile my husband wisely kept his distance, heading to basketball practice and then to his basketball league. But then it was Patrick's turn on Monday night and Tuesday. As of yesterday, everyone was on the mend and today we're all back in action.

May you and yours stay healthy this holiday season. And if the flu should strike, let it run through your family with all due speed. It's the only way to deal.