The Island of Truth and Lies

Bali, Indonesia – March 2019

I am in the void. Conscious and floating on my back. A copper shimmer traces infinity in the blackness above me. It spins into two eyes. They lean close and stare into mine. Shiny pennies. I catch my breath. Unfurl, exhale. Okay. Look. I’ve got nothing to hide. The gaze is curious, amused. Familiar.

I move my lips in the softest whisper. “Who are you?” The eyes recede into the murk. The spell is broken. A languid ascent from sleep’s abyss. “You are me. Aren’t you.”

I pull the mosquito net aside and rise from the bed. Step outside into the dawn sunshine. Swim through liquid air. A delicious glow has invaded my atoms since my arrival in Bali. Wicked intoxication. It feels just a little too good. I float into the dining area and lower myself onto a cushion, still unable to speak.

Pebby gives me a knowing look. “I always have the weirdest dreams when I sleep in that room.”

I find my voice and tell her mine. She nods. “Uh huh.”

My little sister Penelope – my “Pebby” – teaches science at an international school for expat kids. She has aged so little in the almost nine years since we were last together. Hers is feral beauty. Deep olive skin. Eyes a rich, earthy green. Hair that changes hue depending on the light.

“I feel so strange since I’ve been here. So good, but apprehensive, too.”

“Bali tests you. They even asked me during the interview if I was mentally strong. So many marriages break up here. So many people fall apart.” She tells me of her longtime on and off boyfriend’s recent visit. After so many years, she saw how ugly he was, on all levels. She can’t stand him anymore.

Her dog, Lala, lies in a patch of sunlight. Mottled hyena fur, bloated body, shrunken head, feet like chicken claws. Her stinky feet stench persists no matter how often she gets washed. The sweetest dogs are so often the most hideous.

Pebby takes me on a tour of the school. On the scooter ride home, a downpour ambushes us. I arch my back and let it wash over me. There’s something so luxurious about being drenched by tropical rain. I wouldn’t trade this for the comfort of a car. Sensations are the most memorable part of a voyage. Warm raindrops on bare skin. The aroma of cooking grease, vehicle exhaust, and incense intertwined in the dense air. The vivid rainbow colors of traditional dress. The percussive thud of my heart beating with exhilaration.

When we get to her house, we sink into the cushions. Into the comfort of reminiscing. The family. Dad. Gone so long now. We have both mellowed so much over the years. We have survived, and, despite the dark times, thrived.

March 30, 1981

Ronald Reagan has been shot. My family gathers around the television. The footage is replayed over and over. Pebby is lying on her stomach, legs bent, chin on her hand. “Watch. Now the Pope’s going to get shot.”

The person who used to be my dad stares at her, eyes ablaze. His lips move. My mom frowns at him and switches off the television. He rises from the La-Z-Boy chair and goes to the basement.

The entity who now inhabits my dad’s body calls himself The Mediator Between God and Man. We are no longer his family, but his disciples. He has a small following at St. Anthony’s church. They like to hear his prophecies. They think he’s special, because he uses big words that they can’t understand. They are so stupid. Nothing he says makes any sense at all.

The Pope is shot just weeks later. “You know things, Penelope. Tell me what you know.” He follows her around the house and the yard. Takes her for long drives. When he was a young boy, he made tapes of his prophecies. A priest stole them. The neighbors across the street are in on the conspiracy. “Where are my tapes, Penelope? Tell me where they are.” When she hears his footsteps coming down the hall, she crawls under the bed. He barges into our room without knocking.

This is me: twelve years old, ninety pounds of freckles, braces, and unruly blonde hair. I clench my fists. “She’s not in here.” I glare into those piercing black holes. What did you do with my dad, you bastard? Bring him back. He leaves. I slam the door behind him and slide the desk in front of it.

I peer under the bed. Fierce eyes stare out of the shadows. A wild animal in the underbrush. “It’s okay. He’s gone,” I whisper. But still she doesn’t come out.

My siblings and I held each others’ hands through early adulthood, keeping watch for signs of incoherence, paranoia, delusion. The voices. It’s said that if none manifest by the age of thirty-five, you’re out of the woods. Other than an eccentricity that we embrace, we have made it. A doctor once told my mother that it’s a miracle that we aren’t all drug addicts or dead. Love is what saved us. Before my father’s schizophrenia spiraled out of control, life was stable. We were taught right from wrong. That there is a reason to persevere.

We have a deep connection to spirit, but an innate aversion to fervor. An impeccable bullshit radar. We are unable sit in congregations and nod our heads in unison. We prostrate ourselves before no one. The voices in our heads are our own. Ego chatter and, with increasing frequency, guidance from the Higher Self.

Our conversation switches to the present. Her work at the school. My work as a bartender this past winter at a dive bar in my village in northern Michigan. Most of the patrons live in the dodgy rooms upstairs and have lost the right to drive. The bar is their universe. I’m so grateful for all of the colorful stories I’ve gathered. But I am exhausted.

Tomorrow we leave for a trip to Komodo National Park, after which I will take off for a few days. To Ubud, a place of pilgrimage for the New Age crowd. Pebby snickers. “We all laugh about the Ubudian Yoga Pants People. So annoying. But it is a pretty area. A good base for day trips.”

I wander to my room, stopping to give Lala a goodnight scratch behind the ears. I tuck my mosquito net firmly under the mattress. A poisonous snake crawled up through Pebby’s shower drain a few weeks ago. One of her friends found a six foot cobra in her bedroom. I take no chances.

My head sinks into the pillow. Eyes close. Fade. To white. The brain flickers. Not a dream. A transmission. A sentient radiance streams through the leaves of a giant oak tree. An eminence, benevolent and awesome, prowling on the periphery. The truth has nowhere to hide under this illumination. It sees me. Are you ready?

I lift my face to the immaculate rays. Deep breath. Yes.

It is my second to last day of work.

“Hey Barbie, how much to show us those beauties under that sweater?” I deliver their cans of Budweiser and walk away. In order for me to be offended, I’d have to give a shit. Which I don’t. “You’re a beautiful woman. What do you expect?” An accusation not a compliment.

A soft-spoken hulk of a man sits in his usual spot next to the kitchen. His name is Randy. “I can’t believe what you ladies put up with.” He shakes his head. “Makes me ashamed to be a man.”

I sigh. “The women are no better.” Such delight taken in deceit and manipulation. The stupid games and fabricated drama. Everyone is cheating on everyone and they’re so proud of it. I’ve had quite the education about modern love these past few months.

Every day after work, Randy drinks a few beers here, not enough to get a DUI. Then he goes home and drinks himself to sleep in the basement, which has become his bedroom. When he tells me the things his wife says to him, my stomach turns. He stays for the kids. And, in spite of her abuse, he still loves her.

I go into the kitchen to fetch a food order. When I turn around, Randy is standing there. He shifts his feet, holds out a calloused paw. “Well, have fun in Bali. I’m really glad I met you.”

I look at him. So humble. So broken. My heart swells. I wrap my arms around his neck and squeeze. “You’ll see me again. I’ll come by.”

When I pull away, he bows his head and hurries out the door. “Take care of yourself.”

But the next evening, he’s sitting in his usual place.

I smile. “Hey! Told you we’d see each other again.”

He lifts his glass. “I’m drinking coke.” He grins. “I quit drinking.”

“Wow. Really?”

“That hug you gave me…did something to me. It made me realize that I’m not a piece of shit. If a nice lady like you thinks I deserve a hug, then I can’t be.” He takes a deep breath. Exhales. “No matter what she says.” He pulls himself up tall. Steely glint of determination in his eyes. “And another thing I did. I made an appointment with a counselor. I’m going to get to the bottom of all my stuff.” He pushes back from the bar. “Gotta go. Just wanted to stop by and tell you.”

I can only manage a whisper. “I gave you the hug, Randy, but you let it in.”

He lifts his hand in farewell and strides out the door.

I retreat to the kitchen and slump against a wall. Head in my hands. Oh, this beautiful, broken world.

There’s a finality to everyone’s goodbyes. A resignation. It’s as if they know they’ll never see me again. Underneath it all, they don’t want to see me again. Not because they don’t like me, but because I come from such a different world. When I told them I was going to Bali, they looked it up on the internet. “You are making a difference, JD. I want to do that, too.”

“I’m just going on vacation.” I laugh and shake my head.

“You are an angel.”

But I’m not.

Too many days too close together. A tiny room on a small boat. Clouds converge, much more ominous than our usual tension. Pressure deepens. Thunder rumbles. Lighting flickers. By the time we get back to Bali, the tempest is in full force. A cloudburst of old, old resentments. My retaliation is unrestrained. Did those words just come out of my mouth? Things that can never be unsaid. And yet, it is possible to feel both profound remorse and unapologetic. It needed to be said. We retreat to opposite corners of the house. When she leaves for work, I emerge.

I lie on the wooden floor next to the garden, weighed down by a leaden heart. Luminous petals of sunlight stream through the frangipani tree. I’ve lost my cool, my bliss. It’s been so long since anything, or anyone, has pushed my buttons. I close my eyes. I’m being too hard on myself. No one ever evolves beyond doing things that require forgiveness. Just chill out.

The click of thick toenails on wood. Grunts of exertion. An odorous cloud wafts around the corner. A daft, bony face appears.

I lift my heavy head and smile through a sigh. “Oh, Lala. You are so beautiful.”

Letters are exchanged. Pebby’s is sweet and funny: Lala will miss you! Mine is more serious: I don’t know what’s come over me. Could it be Bali? We’re old enough to know that we can only spend a few days together before conflict arises, before the inevitable communication breakdown. This hurt is deep, but not fatal. We will meet up again before I leave.

To Ubud I go. My guesthouse is a traditional Balinese house tucked down a long passageway off a main road. Paintings and statues of deities everywhere. A little shrine sits off to the side of the courtyard. Rai is the owner. Tiny, regal, eyes of pure gold.

I drop off my things and make the exploratory lap around town. I wander inside a temple of lotuses. In front of each picturesque statue, flawless princesses line up for photo ops. Identical shrink-wrapped, immobile faces. Flat doll gazes. Long, flowing dresses. A blonde lifts her impeccably manicured hands to her forehead in mock prayer. Her lips are so inflated that they are unable to fully close. After a long moment, she turns away from the statue. Two women lurch forward. They glare at each other, vicious cobras about to strike. I flinch. The boyfriends take the photos, obedient and oblivious.

What of their time alone together? Every move choreographed, every moan practiced, every expression of ecstasy contrived. No risk of communion in those eyes. That which lies beneath the pretty masks is too shallow, even, for the most basic existential angst. There is simply nothing to explore. They were born into a reality where identity is meticulously fabricated in pixels on a screen and worth is determined by likes, follows, and fawning comments by strangers. A two-dimensional wasteland.

I turn away and head out to the street. The sky rips open. I cover my backpack with the rain poncho. Heaven’s tears cascade over me. Washing me clean.

The cacophony of desperation recedes. The tugs on my sleeve, the faces thrust into mine. The voices, beseeching. Taxi! Cheap! Look here! Good price for you!

A sign materializes: Magical Rice Field in Ubud. My soggy footsteps echo in the narrow passageway. There is more to be revealed. Are you ready? I roll my eyes. No. Not really. When I emerge on the other side, the deluge has already finished. Rice ponds shimmer like liquid metal. I step forward and peer into the opaque mirror. Into my iridescent shadow.

I am beautiful. I deserve to be seen and valued. Loved for who I truly am. Randy’s voice echoes through my mind: I’m not a piece of shit. I bow my head and wrap my arms around myself. “I’m not a piece of shit.” Sobs erupt. A relentless flow from deep within, viscous and red-hot. Molten magma of the heart.

The most devastating lies are those that we tell ourselves. And is hope not the most achingly lovely of all? This exquisite bouquet of glimmers that I’ve gathered. Under this light, so merciless and merciful, it withers and dies. Time to loosen my grasp and let it fall. If only I could. A hot wave engulfs me. I hurl it away. If it’s not meant to be, then be gone. I never wanted this in the first place. It boomerangs back.

The responsibility for this heartbreak lies with you. The person is merely a mirror. A perfect mirror reflecting your deepest wounds. Focus on the lesson, the pattern. Deep, slow breaths. There you go. Go easy on yourself. The attachment still serves a purpose. It will dissipate when it’s time.

There is one fundamental lie which culture instills in us from birth: I am not good enough. It keeps us from standing in our power. It keeps us in line. It attacks the source of life itself – our ability to truly love. If you dig deep enough, through all of the layers, you eventually find it. In all of its horrific glory.

I trudge back to the guesthouse. I curl up on the bed and tumble off the precipice into a dreamless sleep.

Nothing is more precious than a heart full of dreams in a world that has turned to stone.

Tendrils of incense snake through the little shrine. I sit on the ground and lean against the rough stone wall. Tremors of pain radiate through the bottomless fissure in my heart. Death throes. Rai performs her morning prayers. Ethereal ballerina movements. Chants of unknown origin float overhead. Vintage bird cages sway from the roofs. Songbirds chirp a melancholy melody. Votives flicker. These strange, smoky orange marigolds. The color of funeral pyres. Ultimate purification. Cheek against cold stone, I let my eyes close. Out of the ashes I will rise.

Watch, now, my insolent sashay into the vegan cafe. Cutoff jean shorts, floppy hat, constellations of mosquito bites on my legs. Disheveled, haggard, bleary-eyed. Past the man buns, dreadlocks, Macbooks. Yoga pants. Looks of condescension and bewilderment follow my haphazard trajectory. That’s right, dudes. Diving into the chasm of the soul isn’t photogenic. I could sneer at them for being hypocrites, but I can longer be bothered. I lower myself on a cushion and order an herbal tonic. Now the convalescence begins.

A somnolent drift through temples and palaces and sacred forests. Cloud-shrouded volcanos in the distance. The shrill symphony of bats. Mischievous monkey hijinks. Demons and deities. Not always easy to tell them apart. Without total annihilation there can be no resurrection.

I have managed to reclaim my worth as worker, family member, friend, and writer. The people in my life now reflect that. But as a woman. I shake my head. The transcendent love you deserve exists. You have cracked your heart open to make space. Now you must let the love in. I come to rest next to a murky pond. Gaze into the eternal parade of koi fish across the waters. My spirit dives in. Surrenders to the flow.

Back in Ubud, I wine and dine myself. Spoil myself rotten. Pretty sundresses. Silver rings on my fingers – turquoise for self-forgiveness, rainbow moonstone for new beginnings. Around my wrist, a bracelet of anyolite to harmonize the mind with the heart. In a humble shack, a gargantuan of a woman tears my body apart and molds it back together again.

Come into your wholeness. Come Home.

For my final two days, I head to the coast. To Kuta, beloved haunt of blue collar Australians. It is the lowest part of low season. The streets are nearly deserted. The pubs and shops are empty.

My last evening, I meet Pebby at a multi-floored labyrinth in Seminyak. I ascend a staircase and glide across a terrace. Bland chillout electronica wafts over the crowd. My floor-length sundress swirls around my legs. The multi-colored beads on my sandals glow like gems in the soft light. Salty air curls fall around my shoulders. Male and female heads turn in appreciation. I look down at the floor and blush. An invisible hand takes my right hand. A grip so warm and unwavering. My queen, there is no other choice but you. I’m so proud to walk by your side. I lift my face and smile.

Pebby waves me over. “This place is kinda trendy,” she grimaces. “Sorry.”

“Oh, whatever. At least the food is probably great.”

Our apologies are encoded in the comfortable conversation. No need to bring it all up again.

A wall of clouds creeps towards shore. A legendary Bali beach sunset is not to be. I’m no longer disappointed by such things. Like every voyage, Bali has given me exactly what I need.

By the time we find our way out of the building, it is pouring. Goodbyes in the rain. Of course.

“I love you, Pebby.”

Her eyes are soft, hesitant. “I love you, too.”

One last dawn stroll on the beach and then it’s off to the airport. With the exception of the surf schools, I am the only foreigner. Fishermen. Runners. Couples holding hands. They all make a point to wish me good morning. I lower myself on the sand and watch Balinese surfer girls frolic in the waves. A mutt trots over and flops down next to me. He presses his body into my side. Territorial, protective. I smile out loud and scratch behind his ears. No place has ever witnessed the truth of my soul and made me feel so welcome. But I’m so ready to go home to my wilderness.

Above the hypnotic waves, on a lingering cloud, the ghost of a rainbow appears. A promise.

Alternate History

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Foreword

In April 2016, I visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea. My interest in visiting was purely anthropological. I wished to observe one of the most isolated cultures on the planet without judgement, or at least as much as was possible. I am indifferent to politics and I stopped consuming the media years ago. There is no hidden agenda in the following account, except to show that there are two sides to every story and both are just as real to the people to whom they have been taught.

With the exception of the final quote, all italicized sections of this post are quotes from the book, “The US Imperialists Started the Korean War” by Candidate Academician Ho Jong Ho, Dr. Kang Sok Hui, and Dr. Pak Thae Ho. This book is translated into many languages and is available for purchase at propaganda* bookstores throughout the DPRK.

*The use of the word “propaganda” is theirs. In the DPRK, no attempt is made to call it anything other than what it is.

Chapter One: The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

The US imperialism’s vicious policy of world domination was based on the insatiable avarice of the US billionaires who had fattened to the utmost.

She strides towards us. Chin forward, steely eyes. A tight smile as she is introduced as our museum guide. We follow her down the path. Statues of fighting men rise beside us. Faces forever frozen in fury. First stop: a row of battered war machines. Planes, Jeeps, tanks. Captured weapons from the US aggressors. She bares her teeth in a smile. Trophies.

I lift my eyes to the photos displayed above. Soldiers with arms lifted in surrender. Lifeless faces.

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Next stop on the tour: the Pueblo. It was an armed US spy ship that had disguised itself as a research ship, the museum guide explains. It was captured in DPRK territorial waters. We step inside the vessel. Each bullet hole is circled in blood red. We sit in darkness as a film about the incident is shown. I settle back in the seat and try to focus. I’ve had only a couple of hours sleep every night over the past four days. The grainy images blur. I close my eyes and take slow, deep breaths. The retro-dramatic musical score drowns out the heavily accented narration. From time to time, I open my eyes. Images flicker: the Pueblo crew with arms raised; President Johnson’s face contorted with cartoonish rage; a closeup of the official apology from the US government; the crew striding past the camera, one by one, to freedom.

(Below is the actual video.)

The Korean people’s great victory in the Fatherland Liberation War was a brilliant victory of the Juche-oriented, revolutionary military strategy of President Kim Il Sung, the ever-victorious, iron-willed brilliant commander and gifted military strategist, who had accumulated rich experience in the protracted arduous anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle and combined a great revolutionary idea with outstanding leadership ability and brilliant military art.

No photos are allowed inside the museum. The guide waits for us to put our cameras and phones away before leading us inside the massive building. It is both austere and opulent. Marble floors, soft gold military insignia. A color statue of Kim Il Sung presides over the central hall. He stands against a backdrop of fireworks, arm raised, beatific smile. He is reacting to the crowd.

I whisper to one of our Korean guides, “The Marshall** really looks like his grandfather.”

A soft glow lights up her eyes. Her voice thickens with fondness. “He does.”

The museum guide turns our attention to the flower carvings in the wall. Magnolias are very special to the Korean people. The last part of her explanation is muffled.

As she leads us through the vast corridors, I approach her. “Excuse me, did you say that magnolias represent the pure hearts of the Korean people?”

My question provokes a glimmer of delight and a twitch of annoyance. “Clean hearts,” she corrects me. Her face relaxes into a slight smile. “Thank you for asking.”

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For the next hour, we wander through a labyrinth of reenactment and commemoration. Life-size dioramas of field life. All four seasons are represented. Birdsong emanates from the speakers for summer; icicles hang from the huts for winter. We continue through replicas of soldiers’ tunnels and rooms lined with memorabilia. The mood darkens. The museum guide raises her tiny porcelain hand, palm up like a show model, to the glass jars displayed on the shelves. These contain some of the actual insects that the aggressors used as germ warfare. Millions of flies, spiders, mosquitoes, beetles and other insects were infected with cholera, typhus and other epidemic bacilli and then they were dropped on the Korean people.

Her hand falls to her side. She beckons us into the next room, which depicts a wasteland of defeat. White crosses and corpses. Blood red sunset. A crow picks at the flesh of a dead US soldier. An endless loop of cawing pours out of the speakers.

The US mercenary troops, on the order of Harrison, tore the babies away from the bosoms of their desperately resisting mothers and locked them up in another warehouse. The hills and air of Sinchon reverberated with the babies’ cries for their mothers and the screams of the mothers calling for their darlings. The US cutthroats gave gasoline to those innocent babies crying for water to burn their hearts to death. They starved and froze them to death. They threw rice straw over the heads of the mothers and children, poured gasoline over it, and set fire to it. Not satisfied with this, they threw more than 100 hand grenades into the warehouse through the window to murder the detainees cold-bloodedly. As a result, over 910 people, including 400 mothers and 102 children were killed together in the two warehouses.

The museum guide invites the ladies of our group to take the elevator to the second floor. I shake off my daze and break the silence, “It’s all really interesting.”

She beams. “Thank you.” She begins to quiz me on things that she has told us. Dates and names of battles.

I stammer. My answers are wrong. She sighs and her shoulders slump, but her hands finally unclench.

I’m not usually such an airhead, I want to explain. I haven’t slept properly in days and I’m going through caffeine withdrawal. Tea just doesn’t have the same kick as espresso. I’ve always had problems memorizing rigid facts. My brain works with the abstract – observation and feeling. But somehow I don’t think she would understand the concept of jet lag, insomnia brought on by travel excitement, or a brain that does not follow rules.

The grand finale of the tour is a 360 degree panorama of the Battle of Taejon. The museum guide stands before us. Schoolteacher enthusiasm. Gentle condescension. How many figures are in the panorama? How deep is the image? Some venture guesses, but none of them are correct. She smiles at the effort. The lights dim. The reenactment commences. The battle orbits the audience. Gunshots, explosions, and smoke.

As we ride the elevator back down, I say, “The museum is very impressive.” Exclamations of agreement arise from the others.

Again the radiant smile. “Which was your favorite part?”

“The panorama,” we say in unison.

She clasps her hands together and bows her head.

After we buy souvenirs and refreshments, she leads us outside. A group of school kids has begun their tour. They fidget and giggle. Some of them make goofy faces at us.

I linger by the guide. “Can I take your photo?”

“Only if you are in it,” she says.

“Thank you,” I tell her afterwards. “I will always remember this.”

Her handshake is warm. “Thank you very much for your respect.”

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Chapter Two: In the Zone

The data released later show that Dulles met Syngman Rhee and Sin Song Mo at the US embassy housed in the Pando Hotel, Seoul, and re-examined the “northward expedition plan” behind closed doors. He instructed them to “attack north Korea along with the counter-propaganda that north Korea had invaded south Korea first” as planned and hold out for two weeks at any cost.

The parking lot is filled with tour groups awaiting their turn. Chatter hovers overhead. Chinese, Russian, and English mingled with other languages. Some of our group stands in a circle.

One of the Americans shakes his head, “I can’t believe they believe that the Americans started the war.”

One of the Canadians says, “Well, it’s not entirely impossible. There are a lot of gray areas when it comes to wars and history. It’s not like the US hasn’t started wars on false pretenses before.”

The American stiffens. “What do you mean?”

We all look at him and reply in unison, “Weapons of mass destruction.”

“Oh,” he nods. Rolls his eyes. “Yeah.”

The conversation turns to the upcoming US presidential election. My eyes glaze over and I slip away. Maybe they sell iced coffee in the gift shop. I pounded two on the long bus ride down here, but it has had little effect. No sleep again last night, dammit. I am exhausted to the point of incoherence.

No iced coffee for sale, but I do score a “Meet Me in Pyongyang” t-shirt for my husband.

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We file into a small building where a steely-eyed colonel awaits. He responds to his introduction with a glare. He whacks the pointer on the wall map. Words flee his clenched jaw. He stares over our heads and blinks while one of our Korean guides translates. Another whack. Some of us flinch. Whack. More words are spit out. He sets the pointer aside and stalks out.

Before we enter the gates, we are instructed to line up in five rows. One row will go first, and then each row will follow behind in turn, in one long stream. Once inside the entrance, we are again instructed to line up in rows, but this time we will walk in our respective lines. The colonel waits until we are ready, and then marches forward. As soon as we set forth, our rows blur into each other. We are disheveled, bewildered, and some of the guys are bleary-eyed after late night partying in the hotel. Our guides beckon us forward in our slovenly march.

One little white building and then another. The locations of the armistice talks and signing. More dates and facts. My mind drifts out the window to the spring blossoms and chirping birds. Behavior reminiscent of Catholic school. Even at a young age I resisted anything that I was told I must believe, no matter what it was.

As the complete failure of the “new offensive” plan of the US imperialists was obvious, the US imperialists had no choice but to give up the daydream of an “honourable armistice”. They turned up at the armistice talks without regard to the prestige of the United States around which the myth of “mightiness” had been crystallized. On July 27, 1953, they fell to their knees before the Korean people and signed the armistice agreement.

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The Joint Security Area is the neutral zone surrounding one section of the military demarcation line. We shuffle forward in our listless rows. Surveillance cameras are perched on every ledge and corner, monitoring the slightest movement. Someone mentions that the South Korean soldiers are not present today, because the current situation is too tense to have the two sides staring at each other. We are led into the blue buildings in the neutral zone and then the colonel takes a group photo with us. He accompanies us back to the bus, exchanges a few curt words with our Western guide, and then strides away.

Our Western guide takes a seat next to me. “Whew. I’ve never seen him so angry. He grabbed my jacket and said, ‘Why are you wearing this stupid jacket? You look like an imperialist asshole.’ He’s usually really cool. I wonder what’s going on.***”

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Chapter Three: That Which Does Not Exist

The big bus churns up the narrow, pothole-pocked road. My superficial doze dissipates. Rather than return to Pyongyang after the DMZ tour, we have received permission to visit an outpost and view the fabled concrete wall.

We file up a steep path. Pink blossoms frame the small white building at the top. A colonel steps out to greet us. We follow him into a white room. Photos of the two departed leaders and a large map are the only decorations. He gives us a short lecture, which is translated by one of our Korean guides. Soft-spoken voice, gentle demeanor. He couldn’t be more different than the other colonel. The concrete wall was built by the imperialists to divide the Korean people. According to the United States, this wall does not exist. But now we will see it for ourselves.

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We move outside. While the others jostle for a look through the binoculars, I step up on the mound and use my zoom. The landscape has not yet awakened from winter. Look, there is a building on that hill. South Korean and UN flags flying overhead. And there, just to the left, a long concrete ribbon stretches across the muddy brown hills.

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Note the beige line to the right of the colonel’s shoulder. It was visible even without binoculars.

All these past facts show that the US imperialists, travelling a downward path ever since the armistice, have not given up their criminal ambitions to cling to south Korea and, with it as the base, to invade the whole of Korea and Asia and that to realize this aggressive ambition they are scheming to ignite a fresh war of aggression by putting the south Korean puppet clique to the fore as they had enkindled the Korean war in the past by egging on the Syngman Rhee clique.

Chapter Four: The Aftermath

Conversations over meals. Reaffirmations of what was seen and heard and felt. I will remember these as much as the tour itself. Yes, it really happened. Yes, we are really here. It’s possible that I’ll never meet such a fascinating group of travelers again. Spirits of curiosity and defiance.

I glance around to be sure our Korean guides are out of earshot. “My great-uncle was a prisoner of this war.” The others fall silent. “It was for a few weeks, I think. He was injured. Shrapnel was embedded in his broken leg. They didn’t set it properly and it got infected. Somehow he lost his rosary, which was giving him the will to hang on. He got really sick. Delirious. The Blessed Mother appeared to him and gave him back his rosary. For his entire life, he has remained devoted to her.”

All faces are turned towards me. The mention of religion hasn’t provoked sneers or eye rolls. I sigh. “He has cancer now. He would never speak to me again if he knew I came here. He wouldn’t understand.”

Nods of agreement. Solidarity. Few will comprehend our compulsion to visit and many will criticize.

Kim Il Sung laughed heartily and said, “I have no worries. The US imperialists have said time and again that they will drop bombs on our country. Each time they do so Supreme Commander Kim Jong Il telephones me. We agree that if they drop a bomb on our country, we will do the same.”— “A Bull That Can Gore and a Bull That Can’t”, Anecdotes of Kim Il Sung’s Life, Volume 2

**Kim Jong Un
***When you take a tour of the DPRK, there is, of course, a total blackout of outside information. Upon our return to Beijing, we found out that on the day we visited the DMZ, the DPRK’s missile test in honor of Kim Il-Sung’s birthday failed.

The Wall

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Mutianyu, China – April 2016

When viewed from above, it doesn’t seem so intimidating. A ribbon draped over the landscape, as if carelessly tossed aside.

The young traveler peers out of the tower window. We have come to the end of the line for this section. The wall beyond is crumbling and overgrown. “It would be easy to just jump onto it.” He turns to me. “What do you think would happen?”

I motion towards the window. A police officer has appeared. “That might answer your question.”

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We descend and retrace our steps, pausing to take photos. Other tourists appear, colorful dots in motion. We outran them to the far tower. Now, it’s careful steps down the steep stairways. This is the first hike of the year. My legs are rubbery.  He scurries ahead, but I’m not far behind.

A sigh of dejection. “I was hoping there would be no tourists,” he says.

“Actually, I thought there’d be a lot more. Not as bad as the Badaling section, but I think we’ve been lucky. Anyway, they add some perspective to photos.” Post-adventure serenity has taken hold. I don’t have the motivation to muster up any disappointment. This hike on the Wall is a chillout session.

One day ago, we were in North Korea. It’s hard to come down from that kind of high when you’re young and famished. But I am nearly twice his age and weary. Satiated. His quest for adventure has just begun. He reminds me of myself at that age. “I like war zones,” he declared one evening at dinner. “I want my death to define my life.” There were no looks of shock or eyerolls from anyone. We were, after all, in North Korea.

I turned to him with a wistful smile. Remember the days when you searched for a place to mirror the turbulence inside? A familiar, comfortable place. “May you get the shit scared out of you and live to tell the tales, son.”

A few narrow escapes were enough to disperse my angst. It’s not so much death that scares me, but what I’d have to live with.

The voyage to North Korea required the demolition of the wall that I had constructed over a lifetime. Every sensation was crucial. My mind is blown, but my circuits are fried. Time to retreat. Not behind a barrier, but into a shelter. The bricks are replaced, one by one, until I become impervious to bombardment again.

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“Look,” I point towards the mountains in the distance. Ancient watchtowers and torn threads of stone. Unrestored, lesser sections of the Great Wall.

“It would be so cool to go out there,” he says.

I smile. “Yes, it would.”

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The stream of tourists thickens as we approach the cable car station. I point at one group’s selfie stick and make a thumbs up. “Selfie stick, yeah!” They ham it up for me.

Tower to tower. Ascend. Descend. Ascend. A man in costume appears. He sits on the steps. Immobile. Oblivious or indifferent to the sound of our cameras.

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Over the bend and through the tower.  Two familiar faces appear, moving in our direction. More members of our North Korea tour group. A father and son from Canada. Earlier, we ran into another member of our group on the shuttle bus from the main entrance. He had already bought his round trip cable car ticket and we had our ski lift/toboggan tickets. We would arrive at different parts of the wall. Besides, he had a taxi waiting and couldn’t linger. We marveled at the synchronicity of our meeting and then went our separate ways.

The father and son took an organized tour, something I would have done if I had been alone. The young traveler and I decided to meet up at six o’clock and take a local bus, so we could get out here before most of the other tourists. There is something comforting about being amongst local people. Crammed in, unable to fully communicate, but somehow more at peace than I would be with other foreign tourists.

We speak of North Korea. Faces flush. Eyes glow with the tranquil intensity that only adventure can bring. The Zen of discovery. We are all pleased with our tour company.

“They’re doing a tour to Afghanistan,” the son says.

“I saw that.” My heart leaps. “They keep the exact itinerary secret for security reasons.”

We agree how awesome it sounds. How cool it would be if a group of us went on the same tour. Then it hits me: at long last, I have found my tribe. But why does this realization fill me with such sadness?

Now, it’s my turn to sigh. “Afghanistan. I can’t do that to my husband.”

After a long moment, the men nod in understanding.

And now, there is nothing more to say. They must get back in time for lunch. We have a wall to climb. Handshakes and farewells. See you around. With our preference for offbeat travel, it’s possible our paths will cross again one day.

The young traveler and I march on. The wall rises before us in one dramatic ascent to the final watchtower. It is wild beyond. At your own risk.

I look at him and nod, “Go.” He leaps over the wall in one swift motion, bounds up the steps and vanishes.

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