My holiday destinations are not the usual ones. When I was 18, I was determined to go to the USSR, or what was left of it as it began to crumble. I wanted to see it before the old guard were toppled over completely. And I did. I also went to China. I was able to see the old school Communism in full force there too.
I’ve been to Malaysia, Singapore (lived there for a bit as well), Hong Kong, England, Indonesia countless times and China a few more times. I am yet to go to Israel, India, Afghanistan, all the Stans and Western China. Bhutan would be fabulous, but serious cash is needed to go there. Vietnam is definitely on my list for 2019 or 2020. Especially the north.
I had wanted to go to Cuba before the Castro era ended. Too late, girlfriend. I am devastated it is an era now gone. US tourists will flock there en masse.
Anyway, my goal for mid 2019, as a present to myself for qualifying as a fully trained mechanic, is to do a tour of North Korea. I want to see the place for myself. Yes, there will be minders 24/7 and machine guns, but China had them EVERYWHERE in 1992. It was just aftet the T Square massacre and there was fear in the air. Russia had military all over Moscow as well. I began to feel weird without the presence of a machine gun within arm’s reach. They were on board every train carriage and every street corner. My trip to Russia was heavily monitored by Intourist. So, I am no stranger to being monitored by authority.
People always want to know why I want to spend holidays here, rather than go to a retreat or a beach where I can laze around. Simple, really; I am fond of stretching my comfort zone and I want to know what life is like for different people. I may not wear their shoes and walk a mile, but it beats arm chair travel and criticism. I have a deep desire to experience, as much as I can, life from another’s perspective. It helps me grow.
I also feel that coming ‘home’ after these adventures makes me appreciate my mundane life so much more. By doing something hard, the ordinary becomes easier. I used to lift my heavy weights at 4.30am because it made the burden of the rest of the day seems less burdensome. Does that make sense? It seems like my trips are voyeuristic, which they are, yet it helps me feel my life is ok. Which makes me more grateful and a nicer person to work with. You know when you get sick? After being ill, life does not seem so hard? It is like that.
Am I scared? No. To me, danger lurks everywhere. I have more to fear from a drunken Aussie man who weighs more than me than I do 5 days inside North Korea. And I take a huge risk driving on our roads on a daily basis. So, as long as I abide by the very clear rules North Korea sets out, I’ll be fine. Truly.
I had my room raided by Indonesian intelligence services and immigration late one Friday night. I had three machine guns pointed at me, a camera light shining in my face and a news reported standing behind them. I was under suspicion of shady dealings, which I later learned from my sponsor uni that I was being followed for weeks by intelligence for supposedly writing reports about militia groups in Lombok and minor insurgencies. I had no knowledge of that. I was cleared once they learned I had a legit research visa and my topic was far removed from militia groups. I faced that and survived. I’ll be fine. But it goes to show that danger lurks everywhere. And yes, I did a huge poo after the guns went away.
If I go somewhere relaxing, I find it super hard to adjust to the pace of my normal life. If the pace of my holiday speeds up my adrenalin a bit, I come home and find my normal pace less bothersome. It is all a mental game, but it works for me.
I have a distrust of the media. I need to experience things myself to understand them. We get told so much about the artifice of Pyongyang and its staged facade, but let me see it for myself. I want to pick up the vibe and sense what the air is like.
It was incredibly confronting to see my first food queue in Moscow. It was worse in St Petersburg. Food shops were empty. The only people in restaurants were the few tourists. I went into one foreign currency supermarket in Moscow with many imported foods and it was under heavy guard. It was reported in the media, but seeing it was another thing. People had to sell items they were given in lieu of wages to get money. A woman sold Estee Lauder products after work on the streets for a pittance because the factory she worked for had an exchange with France. Rather than wages, her factory gave the workers the bartered goods from France. So, she had to work two jobs to receive USD5 a day. Ironically, the French stores in Moscow could only be enteted by invite and proof of payment in USD. I saw a sick Russia emerging from a history of continued oppression and felt a sudden 20 years added to my life.
I saw Chinese citizens bashed by Russian border control for not having correct papers. A dog and a machine gun joined soldiers as border control entered each of our carriages and checked our luggage and papers. Swallowing and breathing were hard. We could hear the nasal breaths of the charming officer looking through my passport. I saw the two Chinese men further along my carriage being dragged off the train. We were instructed to close our curtains. I peeked. I had to. That is when I saw these bedraggled men being hit with rifle butts. I asked where they would be taken. A Polish man said a local prison camp. They would be lucky to ever return home. I closed the curtain quickly.
On the Soviet side of the rail border, I took off during a six hour break to the market opposite the station. That was another world. I had never experienced what went on there. A huge man in black track pants, no shoes and a ratty white singlet was selling himself. He must have been in his 40s. He was offering himself to other men for USD2. For whatever they wanted. This was 10am in the morning!! Things were so dire that everything was for sale at that market. It was like no Trash & Treasure I’d seen. I drank a big bottle of cheap vodka at the station cafe. Just to settle my feelings. There were only two of us at the cafe. No one else had money to eat. I bought about USD20 of snacks from an old lady. No idea what I bought, but I shared it with my carriage. At each station, women in rags lined up to sell whatever food they could make. Hardly anyone bought the food, fearing disease.
Thank you for caring, but I will be fine. And thank you for asking why I’d want to go to places my mother wishes I wouldn’t. I have lived things my mother wishes I hadn’t. I might seem a sensitive lass, but I can deal with a lot. 5 days exploring selected sights within a very controlled country does not scare me as much as going to some places in the US or Central Africa. If I start saying I want to go to Syria, Burkina Faso or Ukraine, start to worry.