I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
-Bob Dylan “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall“
Monsoon season in Korea is coming. Today is the official start. And it’s a hell of a thing, apparently.
Jazz is an art form that, by all rights, should be forbidden to Korean artists. It’s expression of a spontaneous idea that cannot be either right or wrong. That’s the point. there is nothing off limits or teachable or expected. It’s pure creativity and expression. It’s the kind of thing most Koreans publicly disdain. But within the confines of jazz music…well as long as there are some confines I suppose it’s alright with society.
High school girls in Korea have a uniform. Not just a dress code they have a uniform way of standing, acting, cutting their hair. For a decade and a half they’ve been molded into a one-size-fits-all model of the female gender. So what did this one bring to the quintet of free expression, release from expectation and formality?
Sticklike other than the staccato nodding and hand movements, when came her turn to let loose she did so with abandon. (Relative abandon. This is Korea, after all.) Her foot stamped out the beat and stomped on the pedals; her knees bent and rocked back and forth, she took up a stance to play; her head banged as her hands belted out soulful and technical notes, working the bridge like weaving a loom.
The keyboardist, too, had a story. After the first duel against the drummer, he himself took up the sticks and drummed. While the main drummer was like a cat with a mouse – expertly toying with the thing, sure of his limits and its – the keyboardist was a kitten – unsure of his power and skill or the moves of the mouse, but pouncing around the way exuberant youth can.
This is Club Evans (map to location, because it’s hard to locate in English), probably the best known jazz bar in Seoul. You’d never know its nestled above a 7-11 in an unassuming little space. If it weren’t for the windows you’d mistake it for a basement in Brooklyn or someplace. Well maybe the clientele and artists would give it away too. This is Seoul, after all.
So I walked into a Telcel Mexico office and went through the 15 minute process of signing up. Great! Now I’ve got a SIM card and a phone number. This costs $150 Pesos and you get about $60 Pesos credit.
Next step is to add some money to it. You do that by buying prepaid cards for a certain value. You need to know the value of the package you want to buy first. In my case it was the 3GB of Internet for $399 Pesos. So I bought 2x$200 Peso cards (called “fichas”). They can’t apply these in the store or over the Internet, you have to call and apply them manually. The number is *333 and there are voice prompts in English to walk you through it. No problem, right?
Unless the service is down. For several days. Great, now you’ve got a couple of cards that are essentially worthless until somebody gets around to fixing the *333 service. That’s no fun. Internet to the rescue! There’s a way to bypass the system and enter the card codes directly! Here’s how to do it.
So if the code on the back of your card (what you just scratched off) is 1234 5678 90123 you will type: *134*1234567890123# and hit Call/Send.
Voila! You have now deposited the credit in your account. You can check that on your Mi Telcel account through the Internet. That’s also easy to sign up for, you give them your number and they send you a SMS with your temporary password.
To check your balance you can dial *133# but that seems to cost about $1 Peso each time, so use sparingly.
My biggest complaint is that the upload speeds are pretty low. Normally that wouldn’t have a big effect, but they’re so slow that it effectively means you can’t use data. 60 bytes per second is about my average upload speed. At that rate you make about one webpage request a minute and apps are all but unusable.
If you haven’t tried Mezcal recently, or at all, you’ll probably be surprised to hear and taste how great it is! Its undeserved reputation largely comes from mass produced and marketed junk that makes its way to the US market. Made the traditional way it can hold its own with any of the finest distilled spirits in the world. But very little of the quality stuff seems to be available north of the border.
That’s probably because the traditional methods of manufacture limit production. Here’s a good primer on the history and manufacture of Mezcal. In short, quality Mezcals are made by hand from several year old agave, and many are made from wild rather than farmed plants. This makes them expensive and somewhat rare. Many distillers make less than 1,000 liters per year and some as few as 200.
Mezcal has many different ways of manufacture. The liquid can be distilled 1-3 times, aged (rested for a short time, “reposado”, or for longer “anejo”) or unaged (“joven”). The location, type of ground and species gives a different flavor. The variety in flavor isn’t as great as in Scotch Malt Whisky, but a good Mezcal that has been aged for less than a year can easily match up against a good quality Whisky aged 15 years or more!
This is in contrast to the way Tequila is made. Tequila is mescal, made with blue agave, using a different process, and must be produced in the Tequila region. Typically the blue agave is only a couple of years before harvesting and production is cranked out in massive batches by machine. That doesn’t always make for a bad product, but most of the Tequilas and Mezcals you’re used to tasting in the US are definitely what you’ll get here.
Mezcal is served straight and with an orange slice to cleanse the pallet beforehand. First, eat the orange. Then take a small breath. Touch your lips to the liquid and take in just a bit – this is called a kiss. I’ts said that the first kiss is like a strange encounter. By the third you’re said to be in love.
This past weekend I took a walk downtown to the Zocalo. Past the modern and the Art Deco buildings. Past all the nice cafés with open seating and small patios. Past the weekend market and Alameda Central Park. Past the castles, churches and mansions. And into the main town square.
The weekend crowd was large and bustling. The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral looms over the Zocalo the way most of the churches I’ve run into in Europe can’t seem to impose themselves upon their square. The structure is massive and covers an area at least as large as the huge open area in front of it. Imposing buildings flanked the square, one monolith per side, making the space feel entombing for its openness. And the church here seems to be the center of gravity and attention, with the majority of the action and vibrance drawn towards it and a lesser amount of action orbiting the outline of the square.
There was a stage set up in the square this weekend. The site is often used for political demonstrations and protests so this was no surprise. But this weekend the stage was occupied by dancers and pop music. As I got closer I heard the distinct Psy style. Gangnam Style. Closer still, I saw t-shirts and posters in Korean. The song shifted to Psy’s more recent song, Gentleman. After a minute or so, back to Gangnam Style. The songs swapped back and forth with the people on stage apparently learning the different dance moves for each. Eventually it came to an end and the crowd, mostly Chilangitas (young women from Mexico City), cheered loudly. I’m not sure what this was but it’s clear that there’s a great love of K-Pop in Mexico City.
I continued walking around near the church, through the crowd. And through the buskers with their wares spread on tarps, pushed in carts and hawked with calls about the quality and cost of what was on offer. Hungry and curious I tried a snack I’d seen others eating. Onto a crispy blue corn tortilla was smothered refried beans, cilantro, sautéed peppers, queso fresco and some picante sauce. You eat it by breaking the chip-like tortilla and scooping some of the topping into your mouth. Kind of like nachos you can hold in your hand!
After finishing the snack I went inside the main entrance of the Zocalo church. (The church has many side chapels which seem to be for specific purposes: confession, baptism, etc.) It is as large inside as you would expect. But another difference between it and Northern European churches struck me. This is a pragmatic place, set to be used not just toured. Chairs were set up around the popular altars; a portrait of the Pope who had visited many years ago was an active area; a mass was being conducted. I was a visitor, and even in this touristic area, I was the exception. So I stopped being in the way and walked back into the bright sunlight.
I leaned in the shade and checked where to go next. Quickly I was set upon by a group of teenage girls. Likely many of the same from the K-Pop show. The lead one asked me in Spanish if I spoke English and if I wouldn’t mind answering some questions. I didn’t. So a quick scripted and recorded interview later I was on my way. Kids practicing English often want to speak with a native speaker so it’s not out of the ordinary.
But I was stopped several other times for interviews. At one point there was a line of groups of kids waiting to interview me. They all seemed to be doing this for the same school (I asked several groups)band were all about the same age. I can imagine the giggles as every student realizes that they spoke with me. And the stifled chuckles of the professor imagining how I’d spent my day at the Zocalo speaking with his/her class about my favorite sports, my name, age, favorite Mexican food, and whether I’d like to come back to Mexico some time.
Of all the interviews I gave today one stand out. The boy was alone, except for his videographer mother, in contrast to the groups of girls as most were. He had his questions printed out and carried a pen, rather than written long hand as others. He wore thick glasses and looked like McLovin’s younger Mexican brother. He also asked the most intelligent questions and noted everything on his script as it was being documented. I have the feeling he is going to be either a scientist or a reporter and I wish him luck in either endeavor (or in whatever he chooses).
As the sun dipped below the clouds in the afternoon I walked away. I realized my skin stayed warm even in the shade and that brought back the realization that Mexico City was close to the equator and high in altitude, making sunburn virtually guaranteed on my unscreened skin. So staying in the shade I walked to find a little cafe overlooking the Alameda Central Park. It was hard to find because you have to go through the nine-story Sears to get there. But it was worth it for the view and the coffee frappe. Sitting there (in the shade) overlooking the park and the Architecture Museum while the sun set was beyond just pleasant. The drink was emptied too quickly, as was my energy.
I headed back to the hotel tired but full of appreciation for the things I’d seen and the experiences I’d had. I told all the kids that I had Liked Mexico and would return. That wasn’t just a nicety for their sake, I meant it. Mexico City is a vibrant metropolis with many different sides. It feels both Latin and European at times, which is not surprising given its geography and history. But the two work well together, matching culture and insanity the way a merengue mixes a gas into a liquid with the help of a little sugar and lime juice. A pleasant treat.
“I’ve been one poor correspondent
I’ve been too too hard to find
But that doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind”
-America, Sister Golden Hair
I’ve been both busy and lazy but it’s no excuse for not writing more.
While I was in London everything was a bit too boring, normal and well-explored. And so was I. It wasn’t worth writing, let alone reading.
I’ve been living in Seoul, South Korea for a couple of months and that’s definitely worth writing about. From a Miguk (American) perspective there’s a lot of hilarity to be had resulting from expectation gaps and cultural differences. I’ve got some notes on that and, well, we’ll see how it goes with getting those hammered into reasonable posts.
And for the month of May I’m living and working in Mexico City. And this is what has got me back on the keyboard clackity-clacking out some new posts. A combination with some time on my hands alone and lots of things I want to capture have gotten the juices flowing again and that means new posts. Which is good.
Talk at you soon!
As many of you are no doubt aware, I like to participate in the annual Movember event. That’s where guys grow a mustache for the month of November to raise awareness and money for Cancer charities. The last two years at the Atlanta events I’ve won awards for “Best Mo in Character” as Hulk (not Hollywood) Hogan and “Lame Mo” for my Anonymous masked guy mustache.
This year I’m happy to announce that I won Ultimate Mo for all of London! There were a couple of thousand people at the event, which made it a very competitive field, and I was up against some other great mustaches. But my Mo prevailed!
I’ve just applied to extend my Visa here in Armenia. This is perfect if you want to stay a few days past your official Visa exit date. For staying much longer or for getting a multiple entry visa the process is probably similar, though I don’t have direct experience with that. While the Visa extension process is fairly painless – easy and inexpensive – you do have to wait a few days. But it still may be a little intimidating for some so I’ll write this as a step-by-step guide for those who are researching how to do it.
For the impatient among us, here’s a bullet-point summary.
- Allow up to one week for processing.
- Budget 500 dram per day, plus 10-15% extra.
- Go to the Passport and Visa Department, room 212.
- Fill out the right forms, make copies of your passport and visa and deposit money in the right account.
- Bring all documents back to room 212 for their approval.
- Bring all documents to room 214.
- Return when they tell you.
First, make sure you’ve got a few days left on your Visa to begin with. My process will take 3 days, but I would guess that this could take up to a week depending on holidays and weekends. So as soon as you know you’ll need to extend it, start the process. You’ll also need to budget 500 dram for each day you want to stay, plus another say 10-15% for miscellaneous expenses. All together my 5 day extension cost just 2,840 dram, or the equivalent of $7. So it’s more expensive per day than getting a longer visa at the border but can be well worth it. In my case the extension saved me hundreds of dollars on airfare.
To apply you’ll need to go in person to the Passport and Visa Department, located at 13A Mesrop Mashtots Ave. The building is located in the courtyard behind the Artist’s House, which seems to be dedicated to performance music like opera and orchestra. You can enter through the alley just to the left side, when facing that building. Or you can enter through an alley just off of Mashtots on Amiryan St. The walls of this alley are painted with stylized versions of passports, travel documents and official looking stamps. The building itself is up a set of white steps with glass doors. The office is closed between 1-2pm.
Once you enter you’ll go upstairs and to the left, to room 212. Explain what you want to do and they will give you a form to fill in as well as a bank account number to deposit the funds. You’ll also need to make a copy of your passport’s face page and your current Armenian Visa. There are facilities close by to take care of this, see the map below for details. At the bank you’ll likely pay somewhere around a 10-15% transaction fee. To make copies it should be less than 100 dram.
Next you’ll return to the Passport and Visa Department, again to room 212. They will initial your form, tell you when to return and instruct you to take the paperwork to room 214. There you will drop off the paperwork (you keep your passport) and send you on your way.
Go back to their offices when they tell you. Go again to room 212 and tell them that you submitted your paperwork a few days before. They’ll look through a big stack of papers, find yours, take your passport and ask you to wait. 10 or 15 minutes later they’ll get the proper stamps and signatures and return your passport. Easy as can be!