Thursday, 16 January 2014

A Taste of Asia

I will never forget the exact moment I first tried Asian food. I was thirteen years old and previous to that I had only really been accustomed to the traditional British fare that my mother would serve. The closest we ever got to ‘foreign’ was a spaghetti bolognese on a Friday night. So, I was to find myself sitting in a Chinese restaurant in the port town of Le Havre, France on a rather dismal night, staring at a menu not only in a language I had little grasp of, but containing a whole array of exotic sounding dishes I had never encountered before. Getting me in the restaurant had been a feat in itself. I was somewhat of a picky eater, but with my parents patience wearing thin I ordered the “Chicken with Cashew Nuts” and tentatively took my first bite. It was at this serendipitous moment that my love affair with Asian food and cooking in general began.
Britain, being the multi-cultural hot pot that it is, afforded me an opportunity to experience the best Asia had to offer. From fiery Indian curries to the complex layers of flavors that is Thai, I greedily ate up everything and anything placed before me. As I grew older and began to travel my palate accompanied me on a culinary awakening. So, when the company I was then working for decided to send me to Korea, the thought of the myriad of gastronomic possibilities that awaited me filled me with anticipation. On arrival, however, I was, to put it bluntly...a little disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Korean food. I love their warming stews and broths. I love the social occasion that is Korean barbeque. But the cuisines of other nations were sorely lacking or non existent. I therefore had to wait for trips back home to fill my suitcase full of ingredients, until someone told me of the existence of an “Asian Supermarket” right here, in Sa-sang, Busan.
My first trip there was like bumping into an old friend. The shelves were stacked high with ingredients I thought I would never see again: cardamom pods, cumin, ghee, basmati rice, lentils, fresh lemongrass and coriander, and lamb. Here in this tiny little shop I had everything needed to get re-acquainted with my favorite food.
Over the years, as the foreign population of Busan has grown, most notably with migrant workers from South and South East Asian nations, so has the number of stores. At the last count there are now four. All pretty much sell the same. But in each there is always a surprise waiting: shallots, Thai bird’s-eye chillies, tamarind, shrimp paste and even bags of salt ‘n’ vinegar potato chips. One of the best bargains is “Thai Jasmine Long Grain Rice”, which at only $15 for a 10kg bag is considerably cheaper than Korean rice.
Most of the owners are from South Asia. The owner of the newly opened “Shahjan Mart” hails from Balochistan, somewhere on the Iran-Pakistan border, he informed me. He himself, will be a familiar face to anyone who has bought a kebab from the van outside Family Mart in Kyungsung on a Saturday night.
The first and original store, “Asia Mart”, that poky little store I first visited all those years ago, has recently undergone a significant expansion and face-lift. It’s probably the easiest to shop in, but I always make a point of buying something from all the stores including “Asian Food Mart and “New World Mart” on my visits there.
 Of course, times have changed and most supermarkets now have an “International Food Section”. But if like me you crave for something more authentic, such as the rewarding feeling of crushing up lemongrass, chillies and galangal to make your own green curry or the aroma of the sub-continent eminating from black cardamoms, cinnamon and cloves sizzling in a pan. Then, a trip to Sa-sang never fails to disappoint.
Directions: Take Subway line 2 to Sasang and either transfer to the LRT line to the airport, one stop, to Renecite, or follow the LRT line on foot until you get to E-Mart. Facing E-Mart look for the small street to the right. Three of the Asian supermarkets are on this street. “Asia-Mart” is just around the corner to the right.

Naver Maps Street View Reference:
Google Maps: Street View:

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Lest We Forget

For the past ten years, when I’ve been able, I’ve made a point of going to the U.N Cemetery in Busan on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the exact time and date that hostilities ended in World War 1. For Britains, Canadians other commonwealth nations and notable nations such as France this day has come to be known as Remembrance Day when those countries remember those that have sacrificed their lives. Not only in the first Great War, but in all conflicts since. The day has become synonymous with the red poppy of remembrance inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields”.

The first time I went to the U.N cemetery I had expected there to be some sort of service or ceremony, but to my surprise there was no one there. In hindsight this wasn’t totally surprising. November 11th isn’t commemorated in all countries like it is in the U.K and Canada. Although America does have Veterans Day on November 11th there main day is Memorial Day. Koreans Memorial Day is in June and of course the Australians and Kiwis commemorate ANZAC Day.

So each year I would find myself alone in the cemetery and would find a gravestone of some soldier, any soldier and pay my own private, silent tribute to him and those that had given their lives. Not only those in the two great wars that my Grandfathers and their fathers before them served in. But also those that gave their lives in the Korean war. A war that sixty years ago decimated this country that I’ve come to call home, but has seen a quite miraculous transformation from the ashes to rise to the economic powerhouse it is today.

Then about five years ago I noticed a small, but noticeable group of foreigners and Koreans holding some sort of service near the newly built “Wall of Remembrance”. A group of Canadian veterans had decided it right that this day should be remembered. The following year the group was much larger and with the noticeable presence of some Korean veterans. Every year it grew until the organization of the event came under the wing of The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs and the local Busan and Nam Gu governments. Last year and this the ceremony became quite a big affair. Government ministers rub shoulders with veterans from Korea, Britain, Australia, The U.S, New Zealand, Canada and Turkey to name just a few. A military band plays sober music in the background and tributes are read and speeches given.

Sometimes I wish again for the days of my own private act of remembrance, alone in the cemetery. The ‘2 minute silence’ isn’t silent at all since the band plays over the top. The 11th hour isn’t observed either. Maybe it’s significance isn’t realized here. But at least they are remembering. For that I am thankful.

As I walked away from this years ceremony, I made a point, as I always do, to walk around some of the gravestones. To read the names of the men who died. This year one gravestone stood out. It was surrounded by Irish flags and a basket of flowers with two rosettes perched on top saying “Proud to be Irish!”. The grave belonged to a Private Keating, a gunner in the Royal Artillery. He had died here in Korea in June 1953, aged just 24. A gray haired gentleman came up to me and said, “That’s mine. That’s my father. I don’t think he or any of them knew what they were coming to. So young, so young”.

Lest we forget.

Addendum: I rushed this piece out for one of the local magazines here in Busan so it wasn't subject to the usual meticulous scrutiny I normally afford my writing. The editor of the magazine did quite a bit of editing on it and I appreciate his input. Actually, I prefer what he did!
 Here is the edited version if you wish to read it.
Busan Haps - Lest We Forget

Friday, 28 June 2013

A Brit for All Seasons

Shortly after arriving in Korea there is one thing that you become very quickly aware of and that is that Koreans are mightily proud of their seasons. For those that don’t live here you may be wondering what I’m talking about, so, I’m about to let you in on a little secret.

Korea has... wait for it...  FOUR seasons. That’s right, not one, not two, not even three, but a whole whopping four! When the weather gods were handing out climates at the beginning of time Korea hit the jackpot. They got the royal flush; they struck gold; they got the whole caboodle. Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.

Koreans love to tell you about their four seasons. They have set activities for each one that everyone wholeheartedly participates in. The country is adorned with giant photographs of famous landmarks and landscapes, beautifully capturing each season. So if you have chosen to live here you had better embrace and join in the celebration that is Korea’s four seasons or jump on the next flight back home.

Now those that know me might detect a slight hint of sarcasm in my tone. Some might even accuse me of being a tad disparaging toward my adopted country. But there is a reason that I sat down to write about the rather mundane topic of seasons and weather. I absolutely love the seasons in Korea. They’ve shown me what they have to offer and I’m sold. Each and every one of them is unique. Even the sweat-ridden, hell hole that is a Korean summer, but more on that later.

So why have I bought in? The reason is quite simple. I come from England. As a kid I was told that my country too was blessed with four seasons. But my parents and teachers lied to me as their parents and teachers had lied to them before creating a never ending vicious circle.

Let’s look at the facts of the British seasons. Winters are cold and dreary. The never ending drizzle that soaks you to the bone just sucks the will to live right out of you. Spring has a few things going for it; slightly warmer weather gives you hope for bright, hot sunny days, barbeques in the garden, driving round with your friends, top pulled down, tunes pumping out the stereo. Then summer arrives and it’s like a kick in the gut. The temperature struggles to get into the twenties and on those few days that it does, the rain is always guaranteed to spoil the party.

What I’ve always found amusing about the British psyche is our inability to deal with extremes in weather that occasionally come our way. Take summer for example. If the temperature somehow creeps above 25 degrees the tabloid newspapers go to town. “Ohh What a Scorcher”, “Barmy!” the headlines cry out. Front pages adorned with pictures of the great British public descending en masse to beaches across the country, their unsightly white flab protruding from ill-fitting swim suits, frolicking in turd ridden seas.

Winter is equally absurd. All it takes is a few drops of whitish looking sleet to fall down from the sky to send the nation into a mass panic. Schools and offices shut down early and people raid supermarket shelves to stock up for the long haul.

My seasonal experiences haven’t only been confined to the U.K and Korea though. I consider myself fairly well travelled and have been fortunate enough to live in various parts of the world. Take Florida for example, where I lived for nine months in the hip and hip-replacement happening town of Boca Raton. They have three seasons there: hot, very hot and holy shit it’s hot! Then there was Sydney; again they almost got the full four seasons, but had to settle for the three that are hot, not so hot and slightly chilly.

Which brings me back to Korea, where there are four seasons, four distinct seasons. Each season has the correct weather, temperature and changes in nature that allows that season to truly call itself a season. Now, I must admit not all seasons are created equal here. The cold bits and the hot bits are much longer than the other bits that intersperse between them, but each one has its own unique characteristics.

Let’s start at my favourite season, winter. Now that might surprise some because if you ask the average Korean and even the average ex pat, “What is your favourite season”, the answer is pretty much guaranteed to be, “ Spring or autumn” (or fall, which is also a perfectly acceptable word since both words came into being around the same time in England. Fall ain’t American folks; it’s as British as Fish ‘n’ Chips!).

Korean winters are refreshing. Sure, they are cold, but not too cold. You wake from the snugness of your bed and step out in to crisp clean air, stunning blue, clear skies and rarely does a drop of rain fall. When you come home at night you snuggle up on the floor soaking up the warmth that is the genius of Korean ‘Ondol’ (under floor) heating.

Here in Busan, we don’t get much snow. The few flurries we do get normally send people into a dizzying frenzy of happiness. But go slightly north or slightly west and Korea does pretty well on the snow front. So much so that those decent, honest chaps at the International Olympic Committee decided to give them an Olympics. Yes, another one. First there was the Seoul 88 Summer Games and in a few years time will be the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics. And do you know why Korea will be able to boast a summer and winter Olympics? Because they have four seasons, that’s why!

Anyhow, I’m digressing a little. Let’s get back to the seasons. Spring. Oh, beautiful spring!

Like pink? Like pink and white? Like pink and white and all the colours under the rainbow? Like pink and white and all the colours under the rainbow and flowers? Then, BOOM, come to Korea! The sensory overload of colour that is the cherry blossom season is quite frankly a site to behold. For a very few short weeks of the year, the concrete jungle that is the city I live in is transformed into a blanket of pink beauty. Normally drab uninteresting streets bring traffic chaos as people swarm in their thousands to capture the blossoms. Whole cities, such as Jinhae, make their entire tourist industry dollars off those few short weeks.

And then a few weeks later, the blossoms fall...

It’s warm outside but this tiny delicate pink flake falls past you brushing your cheek. You think to yourself, it’s April, it can’t be snowing. But it is. It’s snowing cherry blossoms.

And then comes summer. I don’t feel like writing about summer. Summer is a piece of shit. But since this is a piece about all four seasons, I feel it deserves a mouthpiece. After all it is a season and a very distinct one at that. It starts off OK. The spring flowers turn to leaves. You start putting on shorts and flip-flops as you head out in the evening to sit in front of the local convenience store late into the early hours of the morning sipping on the deliciousness that is Korean beer. But then summer decides that it doesn’t want to be friends. Slowly it cranks up the heat dial and while it’s at it throws in a few monsoons to add humidity hell to the mix. Air conditioners and fans are turned up to maximum power, but still you suffer. Walking a few hundred meters down the road turns you into a dripping, nasty, sweaty mess that pretty much guarantees you scoring the leading role in the next reincarnation of the Swamp Thing. But respite is at hand. Busan is blessed with some amazing beaches so why don’t you slap on the sunscreen and head out to the nearest one, where you can meet a million other like-minded Koreans all scrambling for the same two inches of sand.

What I don’t like about summer is that it’s a bit of a party pooper. That is the party being hosted by autumn. Autumn does its best though, actually it does better than that and gives the finger to summer by putting on another glorious display of colour. For those that don’t know Korea, there are a lot of mountains. In fact it’s seventy percent mountains and with that canvas Autumn works it’s colour magic. Reds, browns, yellows, golds, and russets fill the landscape. Koreans and myself head to those mountains to soak everything in. Korean hikers are the nicest people in the world. You may have gone head to head with the same guy in your car earlier, but up in the mountains the rules change. We are all experiencing the beauty of another Korean season, therefore we are one. We are the same. People invite you over to enjoy their homemade ‘kimbab’ (rice and vegetables wrapped in seaweed) and never leave your glass empty of the ever ubiquitous ‘soju’.

Eventually summer relinquishes its selfish humid grip on the weather and days become pleasantly warm and nights start to get a little chilly. Shorts give way to long pants and sweaters. Then that guy in Seoul pushes the big button that starts winter again right on cue and suddenly you are wrapped up in your thick fleece, beanie hat and wool scarf. Winter is coming, another new season beckons, because this is Korea, and in Korea there are four seasons.

Addendum: I would like to make it clear that my comments about British beaches were in the context of my experiences of them when younger. Britain now boasts some of the cleanest coastal waters in the whole of Europe and has won awards for the pristine condition of the golden sands that can be found all around her coastline. You should all visit them one summer. Just remember to pack a sweater...

Friday, 14 June 2013

Driving into the Unknown.

I breathe in deeply, trying my best to remain calm. A large black car, which has just rushed past the long line of patiently waiting drivers, is now doing his best to force his way in. One small car meekly relents and lets him in. I slam my hand hard against the horn in anger. Why!? But this is Korea. And I’ve chosen to drive in this country. Who am I to say what is right or wrong?

Everyone who lives in Korea thinks they are aware of the traffic and how people drive here. On the surface it seems like a chaotic, dangerous death wish if you were ever stupid enough to put yourself behind the wheel of a car. However in reality, that’s exactly what it is!

I swore I would never drive in this country. Why would I? The public transport system is reliable, cheap and efficient. Need to get home at night? Taxis cost you as much as a glass or two of beer. Need to move that big sofa? There’s always a guy with a van who will do it for twenty bucks. So why would I choose to drive?

The truthful answer is that my parents came to visit. There was so much I wanted to show them of this wonderful country, but they had so little time. Then my friend offered me her car. My initial reaction was hell no! But, then the practicalities dawned on me. It was either show them bits of Busan, Seoul and Kyung Ju, or show them everything I possibly could. Show them why I’ve made this country my home. So, I decided to become a driver.

The first step was to get my Korean license. I went to the local driving center, handed over my British license, and told them I wanted to be one of them. “Just go to that office over there and complete some basic tests”, the kind lady told me. Apprehensively, I approached, wondering if the driving skills I had learnt back home were up to the same standard as Korea. After testing my eyesight I was asked to perform a series of bizarre tests, which amounted to, jumping jacks, squat thrusts and touching my toes. And then...they handed me a brand, spanking new Korean license.

Once stepping behind the wheel I was hooked. It was nothing like I had ever experienced in my life. A friend of mine, who had been driving for a number of years, told me of his first experiences “It’s like a video game”, he said. “You turn your car stereo up to full blast and dodge and weave and put your foot hard to the pedal, the adrenaline is pumping fast and it’s a frikking buzz!” He also added that there are no ‘lives’ in Korea. Screw up and that is that.

To be honest, I made some serious mistakes in my first few weeks in the driver's seat. I think it was the mistake of applying the way I had been taught back home to the Korean roads. That simply wasn’t going to work. Back home you are told to check your rear view mirror before attempting any manoeuvre. Here that rule is pretty much null and void. Sure, check your rear view mirror, but all you will see is an SUV inches from the back of your car, lights on full beam, aiming to make your 1997 Kia the meat in his sandwich when the whole procession of cars comes to a grinding halt.

But over the years I’ve become more and more savvy to driving in Korea. The key is aggressive self preservation. In the hell that is city driving you have to be first to act and never give an inch. Although my car is old, it’s a manual, a concept alien to most Korean drivers. My gears are my weapon. I’m always the first off the lights, giving me control of the space ahead. Sure, the big powerful BMWs and Mercedes eventually catch up to me, their occupants giving a curious, sideways glance at the foreigner in the piece of junk that just sped off in front of them. I’ve even had guys, in cars a hundred times more expensive than mine, offering to race me at the next set of lights. They try harder the second time around.

Now that I have a car, I can’t imagine life without it. The convenience of being able to drive thirty kilometres across the city just to pick up some coriander, or being able to throw a cooler, tent and dog into the back of the car and drive into the beautiful Korean countryside for a weekend camping trip would be impossible without it.

Driving here is often stressful, but I absolutely love it. Those who also drive will understand. The rest of you, I’m sure, are still saying, “Hell No!”

Cars to the left of me,
Cars to the right of me,
Cars behind me,
Into the Jaws of Death
Into the Mouth of Hell
Rode, my little Kia Avella...

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Tales from North Korea

August 7th, 2011. Dandong, Liaoning Province, China

The K27 bound for Shineuiju pulls out of Dandong train station at 9:30 a.m. After a few hundred meters it crosses the Yalu river before arriving at it’s destination a few minutes later. Soldiers carrying guns and wielding metal detectors board the train. One approaches me and asks me to open my bags for inspection. “Do you have any GPS devices”, he asks in impeccable English. I reply in the negative. Once the search is over we leave the train and are escorted single file under the platform down a long, dark, dank tunnel to emerge in a large waiting room where we are told to wait for three hours. On the wall the two smiling portraits of the Great and Dear Leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il stare down at us. Welcome to North Korea.

I am about to embark on a four day tour of a country that everybody has heard of, many have an opinion of, but most will never get to see. I am part of a Chinese tour party, about 50 strong. My co-travelers view me with curious stares. Some try to practice their English skills, others kindly offer me food. Some North Koreans civilians, easily identifiable by the Kim Il Sung badges they proudly wear on their chests, buzz around us watching us closely. I gather that these are to be our tour guides, or maybe a better description should be our handlers.

I head downstairs to the gift shop. It’s window opens up onto the station platform which is alive with activity. In front of the building a group of twenty-something females, all dressed in full uniform, are demolishing a wall with sledgehammers and pickaxes. People are scurrying around to board the train to Pyongyang. There are some civilians, most dressed in the same drab green or grey work clothes, but it’s those dressed in military uniforms that dominate. A group of sailors horse around and soldiers, wearing high peaked hats, lean out of the windows of the train chatting to their comrades on the platform. It’s a scene that could easily be lifted straight from a 1940’s war movie, bar the lingering kiss goodbye.

Finally, we are told to board the train. As we line up again, one of the Chinese tourists raises his camera to capture the moment. A female guard moves swiftly to stop and reprimand him. As I get on the train I am surprised to find that we are sharing it with some of the Korean locals, they seem indifferent to our presence as they talk and send messages on their cell phones. After a few minutes we leave the city limits and I am greeted by a lush sea of green. Rice paddies and fields of corn stretch as far as the eye can see. I think of recent reports of famine and a starving population, but the evidence points to the contrary. I wonder if the same story can be told beyond the distant mountains on the horizon.

Along the way we pass villages and towns. All with similar white washed houses topped with terracotta tiled roofs. Farmers work in their fields, kids fish in the ponds and streams that line the route. There is obviously poverty here, but no worse than I have seen in other countries that I’ve visited. Inside the carriage the heat is relentless. Women fan themselves, the Korean males strip to their undershirts, the Chinese go bare chested. I head to the restaurant car and order a beer in order to cool down. “Product of Argentina”, it says on the can. It seems I will have to wait until the nations capital in order to sample the local brew.

After nearly five and a half hours and just under two hundred kilometers, the train arrives, on time, in Pyongyang. I am greeted by my English speaking tour guide, a Mr Kim, not surprisingly. He ushers me onto a waiting bus which drives a short distance before arriving at the hotel. A gleaming 47 floor tower with a revolving restaurant atop. My room is pleasant, ,a decent sized suite with living room and bedroom. I search for a power outlet to charge my camera, but find there are only two, dim, lights in the room with plug connections that I have never come across before. Eventually the shaving socket in the bathroom comes to my rescue, but the whole fixture falls off the wall as I plug my charger in.

The next morning I open my curtains to get my first glimpse of Pyongyang. The Dae Dong river, lined with bridges, snakes before me. To my left is the Juche monument and the May Day stadium, the world’s biggest. But, it’s the magnificent pyramid of the Ryugyong hotel that dominates the Pyongyang skyline.

As our bus leaves the hotel compound, it's rush hour in Pyeongyang and people are making their way to work. Most by foot or bicycle. Some take taxis, splendid looking 1970's Volvos. The fashion is notably dated, not a pair of Nikes or Levis to be seen. The buildings too are old. Utilitarian concrete blocks, paint flaking, a few with polythene sheets where windows once had been. Empty shells of unfinished building projects add to the grimness. The few shops I see are void of window displays, the dim interiors look sparse, the signs out front all using the same old fashioned red font. There are no advertising hoardings, but instead huge propaganda posters loom everywhere. It's as though someone pressed a button circa 1972 and froze the city in time. But the illusion is broken by the cars. Expensive, new Mercedes and Lexus fill the roads. Occupied by military officers and the party faithful. The priveledged few.

The bus leaves the city and hits the highway to Kaesong, one of only 3 major highways in the North. The entire road is almost entirely straight, but the bus weaves and swerves to avoid potholes, people and the occasional herd of goats. Our first port of call for the day is the DMZ, the De-milatarized zone, the line that divides the peninsula along the 38th parallel. Before reaching the DMZ itself, we stop at the building where the 1953 armistice was signed. The original documents still lying in glass cases. Our military guide tells of the unprovoked attack on the peace loving north by the imperialistic American army and their South Korean puppets, and their subsequent crushing defeat at the hands of the mighty North Korean and Chinese armies. Sorry, my American friends, but you lost!

Next it’s on to Panmunjom, the village that sits on both sides of the border. It's familiar territory having been here twice before, but from the South Korean side. We enter one of the huts where talks between the North and South still take place. I 'cross the line' once again, but this time it's back in to the country I've called home for the last ten years. We enter the building that overlooks the South Korean viewing platform. I remember seeing this ominous looking building a few years before and trying to get a furtive snapshot of the guards on the North Korean side. But, now I stand on it’s balcony and those same guards stand next to me. The realisation of the moment hits me hard. I’m in North Korea.

After lunch it’s back to the capital for one of the trip’s highlights. The Pyeongyang Metro. We take the longest escalator I have ever been on down to the world’s deepest subway and the incredible station below. Grandiose columns reach up to high vaulted ceilings lined with opulent chandeliers, the walls decorated with huge propaganda murals. A train is just arriving, it’s old, but elegant, probably harking back to when the subway was first built in 1973. We get on the train, again there is no attempt at segregation from the locals and an elderly Korean gentleman ushers me to a seat next to him. One stop later it’s off the train into an equally impressive station, up another endless escalator to the waiting bus outside.

We drive to Mangyongdae, the alleged birth place of Kim Il Sung. A quaint, thatched cottage located in the heart of Pyongyang surrounded by acre upon acre of park, but not a person is to be seen. The resident guide, dressed in full hanbok (Korean national dress), talks in a tragic, wailing voice about the Great Leader, and grandfather of the nation. When a Chinese tourist steps over a barrier to take a closer look she becomes aghast with shock and disbelief at the sacriledge that is being committed, but I am not convinced by her display.

I arrange to meet my tour guide that evening in one of the many hotel bars for a few drinks. I order two bottles of Dae Dong Gang beer, named after Pyongyang’s central river. It’s a pleasant full bodied lager, which doesn’t surprise me since the brewery was bought lock stock and barrel in 2002 from the U.K. But, it’s the soju I want to try, Korea’s most famous drink. I choose a bottle of Dotori (acorn) soju and am surprised not only by it’s strength, but also it’s taste. Unlike the soju in the South, which has a taste somewhere in-between paint stripper and battery acid, it’s smooth and very palatable. The drinking culture is also very different. There is no ‘one shot’, there is no touching your hand to the wrist to refill your friend’s empty glass. Instead you pour your own drink and sip it warm from a tall glass, not too disimilar to an aperetif. When it comes to paying the bill, I thank the waitress using the polite, but informal 고마워요 (Go Ma Weo Yo) for thank you. My tour guide turns to me and says angrily, “Do not use the South Korean way here! In North Korea we are always polite. We do not lower our language! You have to say 고맙습니다 (Go Map Seum Ni Da, polite formal)”. A little taken aback I correct myself and apologise to the waitress, who appears a little bit embarrassed about the exchange.

The next day we head to Mount Myohang and the Kim Il Sung, International Friendship Hall. It is a large, lavish building, topped with a Korean traditional style roof. Inside it houses all the gifts that have been given to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il from other nations. Our guide boasts proudly that if you were to spend one minute viewing every gift it would take you two months. I peer into the glass cabinets and note that the majority seem to be from China or the world’s crackpot nations and despots. There is also a surprising number from big, famous multi-nationals. Obviously political ideology takes a back seat when it comes to money. Amongst all the exquisite pottery, ornate wood carvings and elegant paintings one gift sticks out like a sore thumb, a large 1983 Chinese made ghetto blaster. An image pops into my head of a younger Kim Jong Il, boom box on his shoulder, body popping and getting jiggy with it. I laugh out loud. Bewildered heads turn to look at me.

From here it’s back to Pyongyang and to the governmental and administrative center of the city. Kim Il Sung Square is flanked by large communist style buildings. Nearby lies the Children’s Palace where we will go to see a performance. The students that I meet there are so incredibly talented, that they would put to shame any kid who was the star of his or her yearbook. We get to see fine arts, incredible musicianship and outstanding performances that would make most South Korean parents green with envy.

I come across an art class and see this one girl painting the most exquisite flower painting. I forget myself for a minute and remark to her ‘예쁘다’ (it’s so pretty). I see a brief moment of alarm in her eyes, and she does her best to ignore me and carry on with her appointed task. I too, realise my mistake and step away quickly. I pass the same classroom again some forty minutes later. She is still there, painting the same beautiful flowers. I hope she is OK...

And then it comes to the highlight of the trip. Not just for us the curious onlookers, but for the North Koreans too. The Mass Games. It’s their showpiece, to show to the world their brilliance. And, I have to admit, I was totally blown away by what I saw.

Walking into the stadium felt a bit like going to see a baseball game in the South. Excitement is high. Soldiers, party workers, school children buzz around us. They are the chosen ones for this evening. And then...semi disappointment. I emerge into the word’s biggest stadium to be greeted by half emptiness. In my section are about 50 foreigners. To my left are about a thousand soldiers, all chanting some patriotic slogan. To my right are several hundred middle school kids, acting like kids should.

Then, in front of me I see the most magnificent site. Twelve-thousand high school kids. The chosen ones. Those that provide the backgrounds for the mass games are being whipped into a fury by some unseen conductor.

Suddenly! A shout goes up and what were those high school kids is turned into a solid wall of their high school's colours. The kids are chanting, the pictures turn effortlessly from one picture to the next. There’s a ‘battle’ going on here. They are trying to out do each other. I sit breathless watching it. And this is just the warm up.

And then...the performance starts. We see the history of the Korean people, the deification of Kim Il sung. Kim Jong Il’s beautiful birth on top of that mountain top,complete with rainbows and angelic voices. A rather interesting homage to China and North Korea’s splendid victory in the war. Fuck You! America. They had me convinced.

And then it was back to my hotel. The most bizarre trip of my life was done.

The next day beckoned. I looked out across the Dae Dong Gang river for one last time before boarding my train. Again we trundled slowly through the lush paddy fields. And finally I got to know some of the Chinese tourists who had seemed oblivious to me until this point, but now they wanted to be my friend. They told me that their best player had taken 5000 dollars in the casino in our Pyongyang hotel. I took him for 50 bucks. Small victories...

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Thoughts on Thatcher...

Over the last two days, since Margaret Thatcher's death, a feeling has been rekindled inside me that I had forgotten about and has been sorely missed.

Over recent years, I've become complacent and apathetic towards politics, and it took the death of this remarkable, divisive, woman to get me thinking again.

The person who I am now is because of her. She is the reason that I became interested in politics and chose to study politics at university. But growing up, she was the antithesis of everything that seemed just and right.

Don't get me wrong here. I was brought up in a middle class household, my father worked his ass of his entire life to reach the pinnacle of his profession and provide a more than comfortable upbringing for my brother and I. My parents benefited hugely from many of the policies that Thatcher implemented. But those same policies destroyed so many people, they decimated communities, brought discord to the streets of Britain and Ireland and divided a nation.

From my early teens I felt something was wrong. What I saw going on around me just didn't seem right. My parents never expressed their political views to me, they didn't tell me how to think. I was left to make my own mind up. However, like me, my father had chosen to study politics at university and our loft was filled with an Alla-din's cave of political and philosophical literature: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Locke, Rousseau, Plato et al. I devoured every one of them. I took on board what they said about the human condition and society. Then, I looked out of my window and was dismayed by what I saw.

As I progressed through my teenage years, my political convictions grew stronger. Most of my peers and many of their parents seemed to be of the same mind as me. Now, I look back and wonder if these people were just being righteous and sanctimonious. My friend's parents were not working class, but successful, affluent, middle class professionals. What right did they have to declare affinity for the miners and the teachers and the Irish and every other group and community that Thatcher sought to quash? Did it really effect their own lives?

No. Is the correct answer. But, can a decent human being stand around and ignore what is happening around them? Again. No. Is the correct answer. Did my wearing of the 'Support the Miner's' badge during my secondary school years help those miners in any way? Probably not. But did my refusal to pay my poll tax, take part in demonstrations and risk the threat of fine and imprisonment have any impact on the Conservative government's abandonment of that policy. Well...for that one I would like to say yes. Because it wasn't just me, a student. It was the working class, it was the middle class (those that had benefited most from Thatcher's policies). It was pretty much everyone who saw an ill thought out and unfair policy and did the correct thing. They protested until the government, that they, the majority had elected, conceded that they were wrong. It was a great moment for democracy at it’s finest.

So, now I sit here watching yet another ‘expert’ reflect on her legacy. Did she make Britain into the country it is today? I have to concede. Yes, she did. But, at what cost? The gap between rich and poor is at it’s greatest since the post war years. The amount of people claiming welfare is higher than it ever was before she took the reigns of power. Our economy tilts on the edge of either great economic gains or abject depression depending on which kid decides to ‘have a gamble’ today.

If she had never existed where would our country be today? Probably similar to a Spain, or a Portugal or a Greece. Then again, why are those countries in such dire straits? Because of the federalism and mis-thought out policies of the European Union....

The irony makes me laugh!