This is a photo of me crying in Nampo, North Korea.
All week long I had been promised a “clambake” and a “hot spa,” but like everything else in North Korea, reality was but a sliver of itself.
Sure, the “clambake” had turned out to be my driver putting a bunch of clams on a round, metal plate (it resembled the Con Ed ones you’re supposed to avoid stepping on in New York City because they’ve been known to electrocute horses, and unsuspecting tourists), which he then soaked in gasoline and lit on fire, as my handlers and I sat watching, sitting on 1’x1’ stools, stationed a foot off the ground, in a parking lot crawling with giant ants that I was very afraid of.
One of my handlers would not stop chiding me as my driver was cooking: “Take a photo!” “This is very special!” “All tourists take a photo!” “Here give me camera, I take a photo!” Why don’t you want a photo?” Because…I did not want a photo of a bunch of clams on fire in a parking lot. And clearly, I had become grumpy.
Truculent, I reminded myself to zip it as she incessantly bossed me around. The sooner it was over, I told myself, the sooner I could go back to my cell and take a hot spa!
And then the “hot spa” had turned out to be a lukewarm bath, in a grungy bathtub (the jets didn’t work!), in a dingy bathroom with awful fluorescent lighting — not the “hot spa” panacea I had so naively (foolishly) allowed myself to believe lay in wait.
Normally, these types of minor setbacks would not induce tears (melancholy music, and being chedah — North Korean for “let’s get drunk!” — not withstanding). I am, for whatever reason, an exceptionally resilient, adaptable, and low-maintenance traveler, and this bathroom was a lavish palace compared to most I’ve used in the world. But a hot spa it was not. And it was my seventh night in NoKo, traveling solo.
This meant I’d been with my handlers and driver (plus local guides who joined the party every place I visited), who talked at me, and to one another in front of me, at all times…for seven straight days and nights (unless I ate alone, or after dinner when I’d go back to my room).
It felt like being a tabloid celebrity, crossed with a child with special needs, crossed with a prisoner living in some dystopian future where I was surrounded by handlers at all times who were trying to control me….hmmm.
Their overzealous and overbearing solicitousness, and constant talking at me (read: make sure you believe North Korea is great, and that the party and leaders’ dogma is spot on), was suffocating, and with no chance for any real discourse, exhausting.
With the younger one, I had moments, but with the other one, only on my last day did she own up to the possibility that all may not be paradise in NoKo. She’d asked me if I wanted to tell her anything. I looked her in the eyes and said earnestly that I could not possibly be the first tourist to tell her that some of the shit they do and say was just pure lunacy…right? She paused and replied, “Yes, on the last day sometimes some tourists say such things.”
North Korea is really a metaphor for LIFE’S BIG QUESTIONS/MYSTERIES. What the fuck is going on in this country is just a hop, skip, and jump away (for me at least) from “what does it all mean anyway.” Is it bad or good? What do bad and good even mean? By whose definition? What does it matter? Why are we all here? Why do people behave this way? Why is mankind so flawed? Maybe we have everything backwards. On and on, and on I go.
So I have been allowed to leave the dining room early the night of this photo, and walk back to my room alone. Score! But after seven days of just me, myself and I spent (over?) analyzing everything, in an environment that is a combination of The Truman Show, Nazi-occupied Germany, and any sitcom from the 1950s minus the fun and funny, and what I can only imagine would be the amalgamation of solitary confinement, regular prison, and a psych ward, culminating in a lukewarm, dingy bath…I felt so inundated by observations, thoughts, feelings of amusement, sadness, confusion, and gratitude, I start to cry (not the noisy kind, just teary kind).
But not for long. Within five minutes of settling into the bath, my phone rings. Startled, I stop crying, but do not answer. It stops; I resume crying. The phone rings again. I transition to cry-laughing. I’ve been away from my handlers, alone, for sixteen minutes. I do not answer. The phone rings again, for the third time. Now I’m laugh-crying at the meta, meta, meta-ness of it all.
When she starts knocking on my door, I know it’s over. It’s more than a simple battle of wills. She will not stop until we’ve spoken. And while I have the will to persevere, I simply do not give a fuck. And besides, I had more cry-laugh-thinking to get back to, and…that tub wasn’t getting any warmer…(What the fuck is it with ants? Why do some ants zigzag instead of just going forward? Are they lost, being punished, stupid? Why do we think we know so much about them anyway? Just because we’ve studied them? Maybe they’re crazy evolved and whenever we study them they just fake the whole thing to throw us off. How many ants exist on the planet? What about flies? Do they know how much time they have on earth, etc. etc. On and on, and on I go…).
But before accepting defeat, and rousing myself from the tub to answer the door, I took this self-portrait to capture the moment.
For me, life is all about moments, and this moment — laugh-cry-laughing in a hot-not spa somewhere in North Korea, while being stalked by my handler, after eating gasoline clams in a parking lot — was too outstanding a moment not to document. It was a great fucking moment — feeling that frustrated, done, and amused at the same time. I wanted to always remember my simultaneous feelings of gratitude being able to experience what I had, and guilt knowing I’d leave and “betray” my handlers writing about my experiences the way I have, despite my handlers’ great efforts to the contrary.
Naked, literally and metaphorically…this moment went on my “Shit I think might be real” list.
In the morning, my handler took great pride emphatically telling me no one had ever remained in the hot spa (gig’s up — it’s a tub) for more than 10 minutes, due to its awesome hotness. “Foreigners,” she told me, had “cried out” that the hot spa is so hot, they’d only remained in for eight minutes!
Seeking affirmation, she cheerfully asked how long I’d stayed in. “Thirty minutes,” I replied without missing a beat. I couldn’t help myself. It was Day Eight. Game, back, on.