Monday, November 28, 2011

Apropos of Nothing...

Yup, some giant fire-breathing peacocks in downtown Seoul. I've got nothing to add.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


So after 2ish years, I've finally given in and figured out how to shop in Korea.

This is not to say that I've purchased nothing for the past 2 years, but it's been pretty close. In fact, outside of things I immediately ingested, books and gifts are probably the only physical object I've purchased in Korea since finalizing my home decor with a kimchi pot to use as a table next to the recliner I ordered.

It's pretty easy to not buy stuff. I pretty much hate going shopping so I never go to malls and previously there was just enough barrier to entry to online shopping that I never bothered with it. (granted, even creating a new account on a website is often sufficient to overcome my desire to shop). But recently, some things have changed and I've been compelled to get rid of some money.

Last weekend's trip to Jeju was what kicked it off. I was flying in and meeting up w/ some friends who were already on the island for work. Since they were there with a group, it made sense for me to pick up the rental car and go meet them. Armed with a once-renewed-but-still-unused international driver's license, I tried to line up a rental using this new fangled internet technology.

Aside: (I am still loathe to use the phone in this country. The person at the rental car place can probably communicate well enough in English to rent me a car. Hell, I can probably communicate in Korean well enough to reserve a car. This does not matter. I have some mental block against calling any business here. Tried it with a pizza place once. Must've got the area code wrong or something (they don't print it since everyone else knows what the area code should be). It took a while to explain that I wanted a pizza delivered to me at which point the guy who answered then explained he did not work for a pizza place and would not be making one for me.)

Anyway, my car rental reservation attempt ended up failing. Some message popped up that I'd need to call the place to continue. So I had the Global Help Desk people at work call (since my last rant about them there has been turnover in their office and the new guy is more useful). He also had some difficulty. A few places were all booked up. One had a car, but wouldn't rent to a foreigner. The confused/embarassed reaction from the GHD guy was great. Seems a bit odd that the guy in charge of dealing w/ foreigner issues would be unaware that there are still some institutional barriers for foreigners here. Eventually he did a find a place that had cars and deemed my money acceptable, so that was nice.

But I digress. After the car, I was looking into booking a flight over the Chuseok. The US sites I usually use were doing the annoying 'show a flight' then make it disappear when you actually try to book it. Happens a lot on the US sites with Asian airlines. Really annoying. I decided I'd give a Korean site a try. It's more hassle, but flights are available and cheaper. A victory for me.

Having waded this far into the world of handing out my credit card number to websites I can only partially understand, I decided to try and order some movies. I've got a list of a few Korean movies I've been wanting to see, but have been too lazy to actually seek out a place to purchase them. My previous attempt to order things online (namely, my recliner and a spare mattress for when my family came) had not worked. Figuring out the order form and registration process had been more hassle than just having a coworker place the order and giving them money.

I think the Gmarket site (big online retailer) has become much more foreigner friendly. The english forms now make sense and I was able to navigate the insane active-x browser plugins that all Korean websites are required to have. So I was able to order a couple movies. Even better, I think I paid for them using the points I'd been unknowingly accruing w/ my credit card (my credit card turns beer and chicken I buy into fake money for me to use!).

So now there's all sorts of stuff I can do. Rent cars, buy plane tickets, use a credit card, order stuff. And it only took 2 years!

Though, I should probably wait until I actually have any of these things in hand before I proclaim my new procurement prowess...

Monday, June 13, 2011

Kuala Lumpur: Part 3

[Editor's note: Typing this stuff up takes a long time. In an effort to avoid month-long (or longer) gaps in content, I've decided to shorten posts.]

And now, on to the thrilling conclusion of Brandon's day of wandering in Kuala Lumpur....

The biggest complaint I have about Kuala Lumpur is that it's ridiculously difficult to navigate on foot. The roads are haphazardly laid out and sidewalks even more so. Things meander and abruptly end and there seems to be no method behind any of it. To get from Chinatown to the Lake Gardens, one has to cross a river and a set of train tracks. Apparently, no one has ever considered doing this on foot before. I'm some sort of pioneer, blazing a new trail through the psychotic urban sprawl.

It's Easy to See Where You Want to Go

By cutting through a market and navigating some heavy traffic on the far side of it, I manage to discover a sidewalk passage across the river. However, to get across the train tracks running alongside the river, I must detour about half a mile to the next station. At the station, there are signs pointing in the direction of the Gardens and you can see some of the famous buildings that dot the region as you cross the bridge over the tracks. However, this is apparently just some sort of decoy, because as soon as you exit the station on the other side, there is a busy highway with no apparent crosswalk or overpass.

Successfully Navigate the City and You May Find Stonehenge

I wander back and forth alongside the highway for a while before finally giving up and imitating the few brave locals who just dart between bursts of cars and wait on the median for a chance to get across. The unexpected difficulty in crossing the half mile between Chinatown and the Lake Gardens means it's after 6pm by the time I arrive. I pass by Stonehenge and head the the world's largest walk-in aviary. There are a lot of birds inside.

This Albino Crow is Just One of the Birds Inside the Aviary

These Birds Were Also There.

Monkeys on top of the Aviary Mock the Birds w/ Their Freedom


I head back to the hotel on foot (this time by wandering behind a post office and through a complicated maze of a parking garage) and I am exhausted. The heat, lack of sleep and foolish decision to wear a new pair of shoes on my journey are taking their toll on me. I arrange for a taxi to the airport in the morning and decide that the necessary 5.30AM departure and general exhaustion will likely hinder my nighttime exploration. I figure I'll check out the nearest restaurant/bar district rather than explore some of the more distant options.

The immediate surroundings of the hotel do not boast a lot of interesting restaurants. I find a place and get another noodle dish. It's ok, but nothing special. I stop in a small pub next door for some watery Tiger beer. It's definitely a local hangout and pretty packed at 8pm. The food and beer give me some strength and I decide to explore more.

I chose poorly. This area is the worst. It's just a strip of bland, pretentious, over-priced bars and restaurants. The types of places that make a spot out front for the customer who came in a Lamborghini. You'd be hard pressed to design a place I'd like less if you tried. A block away I walk around a pile of trash and watch a shirtless tenant of a rundown 1st floor apartment hanging his laundry in the dark. I'm disheartened by the juxtaposition. I mean, if you're going to gentrify, don't you at least have to send the poor people further away?

I stop in another pub. It's empty and the air conditioner seems to be losing it's battle against the humid night air. I head back out and am drawn to another filthy little alley. There is a sign indicating a saloon, which gets my hopes up. This alley seems like a great place for bar with bat wing doors. Unfortunately, all I can find is a hair salon. With that fresh disappointment, I call it a night and head back to the hotel for what little sleep I can get.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Kuala Lumpur: Part 2

I awaken quite suddenly. The bed I'm lying on is unusually fluffy. The covers are half flung back and there seem to be far too many pillows. The room is dim, but the highlights lining the edge of the curtain indicate that it is still bright outside. I'm groggy. The sleep seems doesn't seem to have helped much. On the contrary, it seems to have only reminded by body what it was missing out on. My body does not appreciate the memory.

Snatch Theives are a Problem that Merit Warning in English

I drag my ass out of bed and back out into the heat. I have a general plan to grab some food somewhere in Chinatown on my way to the Lake Gardens.

By Gum, the Monorail put Kuala Lumpur on the Map

For the most part I like Kuala Lumpur. It's not terribly big, has variety and character and isn't filled with people harassing me to buy something. There is a ton of construction going on, but plenty of older buildings that give off a sense of grittiness that I appreciate. Also, there is a monorail. Aside from it's airconditioned goodness, monorails are strongly coupled with that one Simpsons episode in my mind and that amuses me. Ah, Matt Groening, you destroyed America's hopes for mass transit for at least a generation.

Who Can Resist the Allure of the Alley?

As I pass through Chinatown, scouting for food, I'm irresistibly drawn to a dirty alley. What could be down there? Why, anything and everything! I mean, if I were laying out a city, I would definitely put the best parts at the ends of dirty alleys.

As it turns out, there are a couple of old ladies with a food stand at the end of this particular alley. It is clearly destiny that I eat at this food stand. I gesticulate at my stomach with the universal sign for food procurement. One lady gestures back that such needs can indeed be accommodated. I order something that my guidebook referred to as a 'must eat'. The old lady says something about Soba noodles. I'm not sure if this is a variation of the thing I asked for or if she's telling me she doesn't have that specific thing. Since I don't know what the thing I ordered actually is, I don't really care and say that Soba noodles are fine.

As I wait on a half-busted plastic stool a cat wanders past. An old man enters the alley and walks about halfway to the food stall. He stops there, maybe 25 feet from me, sets down his plastic bag and proceeds to urinate on the side of a building.

Unfortunately, the food does not live up to the lofty standards of the alley's ambiance. Maybe I just don't like this particular dish (some sort of noodle soup), but I am disappointed nonetheless. I guess you can't just wander into random alleys and get delicious food for under $2 while animals roam about and old men excrete nearby like you used to be able to. What is the world coming to?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Arriving in Kuala Lumpur

After half an hour or so, a shuttle appears. It takes me somewhere. I don't see a train, but I do see buses heading to the main train station in KL. The ticket costs as much as the coffee I'd bought earlier. It's dark on the bus. I doze off for 45 minutes. Later, I wake up. It's less dark. Also I am in a city now. It's around 7.30 and I want to find a monorail. I get off the bus.

I cannot find the monorail. It is too early to think. I see a map. There is a monorail on the map. The map does not seem to reflect reality. I am skeptical about putting my fate in the hands of a map I just met, but what choice do I have? I go in the direction it bids.

I wander a few blocks from the station. At first there are signs with arrows and the word monorail on them. They stop. Then come the small shops, cheap looking hotels and various restaurants. Occasionally a pungent, sweet stench of rot wafts by. I eventually find a monorail. It's a really tall rail with a train on it. Hard to miss once you're looking at it. However, I apparently did miss the stop at the train station and instead stumbled upon the 2nd stop on the line.

The car is crowded, but wonderfully air conditioned. I get off near at a stop nearest a market that's recommended for breakfast. The roads are a bit chaotic and not all marked in my guidebook. I'm unconcerned since I don't really care about the market. I just want coffee and food and there are many places that appear capable of providing these things.

I stop at a place with sidewalk tables, plastic chairs and several customers. I order coffee and explain to the chef that I know nothing of his people or their food and will like to be served the finest provisions at his command. The propietor is understanding of my predicament and suggests Rasti with egg. I consent. He obliges. I consult my map as I eat. The coffee enhances my orientation skills and I am able to decipher the path to the market. I go there, however, having already eaten, the market is rendered uninteresting. Just a market.

I want a hotel. I should stay near the train station but I am considering splurging on a nicer place and just arranging transportation there to get me back to the airport. Given the 7:30AM flight and the time it took to get into town, I worry a bit about catching the train/bus in time. Also, it's hot. Also, I'd like to lose my bag. Also, I'd like a pool and a nap. I stop at a couple nice places charging >$150. The 3rd place I stop costs < $100. It also seems nice. I stop looking.

It is dark at 5.30 or so AM in Kuala Lumpur. I know this b/c I just got off a plane at this ungodly hour. I'm a bit dazed and uncertain where to go. I want an express train into town. The guide book says there is one, but my eyes say otherwise. Slowly it dawns on my that I'm at the wrong terminal. I'm in the LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal), whereas the train only runs to the, apparently, upscale normal terminal. I sit down and wait for a shuttle to the other terminal. It's alreay muggy and the sun isn't even up.

The More Famous Petronas Tower as seen from the taller KL Tower

The room won't be ready until noon at the earliest. I leave my bag with the concierge and head back out. I follow a sign towards the Kuala Lumpur Tower. There is a culture center at the KL tower. Greeting people as they enter the culture center is a Predator statue. I was unaware that the Predator species was native to Malaysia, but I can't imagine why else the statue would be there.

The Malaysian Cultural Village

Predator, Guardian of the Cultural Village

There are also some traditional Malaysian dancers dancing about at the tower. Does the US do this? I want line dancers at the Washinton monument. Weak sauce, US.
Malaysian Dancers

With ever ticket to the top of the tower you get an additional attraction amongst a pony ride, F1 simulator, or Animal Zone. My hopes are dashed by the weight limit on the pony ride. I go up the tower. It is a tower. It also has a bizzare pay-phone mini-museum.
Who Doesn't Love Pay Phones?

I head back to the hotel, check into my room and hit the pool. The red-eye flight into town is catching up to me. I pass out.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Oh, what's that? Your entire lab didn't receive hand towels from the government as some sort of award? Well, clearly you should move to Korea, where that happens for some reason.


Yeah, I've had them over a month and been too lazy to even upload a picture. What brought about the flurry of activity, you ask? Well, sources in Seoul indicate that I may have recently changed my money to ringgits. Maybe I brought a camera. Maybe I recently uploaded some pictures and this towel shot was there. Maybe I'll write about it.

But not tonight.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I Hate Haircuts

I hate getting haircuts. I always have.

From around the age 14 on, I got around this problem by wearing a hat nearly all the time. It didn't matter how long and gross my hair was. I just put on the hat and it looked just as good as any other day.

One of the biggest sacrifices I made in coming to work here was that the company doesn't allow me to wear a hat at work. (There's also a weird rule that men must wear long pants year round. Hot and annoying in the summer, yes, but not as bothersome as disallowing hats.) So now, instead of getting an annual haircut as I did in college, I'm forced to deal with the rats' nest on top of my head every couple months or so.

Thus far, the haircut experience in Korea has been refreshing. Since the hairdressers usually don't speak English very well, they don't waste their time trying to ask me about what I want done. I can say "cut. short." and they go about their business. It's quick and easy and costs less than $10. Far better than the one time I went to a barber in Boston, who dragged the process out telling me, "even if you don't care what your hair looks like, I do." He then charged $25 or some nonsense. I bought clippers the next day and avoided paying for haircuts for the next 3 years.

Tonight, however, was a reminder of everything I hate. A while back I moved, so the $10 place that was in my basement is now a bit of a walk. The past two times I have gone instead to a place across the street. It costs more like $15, but it's close and the hairdressers all dress in plaid skirt/school girl theme. I'm not sure why that is since most of their clientele appear to be women working the the night shift in the area, but whatever.

As per usual, I sit down say "I don't care. Cut it short." Or at least that's what I thought I said. However, the guy cutting my hair (he was not in a school girl outfit) seemed to hear, "please cut exactly 3mm off each of my hairs one at a time". After about 10 minutes and moving clips around on the back of my head and not seeming to do anything, I re-emphasize the 'short' concept.

Now, the thing that bothers me about this is not a language issue. Expressing the word 'short' is pretty easy. I both said it and demonstrated the appropriate length in universally recognized finger approximation. What bothers me, is that hairdressers would assume that I don't want them to cut much of my hair. As though, I want to maintain the gross blob of crap that currently resides on top of my head. THAT makes no sense to me. Why would I come in there if I didn't want my hair cut? Why is that an option that even occurs to hairdressers?

So, then the guy re-cuts the back of my head, and moves the the side where I can see what's going on and we repeat the process and I again request that he actually cut my hair. At this point, I realize I'm going to be here forever. Using clippers to buzz of the hair, like I would do, takes little time at all. Acting like my hair is a delicate masterpiece that must be carefully exhumed is incredibly tedious. I decide that I will just let the guy do whatever and not say anything since at this point I just want to leave.

He seemed to sense that I was unhappy and asked if I wanted it shorter. I told him I didn't care. I passed on the shampoo and was able to escape only having wasted 45 minutes of my life having little enough hair on top of my head cut that I will need to repeat the process in a week or so.

I think I might see if I can pull off a shaved head and save myself the hassle.