September 18, 2011


The best thing about having guests in your city is that you get to act like a tourist. It's been a long time since the original shock and awe has worn off on me. I find it refreshing to kind of relive that experience vicariously through other tourists who visit. It's interesting that they may notice something you haven't seen, or offer a prospective that you had yet to consider. With people's expedited schedules, things you put on the back burner are quickly brought to a boil. The DMZ was one such menu item.

Even on the back burner the DMZ was a trip that I had semi planned out. I knew that I wanted to go on the USO tour. Not for some love or trust in the military, but because of their unparalleled access to Panmunjom. Panmunjom is a town constructed in the middle of the DMZ, where the two Koreas meet for talks (when they feel like talking). It's an area that many DMZ tours cannot take you to, as you have to be guarded while in this zone. There are brief times where you enter North Korea (sorry grandma, I broke my promise), you're also apparently under constant surveillance while in this zone, from both sides.

While Panmunjom is the highlight of the tour, you are brought to other sites. My tour started at the 3rd tunnel. Because the DMZ puts serious dampers on an invasion of Seoul, the North Koreans started to build tunnels that run underneath the 4km stretch of land. The third tunnel, was the third tunnel that the South Koreans found. In total four tunnels have been found, and it is believed that the North Koreans have upwards of eleven tunnels dug underneath the DMZ. You aren't allowed to take photos in the tunnel, and I spent most of the journey inside the tunnel hunched over. It is not an area that plays kind with tall folk.

The ability to take photos while inside the Panmunjom was a question that not only I had, but other tourists on the bus. It turns out that you are able (as you can see) albeit with strict guidelines. The American troops escorting you through the zone strictly regulate when you are allowed to take photos. The basic rule of thumb is that you are allowed to take photos of communist North Korea, but you aren't allowed to take photos of the South Korean side of the DMZ. I know that I have photos of the ROK army, but my camera is pointed towards the North, and that is basically the big rule. Understandably they ROK is concerned with people taking photos of their fortifications, and if you're caught taking pictures of them your camera will be confiscated and your photos deleted.

The South Korean soldiers inside this zone, are apparently the cream of the crop. They are all black belts in various styles of martial arts, and standing in a 'ready' position (above, and below). The reason why one of the soldiers is standing partially hidden by the wall is to make him a harder target should the North Koreans decide to shoot at him. I liked how comfortable I felt knowing that, even as I was clearly exposed in the open. At least the trained soldier would be safe!

 Rule in check, the overall feel my time in Panmunjom was unreal. It was as close as I've ever been to an actual hot spot on global conflict maps. There was definitely a tense atmosphere (added to by our 'briefing' in Camp Casey) but it was a very odd feeling having to be under tight security, and knowing that you are being watched. It's something that I suggest to anyone on the South Korean peninsula to experience, but I'm not entirely sure why I'm making that recommendation, as I can't fully put into words my own experience there.

Besides the experience in Panmunjom, the most interesting part of the tour was the propaganda. I was expecting to hear a lot about the North Koreans, and the lines that they fed to their populous, but I was surprised to hear a lot coming the other way as well. The South Koreans seemed to be playing the game as well. There were a couple examples of this, the tunnels being one, the bridge of no return another (pictured right), but it was best exemplified through the last train station. There were many scripted lines that the tour guide said, but the poster that hangs in the station is nothing but propaganda. It's something that should be checked out for yourself, and make up your own mind, but I left the tour with a sense that the pro South propaganda wasn't required. I'm not a Northern sympathiser, but I feel that the South doesn't need to sell their side. A little less bias, and a rational perspective would have given the tour a bigger impact.

September 13, 2011


I actually came up with a conclusion for this post before I even started my usual writing process, so instead I'll lead with it! It is the culmination of a couple unrelated events (some unexplainable, others I will attempt to explain), and my thoughts behind each. My basic conclusion is that this city is the best place for me at this point in my life. It's a metropolis, a mega city, rivaled by few, and surpassed by others only because of (western) history. How did I come to this conclusion, I'll attempt to explain.

For starters I welcomed my parents to Korea this week. An experience I didn't believe would happen when I first left Canada a year and a half ago. Not that my parents aren't adventurous, my father has lived all over the world, and my mother moved to Canada, and then across the country. I suppose for those reasons I shouldn't be too shocked, but Korea is a lot different than the travels they have been on before. I realize, and understand that I was enough to draw them out here, but it partially made me questions my motives. I am a product of my parents (obviously!), but Korea wasn't a place high on their list, or many people's for that matter. Although after my parents stated to friends that they were coming out, they found that everyone seemed to have known a friend of a friend who once taught here.

I have previously mentioned some of the benefits, and reasons for me to stay in Korea. Hell, you can read my short bio and start to understand. Yet, those alone only address my financial, and rational reasons to be here. They don't represent emotional reasons that dissuade many from attempting adventures like this in the first place. I remain confused and wonder, why I feel so comfortable being away from my friends and family for this greatly extended period of time.

Keeping in touch hasn't been much of an issue. For that I can thank modern technology, email, and most importantly Skype, have allowed me to explore the world and still connect with the ones I love easily. None the less, while technology seems to have lessened the physical distance, a distance has remained. That distance is actually a reason I started writing. To inform people what the deal was, what was happening, and what it was like in Korea. These brief internet fueled encounters with the North American continent seem to be enough for me.

I can't really explain why I am missing more of a drive, but I've come to accept that I don't require it. Even without a more present support network, I've been able to establish myself here. I have created an identity that I'm comfortable with. Importantly I feel that the identity is true to myself. I'm not running from anything in my life, and I'm not using my new existence to attempt to gain something I feel that I lost, or felt robbed of. For whatever reason as well, I feel accepted here, perhaps more than I did in N/A. This is a place where my travel feels insignificant at times, and I'm afforded the opportunity to meet people whose life dwarfs my own.

I am a twenty something (attempt to generalize) single person, with access to a city that can offer whatever I want. I benefit from being able to do rather well on very little, you can also insert any advantage that living in a city has: public transport, 24/7 access to bars and restaurants, the ability to get lost in a crowd of people, even at 4 in the morning. For me all these traits revolve around the simple concept that I can have my cake and eat it too! This is a feeling that I haven't been able to attach to any city I've previously lived in. The option, and ability to do anything anytime, is one that's hard to give up, I'm hooked, I'm addicted.

I had a chat with a co-worker about this exact theme the other day and a couple interesting things arose from the conversation. While we both agreed that Seoul was a great place to be for the time being, but our life situations were quickly differing. For he is in his early thirties, in a stable relationship, and his mind is starting to wander into child territory. We talked, and somewhat agreed that while Seoul is an amazing place, it would be a difficult place to raise a child. It was at this moment that we both said Canada.

My (second) conclusion may come a shock to some, and for others only a matter of time. I can't see myself returning to N/A at any point in the near future. Except for the solitary role as tourist. I have become spoiled, and live, love and thrive in my new way of life. I'm sorry Calgary, I'm sorry Canada, you are both great places, but until I'm ready to accept a North American life, I'm not going to push the issue and leave what I've graciously become accustomed to.