Posted on September 6, 2013
There is a special connection that exists between nature and man, and amid all the incessant din we create, stepping out along the shores of Elliott Bay in Seattle, Washington such a connection can be made.
During the evening hours in summer, the Olympics and the Sound often produce one of the most incredible mosaics of color & life: a sunset over Seattle’s Elliott Bay and the Olympics.
Perhaps the best part of the peace and solitude of a Seattle sunset, is that it is meant to shared. The beautiful silence of the colors seem to bring out the best in people. If you walk along Pier 70 or along the shores of Elliott Bay park during the golden hour, the conversations with the people, seagulls and wind will all blend in with the natural silence of the sunset. A rejuvenating moment.
In regards to the beauty of Seattle, an emphasis should be placed on summer nights. The grey of Seattle winters are not that desirable, and instead I suggest you come to Hong Kong and I’ll treat you to some great dim sum and sunny skies.
As this is my first foray into time-lapse photography, in this video there are some flickers and errors that should be corrected. Theoretically, I can correct these errors in Photoshop and/or LRTimeLapse, I just do not have a clue how to make such precise adjustments right now…and unless my patience improves unlikely in the future as well, as my computer will lie in pieces on the street below 🙂
Enjoy the final days of summer.
Posted on August 30, 2013
~ The Oregon Coast at Lincoln City ~
Among the different definitions of love (puppy, unrequited, conditional, to name a few), unconditional love stands uncontested as the most reliable and harmonious to our hearts.
Sure, folks may question whether any love is unconditional, but I am willing to bet that in the eyes of a child and mother together in laughter, you will find nothing but the purest form of this love.
“People like to say love is unconditional, but it’s not, and even if it was unconditional, it’s still never free. There’s always an expectation attached…. I just don’t want that responsibility.” (from the book The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay)
Responsibility is never easy. To throw out a cliché: the hardest thing to do is often the correct thing to do. Being responsible in love takes effort. If you see unconditional love for its purity, respect and admiration for another, then the responsibility of this love becomes second nature.
Yes, there are times when people do not want to take responsibility in their lives…we have all experienced this, but when it comes to love ‘taking responsibility’ is necessary.
Love is not always a beautiful sonnet. Anger, passionate frustrations and questioning life are all apart of love. Fortunately, unconditional love will never go away. It will be there when you least expect it and need it most.
Steel and glass, tempered amid flames, becomes stronger. Love, tempered over time, will become unbreakable.
Every time I return to the States, I am buoyed by the incredible spirit and strength of unconditional love. Not a day goes by without giving thanks for such wonderful magic in my life.
This trip back to the States, I visited the Oregon Coast to see my sister Julie, her husband Greg and their kids Taylor and Riley. An added bonus was to have another sister and her husband (Sandi & Russ) as well as my niece Lauren (from my twin sister Kim and her husband Steve) join us for the weekend as well.
We stayed in their house on Devil’s Lake in Lincoln City, and it was one of those vacations that will always be remembered because of the simple, honest love within my family. While missing my parents, Kim, Steve and niece Ellie and nephew Lane, their spirits were with us on the Oregon Coast.
The main goal for the weekend was to enjoy and celebrate life: to be with each other and take full advantage of our time together. We succeeded in achieving these goals.
- Greg took me to the beach to shoot the sunset…and with my getting carried away in the magnificent sunset, we missed dinner. Of course this upset the sisters a bit…but in their hearts they’re happy knowing we enjoyed our time.
- The kids (Taylor, Riley and Lauren) enjoyed the Oregon Coast – and learned more about photography.
- Riley continued his mastery of water-skiing.
- Taylor kayaked, took care of us and also showed us the proper way to ride the tube.
- Lauren showed us her expert wake-boarding skills (no photos of her crashes…).
- Sandi showed off her amazing skiing skills, after not being on skis in roughly a decade…the magic was still there.
- Russ fished for trout…and had success after success (after my mom, maybe the best fisherman in the family). Smoked trout is on the menu next week.
- Julie & Greg were the perfect hosts. Greg in the boat and Julie on the kayak.
While I never planned to write such a personal post on my blog, the unconditional love with my family inspires me. It is from my dad I became intrigued by photography, and something we all share (both Sandi and Lauren providing most of the shots in this post). The philosophy side has been built up with my mom, through our many talks over the decades.
Unconditional love is about sharing, not a better method to learn.
It is unconditional love that allows the mind to focus on the bigger picture of life. Personally, it has allowed me to take chances in life and pursue opportunities that I otherwise may not have attempted.
I have forged a different path in life, a large part because I viewed risk differently. I knew if I failed I’d have the unconditional love of my family to fall back upon, so I was encouraged to push the envelope.
The expectations of my family have largely made me who I am…provided support to strive for success in my career and fulfillment in life. There is much yet to do, and ahead is a jungle and a long path to forge as I continue in life, but my family & friends and the unconditional love I find there is the pillow where I lay my head every night.
This love allows me to recover and wake at dawn with energy, love and conviction to create a day like no other.
Without them, without this unconditional love, I do not know…
Posted on August 19, 2013
Never do I feel more alive, than when I am with you. You take me from the mundane and offer me a simple taste of glory. Our affair spans more than a decade, but each time with you feels like we have just met.
Knowing that I am one of many does not change my feeling, for what we have is special.
Every time I come back to the Olympic National Forest, my mind goes back to the first time we met: I stood breathless, in awe of your beauty. When I tackled your slopes, you offered me views that I could never imagine.
While you belong to Mother Earth, I will always consider you mine.
It is with my hat in hand, that I come again to share time with you…to find peace in the solace of nature.
It is with this same hat I give a tip to the men and women who make you accessible. Building up the trails, making what would be an extremely difficult climb into something less strenuous, giving me more time to rest in your brilliance.
The workers of the US National Forest Service (and Mt. Rose Volunteer Trail Crew), give their working life to you, so you can give yourself to me.
You give yourself to all, but forever you will remain free.
A dash of folklore has it that Chief Seattle wrote a letter to the President of the USA, in reply to the government’s offer to purchase the remaining Salish lands. Within the letter are some of the wisest words ever written:
“The President in Washington sends word that
He wishes to buy our land.
But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land?
The idea is strange to us.
If we do not own the freshness of the air and the
Sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?…”
Respect the wilderness and Mother Nature will in turn respect us.
Ellinor, looking back on our time together, whether under the heat of the sun or huddled in the icy & snowy depths of winter, every time we part I leave a better man.
When the chaos of this international zoo begins to spin out of control, no matter how long we’ve been apart, inevitably I come crawling back and you always take me in.
I am grateful for your unconditional support of this restless wanderer. Your gift of courage to take that extra step into the unknown. To achieve greater heights.
Above: Mt. Rainier in the distance. Below: Descending in the Dark
My knees ache more today than they did when we first met decades ago, and there will inevitably come a day when all I can do is stare up at your grand magnificence.
Jealousy may arouse in my heart while I watch younger generations march proudly up your slopes, but it will be in the guise of pride. While impossible, I will always consider you mine.
I will shed a tear when this day comes, not in sadness or envy of those you welcome to your peaks, but a tear of grace for the time we spent together. I love you and your brothers and sisters who surround you.
I simply love the life we have shared together.
You share. You support. You inspire. But you do not love.
Unrequited love. Such love holds no significance to me, for if I love you, I am happy. With this I am secure.
It is true that you are difficult, cold, and as moody as the unpredictable weather, but when you shine you are the essence of life. Mt. Ellinor, there are so many incredible places in the world but only in your house do I feel I am home.
On the topic of ‘unrequited love’ the philosopher Nietzsche had this to say: “indispensable…to the lover is his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference.”
Posted on August 10, 2013
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
This ancient wisdom by Lao-zi is one of the most famous pieces of advice from the Dao de Jing. No matter where you are in life or what difficulties you face, the philosophy is simple: begin resolving the issue by taking that first step.
The smallest of efforts, if consistently taken over time, can have unimaginable results, just as a tiny seed of rice can one day become a great field of grain able to feed a village.
As someone who would rather stay at home and read a good book versus going out to a club or party, I could easily spend my days sitting back over a cup of coffee to contemplate and dream.
Taking that first ‘single step’ is easy in dreams. To actually make an effort is another story. It is easier to keep the dreams internalized, until one day they vanish and are replaced by regret. That is the danger.
Not fun. I’m guessing everyone has experienced such moments to some extent.
Prior to my first trip to China, I received a journal from my sister that had a quote from Joseph Campbell:
“You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path.
Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path.
You are not on your own path.
If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realize your potential.”
Words that are a perfect complement to Lao-zi’s advice at the beginning of this post.
Forging your way through a dense, dark forest has many similarities with forging your way through life: bugs and mosquitoes buzzing around all the time, the occasional leech taking more than they give, but the reward of the adventure is the discovery of beauties that unfold and make life shine.
Creating a path will bring fear and uncertainty, but without those spices of life, is life really worth living?
These quotes of Lao-zi and Campbell rang true during my continued travel in Guilin, where I met people who lived life through those very words.
The previous days along the Li River, reliving the past with the mystical ‘Chinese Fisherman of Folklore’ had me in a reflective mood of the past and the present. Entering the Li River valley and agricultural lands, I began to see people who looked as though they were simply making it day-by-day.
Part of the population left behind during China’s rapid ascension to modernity and wealth. Hearing their stories was the highlight of the trip.
The stories all involved some description of their hardships in one manner or another and all ended with some variation of “we all must keep moving forward – each day, life’s journey begins with the first step.”
While I enjoyed these discussions, as with most older Chinese, it was impossible not to see in their eyes something they were holding back: dark times of the Cultural Revolution. Times I have never heard discussed.
Today is where they are, and in their control.
One strength of people I admire, is the ability to react and thrive in a crisis. No false bravado or panic, but their ability to find the opportunity imbedded in the crisis and move forward.
When John F. Kennedy was asked about his heroism in World War II, he simply said: “It was involuntary, they sank my boat.” He had to find a way to save both himself and his crew; to understand the crisis and take the necessary action to achieve the best resolution possible.
Every crisis brings stress and danger and, while cliché, it also provides opportunity.
As my friends have told me, focus only on ‘wei’ (危), and you will miss the ‘ji’ (机), and the crisis can begin a downward spiral.
The people I met in the Guilin countryside seem to understand this concept of crisis quite well, and adhere to its philosophy. They can control “the now”, and therefore shut-off the worry of what has happened so they can take that fresh first step in their journey through life.
Often it is fear of this first step that is hardest to conquer. To forge ahead knowing you are facing the unknown. Much like finding a place in the forest, where it is most mysterious and dark, but the perfect spot to forge your own path.
There will be danger, yet take that first step and find the opportunities.
- A river to remember (pilzietravel.wordpress.com)
- Adventures in Guilin and Yangshuo (adventuresofbiz.wordpress.com)
- Li River Cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo – Yangshuo, China (travelpod.com)
Posted on July 29, 2013
Prior to the break of dawn, there is the pure ‘silence of nature’ as a man begins his day. There are no beeping alarm clocks, no blare of traffic and it is the noticeable absence of the incessant sounds of technology ~ a staple of our every day existence ~ that creates greater peace to this calm.
The silence of nature, with only faint sounds of the water lapping along the skiff and soft squawks of cormorants as the fisherman prepares himself for the day. Such scenes were common centuries ago, but today are just rare hints of a glorious past.
Nothing captures my interest more than mystical stories of the past. Stories of folklore that can provide an adventurous path to archaic ideas and faraway cultures: sanctuaries to contemplate what was, what is and what could be.
Tales from the past, part myth and part tradition, containing so much excitement that we are never sure “what to and not to believe.” So we take it all in and churn these ideas around in our heads. Folklore, a hint of our creative past pushing to remind us not to take our present so seriously.
When a piece of folklore shows itself in modern times, it draws out the calm and romantic emotions of days gone by.
Amid the talk of terabytes and the latest sound bites from twitter, a piece of folklore can instantly transport us back centuries and silence the screams of modernity.
Today, when met with such folkloric sights as Cormorant fishing, it is hard not to believe it is authentic…as it is all based on cultural traditions.
The fishermen on the picturesque Li River in Southern China still exist, but not as their forefathers would have envisioned. Like their kin, their livelihood and to some extent their culture dictates them to carry-on with their ancient traditions, but instead of fishing as a craft, they fish to exploit their craft for tourism, strongly supported by the local government .
Does this act take away from the magic of viewing these last practitioners of ancient cormorant fishing? At some level yes, as it is impossible to see it for anything but what it is today…however, inside it does strike a chord as it takes little imagination to see such a scene unfold as it took place centuries ago.
That is the beauty.
The magic of photography can pull these mystical, ancient stories out from the attic and bring them to life today. Is it necessary to describe the modern scene of today’s logic? Or just let the imagination flow and take us back…to feel the romance of history and culture, to dream of a time where mortals and gods mingled daily. Stories of folklore make this possible.
Ancient cultures are vanishing as societies modernize. While globalization brings people closer, there is no doubt that it also distills and homogenizes cultures.
The romantics of the world will always long for the ideals and spirit of the past, be it the Cowboys of the American West or Ancient Fishermen of Folklore in China.
Often, the enemy is the incessant din of technology, and the narcissistic pursuit to be heard (ahem, this blog for instance). The hum of computers and ring-tones of cell phones all which drive a wedge between ancient folklore and modern reality.
Yet, tech can be the savior as well. Our job, as either artists or as those who appreciate great art, is to educate and pass-on the folklore to the next generation. To ensure the spirit never dies. Whether in stories, poetry, paintings or photography to name a few mediums, it is the respect and preservation of the past that helps fulfill the dreams of tomorrow.
- Catching Fish Using Birds: Stunning Images of a Dying Art in China (theatlantic.com)
- Mythology 101: What Is the Definition of Folklore? (myths.answers.com)
- Folklore (albanhistory.wordpress.com)
- Day Break on the Li by Michael Steverson (500px.com)
Posted on July 26, 2013
So back to my original question about the DPRK: What lies beyond the fog?
After one week it is impossible to have any definitive answer, as the government works very hard to keep things shrouded in mystery. This realization, while not surprising, is still disappointing. The game of politics is in full gear.
However, the ‘embrace’ from the local people, muted compared to the West, was a thrill. Especially the rare moments when we could glimpse into their lives. Such moments were brief, yet very welcomed as the trip seemed overshadowed by the government’s attempt to control all aspects of society (and our travel).
Big Brother was disheartening. The country, in many ways, has become a tragic comedy.
The comedy being that the DPRK is viewed internationally as the Hermit Kingdom and the butt of many jokes, which ends up masking the great tragedy of the people: the people who endure and sacrifice in propping up this malignant government at the expense of their dreams.
The population lives on a lot of hope amid great despair. Hope in that Kim Jong-un will act on youthful idealism, and do what is right for his people. Despair in the military rulers, who have been so deeply corrupted by power that any transition may be impossible.
While many questions are unanswerable, as my past posts have shown, the DPRK is filled with a population of great people. While they are somewhat skeptical and stoic in public, beneath that veneer shines curiosity and warmth.
It starkly contrasts the oppression of the government.
The last night in Korea was spent at the Pyongyang Fun Fair (a carnival that is open to the public), and I marveled at the ease in which we were able to mesh with the locals. While the trip as a whole allowed us a very narrow view of the society, it was still enough to open eyes.
The country has been stagnant for decades, but the changing dynamics of the world and flow of information has already triggered the inevitable transition of the DPRK into the 21st century.
There are heroes in the DPRK, but they are not the ones immortalized in bronze statues or paintings. Rather, they are the ones who flash genuine smiles and, when possible, ask probing questions about the world.
They are the ones who see that ‘living in a system’ is not an ideal way to live; unrealized dreams will eventually catch up and take over a life. They are the ones who see difficulties for future generations, and that triggers the desire for change.
Desire, when strong enough, can be the impetus for change. It is this desire that surprised me during my final week in the DPRK. It was in the background of every defining moment I had in Pyongyang and Kaesong: desire for connection fueled by curiosity of the world.
If you would have asked me two weeks ago, I could have confidently stated the DPRK was a nation without any understanding of the outside world. Today, it is much more of an enigma.
As I head out to the train station to say good-bye to the Europeans and Canadians I have met during my time here, I see groups of young Koreans getting ready to board a train into China.
There has been 50 years where creative minds have remained idle here in the DPRK, and I believe those days are gone. “Change is a comin’…” is what the youth of Korea are now shouting.
Will the transition of change be peaceful? The world sure hopes so, but change will be on the terms of the Korean people.
As I watch the train pull out (being an American, I am banned from any train travel…), my mind reflects on the past week.
We have this short period of time on Earth to enjoy life. To enjoy the different people and cultures of the world before we make that final walk towards the end.
Wouldn’t that final walk be great if we all walked through together, in peace?
- Role Models for our Children ~ The DPRK versus the USA (dalocollis.com)
- Watershed Moments in the DPRK (dalocollis.com)
- The DPRK Fog ~ What Lies Beyond The Mist (dalocollis.com)
- 35 Instagrams From North Korea (buzzfeed.com)
- DPRK puts US spy ship on display (morningstaronline.co.uk)
Posted on July 16, 2013
Prior to leaving for the DPRK, I had kept my eyes on any news between the North and the South, especially in regards to the Kaesong Industrial Region. The DPRK had shut down the factories in this region the month prior, causing great tension between the DPRK and the rest of the world.
While impossible to fully understand what the logic was behind the shut down, outside of political rhetoric between the two sides, there did not seem to be too much worry about anything spinning out of control.
Little did I know that with just about 24 hours remaining in my stay in the DPRK, it would be the backdrop to the biggest surprise and one of the most interesting moments of the trip: ♪♬…You say you want a revolution…♬♪.
Each new day in the DPRK has had times where I thought, “this is the coolest moment”, and usually it was something relatively simple yet unexpected. On this day, there was an unexpected moment that went beyond such simplicity.
We had returned to Pyongyang from Kaesong by mid-afternoon and the plan was to make our way to the Juche Tower to spend the afternoon atop the tower for a panoramic view of the city. From there, walk around the area. However, as we worked out way into the city, our car kept getting re-routed by sudden road closures.
This was baffling to our driver and guide, as they clearly did not understand the reason behind these delays and closures. One positive, though, it did give us a chance to view other parts of the city, and watch the afternoon activity.
As we wound our way around the heart of the city and crossed the river, we finally arrived at the Juche Tower, losing about an hour due to the re-route. It was a minor concern, as the tower closed at 6pm.
Being an hour late, though, had its benefits as the light was a bit warmer nearer to sunset, and made it possible to catch softer reflections off the Taedong River.
Arriving on the viewing platform of the Tower, we saw a pretty amazing sight: Kim Il-Sung Square, which was supposed to be filled with people practicing for the “Mass Games” as I had shown in earlier photos, had turned chaotic.
Today, it was filled to capacity with red banners and chanting citizens. A loud protest.
Above: Protest at Kim Il Sung Square from Juche Tower, Below Mass Games Practice
While we did not know what the protest was for, we later found out it was in regards to the South Korean government not re-committing to talks on the ‘Special Administrative Region” in Kaesong.
There was a buzz that perhaps Kim Jong-Un would show up and give a speech, but our guide quickly said that would be impossible as he was not believed to be in the country, but the look in her eyes also said ‘wouldn’t that be special to see him speak!’
The chanting, the banners and the mass of people packed into the square was pretty invigorating and kind of emotional. To be honest, part of me was hoping that this mass protest was just beginning and soon emotions would erupt around the country and people would flood the streets demanding democracy…and we could see something powerful, similar to what had happened in Cairo, Egypt.
It did not take much to realized that the situation in the DPRK is different than in Egypt, and to have such mass protests would be disastrous. Baby steps are needed here. The voice of the people in Egypt can be heard…where as in the DPRK it has been muted for decades.
This protest, however, was exciting as there was passion. So I began begging our guide Ms. Kim to take us to the protest so we could become involved…to which she laughed and said I really was a troublemaker. No such luck.
The area of around the Juche Tower was pretty normal, no sign of the protest activities influencing anything on this side of the river. It was pretty clear that the protests were well choreographed, although it was said to be “off-the-cuff.” Any protest under a Totalitarian government I assume would have to be sanctioned, the people simply do not hold any power. Nonetheless, very intriguing.
It reminded me of films I have seen regarding protests in China 50 years ago, a bit of a surreal moment that felt like I had walked back into time…detached from all the emotion, except for the physical experience of being there.
As we continued our tour of the eastern part of Pyongyang, my attention kept being drawn to the chanting on the other side of the river… The feeling to believe in something so strongly with all your countrymen is a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly rare, which makes it more powerful.
The sun is going down on all Totalitarian regimes, and the voice of the people will be heard. It is hard to argue against democracy. I do agree with Churchill who once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.”
The red banners flying freely in the wind on Kim Il Sung Square made an impact. They showed unity, and it is not so different from the Spirit of ’76 and shows the passion for freedom lives within everyone.
It is not too hard to sort through all the different cultural aspects and language barriers to see the common thread of pursuing hopes and dreams. A spirit that rings true in the populations of every nation on Earth, and should inspire us all to take advantage of our opportunities.
It is the eternal optimist in me that believes in the DPRK, when the people speak a young leader, with a grasp of the modern world, will understand that it is his job and legacy to bring these voices to the world.
It is the surest path to evolve into a stronger nation, and to give a population a new path to chase their dreams.
♬♪ We all want to change the world…♬♪
- Watershed Moments in the DPRK (dalocollis.com)
- The DPRK Fog ~ What Lies Beyond The Mist (dalocollis.com)
- To the South ~ in North Korea (dalocollis.com)
- Kaesong Industrial Zone to Reopen after Sunday Talks between Two Korean Governments (nsnbc.me)
Posted on July 12, 2013
What lies beyond Pyongyang? This was a question that I have been pondering for a few days. The city, as any capital city in the world, has its moments of allure. As I mentioned earlier, it is a place where I could spend a fair amount of time learning and enjoying a new culture.
The DPRK has already been a far cry from what I had expected, which led me to wonder what else was out there. A glimmer of an answer was captured as we traveled down south to Kaesong.
As expected, the landscape was very similar to farming villages seen throughout China (and Asia). Was the countryside poor? Yes, in the sense that the farmers lived a very rough life of working in the fields all day, and there is no question they get by on less compared to their countrymen who live in large cities.
While the DPRK government tries to hide this from the outside world, I can only shake my head. Sure, you have your sensationalist reports such as the Panorama program on BBC (led by the infamous John Sweeney), who are an embarrassment to journalism, trying to play up the angle of “this is what the DPRK doesn’t want you to see…” But it is irrelevant.
Poor people, and poor areas do not like to be exploited, and I would not care to be filmed or have photos taken for the sole purpose of being ogled by foreigners. Why is this surprising?
However, if true travelers had access to the countryside of the DPRK, the number of beautiful photographs of farmers and the land they till would vastly out number negative reports. Although the farmers are poor, they are proud and they are respected for the work they do.
It does not take much imagination to see what a great place this world could be if we had farmers as our leaders. The respect of farmers is strong on both sides of the DMZ.
The Unification Arch between Pyongyang and Seoul
The drive south to Kaesong did allow the time for us to exhale and take in the scenery. A switching of gears to catch a glimpse of the agricultural side of the DPRK as well as to explore a little of Kaesong, a historic city as well as a neighbor to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
As the opening photo showed, on the drive down we had perhaps one of the most glorious sunsets I have ever seen. It started off as simply a nice sunset, with different hues of yellows and orange that arrived as we stopped at the well-known “tea shop” rest area halfway between Pyongyang and Kaesong. The capture of this sunset scene is below.
As we got on the bus, and traveled perhaps 20 more kilometers, the skies switched from the typical yellow/orange to a pink & purple hue that is as rare as it is beautiful. Fortunately the guides agreed to stop the bus so we could step out and take in the beautiful sight (the opening photo of this post).
The sunset and dusk made up for the late arrival into Kaesong and the disappointment of being restricted to stay on hotel grounds at all times. After the drive, I had hoped to be able to walk around the town a bit but also realized such freedom was very unlikely. The hotel we were staying in Kaesong, however did make up for that disappointment as it was a traditional Korean hotel (Minsok Hotel) located in the old town with houses from the Joseon Dynasty (1392 ~ 1897).
One thing I have been very grateful for is that there are a few North Koreans that speak Mandarin Chinese. It has led to some pretty funny comments, and always their shock, surprise and wonderful smile that this ’round-eye’ can speak a language they understand. What has been the fun part about this, is that they get the humor (my poor wit), and really have a good laugh.
At one shop, I ended up buying Kim Jong Il‘s book “On the Juche Idea“ (an incredible cure for insomnia), and I ask the lady helping me about the Kim Il Sung pin she was wearing and how I would love to trade the pin I was wearing (a Chinese & DPRK flag) for hers. I added that such a trading of pins was “a common tradition where I am from when meeting new friends.” She had a great giggle and one of the most mischievous grins I have seen, but without pause waved her finger “no” – enough said.
The meaning I sensed is that these pins mean something deep to them, and it just is not possible to part with them. Whether it is an attachment to a pin they treasured deeply (cultish in nature), or a fear of repercussions if they are seen without one (or worse yet, seen giving one to a foreigner). I hope it is the first one, as the paranoia created by the second option seems a bit scary, and eerily possible.
The main reason to travel down to Kaesong, was to visit the DMZ from the view of the North. It was going to be an intriguing experience, in part because we had two women from Sweden in our group who had visited the DMZ from the view of South Korea. They said that it was a bit terrifying, as the soldiers were stern and they were warned many times of the risk (the potential to be shot by a North Korean soldier).
These two gentlemen would quickly end my ’15-seconds of fame’ scampering to the South
Given this very bleak and macabre story of how the DMZ was managed in the South, we figured that visiting the DMZ in the North would be worse: the danger and seriousness was going to be “amped up” to the maximum.
We assumed wrong. The DPRK soldiers were definitely all business (some minor restrictions on photography and movement outside of the group), but they also used common sense. In the words of people who had visited both the sides of the DMZ, it was the North that seemed to have more rational heads about them. That is a scary thought.
Abandoned Kansai wrote an excellent article describing this area: http://abandonedkansai.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/north-korea-panmunjom-joint-security-area/
- Above: DPRK Soldier Instructing us as to the layout
- Below: A DPRK can of Coca-Cola looking to the West (Sander Goldthwait’s great photo-op idea!)
In short, at the DMZ, we saw the best of the DPRK military troops I suppose. Guys who had strong personalities, but who could not help cracking a smile and showing us a side that seemed to say “we take this situation seriously, but we also understand that neither side is going to step out of line.”
While the soldiers on duty were pure seriousness, the ones who had to interact with us were respectful and approachable (via a translator). They received respect because of their demeanor and attitude…never were they condescending. While I have never been to the South side of the DMZ, the Americans, Swedes and Belgians who had all visited the Southern DMZ (both ROK and US military), felt more at ease and secure in the North. That blew me away. Still does. I want to check out the Southern side of the DMZ to form my own opinion.
- Above: Mileage sign saying 70km to Seoul…the most treacherous 70km ever…
- Below: The DPRK soldier was a good sport, kept wanting to leave, but got dragged smiling into photos
The city of Kaesong itself was quite nice… The air was fresh and scenery quite beautiful, and the historical significance only added to the allure. The prize of Kaesong was the Koryo museum, which was incredible, and I am not a museum person. Again, I will let Abandon Kansai do the honors with his great write-up: http://abandonedkansai.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/north-korea-kaesong-koryo-museum/
During the tour, one of the guides was very polite, and while initially not too keen on being photographed, once she was relatively confident that she was not going to be the center of attention, she nodded enthusiastically. She was very excited to see how the photos turned out.
- Above: Koryo Museum at the Songgyungwan Academy
- Below: Tour Guide doing her best ‘Vogue’ pose in traditional Korean dress
The final thought, as we drove out of Kaesong was that for being so close to the South – the differences between the ultra-developed society of Seoul, starkly contrasted the bare-basics of the DPRK.
This led me to wonder what the DPRK has to offer. To many, the answer is clear: a more “authentic” Korean culture. There seems to be a strong pulse of Koryo that moves throughout this country, and I can see why the Korean people yearn for reunification. Both sides have so much to gain.
- Koreas hold more Kaesong talks (bbc.co.uk)
- North, South Korea inch towards reopening joint complex (edition.cnn.com)
- North and South Korea shake hands over Kaesong (euronews.com)
- North Korea shelves talks on family reunions (channelnewsasia.com)
Posted on July 9, 2013
Watching the children of the Pyongyang Schoolchildren’s Palace perform was impressive, and after the show there was a lot of talk about how hard these kids had to work…then came a magical comment from Alexandra Kostiw, when she stated: “kind of reminds you of the Honey Boo-boo culture back in the States…”
Amid the laughter, an idea was born.
What are the role models of the kids in the DPRK and how do they compare to the role models for kids in the USA?
Reality TV has become one of the best exports of the USA this past decade (not quite sure that is a good thing to promote), and almost every Asian country has its youths (and parents) riveted to local reality shows.
So I figured I would take a quick look at three areas and see whether the kids from the USA or the DPRK are better equipped for the future.
Round One: Television ~ How TV influences children of both cultures
Considering that TV is perhaps the best educational tool ever created, and it looks like we are reaching new highs in quality programming with great shows as:
- Teen Mom
- Honey Boo-boo
- Jersey Shore (initially typed Jersey Sore…that may be more appropriate).
Unfortunately, TV programming is still in its infancy in the DPRK, they are only able to offer the following:
- Negative News about the Imperialist Dogs of America
Evangelical ShowsSpeeches by the Dear Leader
- Bizarro live streaming: http://www.northkoreatech.org/2011/12/08/north-korean-tv-currently-live-streaming/
Pretty much one choice of propaganda in the DPRK. My guess is that while it is a little horrifying to have a daughter admire the stars of “Teen Moms”, at least in our hands is a TV-clicker that allows us to switch between the propaganda of FOX news and CNBC to Toddlers & Tiaras and Kim Kardashian.
As for the DPRK, since the electricity is cut most of the time, their children do not even get the educational value of TV. Instead, and this is rather funny, they actually have to read something called “books” and there are also utensils called “pens and pencils” where children have to actually write out the words on paper!
Can you imagine the quality of adults they will grow up to be with such limitations?
Clear victory for the USA!
- USA: 1
- DPRK: 0
Round Two: The Deification of Kim ~ How the myth of Kim influence our children.
Now this is a tough one.
Every place I go, be it in the buildings, on the subways, on billboards, newspapers and everywhere I look, I see photographs of Kim.
However, after a week in the DPRK, I saw almost as many photos of their Kim as I did our Kim, which probably why I felt so at home. This competition is too close to call.
Given that our Kim just had a beautiful baby girl named North West (no middle name), I say we make a deal with the DPRK. We give Ms. North West the middle name of “Korea” and then export her and Kim to the DPRK where they can star in “Keeping Up with North Korea Kardashian…” or better yet, the ultimate DPRK reality show: “Kim Vs. Kim”
During sweeps week, “Kim Vs. Kim” could have a great battle of egos where the DPRK holds their first democratic elections to decide which Kim stays.
Based on the photos alone, another win for the USA.
- USA: 2
- DPRK: 0
Round Three: Music ~ Music to Inspire our Children
The DPRK primarily has classical music. Mostly beautiful, but old Korean songs, with some European classical music as well. Their folk songs have lyrics that promote hard work, respect of women, study and taking care of the older generation. Not much else. Very old school.
The USA, well we have too much to choose from: Wheezy, Jeezy, Snoop Lion, Diddy, Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy…well, you get the picture. And the lyrics..a great way for foreigners to study American English.
When a few DPRK youths asked me the best way to study American English, I just point them to the most popular hip-hop and rap albums and then an incredible website (www.gizoogle.net) that translates old-school English to something our modern youths understand much better. This is the very web site I use to communicate with my younger nieces and nephews these days.
For an example, the above paragraph I just wrote is translated by www.gizoogle.net as:
“When all dem DPRK youths axed mah crazy ass tha dopest way ta study Gangsta, I just point dem ta da most thugged-out ghettofab hip-hop n’ rap mixtapes n’ then a incredible joint (www.gizoogle.net) dat translates old-school Gangsta ta suttin’ our modern youths KNOW much mo’ betta n’ shit. This is tha straight-up wizzy joint I use ta communicate wit mah younger nieces n’ nephews these days.
Brilliant. Another win for the States.
- USA: 3
- DPRK: 0
Bonus Round: Basketball & Diplomacy ~ Sports/Politics and Children
During my time wandering around, I saw several pick-up basketball games with local kids and workers on the open courts of Pyongyang and Kaesong. Not a real hot bed of basketball talent.
However, in this bonus round, I say we play a 2-on-2 game with myself (6’2”) and Mr. Diplomat of the Year, Dennis Rodman (6’7”), and not only would we tower over those guys on the court, but Dennis could use his diplomatic skills and probably get them to hand over their “Air-Kim” basketball shoes as well.
Plus with a 15-course meal to share with Dennis’ new best friend Kim Jong-Un, I think the USA sweeps the series:
- USA: 4
- DPRK: 0
Strange, but given a choice between the USA educational system, crippled by tax cuts every year and getting worse, we soon may lose any advantage we have over such countries as the DPRK. It is very cliché, but “investing in education is investing in our future.”
Of course, there is no competition when it comes to intellectual freedom – and for that all Americans should be proud. We just need to make sure that we give enough resources to at least create a base for our children’s intellect.
FYI: one bizarre but brilliant educational plan for children, is sending them to a children’s summer camp in the DPRK. Being an American, my first thought of course was to combine this with a reality show of American kids visiting the DPRK. The summer camp program for international children is sponsored in part by our 51st state Canada (kidding). Information can be found at: http://www.pyongyangproject.org/ .
Posted on July 6, 2013
What is the feeling of receiving a genuine smile from a stranger, where the eyes light up and there is no mistaking the emotions of wonderment, curiosity and delight?
A watershed moment in the DPRK. It is strange, it was one of those off-chance smiles from a local walking along the street with nothing particular happening. A spur of the moment release of joy and wonderment as with all smiles, but it also contained a little more – something that could bridge two very different cultures. If there were a photograph that could do it justice, it would be the greatest photo ever taken.
Beautiful moments and smiles can certainly be photographed. Everyday, many tremendous smiles are photographed around the world with children the greatest source; from pure minds come pure smiles. Capturing the glory of such photos usually happens within a friendly atmosphere, and a camera is a mere afterthought. Photos to be treasured.
In an environment where there is no such familiarity and warmth, it is difficult.
There in lies the rub, the introduction of a camera steals a bit of the purity away from the spell. The shots are still admirable, but the sparkle in the eyes may lose some of its mystical glow.
Why I mention this is that while I have photographed nice smiles of people and children in the DPRK, nothing could match the off-chance reactions of first ‘the glance’ followed by ‘a glimmer in the eye’ and finally a ‘world-winning smile’ of a local worker we passed by on the streets. If I had to describe such a smile, picture the Mona Lisa breaking out in laughter after Da Vinci told her a racy joke…that type of electricity.
There is nothing I have that can come close to such expressions.
It took a few days in the DPRK for these “watershed moments” to arrive, all of which have taken me by surprise. In my previous posts, I have mentioned several times that there is a forced stoic look on just about everyone – a veneer that upon arrival seemed impossible to penetrate. Coming from places where smiles are common (China and the USA), this was a strange thing to witness.
On the DPRK streets it may be that it is not easy to express ‘friendship’ or ‘happiness’ with the locals because of the barriers I have touched on in earlier posts. Nevertheless, after a few of these sincere smiles, I wonder if this has as much to do with myself as with them.
The theory being that my unconscious biases and expectations I had when I arrived in the DPRK were getting in the way and it took a bit of time to unconsciously wipe away the ‘built-in’ negativity and realize we are all human with similar emotions, albeit with a vast abyss separating the cultures.
There was a post by a fellow blogger Jessica last year that touched on such a thought: http://jesscy.com/2012/10/23/people-are-people/, a nice read.
Catching the eye, the gleam and then the smile…it is an easy way humans communicate. Conceivably, it is the most basic primitive instinct that humans not only still have engrained in their genetics, but a primitive instinct that still serves the very same purpose from our beginning: to demonstrate there is no animosity, nothing to be feared and most importantly, friendship.
While I still think ‘free expression’ is somewhat rare in the DPRK compared to other countries, it is here in some form. Being in the DPRK has heighten my awareness, so it possible that the fact of just being here in this country makes a ‘simple form of self-expression’ seem more dramatic.
If this is the case, then it just serves as a reminder that a smile is a mutual sharing of joy that can make any day a little bit better. If such smiles are unexpected, then it is something I believe we can all relate with, knowing it is a bit more special. Something so simple that can brighten the day is priceless.
Sunset in the DPRK…Surprising and as Beautiful as a Smile
When I first had this watershed moment, I thought that it was a singular event, even when followed by a few more the following day. Uplifting. In the afternoon as we visited a local brewery, and over a few mugs of the local brew, this very topic came up and the table turned electric with varying stories of connections. Each story containing one common thread: everyone had been hit in some form by a genuine smile. Simple and sweet.
My theory regarding this, is that it takes two to tango. Being a little shell-shocked on arrival, it was difficult to have been on the same plane of understanding with our Korean brethren. Be it culture shock or an unconscious bias.
Then again, perhaps not and it is the local brew doing the talking – never a bad thing at least until the morning after.
Regardless, joyous smiles from the heart are universal.
The revelation of such a simple act and connection with people confirms that we are all home. Regardless of where we are in our travels, good people are everywhere.
If there is a highlight of the trip regarding the sites we have visited, the children’s activity center (Pyongyang Schoolchildren’s Palace) and the performances afterwards would rank at or near the top. Still, I think that while the children’s smiles are incredibly special, the rare genuine smiles surprisingly received on the streets are the ones that I will always remember.
As for the children’s activity center, an amazing place filled with the magic of children and their ability to bring hope & smiles to us now and in the future.
Daoist philosophy explains the essence of children very well: a goal to ‘return to the mind of a child.’ The purpose being the mind of a child holds clarity and purity. The child’s mind is closely connected to nature, not yet encumbered by the biases and cynicism that we collect as we move on in life. If we can capture this essence, we can achieve a sense of self. Unfortunately, as an adult, it is a place we can never return. Sigh, at least we do get to enjoy the innocent wisdom of children before watching them grow up like us, into grouchy, cynical adults…(kidding of course).
If you ever want to understand what is the epitome of happiness, watch a child at play when they are impervious to everything around them except the joy of laughter.
I hope the photos in this post prove to be a better messenger than the scrambled set of words I have already laid out.
It occurs to me that while I describe the watershed moment as a breakout, I suppose the moment was slowly building. Traveling to a new area and a new culture can expose the soul to incredibly different customs and it takes time to get acquainted with the place. To understand its ambiance.
An old friend of mine once told me: “Travel, because when you teach your soul to accept new surroundings, you become more human and more compassionate towards the world. So go out and live in it fully.” At the time, he was simply talking about the different cultures you find in one city. It is important to explore.
With a few days under the belt, the DPRK has began to feel more human and, shockingly, a place I could definitely spend a fair amount of time to experience and learn more of their culture and the people. While it still remains distant from any society I have lived or experienced, I guess it is the potential that has me feeling optimistic. It all falls back to that watershed moment.
As I think back to my first response to seeing people on the streets, watching them with a stoic veneer that seemed to be plastered on their face as they looked straight ahead, I thought that nothing could break through this frozen barrier. Soldiers of a continuing Cold War.
Looking back, though, I should have seen the positives and great character right away. My first experience to the personalities of the North Koreans was brought about by our guide (Ms. Kim), who was incredibly quick-witted.
What surprised me was how very quick she was to become wary of my wit. Her hilarious replies and rebuttal for any smart comment I made often left me stammering for an answer, and the group in laughter. She become a highlight of the trip herself…really a great personality.
It sounds foolish now, but I did not think such a personality could exist in the DPRK. In all likelihood, I think I may have even thought such genuine smiles were impossible as well. Where did these biases come from…?
As for Ms. Kim, while we were at the Schoolchildren’s Palace (activity center), I did create a little stress for her as I got “disassociated” with the group and did a little exploring and met up with some great kids. I think the students were as shocked as I was running into each other, and after their laughter at my horrible Korean, one of them broke into English.
It was simple small talk about where we were from, what we did and then description of classes and whether or not I was going to attend the performance that was just about to take place. A couple of teachers came over to listen and enjoyed the conversation, although each of them looked at each other as if to say “where the hell did he come from?!?” Again, simple and sweet.
However, when I did make it back to the group, I was warned that Ms. Kim was quite stressed, and the scolding I took confirmed this… even though both her and the group enjoyed the critique of my troublesomeness.
As for the activity center, it was a lively and beautiful place where children studied extra-curricular activities such as ballet, musical instruments, and craft works. It was difficult to say what was more inspiring – the art that was created, or the children who were putting their time into learning such skills.
Travel rarely disappoints, for if you allow and seek it out, at some level there will be a connection with the locals along with a new set of experiences. Experiences that can diversify the path you’re on and be incorporated into new dreams. The experience may be a trip across town to a new ethnic restaurant, into another community or a different country. A place where the mind and soul opens up to new ideas and adventure.
In regards to the DPRK, I am still disappointed with the politics that surrounds the country, but it feels strangely irrelevant compared to the past two days, as the beauty of its people overshadowed the politics. The warmth of the smiles and the understanding that we are all a part of this adventure together has been the true highlight.