Monday, October 25, 2010

The similarity between copperheads and roadside bombs

So let's start with the facts, blameless and final. Let’s start with a road, almost entirely dark, but for the lights of five vehicles: In order, a bulletproof Humvee, a Hyundai SUV, a white minivan, another Hyundai SUV and a KM 450 cargo truck. It was a Thursday. It was 6:25 p.m. I was sitting in the middle row of the white minivan, alongside a youngish Philippine army colonel named Benedict Arevalo. We’d been together all day, and I liked him. I was no longer interviewing him, and my notebook was closed, and he was talking about something I still cannot recall. It is only the things hereafter that I remember with frame-by-frame detail.

Along the straight road, cast in the peripheral halflight of the military convoy, one could observe something far less than a town. More a muddy marketplace/village, with rows of leaning houses, tinny, almost perishable, and women stood sentry in front of almost every one. They tended to rows of assorted salty snacks and candy bars clipped to chickenwire. Shirtless kids played in the streets. A few fires burned. Every so often, I spotted a place that looked like an open-air restaurant, where men sat on plastic chairs, smoking, legs crossed. Garbage collected in divots along the street. It’s here, precisely, where the global supply of RC Cola bottles come for their afterlife.

We were in the Philippines, reporting this story about local elections. And more specifically, we were on the main southern island called Mindanao, a dangerous place. And more specifically, we were in the bloodiest part of this dangerous place — a province called Maguindanao, a haven for Muslim rebels, warlords and private guerilla armies. And more specifically still, we were on a road without a name, and we were moving fast, as military convoys tend to move. We were heading southwest, toward the barracks of the 29th Infantry Battalion of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. We were one kilometer away. Arevalo had suggested we grab dinner at the barracks’ mess hall, where they serve rice, canned tuna and canned corned beef, a danger unto itself.

We were at coordinates 6.931509 N, 124.421242 E when the road pulsed and a light flashed. I heard a noise — or two noises pushed into one. Not even PowPow! More like P-Pow! The noise(s) came from the right-hand side of the road, and for a split-second I saw an orange sky, and then I saw only dust. Dust, and maybe shrapnel, and it rained down on our minivan. My Filipino translator, Carmela, sitting in the front passenger’s seat, instinctively crouched low. I sort of froze. You might say I froze in fear, but my heart never raced. I remember saying, slowly, “Oh my god.” And I remember being acutely aware that nothing yet bad had happened. And I remember waiting for something worse to happen. And I waited for about three seconds. Our driver hit the gas, and we emerged from the dust, and we saw the road. And we were all OK.

Now, a disclaimer: We were all OK — that is a damning sentence. It was true at 6:25 p.m., as our minivan blitzed toward the barracks, arriving 30 seconds later, plowing up a gravel road — safety. But that sentence became less and less true in the minutes and hours that passed, as adrenaline loosed its grip, as tunnel vision receded, as gossip spread through the barracks, as I gathered more facts about what happened on the unnamed road after we sped away. There had been a firefight. Roughly 15 enemies — presumably members of a Muslim rebel group — emerged from both sides of the road, firing at the three convoy vehicles that hadn’t rushed back to camp. One bullet had splintered the driver’s side window of the Humvee, wounding the driver, Jackson Martinez. Two civilians, driving a car that got stuck behind the convoy, were killed in the army-rebel crossfire.

Within two minutes, the gunfire went quiet, and everything was over. Soldiers returned to the camp, breathing heavy, repeating themselves. They gathered around the damaged vehicles, speculating about the angle of the gunfire, trying to impose order on chaos. In the end, the army devoted hours to this process: Trying to make one story out of many. Trying to figure out what the hell happened, there on the street with the soda bottles and the well-hidden, well-armed rebels.

It was — and I cringe at this word, but this is a story with only wrong words — … well, it was quite cool. It was cool to hang around soldiers, there in their most unguarded moments, as they wanted to tell you everything. It was cool to spend time in the army conference room with Filipino West Point graduate Mario Feliciano, as he recreated the battle with a GPS system, determining that enemy shots had come from 162 meters away. It was cool to review Arevalo’s stack of intelligence info, which detailed speculation about IEDs planted throughout the province. I filled two notebooks with info. I had a story, which is sometimes the only thing a journalist needs to feel happy. Late that night — way later than planned — I sat elbow-to-elbow in the mess hall eating godawful tuna and corned beef. The men of the 29th Battalion offered me a guest cot, and I slept well.

The next morning, I returned with Arevalo and several others to the blast site. We saw the little cell phone fragments used to detonate the roadside IEDs. Two 3-foot-wide craters, about 25 meters apart, indicated where the bombs had been planted. The first bomb, constructed from a 105 mm howitzer, had exploded just in front of our minivan. The second bomb, constructed from a 66 mm mortar round, had exploded just behind us. Each had been half-buried in yellow plastic bags, resembling garbage. Arevalo felt certain our vehicle — and he, in particular — had been targeted. Lord knows why the bombs didn’t cause greater damage.

The military’s story had now ossified into something worthy of a document — an “incident report” that the public affairs office would send to newspapers and television stations. Action reduced to jargon:

“While heading back [to barracks], convoy was roadside bombed (2 IEDs), ambushed and strafed from both directions by MOL (15) fully-armed men of Basit Usman of the 105 BC at vic Lower Salbo, GC Datu Saudia… Immediately troops returned fire at enemy position. Firefight lasted for about 15 minutes and perpetrators scattered in different directions… Said incident is believed to be in retaliation for the arrest of Hadie Abdul Maguid and Eduard Guerro, both linked to international terrorist groups… Jackson Martinez (left cheek) slightly wounded, and two civilians killed whose vehicle was following convoy. Brgy captain Salik Talipasan. Brgy counselor Ustadz Nasser.”

So there you have it.

Or rather, there you have part of it.

Since Thursday night, I’ve told almost nobody about what happened. I don’t really know what to say. It’s easier to survive an IED ambush than tell your mother about it. Already I can joke about this incident, but I don’t dare. I don’t blame anybody, but maybe I should. I don’t feel traumatized, but perhaps that’s reason itself to worry. In fact, the last few days, I’ve been really happy, giddy to be eating and writing and exercising. I’ve been really happy, and yet two people died in a firefight as my minivan sped away. We are all OK. We are NOT all OK. I think I’ve still got some work to do.

Sunday morning, I spoke to my dad via Skype and told him pretty much what I’ve written here. I’ll give him this: He does have a gift for saying the right things, sometimes even without using sailboat allegories. In this instance, he told me a story about a hiking trip he took with my younger brother, Isaac. I’d heard the story before, but not in many years. Anyway, while walking along this remote mountain trail, Isaac nearly stepped on a copperhead snake. He was 6 or 7 at the time, probably wearing a Pirates hat and synthetic Little League pants (or at least that’s how I picture him), and if he’d stepped on the snake he would have been a gonner. He didn’t, only because my dad spotted the copperhead at the last second and yanked Isaac away.

What’s interesting about the story, though, is what happened next: There was neither fight nor flight — no instinctive reaction to trauma. Rather, my dad just pulled out the camcorder. They stood there and videotaped the snake that almost killed my brother.

But this is a story, too, about the strange ways in which we react. A few nights later, my dad woke up in a cold sweat. And then it happened the next night, and the next night after that. “It was almost like a delayed reaction,” my dad said.

And of course now it’s a story that he tells from time to time. Just a story, and it could have been something much more, or much less.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A comparison of East Asian metropolises with incongruously styled baseball uniforms

Weeks before I left Washington, D.C., my then-editor, Kevin Sullivan, advised me to use the direct flights connecting Tokyo and Seoul with the frequency that others might use a “commuter bus.” On that count, perhaps only that count, I’ve met expectations. Since August 1, I have spent 32 nights in Seoul. I have spent 32 in Tokyo. I hold business cards printed in Japanese and Korean. I own cell phones for both countries. The back-and-forth has gone thusly: Sixteen nights in Seoul, 20 nights in Tokyo, 11 nights in Seoul, seven nights in Tokyo, six nights in Seoul. And now four nights in Tokyo.

I should say here that, by the standards of my Wash Post East Asia predecessors, I’ve been in Seoul with unusual frequency of late. But this was a big month for North Korea-related news, and Seoul is where journalists head to cover the nation they cannot enter. This is a little like covering the Super Bowl from the parking lot, I admit. The upside is, that I owe my 2010 Marriott rewards status to Kim Jong Il’s hereditary succession plan.

Anyway, I like the back-and-forth. And maybe I’d feel different if Seoul and Tokyo shared much in common, but they don’t. I cannot state this clearly enough. In fact, for further emphasis, I punched ‘capslock’ twice before writing that previous sentence. Maybe you’re surprised to hear this; I’m not sure. Maybe the cities share some vague spot in your imagination, because they’re both homogeneous East Asian metropolises where the subways arrive on time and the businessmen move quickly, speaking to nobody. That’s true.

But. In Tokyo they drive on the left; in Seoul they drive on the right. In Tokyo they serve mild food; in Seoul they serve spicy food. In Tokyo there’s no problem with traffic, but a 20-minute cab ride costs $45; in Seoul the traffic never relents, and a 90-minute cab ride costs $45. In Tokyo men wear scarves and rock star shoes; in Seoul men wear short-sleeve dress shirts. In Tokyo, every product — detergents; foods; etc. — is labeled strictly in Japanese, and sometimes I’ll walk into a drugstore, looking for dandruff shampoo, and spend 15 aimless minutes in the aisles, comparing brand names, trying to discern if this is dandruff shampoo or just regular shampoo, invariably guessing wrong. In Seoul, they sell Head & Shoulders in convenience stores.

And then we have the cultural differences, which are like the shampoo differences, only greater. To put it simply, the Japanese culture (from my perspective) seems founded on the idea of hiding things. The Korean culture (from my perspective) seems founded on the idea of saying things. You can argue all day about which mode is better — though if you’re arguing in Japan, you better apologize before the argument begins, and you probably ought to apologize at least three more times when the argument ends — but from my perspective, I’ll just say this: The differences are a blessing. The differences are amusing. The differences have made my adjustment to East Asia way easier, because Tokyo neutralizes Seoul’s minor annoyances, and vice versa. No complaints ever fester. I spend so much time comparing Japan and South Korea that I almost never compare either country with America.

(TANGENT: The takeaway lesson here, which I haven’t yet stated explicitly, is this: Tokyo is a Galapagos of weird obsessions, fetishes, opaque customs, behaviors that occur nowhere else. Seoul is a bit like Dallas, but without the obesity. For Westerners, Seoul is far more penetrable. Given this, it makes no sense — absolutely none — that Japanese professional baseball players use Roman characters for their uniforms and Korean players use Hangeul.)

Anyway, in both Tokyo and Seoul, I’ve managed recently to have some fun nights out. I think I’m starting to make some friends. On rare occasions, I also feel like I’m starting to figure out my job.

Ahh yes, my job. Since beginning this blog — and reliably ignoring it 29 days out of 30 — I haven’t written about my job, but that misrepresents its importance, the way I obsess over it, worry about it, feel unworthy of it, feel inspired to do better. I have made the mistake before of publicly complaining about my old job (link widely available, but unprovided), and that was, I suppose, an instance of incredibly stupid honesty. But this job is different. I love the subject matter, I love the variety, I love the possibility — even though I’ve tapped so little of it. On the topic of honesty, I could complain only about my own competence.

Among the challenges so far: Mastering the nuance of so many topics (the Japanese economy; the Kim family tree; the Japan-China sea dispute; etc) at once. Conducting interviews via an interpreter, where so much nuance is lost. Researching stories, when so much of the best info is available only in Korean or Japanese. Planning my time. Keeping track of expenses. Developing sources. Applying for visas. Writing authoritatively about places I’m just starting to understand.

This job’s learning curve is so high, its peak is snowcapped. But here’s the good news. I will be good at this job someday. I know this because I won’t accept any alternative, and I have the motivation. North Korea, in particular, has captured my interest like no other subject on the planet; I’ve always loved journalism, but I cannot say — until now — that I’ve ever loved a particular subject. At the risk of sounding overcaffeinated or over-enthused, I could spend the next 10 years of my life writing strictly about North Korea. I would never get bored, and I would never know enough. If North Korea collapses some time in the next few years, I’ll be covering one of the biggest stories of the 21st Century. If it doesn’t, I’ll have the chance to write about a country that imposes the 20th Century — 1984, to pick a year — on its citizens. Getting the chance to write about this mysterious country, it’s a privilege.


Realizing now, it’s time to wrap up this blog entry, because I have an interview appointment to get to. Unfortunately those prior paragraphs of heavy earnestness sort of spoiled the mood for the de rigueur final sign-off, where I say something pithy and remind everybody that nothing too important was meant by all this. So I’ll just stick with the heavy earnestness mode. For those reading far away from here, thank you. Aside from sporadic job anxiety, I’m feeling healthy and happy and well. Not sure when I’m heading next to Seoul, but in the meantime, I’m rocking the short-sleeve dress shirts in Tokyo.