Welcome to Mongolia

Hayley, says the sheet of paper held up by a ponytailed Mongolian boy at the arrivals gate.

I greet him enthusiastically, only to discover that his English skills are limited at best. I learn, to my delight, that his name is Dolt, and give up on any further attempts at conversation. Unfortunately the only Mongolian word I know is the word for ‘hello’, and when I say it to him he laughs hysterically. I decide not to say it to anyone else, and follow him meekly outside into what appears to be Northern Ireland.

Seriously, it is COLD. I got on to the plane in South Korea wearing a strappy top and fanning myself wearily, and now I can see my breath on the air. It is such a novelty that I start breathing heavily just for the amusement of it, and Dolt looks rather suspiciously at me. I shiver slightly and then grin at him in delight. It’s COLD!!, I tell him ecstatically, waving my arms around to feel the bitter night air make the hairs on them stand on end. You have no idea – the feeling of cool, fresh outside air was one I’d genuinely forgotten.

Dolt and I travel in silence in his rattly old car, him occasionally laughing at whatever they’re saying on the radio, me peering out of the filthy, streaky windows with the greatest interest. For a capital city, Ulaanbaatar seems rather more dilapidated and less developed than I was expecting. Buildings are crumbling and ugly, and roads are not so much roads as dirt tracks with numerous alarming potholes scattered around as if it’s some sort of assault course. There are no road markings, and cars simply tear along at breakneck speed, dodging each other (and potholes) and leaving clouds of dust behind.

Dolt goes into fits of giggles when we get caught in the wake of a speeding truck, and find ourselves driving blindly through a billowing cloud of dust. I sorry! I sorry! he keeps repeating before laughing the hysterical laugh of a 9-year-old girl again. I begin to get a little concerned that I am travelling at 80mph through the dirt tracks of Outer Mongolia with a stoned teenager behind the wheel, but thankfully he slows down and pulls into a dark alleyway. We are here. I look around doubtfully. Are we here? There are piles of rubble surrounding the rundown old buildings, whose doors are covered in graffiti. One of these doors is in fact the door of the most recommended hostel in Mongolia.

It creaks eerily as it clanks open, like the door to the building of the tenement flat I lived in in Glasgow.  A sign on the back of the door reads: PLEASE DO NOT GO OUT AFTER MIDNIGHT. OUTSIDE IS NOT SO SAFE!!

This is going to be fun, I think to myself.

The Joy of Soup

Wow, long time since my last post. I haven’t lost interest in my blog, just in life in general – nothing like a good dose of food poisoning to make you feel that absolutely nothing is worthwhile, bar lying in bed whimpering to yourself for days on end.

They have me on numerous pills and potions (as they’re fond of doing in Korea), and back at work after only one sick day of course, although even my director seemed to be wondering about the sense in this when I curled up on a gym mat after my third exhausting class and refused to come for lunch. I gave up on any attempts at eating on Sunday afternoon, when it became clear that it was just making things worse and nothing was going to remain in my stomach for very long. By this morning, walking to school seemed like a challenge on the same level as a 40 minute Wii Fit workout, and I had to sit down at the side of the road as I waited for the lights to change. Have I mentioned how long the lights here take to change? They take a LONG time. It’s a very poorly thought-out traffic system. But I don’t think that was my point.

Oh yes, sitting – well, a colleague found me and escorted me to work, where the director brought me into the kitchen and made me eat a bowl of rice porridge. This is a gloopy, bland mixture that the kids eat every day at morning ‘snack time’ – they don’t like it, and I can’t say I blame them. I think it’s basically rice saturated in water, occasionally with what appears to be an inexplicable kidney bean lurking in it. Anyway, the cooking lady sets out all these tiny little bowls and the kids have to eat them before they’re allowed to go to their next class. I suppose that means it’s good for them, and it would also explain why a tiny little kiddie-sized portion of it was set down in front of my frail and pale self, I was handed a teaspoon, and my director and the cooking lady stood over me sternly until I started eating it.

It took me 30 minutes, ladies and gentlemen, to eat about ten tiny teaspoonfuls of rice porridge out of an itsy-bitsy Minnie Mouse bowl. I can eat a full Chinese takeaway in that time, and probably do the dishes too. The director had disappeared by that stage, and the slightly softer, motherly cooking lady peered out over the serving hatch at me as I forced down the last few grains of rice, feeling ridiculously proud of myself. She scurried furtively out of the kitchen and set a bowl of steaming hot soup in front of me, and explained (as far as I could understand) that even if I couldn’t stomach the vegetables, I should drink the broth because it was very healthy and good for me. So I raised the bowl to my lips and drank the soup… ah, honestly, it was like a big warm hug. I am learning to appreciate the little things in life, like putting a few teaspoonfuls of food in my stomach and it staying there for longer than two minutes, for example, or taking a drink of some comforting hot soup that I haven’t been able to make for myself because of the whole not being able to stand up thing.

Well, this was just meant to be a little note saying “I’m sick, back soon”, but I suppose I must be getting better if I’ve managed to type all this, even if it is mostly drivel.

I’m sick, back soon.

A time to be thankful.

It’s Chuseok this week. Chuseok is the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving, and for me, it’s mostly a time to give thanks for the fact that I am the only person in my circle of friends who actually likes Spam.

For some reason, Spam is the most popular gift on special holidays in Korea. And for some other reason, foreigners don’t like it. This is great news for me, as although I wouldn’t exactly call myself a fan of the stuff (I mean, really, would anyone?), I do enjoy a Spam sandwich, or Spam in a pasta sauce, or Spam in gimbap or a rice dish. And I can honestly say that I have never been without Spam since I moved here, yet I’ve never once bought any. Steve, when he moved out of my apartment, left me an impressive collection of Spam gift sets that he’d collected over the previous year… then I got a fresh batch from the school management at Seollal… and now I’m sitting here surrounded by Spam for Chuseok, with more to come, no doubt, when friends realise that they can donate theirs to me rather than throw it out.

It is admittedly a little bizarre. The sight of Spam gift sets proudly displayed in every supermarket and street stall was extremely strange to me when I first got here, but now – like many things – it seems almost normal to me. The second most popular gift is oil. As in cooking oil. And not in nice, fancy, decorative glass bottles, either… nope, just your plain old plastic bottles of oil, nicely displayed in a gift case!

It’s all feeling quite festive today. The kids are very excited, and the traffic out there is mental with most of the population heading out of the cities and off to stay out in the countryside near the graves of their ancestors, and the streets are full of people hurrying home with their cases of Spam. Meanwhile, I am putting my Spam and cooking oil on my kitchen shelves, and packing my backpack, and hoping the traffic jams tomorrow won’t stop me getting to the airport in time for my flight.

Mongolia, camels, Gobi desert, wild horses, and fermented mare’s milk, here I come!

Unforgettable

I was challenged on Facebook the other day to list 15 films that have made an impact on me and will always stay with me. The idea was to list these quickly, off the top of my head, without thinking about it… but you know me. I can’t do quick, concise lists, as I mentioned just the other day! So, as I know my challenger is also a regular reader of my blog, I’m writing about those memorable films here, instead. I’ve cut it down to ten in the name of brevity – be proud of me!

Hails’ Top Ten Unforgettable Films

(in no particular order)

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

The first time I saw this film was with Mum and The Sister on one of those cosy girlie evenings we’d have on occasion. This was a particularly happy night because it was somewhere between Christmas and New Year, so we were on holidays and enjoying playing with the toys Santa had brought. I think I was about 8 or 9. We had chicken and chips for dinner that night, and got to eat it in front of the TV from trays on our knees while we watched E.T. and laughed together at him drinking the beer and wearing the wig and saying “phooooone hoooooome!”. However, the part that sticks in my mind the most is when all the people with white suits and helmets and breathing apparatus came and made a big tunnel up to the house, and Elliot was crying, and poor sick E.T. got taken away. Honestly, that traumatised me. To this day, I can’t watch that film without feeling all anxious and troubled when it gets to that part.

V for Vendetta

Love this one. Since I first saw this, I’ve gotten quite into books and films depicting future dystopian societies or post-apocalyptic times. In terms of novels, my favourites at the moment include “Alas, Babylon” and “1984”, but this one is among the best when it comes to film.

Gremlins

This scared the crap out of me. Seriously. I have watched violent slasher movies that have terrified me much less than Gremlins. Little cute and cuddly critters that morph into horrible monsters if they get wet?! That’s a terrible, terrible nightmare. I really don’t like Gremlins. I always end up feeling so sorry for poor little Gizmo, and just want to rescue him from all the horror and chaos. The only time I watched it, when I was a child, I went up to bed before it was over because it was all too much for me.

To Kill A Mockingbird

I first watched this in school when I was studying the book for my English Literature GCSE. I think it was the first black and white film I ever watched, and I loved it. It was my teacher’s enthusiasm that sucked me into the story, and it was the first time I’d ever learned much about racial and class division. I bought the movie when I was older, and found that I still enjoyed it – although, of course I’ll always prefer the book.

Se7en

Another favourite. And not just because of Brad Pitt, although he’s a definite bonus! ;) And this is one of his best performances, in my opinion. I love the story and the suspense, and I really like how it all gets tied up in the end.

Tarka the Otter

I actually have very little memory of the plot of this film – I’ll just never forget it for how deeply it touched me. I was 9 years old at the time, and my teacher lent me the video – maybe we were reading the book in school, I can’t remember. What I do remember is crying my heart out as I watched it, and being genuinely upset, almost heartbroken, afterwards. Sorry for the spoiler, kids, but I guess that means the otter dies in the end.

The Truman Show

This film was a great source of philosophical discussion and debate for 17-year-old me and my friends. What if your life was all a big sham? How do you know it’s not? Would it have been better for Truman to never find out and just go on thinking it was all real? Would he be incapable of functioning in the real world, like a captive bird released into the wild? If it was you, would you rather find out or remain unaware? (Oh, but also, I just really really love Jim Carrey. It is an attraction I cannot explain, and it has always just been there.)

Cannibal Holocaust

I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: do NOT watch this film. I’m not kidding. Now, if you’re anything like me, that statement will immediately make you want to see the film, and I apologise for that, because you really, really should not watch it. I ended up seeing it out of curiosity because it was described as controversial and gruesome, there were rumours that it was a snuff film, and I basically couldn’t understand what could be so bad about a film that it could be banned in so many countries and cause so much uproar. Well, I understand now. It contains the most horrific sights I have ever seen in my life. Murder, rape, violent and bloody torture. And not all of them are faked. Several animals, for example, are tortured and killed on camera – I couldn’t watch, but by the time I’d snapped my eyes shut there were already a few disturbing images imprinted on my mind. The film itself is just horrific, the whole approach is nasty and ignorant and repulsive. (The only possible – and very tiny – saving grace is that I think this may be the point). I didn’t manage to watch it all; I couldn’t stomach the gore. It honestly took me days to get over it, so that the images weren’t constantly flashing in front of my eyes. I repeat: don’t watch it. It’s the only movie I’ve ever genuinely regretted seeing.

The Shawshank Redemption

This is one of my favourite films, and I can watch it again and again. I love the character of Andy Dufresne – he’s so determined, and so patient. I actually quite enjoy prison movies in general, and the idea of an innocent man being locked away with criminals for most of his life is a horrifying one – but I particularly like how this film shows the humanity, friendship, and kindness amongst the inmates, and also how many of them no longer want to be released, fearing that they won’t be able to survive outside the secure familiarity of the prison.

The Sixth Sense

I know people criticise this film and say that the ending was obvious from quite near the beginning, but I’m not the sort of person who can ever work out how a film will end. I’m always caught up with what’s happening right now, and not thinking about how it’s going to end – and I honestly didn’t catch on until the moment that it was revealed on screen. I loved this film, because for me, the ending was a major twist and a huge surprise, and that made it brilliant. I realise that not many other people can say that. What can I say? Sometimes not thinking pays off!

Scared

I thought we were just having a casual chat, messing around, exchanging friendly banter. I didn’t realise how seriously he was taking it.

I suppose, with hindsight, I did notice the change in his expression when I said what I did – I just didn’t give it any thought at the time. His smile remained frozen on his lips, but his eyes flickered slightly with something I never even knew was there. Deep resentment, anger, low self-esteem, a long-running grudge… whatever it was, it made my comment a much, much bigger deal to him than it was to me.

I must have fallen asleep on the sofa eventually, I don’t know for how long. It was a beam of light that woke me up. I saw it flash and then disappear before I even opened my eyes. Then it swept the room again, and I came reluctantly towards consciousness, opening my eyelids groggily and blinking.

It was the beam of a powerful flashlight, not aimed directly at me, but being used outside. I sat up, feeling nervous, and felt for the light switch. When I flicked it, nothing happened, and I remained in darkness save for the occasional flash from the beam of light outside. The electricity must be out, I thought with some relief, banishing thoughts of a potential robber prowling outside the window. Sure enough, when I glanced outside, I could see the shapes of several people holding objects that could be tools… a ladder was propped up against the wall… that was all I could make out.

Wide awake now, I got up and opened the door to go upstairs for a better view out of a bedroom window. I swung round the corner and had my foot on the first stair when I froze in a deadly mix of terror and disbelief at what I saw.

Standing at the top of the stairs was the dark but discernible silhouette of a masked man holding a gun and aiming it right at Hilda, who cowered, motionless, in the bathroom doorway. Everything was deadly still, apart from my racing, thudding heart. He had to have seen me. But still he didn’t move. With trembling legs, I stepped slowly backwards and into the room from which I’d come.

That’s when my eyes, now adjusted to the darkness, saw the gunman in the kitchen.

He wore a police badge, and motioned at me to come to him. I ran. I ran faster than I’ve ever run to anyone in my life, and flung myself into the corner behind him. Outside, I saw a team of men silently climbing another ladder to enter through the back bedroom window. But then, with a grim crack so loud that it made me scream, there was a shot.

And that, dear reader, is how I came to be up at 3.30 this morning, switching on the lights and nervously checking every corner and hiding place (washroom, kitchenette, wardrobe…) in my little apartment for masked gunmen. It is also why I couldn’t get back to sleep for at least a couple of hours, and therefore why I am so exhausted today. I’d just been watching an episode of Ugly Betty – whose sister is Hilda. Betty’s boyfriend, Matt, was the guy at the start.

Why he turned into a psycho, hostage-taking gunman, I have no idea, but he really made it very hard for me to get any sleep last night…

Take note.

I don’t think I ever once got caught passing notes in school.

I did it all the time, mind you. If you know me at all, you’ll be aware that I greatly prefer written communication over spoken conversation – and also that I am a huge fan of the lengthy letter/email. Of course, I know that not everyone is content to spend their days and nights writing and typing, so I appreciate emails and messages of any length, but I find it almost impossible to condense my responses. It’s strange. I can sit through entire conversations and not be motivated to say more than “yes” or “uh-huh”, and yet when it’s written down I suddenly think of a million things I absolutely must say. I never use ten words where a hundred will do. (I hate instant messaging, or ‘chat’, or whatever it’s called these days, for precisely that reason. I’m incapable of responding in short sentences that only take a few seconds to type!)

In fact, I have real difficulty in understanding how exactly people manage to communicate with so few words, these days. Text messages that just say ‘k’ or ‘late’ – when I’d need to say ‘am running late due to mad traffic & taking ages to get taxi, but should be there in 10 mins, will call you when there, save me a seat please’. That’s me being brief by using ‘&’ instead of  ‘and’, and abbreviating ‘minutes’. Cutting down any further would cause me actual anxiety and stress. I like to give reasons and explanations, to ask for clarity, and to ensure that both parties know what’s going on. ‘k’ and ‘late’ just don’t do it for me.

Likewise, my notes to friends at school were long, rambling paragraphs in small writing (to save paper – I’m aware that my verbosity isn’t environmentally friendly!). Often, when bored in class, my friends and I would have whole conversations by means of a piece of paper that sat atop a pile of legitimate notes between our desks, pausing at all the right times to look thoughtfully at the page as if it contained startling revelations about Henrik Ibsen or Mary, Queen of Scots. If our positions meant that the note had to be passed, it was never me who got caught. I had a rather angelic expression, and can also be more sleekit than you’d think to look at me.  The suspicious teacher’s gaze always passed right over me and came to rest upon one of my friends. Poor Becs got it more than most, as she always managed to look guilty and nervous – particularly when she was trying to look relaxed and innocent. It was a great source of amusement for us. Well, for me, anyway.

I never really thought about the poor teacher, working hard, doing his or her job, and being ignored by thankless children who would rather not be there. I can see why they got annoyed, now that I’m one of Them. It’s a bit disheartening to be putting everything you’ve got into making a lesson exciting and interesting, only to find the little sods giggling over a note that’s doing the rounds. And of course, the worst part about that when you’re an ESL teacher is that you can understand very little of what the notes say:

It does make you a little bit paranoid! But you just have to trust that they’re simply insulting each other, and not you.

I don’t get angry over the note-passing. At least it’s not as big a distraction to others as some other kinds of misbehaviour. And they’re just children – what child, realistically, wants to go to school every day and have to sit still for hours on end and listen to adults talking? Particularly if they’re prattling on in a weird foreign language. So I just confiscate the notes without pausing my lesson. Sometimes I see a flicker of fear in the eyes of the note writer, so I give it a glance and then put a very stern, shocked and angry expression on my face to let them know that I know exactly what they’re saying, and they won’t get away with it.

I haven’t the foggiest, of course, but it usually puts them on their best behaviour for the rest of the lesson. ;)

Super-size Mii

Having decided to part with the huge disappointment that was my shiny new iPad, i found a buyer just downstairs. Alex and I made a trade – an iPad and an old laptop in exchange for some cash and a Nintendo Wii with Wii Fit.

I don’t understand! I connected it all up and all the wires are in the right place and everything, and it still won’t work, I wailed despairingly down the phone as I sat in a sea of cables and boxes. Alex responded with the typical male question: Did you plug it in?

Yes, I plugged it in, I told him sharply (burrowing hurriedly through the mess to the wall socket in order to confirm this). He issued a few more instructions before giving up and plodding dutifully up the stairs to sort it out. He looked with interest at the whole set-up, no doubt admiring my tech-savviness, and bent down to inspect the Wii. There was a sudden beep and the Wii logo appeared as if by magic on my TV screen.

Wow! I exclaimed, both impressed and annoyed by his superior knowledge. How did you do that?!

He informed me that he’d pressed the “power on” button.

Why must I be such a girl despite all my best efforts?

Anyway, I got started with creating my Mii. She had long dark hair, glasses, blue eyes, pale skin… truly a cute cartoon version of myself. Then I had to do a body test before I began training, and the Wii freaked out a bit. Although everything is in Korean, I could tell that it was extremely unhappy with me simply by its tone of voice and all the exclamation marks. It informed me that my Wii Fit Age was 41 (!), and my Mii hung her head in shame. Then it told me I was obese, and suddenly my cute little Mii morphed into this huge barrel-shaped creature, so fat that her arms now stick out slightly from her sides, and instead of running on to the menu screen, she sort of… waddles. I didn’t know whether to be insulted or amused, but I suppose I’ll know I’m starting to lose weight and tone up when my Mii looks less like Buddha on a cheeseburger diet.

I have commenced the fitness regime.

I’ve discovered that although I hate step aerobics, I love it when it takes the form of a dance mat style of game. Although I detest running, I enjoy it when my running motions are controlling a computerised character on cute cartoon island. Although I have terrible balance, I like practising yoga with an animated instructor who is patient with me until I get it right. I think I have finally found an exercise programme that works for me – and the best part is that I don’t have to pack a gym kit, travel to a leisure centre, or be all red and sweaty in public (well, any more so than usual, I mean). And as someone who gets bored and discouraged unless I can see results, having the Wii track my daily progress, weight loss, BMI, and exercise sessions on graphs and charts is a huge incentive.

I love it! And who knows, maybe my super-sized Mii will be a Wee Mii before long. :)