Journal Extract – DMZ Tour
The US military-led tour of the Korean border zone Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) commenced at 7:30am sharp. In charge of proceedings was poker-faced Sergeant Rivera, an American solider with a well rehearsed, distant, steely squint. With clinical delivery and detachment, he informed us of the DMZ’s many rules and regulations, along with tips on how not-to-get-shot by edgy North Korean guards. Each instruction was conveyed with precision, repeated twice and usually book ended with “let’s just have a good day folks”. I sensed some weary exasperation in his tone and felt glad I’d left my (Chinese New Year of the) rabbit costume at the hotel. Indeed, clothing deemed “faddish, extreme, torn, tattered, frayed, overly provocative or otherwise inappropriate” was disallowed, including – quote – “baggy gangster-type” garb.
Throughout the day, as Rivera ordered us about, I felt that he was able to penetrate my soul with his trademark, no-nonsense glare. It was mildly unnerving yet oddly invigorating to be bossed around – I particularly enjoyed being told twice. “No photography here. Repeat: No photography.” What a thrilling paradox to be addressed as ‘sir’ as he humoured my stupid questions, yet also be ordered around – certainly, for a few moments, I had to question my heterosexuality.
This summer, I visited friends along the US east coast and Canada and then rented a car, travelling 3,099 miles around the Bible Belt states of the Deep South. This was the grand itinerary…
On my travels, I encountered a rash of different extremist groups, attended the country’s biggest church, offended about half a dozen natives and had a couple of scrapes with death. And a month later, back in New York, I had more questions than answers about the people and politics of Jesusland USA…
“Where’s the toilet please, Becky?”…As the howls and bawling laughter which swept around the campfire calmed down, I corrected myself… “Ok, where’s the ‘bathroom’?” “No, that’s not why we’re laughing – like I told you, we have no running water.” My friend’s neighbours, who had gathered for deep-fried turkey and hotdogs, composed themselves and directed me to a random tree.
“…The Greyhound website promised new luxury buses, complete with plush seats, power sockets and wifi for my overnight journey to Toronto, Canada – a short break from the US. As I watched the coach fill up, I relaxed in the station smugly ignoring the big rush to board. Suckers… As the bus slowly pulled away, I realised the reason for the urgency – Greyhound tickets do not guarantee a seat and additional transport is provided for those who don’t make it on. Cue the dilapidated ghetto bus which trundled around the corner into the space previously occupied by the new pimped up coach. I spotted the First Bus Travel logo on the back – Greyhound had been bought out by the mickey-mouse Scottish company running the system in my hometown – ‘go figure’.
Whilst Tokyo is perhaps like Hong Kong on a copious amount of illegal drugs, some things have turned out to be truer than others… The (in)famous Star Trek toilets are more the rule than the exception, though I’ve been too scared to experiment with the buttons as one of the symbols looks like what can only be described as a ‘deep probe wash’. Yes, they love their manga and their gadgets, but – alas – no, I’m yet to be groped on the metro (disappointingly… maybe it’s the chicken suit!?). It is also accurate to say that all the men are suited up to the nines – with mirrors and pit-stop barbers in tube stations.
When walking the spotless streets over the past 9 days, it’s been difficult not to compare everything to back in HK – our public transport is certainly cheaper and simpler. Plus, there are few escalators here; instead there are weird static steps you have to climb manually (“stairs”, as I remember). But on pretty much everything else, Japan’s cyber-city capital, probably wins… Beyond the super-busy areas, everywhere seems so much quieter and calmer (often eerily), with clean streets – designed with cyclists and pedestrians in mind – and little pollution. English is obviously less prevalent here but when people try to communicate, it is with grace rather than embarrassment. There is a greater sense of service and a feeling of wider social conscience (known as ‘Wa’) – something Singapore attempts to buy with strict enforcement and Hong Kong achieves only through its ‘face loss’ phobia. ‘Same same but different’ might be an appropriate Asian saying.