Quin's Progress

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Taking the High Road

img_1806Seasons Greetings and Salutations from South America, gentle friends!

Do you recall how I said, way back at the beginning of this sojourn of mine, that I was going to get myself admitted to the Travelers’ Century Club, if it is the last thing I do? No? Well, click here for a reminder. Anyhoo, I know I haven’t updated you in a while, but since we last chatted, I racked up some serious Century Club points. I need 100 points, based on their approved list of countries/territories, to be eligible to join the Centurions. According to my calculations, when I landed in Montevideo, Uruguay last month, that made Point No. 100. Woo-Hoo!

To mark this momentous occasion, I went on my old favorite, Fiverr.com, and paid a Ukrainian exotic dancer to write a celebratory message on her legs, and dance to tango music (which, according to the Uruguashos I met, is as much theirs as it is Argentinian).

(For my email followers, click here for video.)

She did such a nice job, I didn’t have the heart to ask her to re-do my Uruguay commemoration video with a song that wasn’t expressly about Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is just across the river, anyway. And, I do love the Gotan Project, especially, that song. So, we’ll just let that slide. Don’t want another Crazzy Man situation on our hands.

img_1963I was super happy to have an admirable place like Uruguay be my Century Club Point No. 100.  How do I love Uruguay? Let me count the ways. Named Country of the Year in 2013 by The Economist, this diminutive sovereignty, tucked into a lovely coastal nook south of Brazil and east of Argentina, has had its political troubles in the past, just like its neighbors. But, today, Uruguay is one of the most forward thinking, pragmatic, laid back, and downright grooviest places I’ve had the pleasure to visit. How so, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

img_1894Uruguay is just flat out beautiful. Beaches that rival California’s, wine regions and countryside that rival Tuscany. Who, aside from an alpine skier, could ask for more? You need a city? Montevideo is a mix of modern and classical, charming and cosmopolitan. There’s a renowned ballet, a vibrant theater scene, chic restaurants, and open-air tango in the park in the evenings. If it isn’t big enough for your shopping needs, Buenos Aires is just a short hop away by plane or ferry. And don’t forget about the chic, party central resort town that is Punta del Este, if you feel the need to see and be seen while you sun.

Nice racks out front, no?

Nice racks.

When you think of rural, agrarian South America, you are probably picturing Catholic and conservative, right? But, Uruguay is the least religious, most LGBT-friendly country in South America, and gay marriage, gambling, prostitution (but, not pimping or brothel ownership), abortion, and recreational marijuana use—ALL legal. Some call Uruguay the Amsterdam of South America.


Jose Mujica

José Mujica, president of Uruguay from 2010-2015, when many of the laws were passed, explained that he and a lot of other Uruguayans didn’t necessarily personally approve of these things, but it was just stupid to deny reality and human nature. In an interview with the Brazilian news agency O Globo, he said:

We applied a very simple principle: Recognize the facts. Abortion is old as the world. Gay marriage, please—it’s older than the world. We had Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, please. To say it’s modern, come on, it’s older than we are. It’s an objective reality that exists. For us, not legalizing it would be to torture people needlessly.

img_1467As for legalizing marijuana, he said it was not to encourage marijuana usage as much as it was to pull the rug out from under the drug traffickers who were profiting from illegal sales of substandard weed imported mainly from Paraguay and Brazil.

Worse than drugs is drug trafficking. Much worse. Drugs are a disease, and I don’t think that there are good drugs or that marijuana is good. Nor cigarettes. No addiction is good. I should include alcohol. The only good addiction is love. Forget everything else.

Libertad o Muerte!

Libertad o Muerte!

Now, that’s a president I can get on board with. (See, here and here for some more pearls of wisdom from, and facts about, this wonderful, most groovy statesman.)  Under Mujica’s leadership, according to the New York Times, “Uruguay scores perfect 10s on the indexes of civil liberties and electoral process, a feat equaled only by Norway and New Zealand.”

img_2006Let’s see, what else? Uruguay’s entire coastline and territorial waters are designated by law as a sanctuary zone for whales and dolphins. Very cool. You can watch whales right from the beach on the east coast during calving season.

img_2024Uruguay is also at the vanguard of fighting climate change. In less than 10 years, they drastically reduced their carbon footprint, and shifted from predominantly fossil fuel energy sources to 95 percent clean, renewable energy, such as wind, solar and hydropower. Just for perspective, the world average for clean energy reliance is between 12 and 22 percent. Uruguay did all this without government subsidies or higher consumer costs. Go Uruguay!

img_1532Uruguay has great, affordable education and healthcare, and a comparatively well educated population. Primary education is compulsory and free, and public universities are free. It is the first country in the world to provide laptop computers to all school children in the state-run primary and secondary schools, through its 2006 One Laptop Per Child initiative. As to healthcare, the modern mammogram was invented in Uruguay, and Uruguay also produced Alejandro Zaffaroni, the man The Scientist called a “biotech superstar,” who contributed to the invention of the birth control pill, the nicotine patch, the DNA chip, and corticosteroids. Health care is good, and affordable. If you want, you can join a private hospital like you would a gym, pay a low monthly fee, and get all your care from that hospital.

On the practical side, the water is safe to drink (although, I think it tastes terrible), and there is good, fast, free wifi almost everywhere–even on city and long distance buses.

img_6421Finally, and perhaps I save the best for last, there’s the wine. Uruguay, pragmatic as always, knows it can’t compete by volume with the bigger wine producing countries, so it goes straight for the quality market. Uruguayan wines may not be the least expensive—though they are darned cheap compared to California wines—but, they are so reliably good, you could throw a dart at the wine list, blindfolded, and be sure of hitting a winner.

It stands to reason, then, that when deciding how to celebrate finally reaching Century Club eligibility, I thought about maybe taking a nice wine tour. You know, go out and wander the vineyards, tour some wineries, and toast to reaching this long sought after goal with a glass of good, Uruguayan Tannat. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

img_6551Who are we kidding, pot is legal there! This party called for some herbage!

Alas, while it is perfectly legal, as long as you’re over 18, to blaze up a doob in public, anywhere that it would be legal to smoke a regular cigarette, Uruguay’s marijuana law does not allow for sales to non-residents. There are no “brown cafes” like in Amsterdam, and only Uruguayans and legal residents can register to purchase pot at a pharmacy, or to grow their own. However, if a Uruguayan offers to share theirs with you, or gives you some as a gift, no problem. But, where’s a solo traveler with no friends or relations in the country to find someone willing to share? There are some “Bud & Breakfasts” out there, but what if you stay in a regular hotel or apartment? Enter MvD High.

img_1714MvD High is a tour company that works with one of Montevideo’s grower cooperatives to offer “Cannabis Culture” tours. Each tour includes “tastings” of the coop’s products as a gift from the hosts for learning more about Uruguay’s pot history and industry.

img_1424My guide, Marco, a literature professor and one of the managers of the coop, was incredibly well informed about marijuana laws all around the world. He was also one of the advocates who worked directly with Mujica’s government to draft Uruguay’s current legislation. He shepherded me and a very excited Brazilian accountant around the grow house, showed us the plants in various stages of development, and explained how the coop system worked.

img_1454Honestly, I would love to be able to tell you all about that, but, right afterwards, he took us to a lounge and let us try three different varieties of product, and after that, I just can’t remember much of the preceding details anymore. Incidentally, may I just say, to all those naysayers out there on the Internet saying, “yeah, Uruguay may have legalized pot, but their weed isn’t any good,” I say, poppycock! Sour grapes. That stuff knocked me on my ass. There’s a testimonial on MvD High’s website from a satisfied customer saying, “I will never forget this experience!” I wish I could say the same. I can’t remember half of what Marco told me about the different, cleverly named strains of marijuana plants, the new regulations, and the growth of the industry.

img_1503I do remember vividly, though, that this was about two weeks after the U.S. presidential election, and the first time since that night that the musculoskeletal knots, kinks and clenches that had become the seemingly permanent manifestation of my shock and horror over the election result had turned loose. Ooh, it feels so good when it stops!

img_1519After touring the grow house, Marco took us to have a symbolic toke on the steps of the Legislative Assembly building, where the law allowing marijuana usage was argued and eventually signed. “Taste the freedom,” Marco said as he passed the joint.


Jiggers, it’s the Fuzz!

A pair of police officers on the beat walked past us as we sat on the steps puffing pungent pot smoke into the atmosphere, and my instinct was to tense up, hide the joint, and avoid their gaze. But, Marco just waved at them, and said, “don’t worry, we aren’t doing anything wrong.” It was an odd, but, nice sensation.

img_1535We then made one final stop, at Plaza Independencia, to sit in the park in front of the president’s office and have one last bit of ganja. Marco saved the best for last:  a variety he called “Dark Star,” because, he said, after that, everything would go dark. He. Was. Not. Kidding. It’s good that MvD High provides transportation back to your lodgings after the tour.

img_1598Left to my own devices, I probably would have just curled up under a tree in the park and succumbed to that sweet, beckoning, purple-tinged slumber that consumed the remainder of my afternoon. Thanks to Marco and crew—who also, very thoughtfully, provide an endless supply of bottled water and cookies to their herbally impaired tour charges—I made it safely back to my bed at the hotel before Dark Star took me deep into outer space.

img_1555img_1557 It was dark when I woke up, still high as a kite, and famished. And maybe paranoid, too, because, I went to brush my teeth, and became convinced that the cleaning lady had stolen all of my dental floss picks. Because, you know, that’s something people do. The street value of an open bag of dental flossers is through the roof, I hear. Of course, I felt like a proper idiot when I realized I had just upended the open sack of flossers in the larger bag that I carry my toiletries in, and they were all loose there in the bottom.

img_6470 img_6474I made a mental apology to the cleaning lady, and went out to forage for some food. Maybe it was just my state of mind at the time, but, I could swear, even the graffiti characters in the old city looked baked.

img_6476I was still hungry after dinner—or, more precisely, munchy—so I stopped and bought some potato chips and, for reasons that shall remain a mystery, FOUR boxes of Twinings Lemon & Ginger teabags.  I don’t know why, they weren’t even on sale.  When I opened my purse to pay, I found a plastic bag with two big buds of fragrant weed in there—a present from Marco. img_6657I didn’t have anything to roll it with, though, so, on the way home, I bought the tiniest, adorable water pipe from a kid in a Bob Marley t-shirt, who was selling incense and pipes on a blanket in the pedestrian street. Look, it’s barely bigger than a cherry! I don’t know why I bought that, either. It’s not like I was going to be able to take any of this stuff with me when I left the country.  Apparently, I buy stuff when I’m under the influence.


Back in my hotel room, due to that delicious Dark Star nap I had taken in the afternoon, I was wide awake most of the night, munching on Serrano Ham flavored chips, and watching a marathon of “Acumuladores Compulsivos” (“Hoarders”) on cable. img_6479I have never watched, and would never watch, that show back home.  But, something about it being dubbed, badly, in Spanish, and the fact that I was still stoned off my caboose, made it strangely entertaining in a tawdry, escapist way that truly suited the day.

img_1549The next day, I awoke horrified to realize my whole room was powerfully skunky from that small bag of weed in my purse. Mindful of the hotel’s warning of a $200 fine for smoking in the rooms, I was frantic to get rid of the smell. I hadn’t smoked any in the room, but, I wasn’t sure that would matter to them. I stashed my stash in the minifridge, opened all the windows, turned on the exhaust fan in the bathroom, and hoped for the best. As long as the door to the minifridge remained closed, it was okay. But, open the door even a crack, and a great nimbus of pot odor immediately billowed out. This would keep me paranoid for the remainder of my time there, even though I rationally knew it was not contraband. That’s conditioning for you.

Mer-mom is not happy either about East Germany and Berlin being retired from the Century Club list.

Mer-mom is not happy about East Germany and Berlin being retired from the Century Club list, either.

I went down to breakfast, and pulled up the Travelers’ Century Club membership application on my laptop, so I could fill it out over coffee and post it right away. Much to my dismay, when I got to the part where you are supposed to check off your 100 places on their list of approved countries/territories, I discovered that they had decommissioned two of my points! The former East Germany (DDR) and Berlin used to count as a point each, but, with the reunification of Germany in 1990, those two places were merged with the former West Germany (BRD) into one big Germany entry, and retired from the list.

Not willing to go down without a fight, I emailed the organization and asked if I could still count them, as they were validly on the list when I was there in the mid-1980s. Seems only fair, right? They didn’t respond, though, and I’ve learned that in life, love, and the law, the lack of a “yes,” is a “no.” So, dang it, there I was, partying my buns off for finally reaching Century Club eligibility status, and it turns out I only had 98 points!

My disappointment is best expressed by these Christmas elves:

(For my email followers, click here for video.)

I don’t know why they are singing Happy Birthday. Maybe they thought, from my directions as to what to write on the sign, that this was to commemorate what would have been the birthday of someone who died at age 98? Who knows. Gotta love Fiverr.com.


Lemon & Ginger tea, anyone? (Note the additional snacks in the background. Yeah.)

In any event, there you have it. Two more countries to go before the Century Club will have me. Still, I’ll always be grateful to Uruguay for showing me a heck of a good time in honor of what turned out to be the dress rehearsal. I’m not sure I’ll be able to top it when I finally hit 100 points for real. Either way, at least, we know I’ll have plenty of Twinings Lemon & Ginger tea for the celebration!


Jewelry Shopping On The 38th Parallel

Who Split Korea In Two?

Well, basically, we did. With the Soviet Union’s help. Let me back up…

Poor Korea has been repeatedly invaded by various neighboring countries as far back as chronicles exist. Japan and Russia had themselves a little war over control of the Korean Peninsula in 1904-1905, which Japan won. Japan then annexed Korea in 1910. Japan occupied Korea for several decades after that – a time that leaves Koreans bitter to this day.

The Allied powers dismantled the Japanese empire after World War II. At the Cairo Conference in 1943, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-Shek agreed that, when the war was over, Japan should lose any territory that it had conquered by force, including Korea. In 1945, Japan surrendered, and the United States and the Soviet Union took control of Korea as “trustees,” with their respective zones of control separated at the 38th Parallel.

The original intention of the trusteeship was to establish a provisional government that would eventually become independent through free general elections supervised by the United Nations. Instead, the Soviet Union established a Communist state in the north, later ceding control to China, and the USA installed an anti-Communist leader in the South. In 1948, the two separate Korean Republics were formed, and the 38th Parallel became the de facto border.

Two years later, North Korea invaded South Korea, took Seoul in just three days, and then very quickly claimed most of the rest of the peninsula. The USA responded immediately; President Truman sent General MacArthur to move the line of control back up as far north of Seoul as he could—all the way to China, if possible. The United Nations marshaled the troops of 16 nations, with the USA in charge, to fight the “police action” that lasted until 1953. When the war finally ended, the division line was right back where it started, at the 38th Parallel.

On July 19, 1953, in the abandoned village of Panmunjeom (now the location of the Joint Security Area), the Armistice Agreement was signed. The agreement declared only a “ceasefire,” and established the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – a 2.5-mile wide buffer zone, roughly along the 38th Parallel, at the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) where the two sides actually confronted each other at the time the Armistice Agreement was signed. Thus, North and South Korea are still, technically, at war.

I’ve never been a fan of group tours, mostly because I’m a slowpoke, and I don’t like the rushed pace of most tour itineraries, but also, because there is always at least one person the group that I end up so wanting to throat-punch with a roll of quarters in my fist, that it distracts me from what I’m there to see.  But, I wanted to visit to the Demilitarized Zone (“DMZ”) between North and South Korea, and the only way to do it was to join an escorted tour group.  So, I sucked it up, mentally set Saint-Saëns’ soothing cello masterpiece “Le Cygne” on a loop in my head, and got on the bus.

The thin black line is the border--the Military Demarcation Line (MDL)--and the red zone on each side is the Demilitarized Zone. (Image from wikipedia.org)

The thin black line is the border–the Military Demarcation Line (MDL)–and the red zone on each side is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). (Image from wikipedia.org)

Why is an escorted tour required?  Well, if you don’t want to go to the Joint Security Area (“JSA”) right on the border, I suppose it isn’t.  But, that’s the most interesting part, in my view, and you can only go in there from the South Korean side from Camp Bonifas, in a United Nations’ vehicle, escorted at all times by a soldier—usually American—under the UN command that oversees the area.  You have to arrange clearance for your visit from the UN in advance—most foreigners have to apply at least 48 hours beforehand, but South Korean citizens must request permission up to 90 days in advance—and the tour companies handle all that red tape.  Access to the JSA from the southern side is, apparently, prohibited for citizens of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Libya.  Read into that what you will.

So, since I had to join a group tour to see the JSA, I just picked a tour with an itinerary that covered all the DMZ’s greatest hits, including some stops at places accessible by the general public.  I’m so glad I did.  It was a truly fascinating day.  The tours are grouped, as much as possible, by the language of the group, for the practical reason of reducing the number of translators needed.  Except for me and a couple of Dutch guys, my group was all Japanese and Chinese tourists.

Mongolian soldiers touring the DMZ

Mongolian soldiers touring the DMZ

The Korean guide spoke passable English, and because I hadn’t noticed that the tour forms had the name boxes in the Korean style, with the surname placed first, she addressed me as “Marshall-ah” instead of Quin.  (Koreans have a tendency to add an extra vowel syllable at the end of English words that end with certain consonant sounds.  Think “chees-ah-cake-ah.”)  All day long, if I strayed from the group, or dawdled somewhere when the bus was loading up to leave, she would holler “Marshall-aaaaAAAAAHHH!” at me, until I came trotting back to the pack.  By the end of the day, it had begun to have the same effect on me as when my mother would call me by both my first and middle names as a kid.  Uh-oh, snap to, I’m in trouble!  Very effective.  (Strangely, she was not the one I wanted to throat-punch by the end of the tour; that honor went to a Chinese woman who seemed to be narrating the entire trip to someone back home on her cell phone.  She only put the damned thing away when a soldier at Camp Bonifas threatened to confiscate it.)


(I’m going to tell you about this part first, even though it was last on our itinerary, because I know some of you with shorter attention spans won’t read the whole post, and this was the best part.  You’re welcome.)

guest passThe JSA is a roughly 2600 square foot neutral area bisected by the Military Demarcation Line (“MDL”), aka the border between North and South Korea, at the former village of Panmunjeom.  It’s more complicated than I can explain here, but basically, the JSA area is overseen by two commissions established by the 1953 Armistice Agreement: the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, now comprised of representatives of Switzerland and Sweden, and the Military Armistice Commission (“MAC”), which officially supervises performance of the Armistice Agreement.  Security on the southern side is supplied by US and South Korean soldiers under UN command.  From the South, the JSA is reached through Camp Bonifas, a UN command base.

Sgt. Martinez

Sgt. Martinez

The wide highway up to Camp Bonifas is dotted with military checkpoints, and covered with barricades that require vehicles to do a slow, elaborate slalom into the DMZ.  The bus had to stop multiple times, so a soldier could come through and individually check all our passports, to make sure no one from a prohibited nation was entering the zone (see above).  Photography is prohibited along the road.  At Camp Bonifas, we had to leave all our belongings, except cameras, watch an orientation film, and sign a declaration that we understood the requirements and dangers of entering the JSA, including that it was possible that we could be shot, and assumed all the risks of entering.  That was comforting.  Then we got on a blue UN bus, had our passports and clothing (there’s a dress code) checked one last time, and were escorted into Panmunjeom by Sgt. Martinez of the U.S. Army.

On the way, we were admonished not to point, wave, or otherwise gesticulate, and to keep a straight face while anywhere near the JSA, because the North Koreans would be watching and photographing us the whole time, and would make propaganda materials out of any gesture or expression that could be portrayed as disrespectful or antagonistic, especially if you look American.  Even the guides were prohibited from pointing, so all explanations used the “clock system” of locating things, i.e., saying something is located at two o’clock or eleven o’clock, etc.  The UN bus stopped in front of a the “Freedom House,” a big modern hall with a grand staircase that you ascend to access the main attraction.  On the other side of the doors at the top of the staircase is the JSA.  For some reason, although we couldn’t photograph anything anywhere else, we were free to take pictures to our hearts content inside the JSA.


That big, gray concrete building in the center is in North Korea.
The soldiers with their backs to the camera are in South Korea.

There are four small buildings built directly on top of the MDL.  The border runs right down the middle of these structures, and they have doors to either side, so no one has to cross over the MDL to gain access.  There is a concrete slab over the MDL between the buildings, so the soldiers know exactly where the line is.

The grey building is the "Monkey House"

The grey building in the foreground is the “Monkey House”

The only one of the little buildings right on the line that is not painted UN blue is supposedly a recreation hall for North Korean soldiers.  Apparently, they only go inside to make goofy faces and threatening gestures at UN command duty officers having meetings in the building next door.  As a result, the soldiers on the southern side have nicknamed the building the “Monkey House.”

In the space at the center of the four buildings, soldiers from the respective Koreas stare each other down.  South Korean—or, ROK (Republic of Korea)—soldiers can only serve in the JSA if they are at least 170 cm tall and have at least one black belt in Taekwondo or Judo.  They stand in a modified Taekwondo stance called “ROK Ready,” in black sunglasses, so as to avoid making eye contact, and to be as intimidating to the North Korean soldiers on the other side of those concrete slabs as possible.

Only Half Exposed

Only Half Exposed

While on watch, they stand with their noses at the corner of the buildings, half obscured, so as to give the North Korean soldiers facing them a smaller target to hit if they decide to start shooting.  This way, they can also signal to other southern-positioned soldiers with the obscured hand, if necessary.

Inside the MAC Conference Room. The table in the foreground is ON the MDL.  That door in the back exits to North Korea...if you can get past that guy guarding it.

Inside the MAC Conference Room. The table in the foreground is ON the MDL. That door in the back exits to North Korea…if you can get past that guy guarding it.

One of the three blue buildings is the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) Conference Room, where meetings between diplomats from North and South Korea take place.  There is a long conference table in the center of the room, right over the MDL, so that the North Koreans can sit in North Korea, and South Koreans can sit in South Korea during the meetings.  We got to go inside this building.

ROK Ready!

ROK Ready!

When visitors entering from the south are inside, the room is guarded by South Korean soldiers in ROK Ready stance—one blocking the exit to the North Korean side, and one straddling the MDL.  They stand silently, still as statues, and Sgt. Martinez advised us that we could photograph them, but if we tried to touch them, or to go near the door to the North, we should expect to be put down with swift and powerful force.

This ROK soldier is straddling the MDL.   That's Sgt. Martinez on the left.

I was standing in North Korea when I took this picture of the ROK soldier straddling the MDL running down the middle of the room.

I didn’t doubt him for a second.  (Although, I couldn’t help but think that, especially with hot pants, those uniforms would make very popular costumes in the Castro at Halloween.)  The most exciting part was, I took these photos from the North Korean side of the room.  That’s right.  I was about 12 feet inside of North Korea for approximately 15 minutes.  That’s enough for a Century Club point!

After the excitement of our brief visit to North Korea, we were herded back onto the blue bus, and returned to Camp Bonifas to collect our belongings.  Before we got back on the tour bus to leave, we were given access to this weird silo-like building to use the facilities and peruse the gift shop.

The Gift Shop

The Gift Shop

Yes, the gift shop.  There is a gift shop in the DMZ!  You know, even after I found out about the gift shop at San Quentin Penitentiary, this one still surprised me.  A gift shop at the mother-effin’ DMZ.  Of course, I had to have a look.  There were military-themed t-shirts and caps and stuff, UN Command armbands, some typical Korean tourist tchotchkes, an impressive inventory of Red Ginseng products, and…an amethyst jewelry counter.  A big one.  How random is that?  Amethyst rings, earrings, necklaces, pendants, bracelets, brooches…you name it, they had it, and lots of it.  They had big natural amethysts on display stands, too.  Amethysts-R-Us, it was.  You know…because when you want amethyst jewelry, you think “North Korean border.”  I know I do.  Well, I will from now on, anyway.

Incidentally, in 2000, the genius South Korean film director, Park Chan-wook (of the Vengeance Trilogy fame) made a gripping, touching film called “JSA: Joint Security Area,” about an investigation by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission of a fatal shooting incident inside the JSA.  I don’t want to ruin it for you, so I’m not going to tell you anything about it, except that you will be glad you spent 90 minutes of your life on it.  The twists!  The turns!  The humanity!  It is, at once, terrifying, sweet, chilling and funny.  It’s not on Netflix (yet), but someone has uploaded a fine quality bootleg on YouTube, with English subtitles:

Watch it sometime.  You won’t be sorry.


Paju is an area just south of the DMZ.  You can visit most of the locations of interest in and around Paju on your own.

This was printed on the hard hats they make you wear when you go down the tunnel.

This was printed on the hard hats they make you wear when you go down the tunnel.

Our first stop in Paju was the “Third Tunnel of Aggression.”  Since the establishment of the DMZ, South Korea has discovered four tunnels, dug under the border by North Korea to infiltrate the south.  It is believed that there are as many as 20 tunnels, but only four have been found.  The “Third Tunnel” was found in 1978 when a North Korean defector told South Korean officials about it.  He could only identify the general location of the tunnel by its proximity to a big Poplar tree on the south side of the border.  So, they went and bored a bunch of holes in the ground all over the place by the tree, and then flooded the area with water, and waited to see where the water drained the fastest.  When the water disappeared as if down a drain, they knew the tunnel was underneath that hole.  The South then blocked the tunnel with concrete barricades at the approximate location of the MDL.

Weird mock-up traditional village at the mouth of the tunnel

Weird mock-up traditional village at the mouth of the tunnel, and more statues of woodland creatures.

The Third Tunnel was never completed, but it extends almost 500 meters south of the MDL, and is big enough for 30,000 lightly armed soldiers PER HOUR to move through.  (Well…North Korean soldiers.  They are small.  Everyone else is too tall and fat from all the plentiful food to go through in anything but a crouched single-file.)  When it was discovered, North Korea insisted first that it was South Korea that had built it, but when the slope and dynamite blast marks proved it had been constructed from the North, they said it was a coal mine, going so far as to smear coal dust on the tunnel walls for added evidence.  But…there’s no coal in the earth there, so….yeah.

The Tram

The Tram

Anyway, there’s a groovy little tram you can take the 240 feet down into the tunnel to look around.  Photography was prohibited inside, so I can’t show you what it looked like, but if you’ve ever been on the Log Ride at Disneyland, imagine the tunnel was narrow enough to bump your head and elbows, and the logs moved at a pace of about one mile per hour.  At the bottom, you get off the tram, and march, single-file, down the tunnel almost to the concrete barricades.  Then, single-file, all the way back to the tram.  I am only 5’3”, and I had to bend slightly to get through the tunnel without knocking my head on the granite.  I can’t imagine 30,000 armed troops running through there.  But, that’s what the plan was, apparently.  It’s eery, especially because they have placed little bronze statues of woodland creatures down there, for no particular reason.  I mean, I could almost understand figurines of gophers or…I don’t know…dwarves.  But, deer and squirrels?  It was just weird.



There was no wandering around topside, though.  The area was surrounded by mines.  Mines, and a festive native village mock-up.  Go figure.

Next up was the “Freedom Bridge” over the Imjin River.  At the end of the Korean War, thousands of POWs returning from the North walked over this bridge to freedom.  Hence the name.  (Not to be confused with the “Bridge of No Return,” where POWs were forced to choose a side-North or South-and whichever way they crossed, there was no going back.  That’s a different bridge, elsewhere in the DMZ.)

Freedom Bridge

Freedom Bridge

Freedom Bridge is also sometimes called “Cow Bridge,” because in 1998, as part of a deal to provide economic assistance to the North, the founder of the Hyundai Corporation—who had come to Seoul from the North before the division, and was separated from his hometown and family for the rest of his life—delivered 1,000 head of cattle to the North Korean people over this bridge.

Wishes for Reunification on Ribbons

Wishes for Reunification on Ribbons

On the south side of the bridge, South Koreans have developed Imjingak, a sort of memorial park, where Koreans separated from family and friends in the North because of the division could go and console themselves with the illusion of being close to their lost loved ones.  There are restaurants and art exhibits, even an amusement park, that give this somber place a somewhat schizophrenic feel.

At Imningjak

At Imjingak

Imagine, if Imjingak had been built before the end of the war, the first thing POWs returning from North Korean prisons would have seen, is a Popeye’s Fried Chicken.

The best place to look at North Korea from the southern side, though, is Dora Observatory.  From a large platform on top of Mount Dora, you can look across the DMZ into North Korea.  Even without binoculars, you can see sentry posts along the DMZ, and a few villages along the border.

No photography beyond the yellow line--and nothing to photograph on this side of the line.

No photography beyond the yellow line–and nothing to photograph on this side of the line.

Photography, again, was prohibited anywhere close to the viewing platform.

Just 350 meters south of the border, inside the DMZ and visible with binoculars from the Dora Observatory platform, there’s a tiny, agricultural village called Daeseong-dong.  It’s inhabited, and its few residents are South Korean citizens, but they are exempt from taxation and national service duty.  They are, however, constantly watched, restricted in where they can go, and subject to a curfew.

On the other side, in the northern part of the DMZ, is the North Korean “Propaganda Village” (or “Peace Village” according to the North Koreans) of Kijong-dong.  Built in the late 1950s, the official North Korean account is that this town is a 200-family farm collective, with schools and a hospital.  But, it’s deserted, and always has been.  It was crafted to convey an appearance of Northern prosperity and plenty to a then very impoverished South Korea, and encourage defections to the North.  Until recently, propaganda broadcasts were blasted at the South from loudspeakers mounted on the buildings.  Without the aid of binoculars, you can see the ghost village in the distance, marked by a massive North Korean flag on a towering flagpole protruding from its center.  As of 2011, it was the third tallest flagpole in the world, at 525 feet.  The flag alone weighs about 600 pounds.  The flagpole was erected in the 80s, after the South Korean government had built a 323 foot tall flagpole in Daeseong-dong.  The North Koreans considered that antagonistic, so they responded by building a much taller, more impressive flagpole, so that anyone looking at the area from the Dora Observatory is crystal clear on who won the Korean flagpole version of “¿Quién es más macho?”

dorasanNearby is Dorasan Station, the northernmost railway station in South Korea.  There has been some cargo rail traffic across the border since 2007, mainly serving the Kaesong Industrial Region about 10 miles north of the DMZ.  dorsan buildingThat came to a screeching halt in April of this year, when North Korea shut down the Kaesong Industrial Region in the fracas that ensued after the enactment of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2087 prompted Kim Jong-un to declare the United States the “sworn enemy of the Korean people,” and announce plans to commence nuclear testing and development of long-range missiles.  But, there has been no passenger rail traffic across the border since the war.

Gates to the Pyongyang train platform...just in case.

Gates to the Pyeongyang train platform…just in case.

South Korea built the new, modern Dorasan Station to be ready to go as soon as Korea is reunified.  There are state of the art passenger platforms for yet-to-be-built rail lines to Pyeongyang, with signage already in place.  The ticket counter is already manned, and you can even buy a commemorative ticket to Pyeongyang, which gives you access to the platform.  But, no train is coming.  The station sits idle, except for two commuter trains per day from Seoul, for workers in Paju.



Dorasan Station is the only place we visited on the tour that did not loudly convey the palpable distrust between the two Koreas.  On the contrary, Dorasan Station was hopeful; a monument to the South Korean wish, if not optimism, that reunification really will, eventually happen.


I Will Get In To The Century Club If It’s The Last Thing I Do

Several years ago, I heard about this group called the Travelers’ Century Club, whose members all have visited 100 or more countries.  Since I don’t stand much of a chance of ever being eligible to join the most awesome Lois Club (a group for people named Lois; they even have a groovy theme song), I set my sights on the Century Club instead.

many_countriesTurns out, however, there’s apparently no universal agreement as to how many countries there are in the world at any given time–the U.N. has 193 official members, the U.S. State Department recognizes 195 sovereign nations, there are over 200 independent states with de facto diplomatic recognition, 204 Olympic nations, 209 countries eligible for the FIFA World Cup, and 249 country codes in  the standard specification of codes published by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).  And that doesn’t even count places like Taiwan and Puerto Rico, any of the 6 uninhabited territories, or any of the countries that have ceased to exist due to wars or other political shifts.  So, the Century Club just decided to make its own list of places for eligibility, which includes 321 various countries, territories, islands, archipelagos, and other geographically separated places.  They also keep a list of retired countries and territories, that have been absorbed into other countries on the list, and as long as you were there before the listed retirement date, you can still count it toward your total; it’s grandfathered in.  Nifty, huh?

To be eligible to join the Century Club, you have to have been present on the ground–even if just for a layover or airplane fuel stop–in at least 100 of the places listed on the Century Club’s roster of countries and territories.  You can qualify for provisional membership if you’ve been to 75 countries/territories, and there are special elevated memberships for folks who have traipsed across far more than 100 (silver=150+; gold=200+; platinum=250+).

What do you get once you have achieved membership?  Well…nothing, really.  The right to say that you did it, I guess.  The Century Club website puts it this way:

“Why would a frequent traveler want to join the Traveler’s Century Club? The benefits are more self-satisfying than anything tangible.”

Century ClubWell, that’s not quite true.  There is the Centurion Newsletter, and the special personalized membership pins.  That’s practically incentive enough right there, right?  And they do plan social events around the globe, that would be attended by other fellow world travelers.  That would be fun.  Apparently, they plan some charter trips and stuff for members, too.  And the local chapters sometimes have special travel-related presentations and speakers.  And there are also some good information resources.  But mainly, it’s the bragging rights.  Just like in the Lois Club.  That’s good enough for me!

I am so going there

I am so going there

I told my friend Yvette (of Korean Sauna Slumber Party fame), who is also a travel buff, about the Century Club, and she thought it sounded like a fun goal, too.  So, we have embarked on a friendly competition to see who can get there first.  I was ahead for a while, but then she took a very tricksy trip to Southeast Asia and hippety-hopped across three or four countries in nothing flat, and left me in the dust, the minx.  We both still have a long way to go, though.  Although, now that I re-read the eligibility roster, I get an extra point for Berlin, because it is on the retired territory list with a retirement date of October 2, 1990, and I was there in 1985!  Ooh, and I get another point for Vatican City!  That brings me up to 32!  Watch your back, Yvette, I’m comin’ for ya!

I’ll keep y’all posted.  Watch the ticker in the margin!—–>