Qat is for Lawyers!

Qat is a daily part of existence of many (most?) Somalis, and those in Somaliland were no different. A mildly narcotic leaf that you spend all afternoon chewing, it typically leads to heightened conversations and more intense reactions. Done in moderation, it’s no different that a bunch of people sitting around having a few beers, or maybe a lot of caffeinated and sugary tea (which also happens here). Done not so much in moderation, and it can lead to serious side-effects and dependency, as any drug – be it alcohol, cotton candy, or something harder, can have.

In any case, while preparing for an eight-day trip to Somaliland, I figured I would have a qat interaction at some point – avoiding it completely would likely just cut me out from a large segment of society, and a key cultural routine. Many a afternoons are spent chewing the leaf, while hanging out with friends either at home or a qat “den.”


a den of qat

One early afternoon, I met up with a contact, who introduced me to two young lawyers from one of Somaliland’s largest law firms. We had a lunch of camel soup, camel meat, and camel milk – all camel all the time – which was another typical Somali aspect I had to partake in (it was actually all quite good).


the camel buffet

I had no other meetings scheduled until 5:30pm that day (given the heat, little occurs from 1 to 5pm most afternoons, especially during the summer), so they asked if I wanted to join them back at their law firm. I said sure, I’ll check it out, as never in my life have I been in a law firm in Somaliland. So another crucial item to check off the bucket list.

On our way back to the law firm we made a pit stop. I wasn’t exactly sure why at first, but when I saw my contact returning with many a long stem of green leaves in clear plastic bags, I figured it out – it was qat time.

We arrived at their law firm, which was really a large house converted into an office, as many stand-alone offices are in this part of the world. Upon entering there was a small room with a desk and chair – a typical area for a receptionist. After that, however, was the living room. Instead of being a place of cubicles and desks as I would have expected of one of Somaliland’s largest law firms, it was a place of mats and little else. This was clearly a qat den.

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respectable entrance

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opens to this

There were probably about 15 individual spots set up along the walls of the room. Each had their own trash can, mats, and pillows – this was no amateur set up. Clearly this room was utilized for this purpose on a regular basis, just as you would expect of your top-notch lawyers.

There is an entire ritual, or procedure perhaps I should say, associated with chewing qat. First of all, the well dressed lawyers I had lunch with had changed their attire, eschewing their button-down shirts in favor of their undershirts, and removing their pants for a long cloth wrapped around their waist, more akin to a skirt.

Not having the appropriate attire, I instead chose my place next to my contact, and stretched my legs out, laying quite comfortably up against the cushion on the wall (I considered taking off my pants, but thought that’s too cruel to do to anyone, ever). Next to me was my trashcan, a litre of water, and an entire thermos of sweet, sweet, very sweet tea – all essentials of the qat chewing experience. The leaves themselves were washed and then placed standing up in the wastebasket itself, to dry. Afterwards they would be put back in the plastic bags next to each person, and the wastebasket would then become a normal wastebasket for refuge, like the long stems of the plant.

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the setup

The session began with about five or us, but more people kept filtering in an out (including a very charismatic but conservative imam at one point, who spoke perfect English and went around making fun of everyone for chewing qat while urging us replace that with prayer instead. He disappeared as quickly as he had arrived and with no apparent converts – though given his charisma, if he had stayed another five minutes or for three more qat chews, I probably would’ve been had). In any case the men (it was and typically is only men) all sat around, chewing their leaves, and discussing the day’s topics, which often involved politics and current events. The conversation went in and out of Somali, so I was only privy to certain sections, usually when an inquisitive newcomer was curious about the obvious foreigner in the room.

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imam would not have been too happy about this

This continued for about 2 hours, until around 4pm. At that time, people slowly began to set up small plastic trays next to their spots, and break out their laptops. Ostensibly to work, as even I was given the Internet code, but every time I looked at my neighbor, there was a combination of soccer highlights or Facebook pages on his screen.

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time to get some lawyer-ing done!

I asked them if they did this every afternoon – they said no, but in a manner that implied yes. We had arrived a little before 2, and I stayed until 5 – with more people still cycling in and the qat session going strong when I left.

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a quotidian affair?

Having gotten my cultural experience out of the way, I thanked them and departed for my next meeting. But I was left pondering the whole experience. I suppose its no different than a bunch of lawyers getting together for a few drinks for happy hour after work – that is, if the law firm had its own bar as soon as you walked in, and the happy hour began everyday after lunch. In some law firms perhaps!

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happy hour time!

But I was left a little judgmental, especially given how professional and put together the two lawyers had seemed during our lunch meeting. Nothing changed during the qat session, but I realized the extent to which this ritual pervades Somali culture, given that even these guys were partaking in this activity near daily, and their law firm had an entire room and set up dedicated to it. It may affect productivity in some way given that it seems the real work all gets done before lunch, but there could be other positive effects in terms of office bonding and current events information-sharing I suppose. For better or worse, it’s an indelible part of the culture, so next time you are in desperate need of a lawyer in Somaliland during the afternoon, you better be ready for some qat too!

A Veritable Somali Beach Party

Somaliland carries a name that invokes, well, the ‘land of Somalia,’ and all the chaos associated with it over the past two-and-a-half decades. Yet the “country” couldn’t be further than the state collapse and accompanying violence of its southern cousin. Rather, Somaliland has emerged as a beacon of stability in a troubled region, despite the continued negative associations in the West with the ‘Somalia’ moniker. In fact, it is actually quite a pleasant place to visit, and one where I found myself recently.

Somaliland carries enormous tourist potential, not least because of sites such as Laas Geel, (one of the best-preserved series of cave paintings in the world), in addition to an expansive coastline. Thus the perfect spot for a more educational-sort of spring break tour, primarily for archaeology majors (so that may be a bit too specific of a niche to build an entire tourism industry around, but you gotta start somewhere, and I’ve always heard archaeology majors leave the best Trip Advisor reviews!).


What was drawn in Laas Geel, stays in Laas Geel (unless its on the Internet)

In any case, as part of a work trip I visited the town of Berbera, Somaliland’s main port and a site of intrigue given the fascination its strategic location along the Red Sea coast has garnered from world powers. The small downtown center is a crumbling facade of white-washed colonial buildings amidst wide and empty boulevards, a testament to a glorious trading past. The British arrived on the scene in the late 19th century, making Berbera the capital of their British Somaliland protectorate. After independence, Cold War power politics engulfed the town, with both the Russians and Americans setting up shop at various points. Despite its former status as an entrepôt, much of downtown Berbera today is derelict, with entire blocks in near ruins, a legacy of conflict and neglect. It makes for an interesting place to wander.

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One of the better preserved buildings in downtown Berbera

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more typical downtown Berbera architecture

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somehow the front survived . . .


an abandoned Russian hospital in Berbera – as the picture suggests, it was built slanted (more realistic explanation than the fact that I don’t know how to work a camera)

But I didn’t come to Berbera nor starting writing up this blog post to talk about buildings – that was just a plug for the architecture majors spring break tour (see, an expanding clientele base already!). Rather Berbera, as a port town, is obviously on the water. And by the water is the beach. That’s what the true action is.

On the Friday I happened to be in Berbera, I had a break during the afternoon and thought it might be nice to take the short walk from my hotel down to the water given the 45-degree celsius heat (just shy of 115 fahrenheit). I had seen a few people out there already, so expected some company. But I was not prepared to enter what was a veritable Friday afternoon Somali beach party.

I think everyone in the town, plus a few other towns, and then some, must’ve been there, (well at least those who were not too busy chewing qat – subject of future post). I was shocked and a little intimidated once I actually got to the water given the near two kilometers of coastline was packed with many a frolicking Somali youth and families, enjoying the weekend afternoon (Friday being the weekend here). But I was here to walk along the beach and go in the water, so I persisted, despite being quite obviously the only foreigner along the coastline that day (aside from all those happy looking hostages I had passed on the way in . . . just kidding!).

Somaliland embraces a conservative Muslim culture, but there were plenty of women enjoying the beach, even in concert with their male counterparts at times. However, they were covered from head to toe – but that didn’t stop many from still going in the water (after which some emerged with clothing that was indeed quite tight to the body, revealing a figure this sort of style was designed to conceal, and made it hard not to gawk given the context). Most of the men, while wearing shorts, also went into the water with their shirts on. Not wanting to stand out any further than I already did, I followed local custom, taking my now two-piece bathing suit into the ocean with me.

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Following the ladies down to the beach

It was refreshing water and a clean beach – I could really envision the tourism potential. The “country” (technically it is a non-recognized entity that claims its own sovereignty from Somalia), perhaps just needs to rebrand in a way so that the word ‘Somalia’ doesn’t appear in its title. For example, if changed its name to, I’m not sure it would capture the same ty[e of clientele (perhaps those more inclined to view the movie Captain Phillips as one of the great tragi-comedies of our time). In any case, rebranding as The Country Formerly Known as Somaliland, or TCFKAS, might be a more effective business strategy.

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future TCFKAS-ians (or TCFKAS-ites?) enjoying their non-pirated water

In any case, after getting completely wet, I thought I might as well walk along the beach in the 45-degree heat, to get completely dry, before this short break from my real purpose for being in Berbera re-emerged. As I walked, I drew a number of stares, but mostly people ignored me, having too much fun in the sand to pay attention to the odd foreigner lurking about (and I certainly was lurking).

I wanted to take soooo many photos, but was conspicuously trying to be inconspicuous, so did not bring my camera along the walk. Many mental images were snapped, however, those are likely to be as fleeting as that moment when I realized Santa Claus and Donkey Kong were the same person.

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as close as I could get really – this photo barely does the crowd justice, given that most people I see are invisible

In any case, during my walk a few entertaining interactions did occur. To begin, for the first half an hour, every woman I saw had her hair covered. But after walking a while I spotted a group of young girls and boys hanging out together, some in the water and some not. But what was more astonishing is that there were some uncovered heads! I tried not to ogle, but it was difficult as I had been in Somaliland almost a week by now, and had forgotten what female hair looked like. One girl even walked by holding the hand of her male counterpart, while disparagingly saying something to me in Somali (I assume based on her tone – either that, or she is a really awful ice cream saleswoman). Even I thought she was a bit risqué, and was about to report her to my superiors, until they decided they didn’t care.

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the (clearly) superiors of my Berbera trip

Another mother was sitting on the beach covered head to toe, except for her mid-section as she was breast-feeding her child.  I’ve rarely felt more uncomfortable than when I was walking past her.

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Beach hanging

A few people, mostly male youth, did talk to me. One had a super soaker and was running around squirting his friends when he suddenly turned and pointed it right at my center brain. Given Somalia’s international reputation, the thought of pirates and al-Shabaab flashed through my eyes, but then he turned away without squirting.

Another group of two probably 15-year boys were a bit bolder and insisted on grabbing my hand as I walked by, refusing to let go after what turned into an extraordinarily lengthy and uncomfortable handshake. They spoke a bit of English, and asked where I was from. The entire time I was in Somaliland I relied on my Pakistani roots, as it immediately engendered a feeling of warmth and likemindedness that being from American likely would not. So I told them I was Pakistani, and they light up, asking if I was a Muslim. I affirmed, and the main guy’s friend declared “Good! If you were a Christian I would’ve killed you, I swear to God!” A little startled by that response, to which I assume was jest but laced with a degree of half-hearted seriousness, I immediately withdrew my hand and walked away, shaking my finger and telling them that was not true Islam (to be fair though, I really wouldn’t know . . .).

Aside from that I was mostly left to my own devices, taking in every moment of this Somali beach party that I could. Some pickup beach soccer (futbol) was ongoing, while others were doing flips into the water. There were many large SUVs parked and driving along the beach, an indicator that this was still likely an elitist-type activity, rather than the Friday of your average Joe (or Mohamed). But I did see many people departing the beach by foot, while a public minitaxi took others, so not everyone was rolling in it (and those with SUVs may have been the diaspora as well).

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some drive to the beach

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some walk home

I became more emboldened the more I stood there, and no longer intimated by the large crowds, but walking right through them. Alas, I had gone from one end to the other, and needed to return to my hotel to get ready for the early evening interviews scheduled. Thus I wandered back, and left the party more homogenous than when I arrived.

When we retuned to the hotel at sunset, I wandered back down to the beach with my Somaliland companion. The beach, where just a few hours before had been hundreds of people, was completely deserted now. Beach-bumming is apparently not an evening activity. Rather, the only life was a caravan of about 30 camels, strolling back home at sunset after a hard day’s work somewhere, as nice a daily commute as a camel could want (I assume).

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apparently TCFKASians turn into camels at dark

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what a difference a few hours makes – still crowded though!

In any case, the veritable Friday afternoon beach party was over, but in the short time I experienced it, it did alter some of my perceptions of the country, and showed me how much fun Berbera can be. Next time though, I’ll be sure to bring my own super soakers (and camels) to get in on the action!


Maiduguri city slogans:

  • 2007 – Home of Peace
  • 2012 – Home of Pieces (unofficial)


I have been trying to visit Maiduguri, a regional capital tucked away in the northeast corner of Nigeria, for years. Despite spending much of the past five years focusing on the area for work, a plethora of canceled trips and failed visa attempts meant I still hadn’t been on the ground by 2017. So when I found out I would be traveling to Nigeria for a conference (finally!), I figured I had to give it my best shot to visit the country’s northeast corner as well.

Prior to that though, I had to get a visa at the Nigerian Embassy in Addis Ababa. That is a whole story in itself, and one best relayed orally. If you still care about anything by the time you finish reading this post, demand this of me the next time I annoy you with my presence.

There are surprisingly a few different airlines that operate near-daily flights to Maiduguri from the Nigerian capital of Abuja (where my conference was) these days. This was not the case just a few years ago, as the city was the epicenter of the Boko Haram crisis, forcing the airport’s closure. In fact, Maiduguri is largely considered to be the “birthplace” of this nefarious movement, which made visiting all the more intriguing.

While the violence still rages in the countryside, security has increased drastically in the city, meaning that those days when the airport was closed are long (and hopefully permanently) gone. It is now its routine for foreigners, largely operating within a humanitarian or security context, to make the trip (i.e. Maiduguri as the next hot spring break destination, as I was promised by no one but which I can truly emphasize the “hot” aspect of, is still just a few years off).

As soon as I landed I immediately felt a wave of dry heat (another emphasis on both dry and heat). The rainy season hadn’t quite yet begun, and the daily temperature hovered in the low 100s. But it felt comfortable. There is something about the Sahel – a section of the world equal parts dusty, dry, and scorching – that has a certain allure. It is inexplicable when explained in such non-alluring terms, but in one sense I felt like I was back in Burkina Faso, producing a wave of calm and reminding myself that one day I would like to spend 27+ years living in this climate (to which Christine does not realize she has signed up to). In fact, given that it had been cold and raining for nearly a week straight in Addis when I left, the chance of pace was much welcomed!


Maiduguri it is!

Alas, I was still a little nervous going in. I had heard of some people having issues getting into the city. There is a special procedure for all foreign nationals flying to Maiduguri, despite still being a part of Nigeria and technically no need for special permission. It is still under a state of emergency though, and the seat of a veritable war against militant Islamists. So I can understand the extra security, though it seems the screening of foreigners is more to keep a track on who is doing what, rather than any procedure to enhance our, or the city’s, safety.

Fortunately, a local colleague happened to be on the same flight as me and I had enough documentation – that combination allowed me to pass through with ease. In fact, the security guys were quite the joksters – when I explained myself and my mission to one of the guys, the head security guy (in a wheelchair – not sure if this was due to any recent conflict incident) offered to take me right to Sambisa Forest, the headquarters of the Boko Haram movement! Something tells me he’s made joke that to an unsuspecting foreigner visiting his city for the first time before (needless to say as intrigued as I was, I did not take him up on his offer).

Another reason I really wanted to visit the city is that over the past five years I have focused on the Lake Chad Basin professionally, and thus have worked with a number of contacts from Maiduguri, that I had never met in person. With some, I even chatted via Skype on a weekly basis for years (only rarely did they claim to be a deposed prince who just needed my credit card number to assert his rightful place on a vast, gold-filled throne). So part of the allure of finally visiting Maiduguri was to meet these contacts and see them in their element.

One friend in particular was very excited that I was coming. I had let him know shortly before, and as soon as I got to my hotel, I gave him a call. He said he was on his way – I wondered if I would even recognize him. I had seen so many photos over the years, but seeing someone in person for the first time is a different story. Luckily the hotel parking lot was quite empty when he showed up, so it was fairly obvious who was who (that did not stop me from pretending I was Big Bird for a while, just to see if Snuffleupagus happened to be lurking around).

I also thought it might be a bit awkward to meet and spend much of the next four days together, as the extent of our relationship previously had centered around twenty-minute increments of Skype conversations. I was fairly pleased to know, however, that our virtual conversational skills quickly translated to real world interactions, and the typical awkwardness that characterizes all my human interactions was present at a lower than usual level.

In any case, Richard took me out into the city, and I was finally exploring Maiduguri for the first time, after years of anticipation. We passed by all these areas I had read about and Richard had take pictures for us. For example, the notable city gate was upon us as soon as we exited the hotel. There was a sense of accomplishment in some ways – I always knew when I was sitting in the dregs of Crystal City writing report after report on specific neighborhoods of Maiduguri with Richard’s help, that one day I would get out there and actually see these sights for myself. I was just shocked that I had been right (that rarely occurs), and this day had actually arrived.


City gates!


Shehu (traditional ruler) palace

A quick background on Maiduguri – as mentioned, it’s the birthplace of the ravenous terrorist organization, Boko Haram. For a few years around 2011 to 2013, the city was essentially off limits for foreigners, as Boko Haram militants held sway in many neighborhoods. The movement wound up fleeing for the countryside in mid-2013, in large part thanks to the emergence of civilian vigilante actors opposed to their presence. Since then a relative calm has returned to the city, in turn allowing foreigners to start frequenting it. Maiduguri has become the hub of both the continued operations against Boko Haram, but also the response to a massive humanitarian disaster ongoing in the region, due to people fleeing from Boko Haram’s predatory presence in the countryside. Nonetheless, while the city is more peaceful than before, Boko Haram retains a sort of fascination/obsession with it, and consistently attempts to intimidate it, often through the form of young and likely coerced suicide bombers. Many of them are intercepted on the city’s outskirts resulting in few to no civilian casualties, but penetrations do occur, ensuring that while it feels like and is more or less a safe city, security is never far from anyone’s mind.

Nonetheless, my four days there were without incident, and it really did feel like a normal city – as safe and secure as anywhere else where temperatures rise to the 120s. Richard was a gracious host, introducing me to his friends and family as if we were old friends (given that we really were, just of the Internet variety – but hey, that’s how most of America meets their parents for the first time these days, isn’t it?).

While we toured much of the city, one thing that surprised me most was how good the food was! It is a bit ironic, given that the region is facing an impending famine, but non-displaced Maiduguri residents seem to have adequate supplies, and some of those supplies are in fact quite delicious!

While visiting a cattle market near the outskirts of the city, we picked up some suya, or essentially grilled meat with some onions and a dry pepper rub to dip in. It was so durn good that I didn’t even realize it, but I talked about it essentially non-stop to such a degree that Richard insisted we go back the next day just to shut me up, despite it being a 30-minute drive one way (and if you’re asking why we visited a cattle market given I was not in the business of purchasing some stock to take back to Addis, well I’ll tell you. One way Boko Haram funds itself is by stealing cattle in rural areas and then giving them to complacent middlemen who in turn sell them in local cattle markets for a lower price & split the profits – this particular cattle market was even shut down back back in 2016 for hot minute, to prevent this practice. Nonetheless, no such nefarious activity was apparent, but I may have been distracted by the prospect of all this cattle transforming into delicious mountains upon delicious mountains of suya – in case you are wondering, no I have never had a single vegetarian tendency in my life!).


pre-suya cattle . . .


suya in preparation

Richard’s sister also insisted we come over to his family’s house for lunch one day. She had prepared a chicken dish with a peanut sauce, along with a yam-type side dish. To complement the meal I bought the drinks, which consisted of chapman, or a local punch-type soda. The meal was delicious, perhaps even rivaling the suya vendors. I ate until I couldn’t eat anymore, then I ate some more. Having a sumptuous home-cooked meal in Maiduguri was never part of what I had dared to envision during my daydreams of visiting the city, but it made me feel quite welcome, and dare I say invoked a desire to extend this trip to an indefinite duration.


a delicious meal


meeting the whole family

While we were not eating, we also checked out a few of the necessary voyeur terrorist tourism-type sites, such as the area where Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf used to preach (his mosque and house have since been razed, but some of the buildings nearby still have bullet holes from the 2009 uprising that pit his group against the government), and Gwange neighborhood (one of the poorer areas of the city, that I frequently saw pop up in the news circa 2011-12 as the site of near daily violence).



area of the city in which Muhammad Yusuf used to preach


site of the former mosque


continued scars

Other visited institutions of the city also used to be the site of significant violence, but have since recovered. Monday Market, the central market in Maiduguri, suffered from multiple Boko Haram attacks, but you wouldn’t be able to tell today as we walked around a large central market not unlike any other in West Africa. It also seemed to have plenty of food available, in contrast to the dire situation faced by many in this part of the country.


kicking it in Monday Market


grains available

On that note, we also visited a few IDP camps, to get a sense of the situation faced by many. There was a distinct difference among the camps we visited in terms of official response and more makeshift settlements, but it was also clear a number of international NGOs had heeded the call and were present. A few of the IDPs recounted their horrific tales of having to flee their home villages due to Boko Haram violence, and their desire to return as soon as they can to continue with their lives. A long-line of brightly dressed women waiting for a food handout along the side of the road as we left the camp, directly contrasted to the seeming normality we had seen in the market.


Dwellings in IDP camp I


Dwellings in IDP Camp II


food line

The University of Maiduguri (UNIMAID) is another Maiduguri institution, and despite Boko Haram’s abhorrence of Western-style education, was largely was spared during even the height of the conflict. It is located, however, on the southeastern edge of the city and encompasses a large campus which is not all fenced off, thus making it an easy and recent target of Boko Haram violence. It was the university Richard and most of his family & friends had attended, so we went to visit there as well. Security was a little tight and I had to explain myself to gain entrance – despite the presence of security personnel around the city, nowhere else were we stopped. We eventually got in through the first gate, after convincing the guards that a bearded Pakistani who studies terrorism and at times gets mistakenly placed on no-fly lists, was of little threat to them.

But once inside, we went to where Richard and his friends typically hang out. It was a couple of benches underneath a tree along a heavily trafficked sidewalk, next to some stores and other guys selling snacks. In other words, the perfect place to be seen, but also relax and see. We ate some watermelon and talked with his friends for a while. The whole experience was so normal, it was almost surreal for me to imagine that all these guys had basically lived through a war. The setting could’ve taken place on any college campus anywhere in the world, and I had to keep reminding myself I was indeed in Maiduguri (although the uproar that ensued once I explained I didn’t want kids probably would be more replicated at a place like Bob Jones University, rather than the ones I attended).


hanging at the university

In fact, Richard’s whole life seemed so much more normal than I had envisioned. He lived by himself in a one-bedroom apartment, drove a car, hung out with his friends, watched downloaded movies on his tv, went on dates with his girlfriend, and generally led a life typical of a mid-20s young male. Of course, the electricity in his house was out at least half the month, he struggled to find steady work, and had to dodge the occasional suicide bomber. But, aside from that . . .


Richard in his pad

One of the other areas we visited was the Sanda Kyarimi Park Zoo. The zoo had apparently stayed opened throughout the conflict, though it may have seen some better days. A collection of animals, namely elephants, ostriches, and alligators, highlighted its presence, but it served as a sort of success story, a part of the city that refused to cower in the presence of militancy, and survived throughout (the animals themselves had refused Boko Haram’s incessant recruitment attempts). A sort of symbol of the city’s resilience. At the same time, however, it appeared the animals served as a secondary purpose, with the primary one being of an area for young couples to spend time together, with only a leering ostrich to judge them. Another stark reminder that the perverse ideology of Boko Haram, despite its stranglehold on this city for some time, clearly does not represent the entirety of the population. An obvious fact, but one that is nice to see visible signs of at times.


spying on couples


some more creeping


he’s definitely creeping too

Finally, perhaps my other favorite event was when a massive sandstorm preceded a rainstorm, darkening the sky almost immediately. The storms in the Sahel, while less frequent than the daily affliction of rain in Addis between June to September, are simply more dramatic. Despite barely being able to keep my eyes open to all the dust circling around, I cherished the experience.


and the sky darkens


All in all, the trip to Maiduguri was a success, not least of all given that no security incidents occurred (despite some scares in the weeks after). The security risk to the city was palpable – there is a nightly curfew, the civilian vigilantes set up their checkpoints in the early evening, there are posters of wanted militants around the city, and regular convoys of military officers and armory go by. But at the same time, Maiduguri is as normal a city as elsewhere in the Sahel/West Africa region, and life for most of its residents goes on. The Boko Haram crisis has clearly had an effect – for example there are none of the motos that are ubiquitous elsewhere in West Africa as they were banned since Boko Haram easily used them as a getaway for hit and run assassinations – rather these have been replaced with the less escapable three-wheeled tuk-tuks. Examples like that abound of the effects the Boko Haram crisis has had on the city, not least to speak of the devastated countryside. And while much of Borno state is suffering and the IDPs in Maiduguri as well, it is easy to feel a sense of normalcy in the city and forget about the issues surrounding it.


youth vigilantes sign


Anti-Boko Haram army poster


(poorly shot) movement of security personnel

At any rate, I had accomplished a key personal and professional goal in finally setting foot in a city I had read so much about, and meeting the contacts I had worked so much with. Nonetheless, the trip was short, in fact too short – four days was certainly enough to check off the box, but it just added another item to the list – which is to return soon and for a lengthier duration!


next time I’ll make this hat work!



Pepé’s Parliament Tour

Christine and I were walking down the street in Harare, when we came across the building housing Zimbabwe’s Parliament. I had remembered that a friend told me you could do a tour of Parliament, so figured we would stop in the check it out. Though we couldn’t do it right then because I didn’t have an ID on me, we found the place we had to go to register, and after being handed over four different times, eventually found the man who would be our guide. To call him a character, would be an understatement.

For no good reason, I will refer to him as Pepé. Pepé immediate began asking me some questions about what I do. Thinking slowly on the spot, I told him the truth – that I research conflict in Africa. He drew back a bit and suspiciously declared, “So you’ve come here to do research,” likely invoking the official line regarding pervasive distrust of Westerners in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. I had to explain I was just on vacation, which he replied was even more suspicious given that Zimbabwe was an expensive place to travel to. Though perhaps he discounted this line of reasoning after viewing my ragged attire (or that only heightened suspicions, as the perfect disguise!).

We were on the 4th floor and waiting for the elevator – when it came he just said “I don’t trust you,” and jumped on. A little shocked, I froze in surprise, before snapping out of it and following him. Shaking off that last statement, we told him that I’d get my ID and come back in the afternoon. He walked outside with us and made some forced not-so small talk. He then abruptly pointed to a man and said, “there’s my boss, I’m afraid of him.” He disappeared from sight at that, leaving us frozen in shock yet for the second time in as many minutes.

Pepé’s character, revealed in our less than five-minute interaction with him, only further solidified the notion that we should starting spending more time at Zimbabwe’s Parliament, so we returned in the afternoon and began our tour. Pepé was probably at least in his 50s, and walked with a bit of a limp. Although a short man at a few inches shy of me, he had a gruff manner of speaking, which seemed indicative of many decades worth of uphill battles. While dressed up in a worn suit, it was also just a little too big for him, creating the effect of him sinking into his attire (though I can empathize – I didn’t realize slim fit clothes existed until 2014).

 At the entrance to Parliament, Pepé asked for the ID I had gone home to get. I proudly gave him my driver’s license, which in my mind proved I was not a spy (I have no idea why, I think spies can drive too). He quickly shattered my notions that this would resolve the not-so latent tension between us, exclaiming, “this is not an ID!” Meanwhile, Christine handed her driver’s license, which he promptly accepted and said, “see, now this is an ID.” While I was perplexed by his response, the guard accepted my driver’s license regardless, and we were able to begin our tour beneath his leery eyes.

Throughout our time together, Pepé shifted from anti-Western comments that had nothing to do with the confines of the Parliament tour and likely spurred on by Zimbabwe’s status as a pariah nation, to much softer tones and even occasional dissent of the current government. Much of this manifested into how he felt about me, vacillating from a guarded approach as he considered me a spy, to a friendlier demeanor like we used to enter baking competitions together. This split personality made the tour quite interesting, but also very confusing, and we never quite knew where we stood – as a manifestation of a Western threat to Zimbabwe that Pepé would take into his own hands to eliminate as his patriotic duty, or truly the dimwitted but inquisitive tourists we claimed to be.


Chamber of Parliament

 At any rate, our tour started off less as a tour really and more as an questionnaire, as Pepé took us to one of the main Parliament rooms, sat us down and just asked “so, what do you what to know?” I didn’t realize the burden of information was going to be on us, and was already wary of his suspicions regarding me, so we just started off with some softball questions, such as “when was this building built?,” how often do the parliamentarians meet?,” “is there any free cheese around?”, and so forth.


Pepé said it first!

He warmed up a bit, and then Christine astutely asked “what are the main issues Parliament is debating these days?,” subtly shifting the conversation to something more interesting and relevant. He told us about the debate over the bond notes – Zimbabwe officially uses the US Dollar as its currency, but had just issued new notes that were equivalent to the dollar in order to increase overall circulation. The whole notion was a bit controversial though, as trust in the new notes was low (although we saw the recently released bond notes and used them frequently in circulation, an indication of their quick acceptance). Even Pepé was somewhat critical, either a surprising rebuke of government policy, or the beginnings of an elaborate trap that we would unwittingly walk into.


Fresh bond note in the wild

There were a number of stuffed animals and animal parts that adorned the walls of this chamber as well, and when we inquired about them he assured us that they were real. But as was his typical oscillation between friend and foe, this response was characterized more by the latter, with a stinging remark to close the question that went along the lines of “unlike YOU Europeans, we don’t kill all our animals,” followed by an intense and definitively uncomfortable glare in our direction.

We had exhausted our set of questions upon that, and got up to leave the room. On the way out he pointed to the massive chair at the front of the building, ostensibly where the head of this chamber sits. I really wanted to sit in it and take a photo, but assumed it was out of the question. But I also figured this tour couldn’t get any more awkward, so might as well ask. His eyes actually lit up upon that request, and allowed me live out my dreams of being a leading Zimbabwean politician, if just for a few minutes.


Pepé and Omar, ready to take Zimbabwe politics by storm!

That chair-seating session, however, inspired him in some other sense, and he took us around the corner to a small, mostly empty room. I am not sure if this is part of the standard tour, if there is such a thing with Pepé, but inside this tucked away corner was an even larger and more simply decorated, but distinguished chair. Pepé explained that this was Mugabe’s chair for Parliament, and they only took it out when he visited. Knowing exactly what my next question would be, he said in no uncertain terms, “you can sit in it, and if you are anatomically correct, you can even poof on it!” Absolutely unclear what that meant, I ignored him and sat on it anyways for a few photos. I suppose I was not “anatomically correct” in the Zimbabwean sense, as I do not recalling poof-ing, despite my best efforts.


Trying (not) to poof on Mugabe’s chair

Pepé took us upstairs, to the Hall of Heroes. There were many paintings of leading Zimbabwean figures lining the walls, with most dating back to the nation’s liberation struggle. He pointed to a few key individuals, but the only informative remark he made was, “this guy committed suicide and died young,” with little other explanation as to his historical significant. Abruptly, Pepé turned to one of two white faces amongst the 40 or so odd paintings. He quickly brought us over there as if he instantly had a great idea. He explained, “look we don’t discriminate!,” and pointed the face of an old white man. Clearly proud of himself for rising above the fray and demonstrating racial equality despite such obvious Western prejudice against his country expressed by us, we asked what this man had done to deserve such an honor. Unprepared for this line of questioning, he stammered a bit, saying, “uh, well . . . he was . . . at the time . . . so we don’t really know, but we still recognize his contributions!” Couldn’t have pictured a better image of racial equality myself.

There was a statue in the middle of the hall of what appeared to be a traditional Zimbabwean warrior with a spear. “See,” Pepé noted, “we didn’t have guns and didn’t fight like that.” He proceeded to pretend there was a spear in his hand, and vigorously act out a series of fighting moves in the middle of this distinguished hallway, his baggy suit flailing around to the point where we had to undertake some evasive maneuvers to avoid contact during the extensive reenactment.

We left the Hall of Heroes and continued to the law and research libraries. Along the way he gave us some printed Parliament notes from a storage area, walked by a man who he claimed was his father-in-law but ignored him, and muttered other occasional comments indicative of his intermittent suspicions. At the libraries, Pepé outsourced his touring to the librarians on duty who were no doubt thrilled by the opportunity, before we were quickly kicked out of each (actually to be fair, they were somewhat intrigued – not sure how often they receive genuine spy tourists).

That more or less concluded the tour, though we weren’t really aware of the fact since Pepé didn’t mention as much, but just walked outside where he lit up a cigarette. He randomly walked down the street a bit and we followed, not in the direction of his office, which was on the other side of the building. After about two and a half blocks he stopped and said he was going back. That apparently implied we were not, and the tour had thus come to its fitting conclusion.

I had debated tipping him or not, but had a $5 bill in my pocket anyways, so pulled it out towards his direction. He jumped back and said, “I am a public servant, and this is an act of corruption!” Afraid that he had finally entrapped his spy and caught him in the act, I quickly retreated and moved to put the bill in my pocket, while apologizing. But Pepé grabbed it out of my hand before I reached my pocket and said, “but this will buy a few drinks tonight!” And with that last act of stupefaction, Pepé walked off and disappeared into the crowd, leaving just as stunned as when he was first met him. But hey, at least we got to try to poof on Mugabe’s chair (think about that next time you watch Zimbabwean C-SPAN)!


What I imagine Pepé was (or will be) in a different life

A Side View Mirror Trip Through Namibia

For the first time in our lives, Christine and I rented a car abroad and drove through a country. The car happened to come with side view mirrors. These side view mirrors happened to catch glimpses of the serene beauty that is the wondrous Namibian landscape. What follows is what I would consider the most art I’ll ever get involved with in this lifetime.


Photo 1: Heroess Acre just outside of Windhoek, a national monument built by North Korea (obviously)


Photo 2: Shrubbery amongst desert


Photo 3: Enter some elevation


Photo 4: Remove some elevation


Photo 5: A Namibian reststop


Photo 6: Some real elevation in Damaraland


Photo 7: Winding passes


Photo 8: Switch to the left side for a zebra


Photo 9: Right side Etosha Park giraffe


Photo 10: Storms a coming and we’re a going



North of the 38th Parallel – Part 셋

This is the final chapter in the three part Q&A on my trip to North Korea. Previous parts available for the eternity of the Internet here (I and II)

What Other Miscellaneous Impressions Did You Have?

A few other seemingly interesting impressions emerged during the trip.

First of all, it’s clear North Korean is anachronistic in many ways. I began to see the country as an old kingdom from centuries ago. A small elite has set up a system to benefit revolving around the hereditary succession of one family, which is viewed as near-equal to God. All of society is structured to replicate this system, with many massive public works projects constructed with what I can only assume is more or less slave labor in support of this social project. The country would not be out of place among the Game of Thrones-like empires that pre-date the evolution of the nation-state.

At the same time, agree with it or not, the system is vastly impressive. The level of control is so total and complete, that either everyone believes what they are meant to, or at least won’t even let up the facade for a single second. The ability to maintain such a degree of isolation in this day and age, where I make Skype calls across the world on a daily basis while ordering pizza from Mongolia, is incredible. I go back to West Africa, but imagine if I tried to set up something similar there (which I basically did during my Peace Corps service, unsuccessfully trying to get all the kids to refer to me as ‘Hulk Hogan’). There’s just no way it would work – successive leaders have been trying to extend governance throughout their countries for decades, with middling success. The historical circumstances are very different, but I can’t help but marvel at the level of control installed, and endured throughout the years.

The level of grandeur also can truly be impressive. Now the choice of who gets to participate in this system and who does not is rather stark and heartless, but the ability to build it in the first place is not insignificant. Similar to how my ability to consistently talk about doing 189 pushups with a rabid monkey holding a carrot on my back is just as nearly impressive as actually doing it (right?).


pretty cool to me

That’s not to say the system is considered faultless, even by its own people. The very first day one of the staff from my uncle’s office that was accompanying us got pulled aside by a security guard while we were walking around. The guard verbally chewed him out for a good five minutes, for reasons which are still unclear. We were all a bit stunned, and half expected the man to disappear and never be seen again. He had a bit of a scowl on his face as he left, and just told us to get back in the car quickly. As soon as we were in the car though, he lit up and began ardently complaining about the incident to our driver (again all with a degree of assumption, since people in this world speak Korean). The questioning of a security guard and voicing complaints to another individual was surprising to me, but demonstrated that not everyone is a sycophantic, blind sheep (as cuddly as they might be).

This was further emphasized when we tried to drive out to Kim Il-Song’s birthplace right after. It is a bit outside of town in a hilly area, and the winding roads can get confusing. We stopped to ask directions from a bumbling old security guard probably in his fifties and wearing an outfit two sizes too big. He kind of explained to us where to go and we went off. Only that it didn’t take us to where we needed to be, but basically right in a loop (I think he just wanted to see us again – the feeling was not quite mutual). The driver then realized we had to go in the other direction, but perhaps he was still smarting from the previous security guard incident. As soon as we passed the bumbling old man again, they (the driver and my uncle’s colleague) rolled down the windows and simultaneously yelled at him. The man stood there shell-shocked and didn’t even offer a response, while we rolled up the windows and drove off. Clearly some authority can be questioned (to be fair, this man did not look intimidating in the least, and I’m pretty sure doubled as my elementary school bus driver).

On another note, there also must be some amazing event planners in this country. If they can ever open up and start a service economy, event planning would be the way to go. We attended the circus, a concert, and saw Kim Il-Song square where there are so many numbers and lines across the entire thing to prepare for events. All were impeccably choreographed and clearly a lot of time had gone into creating such spectacles. I was so impressed to the point that I immediately hired a set of North Korean event planners for my upcoming quinceañera (don’t worry, you’re not invited).


Everyone take their places


How much work was it to get every single bunny in just the right spot in the background?

We did manage to check out some local technology as well. North Korean is famous for promoting their own everything basically, creating knock off versions of existing technologies elsewhere (though I did hear rumors that most of it might be made in Chinese factories and just given a DPRK logo – similar to everything else in the world these days). Ay any rate, when we visited the Science Center, we saw rows of shiny, new North Korea brand computers, down to the mousepad. They were all connected to the ‘intranet‘ as well, which seemingly had an endless supply of knowledge written by North Koreans, for North Koreans. Fancy North Koreans have access to that ‘intranet’ on their mobile phones anywhere as well – we looked up ‘Pakistan’ while on the road and read the wikiepedia-style article, which was rather accurate.


local computer


More local technology


Internet or Intranet – everyone just wants to stream shows

As for the mobile phones, the one I saw had a rather large screen, but was still quite thin. It was incredibly heavy though, much heavier than a similar phone you’d find outside North Korea (it could also be because I can barely curl an egg roll these days). All the apps came pre-installed as well, and the whole thing cost a pretty won – if I calculated right, around $340. Overall though, it seemed to function fine and didn’t really freeze up or run slowly. It is kind of crazy to think that just up until a few months ago, some North Koreans possessed more advanced mobile phone technology than I did, but that’s what carrying around a flip phone until 2016 means.

A few other North Korean-isms came up during our visit. First of all, we learned that everyone has to attend mandatory Saturday ‘reeducation’ classes. Akin to Sunday school I imagine, but on Saturday instead – how fun. We would also see groups constantly cleaning the streets – it seems community groups get assigned this on a regular basis. Just about every balcony on all the apartment buildings in Pyongyang had flowers, which we were also told was a rule. There was also a 200-day campaign going on during our time, which meant that all society was mobilized around improving everything during this period, giving special effort. However, this 200-day campaign had began just as another 80-day campaign had ended, and some (foreigners living in Pyongyang) surmised that would be followed by another right after. So despite it being a tool to maximize societal efforts, we saw a lot of evidence of it in action – from propaganda posters advertising its arrival, to red flags in public places as its symbol, to people fixing up the outside of their houses, especially in Kaesong. Electricity barely went out while we were there (once in the diplomatic enclave and another time while in a shop downtown) – but we were also told that as part of the 200-day campaign, coal workers were putting in 14-hour days to ensure a steady supply. Seemingly unsustainable, but also near constant mobilization.


Poster outlining the 200-day campaign


Red flags symbolizing the campaign, while a group fixes the street

The Myonghang hotel near the Friendship Hall we visited up country was also a microcosm of everything North Korean. A massive structure in the middle of nowhere, it’s mere existence is impressive proof of what North Korea is able to accomplish. I imagine if discovered as an overgrown ruin by future peoples (or past aliens) they will claim this as the mark of a great civilization, on the level of the Pyramids, Taj Mahal, and the Pokemon Go app. Yet at the same time, it was mostly a facade. There was supposed to be a rotating restaurant on the top floor, and while it was closed, I wanted to go up anyway to see the view. However, the elevator for this 15 story behemoth was not working (and the stairs were not offered). Then my uncle’s colleague had raved about the pool and insisted we go see it, only for us to be told we couldn’t (because we assumed it wasn’t in viewable state). On top of it all, we were literally the only ones in this place, which had a five staff per customer ratio, all seemingly ready, waiting for something or someone. We lunched by ourselves in this massive cloud-themed restaurant that was fully set up to accommodate over hundred with silverware and place settings already out. Again, an impressive feat of architecture and engineering demonstrating apparent capabilities, but we were just left wondering if those capabilities were appropriately applied.


A future ruin?


An empty marshmallow cloud restaurant, also known as the of most Pee-Wee Herman movies

What was exit like? Did the check all your photos?

Exiting the country was a completely different experience than entering. We took the train up to the Chinese-North Korean border, so we didn’t have to deal with the airport at all. Everything in North Korean is so controlled and people and generally aware of your arrival beforehand, but our arrival at the border at the city of Sinuiju (we didn’t get off the train) was the first time during our trip I think someone was not informed ahead of time of our impending presence.


all aboard to Sinuiju


The train was seven cars long, with three North Korean cars, followed by a dining car, followed by three other cars. As mentioned in post II, we were not permitted to go into the North Korean section. The rest of the non-North Korean cars were filled with Chinese nationals, likely a mix of tourists and businessmen. We had the first berth of the first car within this section of the train, with six beds for ourselves (the train was only about a five hours journey, though also took three additional hours of border formalities).

Upon arrival at the North Korean side, a guard walked into the train and was startled to see us, likely expecting just Chinese nationals. The confusion on his face was obvious, and he pointed at me as I was seated closet to him, asking where I was from. I responded ‘Mi-guk,’ which means America. That gave him even more consternation as he attempted to figure out how on earth an American had ridden the train all the way to here undetected. I pointed to my uncle and explained he was a diplomat, but that had him start asking for my diplomatic papers instead, to which I unsuccessfully tried to explain he was the diplomat and we were all his family (even though I am not a direct relative, and have a different nationality & last name).

The guard ran out and back a few times, but eventually figured it all out. Once the confusion was removed, the process was smooth and the guards extremely courteous. Our bags were not searched at all, nor where our cameras inspected, I assume because we now fell under the diplomatic protection of my uncle. Though the model and make of our mobile phones was jotted down, nothing else happened with them. He again asked his usual refrain if we had GPS’s or bibles (unbeknownst to him Qurans would’ve been more appropriate), but once satisfied that we didn’t he left us alone, while taking his time with all the other Chinese tourists. We had been warned to have receipts for all souvenirs and to delete potentially sensitive photos from our camera prior to exit, but it proved all for not. The guard even cracked open a wide smile, saying in English “have a nice journey,” and bowed upon exiting the train, an amicable parting memory (I wonder how long he had been waiting for an appropriate time to use that nugget of English!).


The other border . . . we could not cross this one

Arrival in China

Arriving back in China, even after just nine days in North Korea, was overwhelming. There is music blaring and lights flashing everywhere and shops upon shops upon shops. So many damn shops. All trying to sell you something. Capitalism is so hot right now.

The contrast across the border could not be more stark. Even taking the train from Pyongyang, the area begins to get a bit more developed once you get closer to the border, given the extent of trading (legit and illicit) that happens with China. We saw a noticeable difference in nicer, taller, and more plentiful buildings. But that still is nothing compared to China. In the distance we saw what looked like a megatropolis, full of skyscrapers and rice. It looked like the future (note: all the more difficult to comprehend, given that Dandong is only China’s 118th biggest city). It’s all very visible across the Yalu River – I just don’t see how it’d be possible to stand on the North Korean side and look out at that everyday, without wondering if something might be up. The differences are so stark, that Dandong has developed an entire niche tourist industry around those who go halfway across the railway bridge linking the two countries, just to ‘look’ into North Korea (a similar reverse industry has developed on the other side of the border for more active North Koreans to ‘look and swim’ into China, in an attempt to introduce more exercise-based tourism).

Also, one noticed right away that so many Chinese people were fat. I never saw a fat North Korean (though that’s probably evidence of something rather bad . . . like chronic starvation – could be a new center for diet tourism perhaps?). At any rate, another symbol of the incredibly different paths taken by the two countries, simply predicated on divergent governance and leadership.

Nonetheless, after the initial awe of arriving back in China wore off, it quite annoyed me. All the flashing lights and loud music and plethora of items, I yearned for a simpler time. Reverse culture shock as they say, but there was something calming about the North Korean controlled society (for me at least). If this is what development means, should they really be going down that path? Not that it’s any of my business to pass judgement, but its an activity I often involve myself in, especially when its none of my business.

Concluding Impressions

To start, we did get the feeling that North Korea was changing a bit. We visited Tongil Market in Pyongyang where capitalism seemed to be on the move, and as mentioned perhaps more tellingly, were not allowed to take photos of it, lest it represent to the outside world that the free market does in fact exist within the country. The market was packed and contained a highly tolerated black-market exchange center, where you could get 8,500W for your dollar, rather than 1,000 on the official rate. Along with some other nascent changes, a Chinese national we met remarked that it reminded him of his own country’s initial flirtations with capitalism in the late 1970s/early 1980s (though advertising and the development of catchy names is still a ways off – we bought some souvenirs at the creatively named Department store no.1). Whether that proves to be an accurate assessment remains to be seen, but there were small indications that the government has been experimenting with ways to improve the economy, introducing some capitalism-like reforms in the process.


Capitalism in action (btw, are they eating iced ice cream water??)

Furthermore, the situation in Pyongyang did not seem as dire as imagined – rather the city is experiencing a bit of a construction boom. We visited a whole new and futuristic street reserved for the nation’s scientists, while the ‘Pyong-hattan’ skyline boasted an array for freshly built tall apartment buildings. Another whole new part of the city was under construction, reportedly at the rate of an entire story per day. Where the financing for all this is coming from in a country supposedly under international sanctions is unclear, but what was certain is that the construction all around defied preconceived notions of a country under serious economic strain (which very well may still be the case overall). Kim Jong-Un has reportedly put a simultaneous focus on both military and economic development in a change from his father’s policies, and the construction we saw and the development of small market centers appeared to be evidence of that. One North Korean further explained the changes, stating six years ago there were no cars on the road in Pyongyang, but now there are plenty, “as we grow by ourselves.”


Up and coming buildings


Pyong-hattan by night

Thus overall, the impression we got was not of a country in stagnation or on the brink of collapse (which some daring press reports may confirm), but on on the move, in a very odd fashion. Perhaps that was exactly the impression our visit was designed to achieve, but for the small portion of the country we experienced, it seemed to be the case.

At the end of the day though, what was I most interested in prior to my visit was the people. While our deep interactions were with an elite crowd, the common humanity witnessed in little events like joking about bowel movements, or more jokes about bowel movements, demonstrated simply that people are people everywhere, no matter what. Even in North Korea, which I still think is probably adequately described the weirdest place on earth (rural West Virginia excluded), I felt there was more commonality between us than not. Perhaps that was the most enduring impression from the trip, that its possible to find similar ground even with someone who has grown up in North Korea under a completely different system unlike anything else remaining in the world today. I mean if Dennis Rodman can do it, then we all can.


and the crowd goes wild!

It’s over, it’s all finally over – you can now sleep easy!

North of the 38th Parallel – Part 둘

This is the second part in a Q&A on my recent trip to North Korea. Part one is available here.

What were you not allowed to do?

There was very little actual ‘no’s.’ In terms of photos, general rules included not cutting off the body parts of any of the Dear Leaders (i.e. if you took a photo of Kim Il-Sung standing in a field of smiling nuclear warheads, you had better make sure you didn’t accidentally crop out his pinky fingernail)  and avoiding military installations. For many of the grand buildings we visited, such as the War Museum and Friendship Hall, we unfortunately were not allowed to take photos inside – you’ll just have to trust me there was actually stuff in there. On other occasions, we told not to take photos of things that seemingly had little logic – such as in the subway, where we could take pictures of half the station but not the other, though it looked essentially identical. In addition, I was advised to delete a quick photo I had snapped while visiting the tolerated but technically illegal Tongil market, possibly given that it represented a streak of capitalism mucking up all the socialist purity. But photos were generally unrestricted overall, to the point where my cousins and I took 2,124 in total during the nine-day visit, or approximately one camera click every six minutes.


No illegal cropping here

Aside from photos, we were also generally free to roam about. Traveling outside Pyongyang requires paperwork, but there are a number of select destinations you can get permission to visit, a few of which we were able to do. Within the city, as mentioned we could pretty much do what we wanted. Essentially we were told we could not take public transportation (including hailing one of the surprisingly common taxi cabs – I did not notice a North Korean version of Uber just yet), nor enter too deeply into a public housing area. Otherwise we walked or drove around much of the city, with no overt restrictions or even checkpoint stops.

Really on the train ride out to China was the only time I was specially told “NO!” in a panicked manner, and on multiple occasions. First, I inadvertently tried to cross into the North Korean section of the train (which was divided into local and foreign compartments), which resulted in a petit young North Korean stewardess matching Usain Bolt’s top end sprinting speed to lunge across the compartment and grab my arm with more vigor than an emotionally clingy octopus who just finished watching the Lion King. While that shocked me, I continued to be a troublemaker and tried to play cards with my family in the dining cart, which also elicited another strong ‘NO!’ Perhaps it was fitting that our last few hours in the country were overshadowed by such negative regulation, but really the only other time I heard that word during the trip was when I frequently lobbied my family to purchase the $500 caviar we found in the diplomatic store near my uncle’s house (true story).

In terms of interactions, we probably moderated our conversations ourselves a bit, likely engaging in a degree of unwitting self censorship in the initial days while we tested the waters (for example, I only mentioned Kurt Cobain and dinosaurs once during the first 72-hours, a personal record). Given that we were special guests of an international office and the hoops I know they had to go through to get some Americans in, we tried to pry but not rock the boat. But generally I did not feel our conversations were overly restricted, nor did we get the evil-eyed silence that follows many a questions during those documentary videos on North Korean travel that you often see. In fact, speaking of our conversations . . .


This photo was allowed, but probably shouldn’t have been

What sort of people did you meet and interact with? Were they ‘normal’?

We met a range of North Koreans that I can truly say were quite nice, and I do not think planted with stock phrases on repeat for my benefit. Everyone was generally friendly, and those we interacted with on a deeper level even interested in us. Our topics steered clear of overt propaganda, as no one ever tried to convince me that Kim Jong-Un holds the world record for most eggs stuffed in one’s mouth, but still they revealed some interesting insights.

To begin, our presence affected some people we didn’t even talk to. Walking around town, we never saw another foreigner, and from some of the looks we got, those around us hadn’t either. Most people basically ignored us, but every now and then we’d catch someone frozen with a wide-eyed glare of stunned disbelief. A couple people tried to play it cool, but could not overcome themselves. The most poignant were two middle-aged ladies who passed by on the street across from us during our first self-guided foray outside the diplomatic enclave. As we walked, I saw one of the ladies grab the other and gesture towards us. She clearly noticed us as well, but tried to act like she’d been there before, telling her friend to calm down and continue walking. Her friend, however, was rather difficult to control and although she continued walking, refused to turn her head forward in the direction she was going, but rather remained fixed behind at us. The road was kind of long,so we probably walked on it another three to four minutes – every time I looked back, that lady was further away, but still staring back at us (I became concerned that she just might accidentally walk into South Korea at that pace). I’m sure she went home and uttered to whoever was around, “you are not going to believe what I saw just saw!”


People a keeping their distance

Perhaps the most entertaining moment while walking around was when we nearly started a riot with a bunch of school kids, who then in turn then almost got run over by a number of passing vehicles. Essentially about 100 immaculately dressed tiny North Koreans were walking by in perfect rows with four to a line. We were ahead of them but somehow they were gaining ground on us, despite their tiny, little legs. They hadn’t really noticed the foreigners in their midst, until we got to a traffic light and both came to a stop. Some of them began to point, laugh, or even say ‘how are you?’ in English. We in turn waved at them, which set off an entire chain of hysteria. Since there were about 25 rows deep, more kids kept walking forward, but by the time we came into their view they stopped looking where they were going, and rather paid attention to us. This resulted in many rows of kids crashing straight into the row ahead of them and so forth, almost creating a domino effect of fallen North Korean kindergarteners. The light then turned green and their teacher, along with the crossing guard (there are crossing guards at nearly every major intersection in Pyongyang) attempt to get the kids to move, but as we were still standing there and waving, none of them budged. Finally we decided perhaps it would be best to turn and continue walking in a different direction, less the kids continue to defy their teacher. As we started to walk away, some of the kids belatedly crossed the road, of which the light was turning red by now. All the other kids in the row continued, running through the red light to catch up. I cringed at the international incident getting an entire school of North Korean children run over would cause, but luckily the crossing guard was worth his weight in kim chee, and no kid was left behind. I breathed a sigh of relief, having narrowly avoided incidentally killing dozens of Korean schoolchildren for the fourteenth time this century (I did spend an entire year in charge of little ones in South Korea after all).


the approach . . .

In general, I half expected everyone to run away upon the sight of us, or ignore us completely out of fear of being associated with an evil imperialist (which coincidentally, is my new AIM screename). But at times, people were surprisingly bold. After laying flowers at the statue of the Dear Leaders on the first day, we were immediately thrust into someone’s wedding photo shoot. Many soon-to-be married couples were coming to pay their respects, and as we were walking down one photographer stopped us and motioned to surround the happy couple. Whether they had a choice or not, we obliged all too willingly, and forever ruined a nice family’s wedding photo album.


Oblierating local traditions, one photo bomb at a time

Most of the true conversations we had were with members of my uncle’s staff, given the prohibitive language barrier, and the at times equally prohibitive the ideological barrier, with everyone else. Granted, the staff is incredibly privileged and some had even spent time abroad, but it was nice to connect with real North Koreans, regardless of their status (I tend to only be able to relate to one percent-ers these days in any case). There were a couple of young males in particular my cousin and I became friendly with over the week and a half (hey, hey – not like that). We asked them basic questions about their lives – what they eat at home (cold noodles), what do they do on the weekends (go for picnics, drink ‘a little’ bit of beer, play volleyball, hang out with friends, or nothing now as newborn children dictate), how they met their wives (set up on a blind date by friends and it worked out) – and got back responses that would seem pretty normal anywhere. Again, this doesn’t represent all of North Korean society, but it can be surprisingly normal for some.

They were also pretty curious about us, and asked about our lives. I remember in particular one of the young guys asking a lot of questions about how we find our housing in America. In North Korea, the government provides all housing and in turn dictates the level of accommodation you will receive – there is simply no real choice in the matter. He seemed kind of astonished that we have to do this process on his own, and I thought even potentially a bit intrigued. But then kept bringing up how expensive it must be, a potentially subtle point regarding the (extremely limited) benefits of being born in North Korea (the main other one being a lifetime supply of bad haircuts).

At times, their perception of the outside world seemed a bit odd as well. These privileged few did have access to some entertainment from abroad, but one kept referring to me as the “bank hunter” because I wrote glasses, since all “bank hunters” wear glasses. It could be a translation issue – my cousin got to be a “movie star” because he had sunglasses on, which made a bit more sense because the last time I hunted or had sufficient business to warrant going into a bank, movies hadn’t even been invented. I was, nonetheless, honored to receive such a title, although I think given my impressive stature, something along the lines of ‘Grand Marshall Mahmood the Powerful’ would’ve been more appropriate.


Hunting down banks, one broke movie star at a time

The final day my uncle hosted a BBQ for all the staff, the thank them for their tremendous efforts in not just getting us into the country, but also making our trip so enjoyable. It was a nice opportunity to watch the North Korean and other international staff mix, and honestly did not feel too different from the same sort of scene I’ve encountered in various development offices around the world. A fitting end to a myth-busting (or myth-adjusting) adventure.

I was most interested in the human aspect of North Korea, so being able to walk around to observe freely and develop a basic rapport with a handful of locals was undoubtedly the highlight (after of course coming in last place in every karaoke contest I entered). After spending nine day there, I would dare say that the people we met and interacted with, if you adjust for the extremity of their extreme circumstances, are perhaps the most normal on the face of the planet (if you don’t adjust, however, they are all just wackos of the highest order).


I think I got robbed in this content . . . no one told me to bring my Santa suit.


The calming normality of grilling meat extends everywhere (except the vegan nation of California of course)

Did you ever feel uncomfortable?

Overall, as mentioned everyone was friendly, even including random shop owners that probably wouldn’t normally interact with a foreigner. The one real time I felt uncomfortable was at the War Museum. The day we went there were literally hundreds of fresh cadets, some of which I swear could not be 18 (actually it’s likely like that every day – all the monuments and other sites we visited are not really designed for external consumption, but were constantly filled with local visitors cycling in and out, often bused in from other parts of the country to partake as a treat).

Anyways, our presence was unusual for them, and generated a number of seemingly menacing glares. This came amongst the backdrop of our (friendly) guide explaining about how the Americans were evil imperialist aggressors during the war, and had eaten all the babies they could find (by the way, it was the same narrative regarding the war we would hear everywhere, down to the specific quotes cited and events mentioned – someone had clearly crafted an argument and that line of thought had been disseminated throughout the country – at least people had studied their history books pretty well!).

The rhetoric was bad enough, but surrounded by young, glaring soldiers who appeared to take it all to heart in a confined space, was getting to be a bit much. At the end of the tour you go to the top of the building which has a panorama – a 360 degree mural depicting war scenes, which rotates and and plays sound. We got up there ourselves and they dimmed the lights, so I relaxed. But next thing, all 100+ cadets also ran up the stairs and cornered us in the dark, in what I only assumed was about to be a real life reenactment. Truth be told though, the stares shouldn’t have put me on edge at all – despite the fact that the panorama room became so crowded and all seating was taken, no one came to sit on the three-person bench I was occupying alone, until finally a brave soul just barely placed himself all the way on the opposite ledge opposite. The glares may have been menacing, but they were apparently no match for the stench of imperialism emanating from my pores (for the record, even my family didn’t want to sit next to me).


Propaganda with a smile


Really fresh cadets

What differences did you notice outside of Pyongyang? 

On the three occasions we managed to get outside the city, we were able to catch a passing glimpse of rural North Korean life. Unlike the endless sprawl characterizing the outer extensions of most major population centers worldwide in this day and age, there was a clear and distinct end to Pyongyang. It was patently obvious where the last building of the city limit was, and how sudden the transformation to countryside emerged.

As for once we passed that lack of non-sprawl, the countryside was beautiful. It was the start of the rainy season, and did not lack for greenery. Much of it was cultivated land, and plenty of workers were (collectively) tilling that land, without the aid of much, if any, machinery.


Working the fields


greenery and hills

In terms of infrastructure, the roads we were able to travel on were decent – some potholes but not that bad. There were also multiple road options that would split off, and then connect with more dirt paths.


Paved and empty

I think what shocked me most about the countryside is that you’d be plodding along without nothing but farmland and small clusters of housing units, and then all of a sudden there’d be a number of tall buildings and other infrastructure. While clearly not on the same level as Pyongyang, there were other decent sized towns and smaller cities we passed that broke up the charming monotony of the rural landscape.


Even in areas of pure farmland, there would be a six story apartment building or whatnot around. Now many of these buildings were not necessarily pristine, or even in a state of slow decay. But the fact that they existed at all threw me for a loop – perhaps when your barometer of development is West Africa/the Sahel, everything looks nice (which is probably true and akin to the fact that after living in in Washington D.C., rent elsewhere never feels expensive). To see this many multi-story buildings in Burkina Faso outside of Ouagadougou would be a revelation, as you could drive for five hours between the two biggest cities and probably count on one hand the number of structures you pass containing more than four stories (what you could not count, however, is the number of goats eating dirt).


Tall rural housing

Big buildings aren’t the be-all end-all marker for development, but they surely do count for something. In this sense, North Korea may be a poor country in its neighborhood and even stagnant or potentially deteriorating, but it does not compare to much of West Africa. But then again, its all relative.

Anyways, back to the DPRK. The biggest city outside Pyongyang that we got to spend some time in was Kaesong, part of the industrial complex along the South Korean border. Kaesong also was a ‘real’ city, with plenty of tall apartment buildings, paved roads, and other sorts of city-like items. It did seem, however, that the exterior buildings in any apartment complex looked a lot nicer than those on the inside, a classic case of subtle deception. Noticeably, there was also less public transportation than Pyongyang, making it seem like everyone in the city was out and about on a bike right then, or even twoFurthermore, there were less little shops outside the apartment complexes selling basic items – the type that are all over Pyongyang. I think I counted just a handful during our drive throughout the city, another distinct difference.



Kaesong apartment complexes

Of course, what we saw overall was just a fraction of the rural countryside, and in many other places all the starvation may outweigh the idyllic charms. But at a minimum we can say unlike some other places I’ve visited, the concentration of all aspects of development to the capital city was less stark than imagined.


I mean, there may be not be a lot of cheese on hand, but I could live here.

What was the food like?

So one day my cousin and I decided to go on a street food tour, and basically just try one of everything we saw. While there was not a vast array of options, we did accomplish this simple task – but unfortunately the results were not too pretty. The tour consisted of:

  • Kimbap! I was excited to find this as this was a staple of my previous South Korean existence, and I had asked for it before at a restaurant to no avail. The initial exhilaration of the find quickly wore off as there was nothing in the rice save for one long, thin piece of slightly picked radish. A far cry from the plethora of ingredients I was accustomed to from my neighborhood store 300 kilometers to the south. I kept wondering if something had fallen out.
  • The next item looked like a Chinese steamed bun, expect that it was not steamed at all and wrapped in plastic. While it did not pass the eye test, I figured I might as well try it anyway, even though North Korean bread was not high on my list of ideal satisfying food options. Much to my surprise, delight, and chagrin all in one, the interior of the bun did not consist of more bread nor was empty – but rather had been stuffed with a sort of coleslaw like substance. Again not ideal, but way more interesting than just more bread.
  • I was pretty certain I was not going to fall for the next item either, but went for it anyways. A sticky, glutinous pancake of sorts, it was wrapped around the red bean paste that marked so many dessert items during my South Korean time. It actually was not bad overall, but so sweet and filling, to the point of nausea.
  • We had skipped some fried hot dog type things (which is a pretty amazing testament to the vastly different dietary demands from my 24-year old self), and my cousin was in the mood for noodles. Cold noodles was perhaps the most commonly cited North Korean dish anytime we asked anyone what they typically eat at home, and we had had some at a fancy restaurant on our first day. Determined to get a more authentic version from the street, we had seen some kiosks with covered outside areas and seating attached. People were always surrounded by bowls at those type of places, so we imagined that’s where we would have to go. We came up to one along a main road and decided to give it a go. Thus far all of our purchases had been predicated on pointing to things and the basic Korean market vocabulary that I had retained (the standard combination of hello, how much, and a few numbers, followed by thank you and good-bye, can get you pretty far in most places). This was going to be a bit more complex, however, as there was nothing active to point to. At any rate, we approached the stall operated by a young North Korean woman who was probably as surprised as us that we were here. I did the usually greetings and pointed a metal machine and freezer, and asked for two. She followed by a series of questions to which I clearly did not understand, but just attempted to point in an appropriate direction each time and said yes. She motioned for us to go over and sit down, which we did to await our fate. While unsure of what we were really getting, we were convinced it would be some sort of noodle dish, given the bowls and the noodle-like machine in her little shop. We waited for a few minutes, until she brought out the bowls. Upon laying them on the table, I did a triple take, while my cousin’s jaw dropped. Essentially the bowls were filled with ice water, on top of which floated two small scoops of ice cream, which was further topped by some grossly sticky syrup. Quite far off from the cold noodles we had expected, although it was indeed cold. I couldn’t believe this is what all those people were always eating at these places – iced ice cream water? Mine was mango flavored while my cousin got banana (we think). We managed to eat enough to get to that presumed fine line where there was still plenty left but would allow us to exit politely. On the way out I went back to the kiosk section to inspect the area to see if anything else was capable of emerging from the contraptions there, but it all seemed designed for one purpose – to provide iced ice cream water to the masses (for the record, by far the most stares we ever got in country was when the two of us were sitting down at this kiosk along a busy road, enjoying an iced afternoon treat – I guess most expats weren’t dumb enough to order the mango).
  • The final item came as I could do with no more sweets and desperately wanted something salty. I had bought some fried corn kernels the other day that made for a pleasant snack, and was on the prowl for something similar. Unfortunately, what I wound up with could best be described as a rice krispie treat (actually almost perfectly described as such). Thus it was still sweet, pushing me into further sugar overload, but was probably the best thing on the entire tour. I promptly came back home and passed out for two days.

Someone is thoroughly displeased with his iced ice cream water


Unfortunately, most meals did not look like this

Overall, how did it compare to South Korea?

Well, it really doesn’t. But at the same time, there are a couple of indicators that the thousands of years of shared history trump recent political divides. Aside from the obvious fact that they are the same people (i.e. language, ethnicity, etc.), aspects of the culture definitely reminded me of my time in the southern portion of the peninsula. The overriding emphasis on work, whether ‘forced’ or not, is similar – we saw people still in the fields at the dusk of 7pm when driving back to Pyongyang, while in South Korea my teacher colleagues would regularly pull similar hours (and not really on their own volition either). And it’s not just an emphasis on work, but a very results and achievement oriented focus. In South Korea, they were constantly comparing themselves to other nations such as Japan, while here you would hear about all the specific, measurable outputs achieved. The obsession with being a great nation, regardless of the underlying factors associated with such a push, I think cuts across the peninsula.

The food, as mentioned before, can be extremely similar. Though probably just not as good (as our street food tour would attest), but contains a lot of common elements, such as kim chee, bean paste, rice, noodles, and so forth. South Korea did had an impressively wide variety of cuisine options for a relatively small country, and I am not sure if they all continue to be present in the northern side, especially in places where there is no food.

Dress even had some similar characteristics. It may surprise many of you that I am not a fashion icon nor typically pay much attention to such matters, but the sort of frilly blouses dressed up women wore reminded of of the south. Perhaps the skirts are not as short nor are the outfits as Western, and there’s a lot more army green and grey involved, but I’d venture to say that they derived from a common basic stock. Either that or I just don’t understand fashion.

While Pyongyang as a whole is quite different, the large-scale utilitarian apartment complexes are also not too far off from what I used to pass by on my way home in my small town. The focus on housing rather than style pervades both, with a premium on space.

At any rate, while North Korea is unlike any other place I’ve ever been or will likely go, shades of similarities with its southern brothers I think do exist, despite the nearly seven decades of division – perhaps an optimistic reminder of the strength culture and history can wield over ideology, and aspects to emphasize when paving the eventually way for reunification one day.


At least the pretend dress up is similar

But wait, don’t stop there . . . there’s North Korea more to come (one day)!

North of the 38th Parallel – Part 하나

104-IMG_0122This past summer I had the unique opportunity to spend nine days in North Korea, with my cousins, aunt, and uncle. The trip was all more the extraordinary as I was visiting a family member posted in Pyongyang, and thus not subject to an all-encompassing scheduled tour, nor constantly “minded” by menacing guides analyzing my every movement for perceived insults/hostile activity (which my movements tend to naturally exhibit when unhindered).

 It’s hard to put into words and explain all that we saw, and even though we had greater freedom than most tourists, what we experienced was still controlled in some way. Nonetheless, it provided a window into a typically secluded society (all the more so for Americans), and gave us a chance to get beyond the alarming headlines of impending projectile-related doom. 

The following is the first in a multi-part Q&A monologue, based on the most frequent queries I have received regarding the trip. Unfortunately, my grand dreams of crafting a deeply insightful yet classically humanizing narrative capturing the intricacies of the North Korean soul fell flat the second I began typing. Thus the path of least resistance is as follows. 

How were you able to go?

So by extreme chance, my uncle happened to be working in Pyongyang and was able to get select family members a visa (to be part of such a prestigious selection, you basically had to exist). I told him no matter what the cost, if I could ever legitimately visit North Korea, I would. Being an American added a layer of difficulty and my application was initially rejected, but the perseverance of my uncle and his office ultimately won out (there was the slight issue that I had lived a year in South Korea, and happened to attend the same university with the same major as North Korean’s most recent long-time American visitor). In this sense, we were treated more like diplomats rather than regular tourists on the nine-day trip. That meant we had free access to go around just about anywhere in Pyongyang without minders (as my uncle does), though when visiting major monuments or sites a staff member from his office usually accompanied us (thus someone he knows and interacts with on a regular basis, rather than your stereotypical personality-lacking, government-imposed minder). But generally we were allowed to walk the streets of Pyongyang freely on our own, and even got outside the city on three occasions, which made it a unique trip from what I imagine is your more traditionally restrictive guided tour.


Walking the streets of Pyongyang

As a caveat though, I can obviously only discuss what I saw and even though we were more free than most, what I saw was still heavily managed. Some of the best moments were just wandering around Pyongyang surrounded by seemingly normal North Koreans – but I must remember it’s a privilege to live in the city that most do not get to enjoy (about 90% of the population). Similarly, we got to see a few other sites outside the city and travel on some roads, and while those areas clearly illuminated some differences, these were also typical sites or along known routes that likely have been allowed for a reason. It’s folly to say any of this represents the rest of the country. At the same time, however, it does ring true for about 10% of the population, which is a limited but not insignificant sample. In short, the people we met and the things we saw were real, even if they don’t illustrate the entirety of the country (similar to how I always felt living in DC was a bubble insulated from the rest of the US – for instance, I had no idea what happens, if anything, ever, in Wyoming).

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 4.28.30 PM

The limits of our explorations

What was entering the country like?

At the airport on the way in, I was a little nervous about the health check given that I was coming from West Africa (for a time, North Korea put every foreigner arriving in the country under a three-week quarantine for Ebola, regardless of origin). That proved to be a senseless concern, as the first thing I did upon entering the airport was hand my health form outlining the countries I had recently visited to a doctor-type official, who barely glanced at it and waved me on.

Immigration was not too difficult – I am certain the guards had been given the background of everyone entering on that day’s Air China flight (the North Korean-owned Air Koryo also makes the trip from Beijing most days, practically the only way to enter the country), as instantly when I handed the immigration official my papers, he said (in English) “you are visiting your uncle?” It was a startling introduction to the pervasive state apparatus, while at the same time a not-so subtle reminder that “we know all about you.”

Customs was a bit more intense, but reminiscent of my family’s re-entry into Saudi Arabia at the end of every summer in the 1990s, when the authorities would go through every single item in your suitcase and generously utilize their black marker to eliminate uncouth materials. This was a similar process of going through x-rays and opening up our luggage, but a few interesting things occurred. First my glasses were inspected, perhaps to see if they contained a camera, the Internet, or just because they are held together by used bubblegum. Secondly, they repeatedly asked us if we had GPSs, USB sticks, or bibles – seemingly their largest concerns. I also had to mark on the customs form that I had brought in no “killing items” or “poison” (conveniently bypassing the fact I consider myself to be finely-tuned and poisonous killing machine).

I had been warned to bring as little electronics as possible so I just had my camera and my phone (which I had unnecessarily deleted nearly all apps and photos from prior to arrival). Both were taken out and examined, with the camera taken to a different location. Unfortunately, on the way in my camera was actually in my cousin’s bag, who was standing in line in front of me. The guard asked him if he had a camera in his luggage, to which he replied no, as he had forgotten I placed mine there. It created a minor ruckus as I called out after him to tell him he did indeed have a camera, which the authorities subsequently found after going through the x-ray, none too pleased. They asked him about it and took him to a side room, with him calling back at me to explain that it was mine, while I couldn’t proceed as I hadn’t been through the x-ray just yet. They wanted to turn it on, which my cousin didn’t know how to do and in fact is very complicated because the on switch is kind of broken and you have to open up the battery flap and hold it in while simultaneously pressing the on button to get it going in most circumstances (yes, I am so cheap that I have yet to resolve that issue). So with the guards demanding he turn it on, him yelling back at me, and someone else then grabbing the camera and taking it to a separate area, we had a few minutes of minor panic, with flashes of how good I might look after 15 years of hard labor flying through my mind. By the time I got through the x-ray, however, and ran over to the separate camera area, the authorities were handing it back to my cousin, seemingly satisfied with whatever check they conducted, and thankfully not pressing the issue on the discovery of electronics in his bag after he denied anything of the sort.

The other only minor issue was when we didn’t have one of the proper forms for customs (there was a health, immigration, and customs form – but the airline did not give us the last one). A gruff guard told us to go back and find it, forcing us to confusedly walk back through the airport until others told us to go forward. Upon our return, he grudgingly gave us the form and allowed us to fill it out there.

From there we were free and made the 30-minute drive to the city (the Pyongyang airport really is in the middle of nowhere – when we were landing I was shocked that all I saw around were fields, reinforcing some preconceived notions regarding the level of development in the country)!


beautiful countryside

What did you do?

 We did a combination of your typical visits to monuments and grand sites, mixed in with some cultural excursions like the circus and a classical music concert on the 100th anniversary of a famous composer, interspersed with a few more “normal” type of activities. A mostly inclusive list:

In Pyongyang

  • Laid flowers and bowed at the statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il – the first thing we did on our first day.
  • Visited Kim Il-Sung’s birthplace, which is now a preserved open air at Mangyongdae, just on the outskirts of the city.
  • Went to an Italian restaurant where all the wait staff doubled as highly patriotic karaoke singers.
  • Toured the War Museum, a massive structure that depicts the North Korean side of the 1950-53 Korean War. The grounds are replete with weapons of war captured from the United States during the conflict, along with the USS Pueblo (which is docked in the harbor right next to the museum and open for boarding).
  • Visited Juche Tower and got a sense of how big Pyongyang really is.
  • Rode Pygonyang’s metro, one the world’s deepest, but only for our one allotted stop.
  • Visited a recently built Science Center filled with tons of computers and children, along with a gigantic missile in the center of the building (replica I assume) – this was your typical showcase, whereby happy children in well-dressed uniforms surfed the North Korean Intranet on home-made eletronics to learn about aspects such as the chemical composition of chlorophyll, or the destructive nature of unverisal human rights.
  • Had a rainy photo shoot at Kim Il-Sung square, where many of the large-scale parades and events take place.
  • Paying a visit to the intensely capitalistic Tongil Market, and haggling with the sweetest elderly North Korean ladies (in some broken Korean mind you) for the right to purchase a Kim Jong-Il era safari suit.
  • Attended a concert on the 100th anniversary of a famous composer’s birth – almost every single song had to do with the Korean War or some other aspect of patriotism, while many war veterans were interviewed during musical interludes.
  • Visited one of the movie studios in Pyongyang, and flirted with the idea of staying on to make it as a famous actor.
  • Went out for ice cream and Korean BBQ at some of Pyongyang’s finest restaurants – also tried to go eat on a restaurant at a boat, but got there after its 9pm closing time.
  • Defeated by cousin by way of a massive comeback during an epic bowling match, surrounded by thousands of cheering fans (all true – besides the fans).
  • Freely (I assume) walked the streets of Pyongyang and sampled the local street food (not a lot of winners unfortunately). While I would assume the guards at the exit to the diplomatic enclave notified someone each time we departed, I did not overtly notice anyone following or watching us.
  • Held a BBQ with the 20-odd staff at my uncles office – a nice chance for the North Korean staff to mingle with us (along with other foreign staff).

Outside Pyongyang

  • Visited Mt. Myongheong, where we did a small hike and toured the Friendship Hall – a massive complex displaying gifts from other nations to both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. We also had lunch at a completely empty 14-story pyramid structure that emerged from the middle of nowhere, and looked like it could be a ruin found by future civilizations.
  • Visited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the border between North and South Korea, in addition to the city of Kaesong (which contains a currently non-functioning joint industrial complex, along with a few historical sites of importance from various Korean empires dating back hundreds, if not thousands of years).
  • Took the train from Pyongyang to Dandong on the Chinese side of the border to exit the country, which was full of Chinese nationals but a rarity for an American.

The surprising vastness of Pyongyang


Ryugyong Hotel overlooking the skyline

Was it was weird as the media makes it out to be?

Yes and no. It’s clearly weird – there is no doubt about that. But as weird as the media makes it out to be? Well . . . I think an analogy is appropriate here. Prior Christine’s first trip to Pakistan with my family, she was a little freaked out. I mean if you read the news about Pakistan, it sounded like there are bombs going off on every street corner on a bi-hourly basis, while all white people were immediately thrown in dungeons and denied cheese. Clearly that is not the reality of daily life, but rather a snapshot of the worst events that transpire, replayed over and over. After being in Pakistan for about one week, Christine literally told me she was  “bored.” Sorry – not enough bomb action for her liking.

So at any rate, clearly media outlets need to sell their content, and come up with snappy titles to grab attention while focusing specifically on arcane aspects. Not that what they are reporting is not true, but is typically just a fraction of normal life, rather than the whole picture. Days that pass without missile launches for example, and where everyone just goes on a happy picnic with fried chicken, generally do not make the news (though I would love to see a photo of Kim Jong-Eun “inspecting” a bucket of good ol’ Colonel Sanders).

Now having said that – things are most definitely still weird. The cult of personality is all-encompassing. Everyone wears a pin of one or both of the Dear Leaders all the time (which I was explained you get when you join the youth league in your late teens). Murals and paintings of Kim Il-Song and Kim Jong-Il are everywhere – large murals depicting happy scenes, while paintings of the Dear Leaders adorn the entrance of most buildings. There are also ubiquitous propaganda posters and other sorts of slogans in Korean (or at least I assume most are, given that my Korean is limited largely to food words, of which these slogans did not contain many). There are no other real sorts of advertisements – really its just advertising the regime constantly. Indoctrinating motivational songs just start playing around you – be it coming from a vehicle with speakers, an adorably tiny child that has latched onto your thumb, or elsewhere. The cult of personality is so extensive, that you can’t just dispose of the newspaper, as it usually has a photo of Kim Jong Eun on the cover, and must be treated properly. So that’s all a bit different, considering you can buy (and I often do) George W. Bush toilet paper in Amurica.


Dear Leaders on a building

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one of the ubiquitous murals, with a lot of pointing going on


happy scenes

I began to think of the cult of personality like a religion. Albeit imposed (as religion often is actually) and revolving around a living family, a religion nonetheless. People revere and deify their leaders, and will not accept any criticism of that aspect. Sounds like a lot of religions to me, and if you can just accept that and move on, then it starts to get a bit less weird.

In addition to the cult of personality, references to the war and the evil American empire are common. At the concert we went to, every song essentially involved patriotic symbolism from this event over 60 years old – as if to completely keep society mobilized on a near-constant war footing, or at least the threat thereof. It would be like if we constantly celebrated the greatest feats of our nation from the 1950s over and over – such as the emergence of the poodle skirt.

On top of that, you never really know what people are thinking. The Dear Leaders are thanked for everything they have done for their people and country, and there are frequent bows when in the presence of their statutes. You kind of constantly want to ask “ok yea, but do you really believe all this?” – a question on everyone’s minds, but one we just really won’t evern know the answer to.


Not inclined to answer . . .

Nonetheless, while the cult of personality and these other aspects are entrenched, they didn’t dominate every single thing we did or every conversation we had either. Prior to each meal we didn’t have to thank the Dear Leader, nor was every other word out of someone’s mouth some sort of expression referring to how North Korea was the best country in the world. No one also tried to kill, kidnap, torture, or tickle me once they found out I was American.

And in Pyongyang at least, daily life activities can be somewhat normal on the surface. There are some shops, although the selection is limited. There’s public transportation and people are constantly walking the streets. The city has all the modern conveniences you would expect (electricity, water, etc.), though they aren’t always operational. But it’s a real city that’s clean, with paved roads and a plethora of utilitarian 15-25 story buildings. I mean you can even go kayaking in the Taedong river that bisects the city (my mark of normality anywhere).


people just a walking

Really, as an outsider you can get used to many aspects pretty quickly, reducing the overall “weirdness” of the whole place. Plus all the people we met were genuinely nice, and did not appear to be robots. The fact that I still had to verify their humanity makes it one of the “weirder” countries I’ve ever been to for sure, but your average day might not rank as high on the spectrum as you might think (at least as an outsider – no one still really knows what’s happening on the inside).

Proof of a level of normality came when my cousin almost ate it while slipping off a wet sidewalk curb, and a stern North Korean guard doubled over in his chair laughing so hard he nearly ate it himself – a sign that the classic humor of a person falling flat on their face translates even to North Korea, making the whole place just a little bit more normal.

I think the biggest lesson is that people are people everywhere, and no matter the situation they go about their daily lives in as normal a fashion as possible, adjusting to their local context. Even if that context can seem pretty dern odd to outsiders.


I mean, being forced to do this every morning before breakfast for the Dear Leader’s amusement isn’t that weird, is it?


more riveting armchair analysis and tales to come . . . don’t turn off the Internet!

State-run Ice Cream

If there is one institution that serves as a microcosm for all that is Cuba, it is none other than the Coppelia, or state-run ice cream parlors. If reading the words “state-run” and “ice cream” back-to-back in the same sentence seems odd, well that’s because it is. Of all things for a government to be involved in, I would’ve suspected ice cream production to be one of the last, but then I would’ve speculated very, very wrongly.

One of Fidel Castro’s pet projects apparently revolved around the idea of “ice cream for the people,” thus giving birth to the Cuban government’s equivalent of a Baskin Robbins (albeit initially with 26 flavors, presumably a reference to an important revolutionary event that occurred on July 26th). At any rate, the heavily subsided frozen dairy products fall in line with other forms of incredibly cheap entertainment – such as baseball games, the theater, and an overwhelming promotion of the arts. Keeping the costs of such diversions affordable and thus available to everyone, is likely both a key equalizing benefit of living in a socialist system, and a strategy for the long-term preservation of power. In short, it is an indelible part of what makes Cuba, Cuba.

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What is ice cream indeed?

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Coppelia in action

Government intervention is obvious from the moment you set foot in one of these institutions. For starters, the price of ice cream is astronomically cheap, beyond reasonable human comprehension (I do think some owls could pick this up though). The first time I ordered two scoops, and when I asked for my bill the surly waitress simply grunted “dos pesos.” Assuming there was no way she could be talking in moneda as that would amount to 8¢, I assumed she meant two CUC, the equivalent of $2 (it never got any less confusing that the two currencies in Cuba were often referred to simply as ‘pesos). A dollar per scoop seemed a bit much, but made much more sense than four cents per scoop. So I handed her the exact amount, rather than a larger bill which would have resulted in a 35-minute wait for my change (did I mention this was a state-run place?), and promptly left. It was not until days later at another coppelia that I realized the prices were indeed that cheap, and I had given a personal all-time record 2,400% tip!

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The recipients of a record-breaking, but very confusing tip

Other indicators typical of state-run places were also readily apparent – for example, I noticed an odd phenomenon where everyone else always had piles upon piles of ice cream at their tables, making my two scoops look rather meager in comparison. A standard order seemed to be more within the five (ensalada) to seven (gran piedra) scoop range, with most customers insisting on two orders each – up to 14 scoops of ice cream per person! Looking at the menu, I realized the largest single order possible was a seven scoop wonder, and assumed the fact that everyone was doubling down was due to some top-down imposed limit to which I was unaware. Regardless, the obscene amounts of personal ice cream consumption fit in nicely with the live-in-the-moment approach to personal consumption on the island, to “get as much as you can, while you can.”

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Only one lady doubling down in this party – the rest do not represent Cuba well

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Remember that its not in CUC, so seven scoops for less than 30 cents!

At the same time, the first coppelia I wandered into was a massive structure, with space for about fifty tables. Of course, only maybe four or five occupied at the time, making the room look eerily empty. The low patronage was not reflected in employee hiring practices, as I counted at least seven people in the back via the see-through glass doors, in addition to four officially uniformed wait staff. That meant each table could have had its own personnel waitress, along with two kitchen members attentive to their order. Given that there was nothing that complex on offer, with the majority of orders consisting of scooping ice cream into a bowl and perhaps delicately adding a wafer, the amount of personnel seemed just so slightly excessive (and likely was given that at least two or three employers stood there the entire time during my visit, literally not doing anything). Except it really wasn’t, because despite the proliferation of waitresses, I still have to work to get anyone’s attention. It took over twenty minutes after sitting down until someone took my order, while two of the waitresses spent that entire time chatting to another lady who can entered the coppelia to sell pastries to accompany your ice cream.

In contrast, hard at work at this coppelia

In addition, the choice of flavors had long been whittled down from 26, evidence of local shortages. No coppelia that I visited offered more than four, with many having only two on hand after selling out the rest. And while the first coppelia I patronized in Cienfuegos was rather empty, the lines around the block on a Saturday evening at the one Santa Clara revealed that perhaps they do fill up at times, and thus engender the continued persistence of Cuba’s line culture. Furthermore, despite this insatiable demand for ice cream, just about every (not-so) convenience store I went into had a large, and utterly empty Nestle ice cream freezer, which looked like it had not been operational for some time.

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The status of (private) ice cream in Cuba

In short, the coppelias symbolize everything that is great and irksome (from my engrained capitalist perspective) of Cuba. The coppelias themselves promote the local dairy industry and provide (excessive) employment, while the cheap price allows (over) indulgence by the masses. Conversely, the coppelias are not insulated from aspects of Cuban life that largely derive from a state-controlled economy such as long lines, limited selection, inefficient service, and externally imposed purchasing limits. At the end of the day, however, if you can acquire 14 scoops of ice cream for less than 56¢, perhaps that is a win for all involved!

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Even this guy is semi-impressed!

Appearances and realities

A guest post by one Christine Ribeiro

When you first arrive in Cuba, with your grand illusions of what communism is, you are confronted with a different reality. Walking around Havana, life seems, well, pretty normal. Granted, it is not US standard of living, but most countries in the world are not, and after a year of traveling through South and Central America, it fit right in with the rest of them. And things kept coming up that just didn’t fit with my image of communism.

Cuba – currently suffering from an invasion of both minions and the Pope!

For example, the main drag of old town Havana, lined with souvenir shops. There is a wide variety of cheesy magnets and keychains to choose from. Che’s face is on just about everything you can imagine, from t-shirts to flags to purses. People are hustling you to come in and look or luring you into cafes with fresh mojitos. You look around and think, this is communism? Hustling to sell plastic crap made in China on every corner? Did you know you can even find coca-cola and m&ms on the island? I thought I came here to see what life was like without all that.

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Lucky couple scored a flat screen tv

What about the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), a state-owned art center/bar/club. Imagine what a state-owned club would look like, and it was the complete opposite. This place puts every bar in DC to shame. Lines to get in, this huge former electric plant has been transformed into a labyrinth of art galleries, music venues and bars, all under one roof. Each room has its own music and vibe, and while distinct they all just ooze coolness. Open Thursday-Saturday, there are events happening in different rooms at different hours throughout the night. The night we were there, Cubans and foreigners alike sip their mojitos while watching a fashion show of the latest in gothic fashion show by a local designer. Is this the Cuba you were expecting?


The smartly renovated FAC building


your typical Saturday night Havana gothic fashion show

Being there over Christmas, everyone was out with their new presents, namely the kids. While sitting on the Malecon, the iconic Havana road along the water, a young Cuban couple with a three year old girl came to try out the girl’s new present. Dressed to the nines, this little girl got in her mini electric car and drove up and down. I thought Cuba didn’t have access to new cars, how does this three year old get one? Was it at the mall that we stumbled upon, full of people shopping at stores like Adidas? Again, not the Cuba I imagined.

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A Havana mall at Christmas time

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But as you spend time, observe, ask questions, and get out of Havana, you begin to see just how life really is different here, shaped by their system and their past.

Take the breakfast spread that we had at our house in Vinales (fruit, eggs, cheese, ham, bread, honey, butter, two kinds of guava jelly, fresh fruit juice, tea and coffee) was quite a spread by any standards. Looking at this, one would think there was no lack of foodstuffs, however, upon learning more, we understood that was not the case. It had taken hours of searching and waiting in line over multiple days for our host to acquire this assortment of goodies. In fact, the next day we tried to eat at a local egg sandwich place for breakfast and they were completely out of eggs already at 9am. That is all they made and they were out. It was not until the next day that we saw everyone in town walking around holding 5 dozen eggs each (probably the maximum they were allowed to buy) that we realized it wasn’t just this shop, but the whole town had been out of eggs. The meals that magically appeared in the morning were not as simple as they first seemed.

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Or take the hoarder we stayed with in Santiago de Cuba. This older woman lived alone in a very large house right in the historic center of town. The room we stayed in was very clean and nice. Like all the others we had stayed in, it was complete with AC, fans, hot water, soap, towels, etc. For some reason, outside the room, every free space was filled with very old pieces of plywood and the sort. It was as if this hoarder could not get enough wood. While strange at first, we later learned about the ‘special period’, following the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba had to go through some extremely lean years. There was no fuel to cook with and barely any food to survive. People took to burning their wooden furniture to cook on. Looking at it this way, it is no surprise that this woman, who supported her family through these times, prefers to keep old rotting wood around.

It is not until a few days in that you realize, while there may be more shops and commerce than you imagined, there is absolutely no advertising. All billboards are political in nature, flouting the glory of the revolution. There are no TV or radio ads, something we have to pay extra for in the US. At the baseball game, there are no sponsors, no ads flashing on the big screen, no distractions from the game. This aspect was actually quite refreshing.

So, if you want to see the remaining vestiges of communism, you need to work a little harder. Get out of Havana and the beach resort area. Head as far to the east as you can, off the tourist circuit. Talk to as many people as you can, they are open and love to share their experiences. Keep your eyes open and enjoy!

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Y’all come back now, ya hear?