Jun 16, 2007

homeland obscurity (North Korea post #3 )

A friend of mine made a point of telling me before I went to North Korea, "wow, I'm a little worried about you with all those conversation rules, you know how opinionated you are." Umm hmm. What he was really trying to say is that I have a big mouth, yes, I know this, talk talk talk. But it's not for talking that I found myself forcefully beckoned by a red flag firmly gesturing the ubiquitous 'come here NOW' gesture in the hand of a soldier in a authoritatively starched-stiff North Korean military uniform, another taking me by the arm, yet another reaching for my bag.

Wait a sec. Maybe I shouldn't start my North Korea story here. Maybe you need some background. I've just heard a well-written story should start with an attention-grabber. Is the 'North Korean soldiers grabbed me' thing grabbing you? Still, let's rewind to the night before and I'll throw down some atmosphere to get you caught up.

The trip had really begun the night before. I was standing on the balcony of a popular 20-story condo-hotel that looms over the edge of a crescent beach just a few clicks from the 38th parallel. It was the first time I'd seen the East Sea of Korea ('Sea of Japan' for you imperialists), or at least, as much as I could see in the dark. Gray froth tips of breaking waves on the little beach and distant floating lights of squid fishing boats were the only tell-tale visible signs I was even looking at the enclave of a major ocean.

"I guess we're looking east, so we'll be able to see the sunrise," I mused, sipping a tall can of Hite as the kids inside were rolling out the floor mats that would pass as our beds, and midnight-snacking on instant ramen and soju poured into thimble-sized paper cups. "No we won't," said Mike, "They're picking us up at 4." (Mike is a friendly British-born Australian IT guy. His wife, Susie, a similarly congenial Australian-born Australian, and Adam, a laid-back linguistics guy from Berkley, California were also in the room, and the 'They' Mike was talking about, with a capital 'T' because they are so important, are the tour we were to liaison with in the wee hours of Korean morning).

4 o'clock comes early no matter what side of the world you're on. I reminded myself of this fact as I laid on my mat and cuddled my styrofoam-bean stuffed cylindrical pillow trying to will myself to sleep, because I was having trouble. Through the waving curtain, two flares, real flares, shot up into the sky, followed by two more and two more until there was a kind of sunrise that lit the sea like black glass. Military training maybe. Everything's military in the area, the coast is fenced, the guard-posts are manned.

The grumps on the bus had been there since 11 the night before when they boarded in Seoul.

Our little crew already lives in the province adjacent to the border crossing to Kumgangsan Mountain, which explains why we didn't have to pay those long-bus-ride-overnight dues.

The bus crash-landed in the condo-hotel parking lot, picked us up with a giant people-magnet and took off just as quick, arriving at the pre-border border within two minutes where I got a look at the sleepy heads - the biggest number of white people I had seen bunched one place since I came to Korea.

We shuffled back on and back off the buses, where we were assigned ID cards on cheeseball-plastic-neck-name-tag type dealios that we were instructed slip our passports into, and to hang around our necks like a touristy albatross for the entire trip.

The bus spit us out at south-side immigration, a beautiful building-of-the-future with towering floor-to-ceiling convex windows ballooning on either side like a giant gassy rocket ship.

A little blue stamp on my passport reads, 'Departing South Korea at Goseng', and I would get a stamp to seal the return-deal once back, but no one gets the same treatment from North Korea. Not a single mark or note. No-you-weren't-here.

Once we'd jumped onto new North-Korea certified buses for the ten minute jog across the DMZ, we got the warning: no pictures, no pictures at any time, unless a tour guide makes it clear that you are in a yes-photography zone.

Got it.

Not that I would have had anything to take a picture of at that moment - see this craggy rock and that marshy bush-filled field beside it? That's the demilitarized zone! See the rusty brass pole? That's the actual border-marker! There was nothing ominous to see, no Bond-style hover craft chases, no bombs.

And then it was North Korea's turn: NK immigration is a tent. It's a tent filled with tour guides yelling 'ID and passport in right hand, camera in your left hand!" dozens and dozens of South Koreans lined up for the same tour, and the sound of a crackly loud speaker looping a crazy-enthusiastic ear-worm welcoming song. Think brainwashing's not possible? You didn't hear the song.

"Hulo. Hulo. ... HuLO?" I was mesmerized by the crossing-guard's Kim Jong Il Kim Il-sung pin, the pin I would see on every single North Korean during the trip, mesmerized totally speechless.

"Uh uh, Hi!"


"Yes, right there, yep."

"Passport number?"

"Passport number?"

"Passport number."

"Uh .. [deep facial-contorting processing of question].. JR197mahmuhmahmmm .."




Didn't have to tell me twice.

The stamp on my ID card? I had to give it back later.

Relieved, I walked through the tent, set down my bag, flicked on my camera, and cupped my hand around the LCD to assure myself that I'd put the fresh battery in, slipped the camera back into the bag and looked around. On the hill a soldier with a red flag who'd previously been standing stiff and stone-faced was now running across the raised embankment, silhouetted against the sharp dark-faced mountains in the distance. "The mountains of Mordor," I chuckled to myself with my best Ian McKellen.

I swear it only took the length of one bad Ian McKellen impression for the same soldier to be standing in front of me, with two more in tow.

The man in charge, or who I could only assume was the highest ranking officer, opened my bag. My new sunglasses spilled out onto the pavement and my eyes fixated on them while my mind frantically grasped for any idea what to do.

They found my camera, turned it on, flipped through the pictures and it dawned on me - they thought I'd taken one.

"No pictures! Pictures OPSO!" I stammered.

I'm sure they only flipped through those pictures once or twice, there were only three there anyway from the day before, but an eternity passed for me right there next to the immigration tent in North Korea as I was singled out by three of the scariest military personnel I have ever seen.

And then just like that, they let me go with a wave from the high-ranker that looked like his hand was swatting a bug, and I turned tail back to the group, finding the thickest spot to disappear into and wet my pants.

It wouldn't be the first time one of us would have a run-in, in fact, it would just the first of more than a few times.

And there would be more odd times, party times and times where I just didn't know what to call it.

Like the next leg of the trip...


Joefilmfan said...

This is what Kirk went through when he went to the Klingon home planet. Gratuitous nudity and all.

One brave chick.

riley said...

I used your 'star trek guide to asians' to clear up any confusion.

natania said...

OMG...that sounds scary as hell!! Was that one time that you were rendered speechless???? lol...
Oh, did you end up peeing your pants???? I just had to ask ;)

riley said...

just a little squirt.