Jun 12, 2007

whose ideology will you dip in? (North Korea post #1)

My hand skims the cool water, pausing to reach down, open palm brushing some of the smooth uneven edges of what are thousands of jade stones. I can see them in my peripheral just under the surface of the crystal current, all darkly glowing green as if my fingers were inking their image into a graphic novel. I scoop them onto my bare stomach, bare thighs, roll them across my chest like they're lotion, pick them up and drop them, turning my ear into the water so I can hear the muffled faraway 'clink clink' as they join the rest.

It's twilight in North Korea and I'm watching the sun set, naked, horizontal and cradled by a green cold calm, in the 3-inch deep 'jade stream' of a Korean hot spa. And since it's the most relaxing, most alluring thing perhaps I've ever done, I can't suppress my sighs.

I arch my neck back and breathe. The tiny clink-click-clinking of little rocks, muted vibrations from a pump somewhere beyond the stream and the trickling of water are sounds you could concentrate and sell in a bottle. I let my head drop to the left, eyes closed, listening. Someone's hand is cupping water, letting it fall through her fingers. I open my eyes to see a young Asian woman following my suit, wrapping herself in the luxury of the stones, her little brownish body seeming highlighted against the green, as antithetical colors of currants and saffron play tricks in the shadows of the water as I try not to look directly at any one part of her, since she is as naked as I am. I seek her eyes, scared mine will suddenly slip, and find they are smiling. "I'm afraid you are cold," says her mouth, in broken English, following her eyes' lead with a sublime and relaxed smile. The high heat from the day is only starting to fall off, and the cool stream is still warm enough for now. "I'm OK," I gesture to the sky, "warm." Her eyes are dancing as she half-laughs, half-exhales, she doesn't have to say anything.

The sun is gone. The stars are beginning to show in the clear black above the mountains. Brightly as anywhere in the world, the same stars.

After two hours, reluctant to leave the mud sauna, the jade stream under the sky and the outdoor hot springs, waterfalls and textured mountain stones holding it all, I pull myself back to the lockers and reality, or surreality, hits again.

I wasn't naked when I was naked out in the water, but in the locker room I am again. In the hot pools, the Ajummas ('AH-ju-ma' is the polite way to refer to any gracefully-aged woman in Korea, meaning, 'Aunt') seemed like benign fixtures, but in the harsh light of the lockers and showers their feet slap the floors and they point and poke at me to move out of their way, their lumbering nude bodies barreling through space, their eyes sharpened in every direction. They sprout visors and argyle socks pulled over jeans, frumpy neon bomber jackets and front-bums as they tumble through the steam to the outside, front-bumming their way into the open night.

And the 'open' is so far from the idea of the jade stream, so actually not open, it's a real illusion in a military-controlled compound in the south west of a deep humanitarian tragedy. A little slice of western life totally fenced-in and fenced-out, an island floating in the farthest eastern reaches of authoritarian and totalitarianism.

The irony isn't lost on me as I dodge Ajummas, shivering, and take a warm towel handed to me by a young girl in an outfit that fashionably evokes a disinfectant suit, the image on her glinting pin taking me aback as she quickly sees to the drying needs of the inners and outers - it's a resin-clad illustration of Kim Jong Il's Kim Il-sung's head floating on a red background trimmed in gold.

She's North Korean, and I'm naked.


lisa said...

it's really hot and i'm really tired and my honest to goodness first thought was "woooooooooooooooooo naked."

so i'll leave you with that.

askory said...

Seriously how sweet was that spa!

One thing. Those pins are all Kim Il-sung (as in Papa Kim), not Kim Jong-il.

riley said...

noted. my bad.

you actually caught a picture of one of those too.