As I took a deep breath and started to survey my new home, the first thing that struck me was the orderliness and artistic flourishes of the FOB (base) and its denizens (hows that for a diplomatic word). Everything was lined up in neat rows, and a series of murals depict scenes of lakes, playing children and the Statue of Liberty (which I thought a particularly gracious gesture of hospitality). In addition, rock gardens, a shrine, a vegetable and flower garden, and similar fixtures (up to prints of rural scenes posted in the bathrooms) have been sprinkled throughout the facility turning it into an island of color and structure on a dusty brown plain speckled with mismatched structures.
In keeping with the disciplined but welcoming and poetic (if I may stretch that word) physical setting, my hosts projected a similar sense of warm orderliness. Although I was one of a handful of caucasians among hundreds of Koreans I did have the same sense of "otherness" that can be an exhausting aspect of living overseas (as well as a life-altering way to give yourself perspective on how immigrants/minorities live their lives).
That ended abruptly when I entered the DFAC (chow hall) and came close to asking Han Solo (my predecessor who picked me up at Mos Eisley -see earlier post) to provide written instructions on which seaweed goes in the soup, which goes on the rice and which you really just shouldn't tangle with. I muddled through the buffet style line going heavy on the rice and a dish of fried something with sesame seeds and a red sauce. I carefully avoided sauces on my maiden culinary voyage not wishing to be "that guy" who pours tobasco sauce in his milk and then chokes it down pretending everything is A-OK.
I grabbed some bottled water from the refridgerator and sat down, still on the alert for cues on any meal protocol. There didn't seem to be any, so I carefully picked up my metal chopstix and mentally thanked my parents for teaching me the two basic life skills of driving a stick shift and using chopstix. I was no match for my hosts of course, who seemed to entrap the smallest, sauciest kernel of rice without so much as looking at it, but I got the first nugget of what turned out to be chicken in my mouth on the first try. HEAVEN.
I have promised myself not to torment any of my colleagues on other PRTs who are facing genuine hardship far from the legendary Korean DFAC. Suffice to say, while I can name only one in hundred dishes that are served here, my sole dietary challenge is limiting my portions.
After lunch, we tried to blend in a bit with our hosts by doing some walking, which the Koreans LOVE to do after meals. It's a great habit, particularly since the scenery here is stunning, particularly when the wind isn't howling, the sun isn't baking you, or the dust isn't swirling (or all three). There are mountains behind the base and we look "forward" over the green fields (mostly green) of the Shomali plain, with various mountain ranges popping up from there. Pictures are in the works - for now, trust me, it's stunning.
Then we went up to one of the guard towers, made sure they saw us coming up (never surprise a guy with a gun that can stop a truck) tried to pass a few pleasantries with minimal success but abundant mutual goodwill and mimed a request to borrow their binoculars. I took a look at a mountain range a solid two miles away, and almost felt sorry for any poor Talib teenager who tried to sneak up on them/us.
Then it was back to the office where Han laid on an excellent in-brief which was dominated by discussions of how to juggle the four different computer systems (and accompanying phone systems) which all have particular uses, advantages, audiences, and frustrations. Each system also has a treasure trove of historical documents and emails, but accessing it requires a highly skilled treasure hunter, and I have not quite cracked the code on the last map...
After dinner (I won't rub it in) I was ready to talk about something other than .pst files, and happy to join Han in his English language class. A dozen or so students came in and sat quietly waiting. Han introduced me and asked the students to introduce themselves and say a bit about themselves. The first presentation was fairly mundane but done quite skillfully. The second speaker struggled through name, family status etc. and suddenly came out with the self-description that I should have written down, but was close to his being "compelling and honest". The class roared, and suddenly the walls were down and the room of quiet serious students was revealed as a joker (several actually), a scholar, a family man and so on. The class continued and they went through a reading exercise based on a short story Han made up about life on the PRT, then wrapped up with gracious goodbyes and thanks to Han, and distribution of american goodies from the secret stash previously alluded to (and to my dedicated reader, the answer is NO I was not kidding about the Cocoa Puffs).