March 20, 2013
If you think flying is stressful, just imagine how the experience must impact an innocent, unknowing dog or cat when packed away in the cargo hold of a commercial jet. Air travel, in fact, is not just stressful for animals. It can be dangerous, no matter how smooth the landing, timely the departure or friendly the flight attendants. Conditions in the cargo hold of commercial jets are not always friendly; temperatures can fluctuate wildly, noise can be tremendous and air pressure can drop significantly, and pets that are checked into this dark space beneath the passenger cabin sometimes die. In 2011, thirty-five pets died while (or shortly before or after) traveling on commercial flights with U.S. airline companies. Nine animals were injured and two lost entirely. And in 2012, 29 pets died, 26 were injured and one was lost. These numbers should be considered in context; the U.S. Department of Transportation says that two million animals travel on commercial flights each year.
More pets have died in recent years on Delta Airlines flights than on any other airline, according to mandatory incident reports provided by U.S.-based airlines to the Department of Transportation. In 2010, 2011 (PDF) and 2012, Delta Airlines was responsible for 41 of the 97 reported animal deaths. Multiple publications have reported that Delta carries more pets than competing companies, which could explain the seemingly high rate of incidents reported by the airline. A media relations official with Delta Airlines declined to comment for this story.
United Airlines reported 12 animal deaths in 2012 among six airlines that reported incidents.
Almost never is corrective action taken following these incidents. Indeed, fault may often lie with the passenger—such as when animals with pre-existing health problems are checked as baggage.
Kirsten Theisen, director of pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States, believes air travel is simply too stressful for most animals, especially when they are placed in an aircraft’s cargo hold.
“Flying is frightening for animals,” says Theisen. “They can sense the pressure changing and they can tell that something is happening, and that’s scary. Flying is frightening if you don’t know what’s happening.”
Theisen recognizes that many people today wish to include their pets in family vacations, but she strongly suggests leaving animals at home, in trusted hands, if at all possible. Theisen says reports of pets being lost, injured or killed in transit are increasing, if only because human travelers are increasingly taking their animals along for the ride.
“More and more now, families consider their pets to be members of the family and want to include them on trips,” Theisen says. “Unfortunately, airlines don’t consider animals a member of your family. They consider them cargo.”
Theisen recommends that travelers with pets “do their homework” before flying. She points to Delta’s website, which provides lengthy and detailed information on the possible hazards for pets traveling by plane. Delta, like many airlines now, prohibits pets as checked baggage between May 15 and September 15, when high temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere produce extreme dangers for pets stashed below the passenger cabin. Delta also says it will not carry pets in the cargo hold during periods of extreme weather, whatever the season. The company’s website also states that it will not accept animals as checked baggage if the high temperature at any location on a flight’s itinerary is forecast to be below 10 degrees or above 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
In other words, just that an airline accepts your animal as checked baggage does not mean that conditions will be comfortable or safe for an animal checked as baggage.
Unforeseen hazards can arise once a plane is loaded and prepped for takeoff. On airplanes that have been delayed after leaving the terminal and parked on the blazing tarmac, temperatures can escalate dangerously. Pets have also died due to low temperatures. In 2010, two dogs and a cat perished due to extreme cold in transit, according to the Huffington Post. One of these animals was a hairless kitten named Snickers. The cat’s owner had paid a $70 fee to ensure her pet’s swift removal from the plane. However, it reportedly took baggage handlers 50 minutes to remove the kitten’s kennel from the cargo hold. Snickers died shortly thereafter.
Nearly all animal incidents reported to the Department of Transportation involve pets in the cargo hold. But in 2012, a pug died inside the passenger cabin on a flight from New York City to Salt Lake City that was delayed before takeoff. KSL NewsRadio of Utah reported that a flight attendant told the dog’s owner to keep the pug’s carrying case under the seat throughout the 45-minute delay. The dog reportedly began panting in its confined space and, later during the flight, was discovered to be dead.
Pugs, in fact, are one of several breeds now prohibited on many airlines because of their natural vulnerability to respiratory stresses. They are among the brachycephalic dogs and cats, commonly called snub-nosed, or pug-nosed. Brachycephaly is considered a disorder in humans and many other species, while for a number of dog breeds, the condition is a natural variation. In addition to pugs, boxers, English bulldogs, American pitbull terriers, chow chows and about a dozen other breeds are brachycephalic. At least four cat breeds—Burmese, Persian, Himalayan and exotic short-hair—may also be defined as “snub-nosed.” These animals, more frequently than others, may have breathing problems or difficulties when placed in the stressful conditions of an airplane’s cargo hold and face a relatively high risk of in-flight suffocation as a result. Of 189 flight-related animal deaths reported by the Department of Agriculture between June 2005 and June 2011, ninety-eight were brachycephalic breeds, according to The New York Times.
Delta, American, United and many other companies have strict regulations regarding brachycephalic cats and dogs on their flights. A company called Pet Airways launched in 2009 to cater to pet owners, and about a quarter of the airline’s animal passengers were snub-nosed breeds. Pet Airways did not last long, however. The company, which received some poor customer reviews on Yelp, was showing signs of financial distress by early 2012, according to the New York Times. The company has since ceased operations.
Owners of non-pug-nosed breeds should not be caught off guard. In February 2011, a 3-year-old Labrador retriever reportedly arrived safe and sound an hour past midnight in Singapore on Delta Flight 281. The dog was placed in a baggage storage area, was reported to be in good condition at 5:35 a.m. but was found motionless in its cage at 6:20 a.m. In late July of 2011, a 6-year-old yellow Lab died while in the cargo hold of a Delta flight from Pensacola to Baltimore, with a stop in Atlanta. On the second leg of the journey, the aircraft was delayed for hours in Atlanta and was eventually cancelled entirely. The dog was later found dead in its kennel. A year later, in September 2012, a 2-year-old golden retriever named Beatrice died of heatstroke on a United Airlines flight from New York City to San Francisco. The dog’s owner, supermodel Maggie Rizer, wrote on a blog that the airline acted with dishonesty and callousness after the dog’s death—though the airline reportedly refunded the $1,800 that Rizer paid for Beatrice’s travel. Still other animals bite or chew themselves bloody, presumably unnerved by the stresses of travel. Still others have been lost entirely—like two cats in 2011 whose kennels were discovered open and vacated upon arrival at their destinations. Neither has been reported found.
Current regulations require that airlines—those based in America, anyway—report all incidents involving animals. But Theisen explains that a troubling loophole excludes from this requirement any animals traveling for commercial purposes. Thus, animals that are injured, lost or killed while in the hands of an airline need not be reported if they were being shipped from a breeder to a retailer, or to a new owner, or to a dog show.
“If your dog is at that moment technically not a pet, then it doesn’t need to be reported if something happens to it,” Theisen explains. She adds that the deaths, injuries and animals missing numbers reported by the Department of Transportation are certainly not comprehensive and that many incidents slip quietly, and legally, under the radar.
Suggestions to Keep Your Pet Safe When Flying
- Visit your veterinarian to be sure your pet is fit to fly.
- Don’t fly your pet during the hot summer months.
- Arrange for direct flights. Transfers increase the chances of delays, which can cause stress to animals contained in the cargo hold, and other mishaps, like a pet being sent to the wrong destination.
- If possible (it depends on the animal’s size), purchase your pet a space in the passenger cabin.
- If you must check your pet into the baggage hold, remind airline staff and baggage handlers that there is a live animal on board to ensure gentle handling. Also ask baggage handlers during your check-in that your pet’s cage be placed in a well-ventilated space, and be sure your pet has water.
- Don’t fly snub-nosed cats or dogs. These animals die on airlines, often of respiratory problems, more frequently than other breeds.
- Leave your pet at home if you will be returning soon, and look forward to a happy reunion of wagging tails and hearty purrs.
January 7, 2013
That there could be anything in the world but dust, rubble, traffic, burning trash heaps, mangy dogs and slums seemed impossible as we rolled northward through Lima. Andrew and I had just unpacked and assembled our bicycles in the airport terminal after 13 hours in the air. We were dehydrated, hungry, sleepy and, now, trying to steel ourselves against this grimy ugliness. We found a two-gallon jug of purified water at a gas station, the tap water being off-limits to foreigners preferring not to risk getting sick, and moved north along the Pan-American Highway. Through the polluted hazy air we saw the brown ghosts of mountain peaks towering just east of the city—the abrupt beginning to the Andes. But here, we were all but blinded by traffic, noise and ugliness. I assured myself that the city would soon give way to countryside—it always does, whether leaving Madrid, or Athens, or Milan, or Istanbul—but the sprawling slums seemed endless. Dust plumed into our faces, cars honked, dogs barked. We grew sticky and filthy with sweat, sunscreen and dirt. For several miles we followed a bicycle path—a heartening gesture by this monster of a city—but trash heaps blocked the way in places.
At some point we saw a patch of green grass. Later, we sat on a grassy road median to eat a cluster of bananas. I recall hearing a bird chirp farther down the road. A farm appeared, and trees. We both took notice at once of a soccer field in a green river valley. Trees by the road sagged with mangoes, while others were studded with ripening figs. We found ourselves riding side by side—for the traffic had thinned. The transition was complete. We were, finally, in the countryside, with Lima a horror we hoped not to see again soon. By evening we were crawling uphill, well on our way to a mountain town called Canta—though it was still a vertical mile above and 50 miles ahead. Near dusk, with fruit and canned tuna and wine for dinner, we rolled through the gate of a campground, called Sol de Santa Rosa. “Showers and bathrooms are back toward the orchard,” our host said in Spanish. “Camp anywhere you like on the green grass.”
Cherimoya season is on here in the mountains, true to our hopes. The big, green, heart-shaped, alligator-skinned creatures are heaped on tables at roadside fruit shacks, with painted signs telling passersby that the fruits are ripe. When Andrew and I first saw a sign reading “Chirimoya madura,” we pulled over in a hurry. Five soles per kilo, the man inside the shack told us. About $1 per pound. I told the vendor that this was very exciting for us, that cherimoyas are an exotic fruit in California, where most are imported and sold for at least $8 each. “Here,” the man said, “we are in the center of production.” We each bought a three-pounder for dinner, and that evening in camp sliced them in two. A ripe cherimoya is pliable, like a ripe avocado. Inside, the flesh is snow-white and studded with raisin-size black seeds. The flesh is intensely sweet, fibrous near the stem and otherwise seamless and creamy throughout. It tastes like pineapple, banana and bubble gum. Cherimoyas are native to the Andes, and the season here runs December through April. We’ve landed in a bed of roses.
We’ve also taken a liking to a new fruit called lucuma, a round, greenish-brown tree fruit with a smooth, plastic-like hide and starchy, sticky pumpkin-colored flesh, somewhat like a hard-boiled egg yolk. The fruit is a Peruvian specialty, made into sweets and ice cream and virtually unknown in America. Mangoes, too, are superb, here—with brilliant aroma and a fresh, tangy, concentrated flavor. We’ve found avocados cheap and abundant, and heaps of grapes, which we won’t touch, guessing they’ve been washed with local tap water. As we move through each small village, we ignore the smells of cooking meat and vegetables from restaurants, and we pass by the offers from sidewalk vendors selling tamales and hot drinks. One vendor sliced us a piece of cheese as we looked over his fruits—and we all but ran from the place. Ceviche, too, is another local food we won’t touch—not yet, anyway, as we’ve been advised repeatedly not to eat anything potentially contaminated by dirty water or sloppy handling. But the cherimoyas almost make up for our losses.
The season here has us confused. We are in the Southern Hemisphere by about ten degrees of latitude, and so we would expect this to be summer. But folks are telling us we have come in the winter, that July in the Andes is summer and that when it is summer on the coast it is winter in the mountains. We got hit by a thunderstorm as we crawled uphill toward Canta, and as we wrapped tarps around our bikes we saw that we may need to work out a better rain gear system. Locals say the rain is heavy this time of year. Dense fog enveloped us at about the 9,000 foot level as we crawled onward, and we are feeling the altitude—gasping to recover our breath each time we speak or have a drink of water. We have each taken a dose of altitude pills, and we hope not to get sick, as the only certain cure for altitude sickness is to turn around—and we don’t wish just yet to see Lima again.
We finally made our arrival in the much anticipated town of Canta, and to our alarm there is almost nothing here—nothing, after 80 miles of following road signs and mile markers and believing we were on our way to a mountain hub of activity and recreation and great outdoor markets and vegetarian yoga communes with food to share and Internet cafés and shops offering wireless 3G plans. Nothing, that is, except for fruit shacks, tamale vendors, a cheap hotel and the high Andes surrounding us. Now, considering the many dismal shades of Lima, nothing doesn’t seem bad at all.
Further Into the Andes
Ahead we see on our map Lago Junín, a large high-altitude mountain lake, the sizable towns of Cerro de Pasco and Huanaco and the great mountain pass of Ticlio, or Anticona.
January 3, 2013
For those who grow dreamy-eyed at thoughts of high mountains, vacant wilderness, quinoa on the camp stove and the ever-present chance of seeing a puma, Peru is gold country. The nation encompasses a substantial portion of the low-lying Amazon rainforest as well as a balmy coastline 1,400 miles long—the destinations of jungle explorers, bird watchers, river adventurers and surfers. But it’s the Andes that constitute the nation’s heart. This longest of the world’s mountain ranges runs thousands of miles north to south and largely defines the landscape and the spirit of Peru. In these high Peruvian elevations are sites like Machu Picchu and Cusco, almost endless wilderness, wild cats, guanacos (the wild relatives of alpacas and llamas) and a species of unusual bear and dozens of peaks higher than 18,000 feet. But—good news for travelers—these mountains are not inaccessible. Navigable roads crisscross the spine of the Andes, providing access to some of the planet’s most tremendous and inspiring scenery.
One of the very highest paved passes in the world is just 80 miles from Lima—Ticlio, or Anticona. Now, as I make final arrangements for a trip to Peru with my bicycle, the temptation to ride directly to Anticona is strong—but my brother Andrew, also on this trip, and I have thought better of the idea. The overall climb and the final altitude of almost 16,000 feet on day one just might kill us. Altitude sickness is a very real concern in places like Peru for people like us, who have spent our lives mostly at sea level. To treat this ailment we are packing pills. “Take 1 tablet orally 2 times a day starting 1 day before reaching high altitude, then continue for at least 3 days,” the bottle of Acetazolamide directs us. Yet the best cure may be preventative—becoming acclimated over time. For we would prefer not to subsist on a diverse diet of pills—we also have pills to treat our water, pills to fight stomach bugs, pills for typhoid, anti-inflammatory pills and malaria pills. By remaining high enough—5,000 feet up seems to be the magic number—we can avoid disease-bearing mosquitoes, but that brings us back to those altitude pills. We may just have to take our medicine.
Andrew returns to the States from Quito, Ecuador, three weeks from now, which gives us something of an objective—a 1,100-mile trip to this lofty city (altitude 9,350 feet), arriving by no later than January 19. En route, we’ll have many opportunities to climb two-mile-high passes—and we may try and grab a glance of Mount Huascarán. If we were climbers, this might be our target conquest. Huascarán is the highest mountain in Peru, the highest in the tropics and the fifth highest in all the Andes. It stands 22,205 feet (6,768 meters) above sea level and is preserved within a national park of the same name. The energy costs of cycling on loaded bikes across this sort of terrain may amount to about 4,000 calories per day (we will probably consume about 60 calories per mile of pedaling), which has us already thinking about food. Peru is tropical, and we anticipate a fantastic selection of fruits at outdoor markets. We hope to go especially heavy on cherimoyas, an Andean native that is too costly (often $6 per fruit or so) to buy more than a few times per year in the States. But food, especially fresh produce and the stuff of street vendors, must be treated with caution in Peru. It’s a tall order for travelers fighting a constant calorie deficit—but it is, in fact, our doctors’ orders. Anything with a thick peel should be safe, they have advised us, but raw vegetable salads will wait until we’re home again. We’re not to drink the water, either, and have been advised by experienced travelers to only drink purified water from sealed plastic bottles.
In Turkey about 15 months ago, I had the pleasure of a meeting a brown bear at midnight just outside my tent and then enjoyed a rousing slapstick time of ducking under the bullets of poachers who began firing at the animal. But bears are abundant in Eurasia, while in South American they are not. The spectacled bear lives in much of the northern Andes, but its population consists of just several thousand animals between Bolivia and Venezuela. The spectacled bear is the last living descendant of the enormous short-faced bear, which vanished from North America 12,500 years ago. The odds of seeing a wild bear in Peru are tiny, but the fact that it’s possible elevates this land into a realm of wildness that places like England, Holland, Kansas and Portugal lost long ago, sacrificed for agriculture and towns. Bears, like no other creatures, embody the spirit of wildness (never mind the trash-fat black bears of America’s suburbs and national parks). The world is a richer place just for having these big-muscled carnivores at large—even if we may never see them. Other Peruvian wildlife viewing possibilities include tapirs, anacondas, caimans, jaguars and an incredible wealth of river fishes—including the giant arapaima—in the Amazon basin. In the highlands live guanacos. Tiptoeing through the mountains are also pumas (same species as the cougar or mountain lion), and condors fly overhead. I once read somewhere that hikers in the Andes can be tipped off to the presence of a puma by the sudden appearance of one or more condors ascending into the sky—presumably chased off a half-eaten kill by the returning cat. I’ll be bird watching if it may help me see a cat.
We’ve kept our gear as basic as can be without unnecessarily sacrificing simple comforts. We are packing a bug-proof and waterproof two-person tent, powerful sunscreen, a camping stove, sleeping bags, books, basic bike repair gear and our decadent pill rations. We’re rolling on essentially flat-proof Armadillo tires—and I’ll be writing about our travels from cozy mountain campsites. I’m a Luddite in many ways, but 3G Internet access is a modern miracle I welcome, from the fringes of the civilized world.
December 27, 2012
As we approach 2013, the possibility of entering a sealed aircraft, buckling up and exiting the atmosphere in the name of leisure is no longer science fiction. Rather, space tourism is so close to reality that talks of orbital hotels and space property rights are underway, a space runway has been built, a touristic spacecraft from Virgin Galactic is ready, and hundreds of wealthy travelers have prepaid for their seats at $200,000 a head. While the starting price of a space ticket is for now only an option for the extremely rich, analysts say that streamlining of costs and energy outputs, and bringing large numbers of tourists into orbit at once, will eventually make orbital holidays relatively affordable and, possibly, an option for the masses.
In many ways, space travel closely resembles prior phases of human exploration. Five centuries ago, government-funded vessels from Spain traveled across the Atlantic to the New World. Later, common citizens began to make the same trip, and the trans-Atlantic voyage would become a rather routine errand, for better or for worse. Powerful new nations were consequently born. In 1803, Lewis and Clark, working for the U.S. government, embarked on a scientific and cultural exploration of western North America. Their effort opened the West to millions of settlers—for better or for worse. Now, government space exploration has been a reality for more than 50 years—and it may be inevitable that the general public will follow. Proponents of space travel believe that bringing masses of paying passengers into space—and carrying them in reusable launch vehicles—will make space travel cheap enough to become a feasible everyday activity. This will facilitate research endeavors, and space explorers will likely make great discoveries as they move outward into this next, if not final, frontier. Space travel advocates believe that valuable resources—especially minerals, like gold and platinum, and solar power—could be accessed through missions into the wider reaches of our solar system. Further into an imagined future is the prospect of establishing permanent colonies for human habitation far away from Earth.
But as the industry gears up to go, critics are asking why we must tap into other worlds’ resource banks, why we must endanger the lives of astronauts, and why we should spend money on science-fiction-like undertakings while poverty, pollution, inequality, starvation and extinctions are rampant on Earth. A major concern addresses the pollutants that a space tourism industry could introduce to the Earth’s already strained atmosphere. In October 2010, Scientific American‘s John Matson wrote an article titled “What will space tourism mean for climate change?” He wrote that a mature space tourism industry, consisting of 1,000 flights per year, would spew about 600 metric tons of soot into the atmosphere each year—in addition to greenhouse gases produced during takeoff. Over a period of decades, this soot, seemingly negligible on an annual basis, would produce “a persistent and asymmetric cloud over the Northern Hemisphere that could impact atmospheric circulation and regional temperatures far more than the greenhouse gases released into the stratosphere by those same flights.”
Proponents of space travel are ready with their defense. In a 2009 report produced by Space Future, a company committed to “opening space to the public,” there are virtually no reasons for concern about realizing space travel. The authors, Patrick Collins (owner of Space Future) and Adriano Autino (founder of another space travel promoter Space Renaissance International), acknowledged that space tourism would incur small environmental costs to our planet mainly in its beginning stages. As efficiency increased, however, space travel would begin acting almost as a panacea for all of our planet’s ills. They write that in light of current and increasingly frequent “resource wars” between nations, “…opening access to the unlimited resources of near-Earth space could clearly facilitate world peace and security.” They also believe that space travel will generate valuable educational, cultural and emotional benefits.
Space Renaissance International has published a “manifesto” outlining the arguments for why we should travel beyond the gravity and atmosphere of Earth. The document begins, “If we, the seven billion people that make up 21st century humanity, want our civilisation to keep growing and improving, we must…”
But why must our species continue to advance? Do we really want to keep growing? I believe that the physical limitations and boundaries of our planet, if not insurmountable by our technology, might be worth respecting. I also believe we should employ our brilliance as a species in figuring out how to live sustainably on this planet, and I would argue that it’s not our business to plunder the natural resources of any other worlds unless we can at least learn to manage and preserve our own—a challenge at which we are failing. But Space Future, Space Renaissance International and other advocates of space tourism believe that we should now be tapping the energy and mineral resources of space precisely because we have failed to properly use and preserve our own. Deep space exploration may be inevitable, as it seems that the human will to conquer or discover eventually overpowers all obstacles and mysteries.
As long as the choice is mine, I’ll remain on Earth. But market research surveys have indicated that many people in certain countries—especially, it seems, Japan—would enjoy a vacation spent in space. Would you?
If you’re bent on going, reserve your spot. Just be sure you’ve got a window seat—and that it isn’t over the wing.
December 18, 2012
“Faces From Afar” is a new series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at email@example.com.
On September 6, 2011, excited North Korean soccer fans took part in a “wave”—that tradition of American baseball games in which spectators stand in unison row at a time, creating the effect of a moving swell of people that surges around the stadium. It may have been among the first waves to occur in Pyongyang international soccer stadium. To Michael and Larissa Milne, the two American tourists who helped initiate that particular wave, the incident bore underlying elements of conformity, fear and repressed freedom of expression. The wave took easily within the seating section of the Milnes’ 50-person tour group. The North Korean spectators, however, were wary, trained from birth in the arts of restraint, caution and passivity. They resisted through several false starts—but finally, the wave overpowered their inhibitions. Maybe it just seemed safer at this point to join. Anyway, the wave surged along with the seemingly unstoppable force of rapture and critical mass—before stopping dead as perhaps only the wave can in a dictatorship.
As Michael Milne described it on his blog Changes in Longitude, “When it finally reached the central seating area set aside for party VIPs, not a fanny left its seat. The wave didn’t just ebb there but was stopped cold, like it broke against an unyielding stone jetty.”
The party, of course, rules North Korea, where a line of dictators has run the nation with almost superhuman power since the years following the Korean War. While citizens are sternly guarded from outside influences—including Internet access and global film culture—traveling here is surprisingly easy for tourists. Thus, when the Milnes sold their Philadelphia home and most of their possessions in the summer of 2011 and commenced on a long and ambitious world tour, they quickly struck upon the wild idea of visiting one of the world’s most mysterious and forbidding places. They made mandatory arrangements with one of several government-permitted tour companies, paid a slight visa fee at the border crossing from China, temporarily forfeited their cellphones, computers, other handheld tech gadgets and even their books, and took a five-day plunge into full darkness.
“In North Korea, you’re totally cut off from the outside world,” Michael told me from New York City during a recent phone interview. “You have no idea what’s going on outside. We didn’t even know how the Phillies were doing.” (They made it as far as the National League Division Series.)
Military omnipresence and jeering loudspeakers bring the classic Orwellian distopia to life. Party members in North Korea are well-fed and prosperous, while citizens walk in straight lines and speak softly—and Big Brother is always watching. For natives, there is no exit. But tourists enjoy surprising liberty. They must remain either in the company of the group tour or within the confines of their hotel, and photography is restricted in places, like during bus rides between tourist attractions. Otherwise, outsiders may mingle with the people—whom the Milnes describe as being just as friendly and gregarious as can be—and take photos of the country’s grandest features. Popular tourist attractions include monuments honoring former national leader Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 and is now known both as Great Leader and Eternal President, various museums and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between the two Koreas. Here, no physical barrier separates the nations, and soldiers from each side stare coldly at one another. The DMZ offers tourists a rare opportunity for a telling side by side comparison of North and South Koreans.
“The soldiers on the South Korean side are muscular, vigorous,” Michael said. “But the North Koreans are swimming in their uniforms, and these are the soldiers they’ve chosen to put on display.”
The difference in stature can be attributed, the Milnes told me, to hunger. Food is of poor quality in North Korea, they said, and many people can’t afford it. Restaurants for tourists are a different story, providing lavish feasts that may leave visitors impressed by North Korea’s evident opulence—or just embarrassed, as the Milnes were, by the needless waste.
The Arch of Triumph is another showpiece proudly presented to all tourists. The monument was built in 1982 to honor Kim Il Sung and commemorate North Korea’s military resistance to Japan. It was also built a few inches taller than the Parisian Arc de Triomphe—which tour leaders, who speak a transparent curriculum of government-mandated material, are quick to point out.
Propaganda sounds from all directions in North Korea, and for outsiders it’s easy to identify. For example, state-run media perpetuates an altered history of World War II in which the military forces under Kim Il Sung supposedly defeated Japan singlehandedly. The Milnes also visited the ship-turned-museum USS Pueblo, which North Korean authorities captured, detained and kept as a military trophy in 1968. Here they saw a piece of U.S. Naval history wiped clean of fact and refurnished with exaggerations. The ship is now presented as a symbol of North Korea’s dominion over the United States—considered a great enemy of the state. Larissa, also on conference call, said to me, “For America, the Pueblo incident was a minor blip in a series of many, many world events, but for them, it’s a bright and shining event. It really shows how North Korea clings to the past.”
During an outing to a North Korean amusement park called the Pyongyang Fun Fair, the Milnes and the other tourists quickly noticed that something strange was at play here: There were no laughter, shrieks or cries of joy. The people were silent. “An amusement park without noise is a strange thing,” Michael said. Surely, the physiology of North Koreans is not immune to that electric thrill that most of us know from roller coaster free falls—but nobody dared raised their voice. At least, they didn’t dare until the British and American tourists did so first. Then, the effect turned contagious; whoops and cheers spread through the crowds, and vocal chords chronically underused began to explore uncharted territory of decibel levels.
The trained passivity of the people showed itself, too, at the aforementioned soccer match between Tajikistan and North Korea. Though the home team would ultimately beat the visitors 1-0, the Milnes watched North Korea play with a troubling absence of spirit. Michael wrote on his blog at the time that the players, after maneuvering the ball past the legs of the defending Tajikistanis all the way down the field, would turn sluggish, unambitious and reluctant each time it appeared there was a chance to score. Repeatedly, just shy of the goal, the North Koreans appeared to intentionally divert the ball away from the net. Michael and Larissa attributed this pattern to the North Koreans’ reluctance to be noticed and their fear of failure.
“This is a society where no one wants to be the standing nail,” Michael said.
Throughout their world tour, the Milnes had used a creative and surprisingly effective tool for breaking ice and building bridges across cultures: a six-inch-tall statue of perhaps the world’s most famous boxer, Rocky Balboa. Many times during interactions with strangers, when words between the people could not be produced, the Milnes took their little plastic prize fighter from a day pack, and what followed was nearly always laughter, cheers and shouts of “Rocky!” But when the Milnes took out “Little Rocky” for a photo op at the North Korean Arch of Triumph—part of an ongoing series featuring Little Rocky around the world—nobody in a group of bystanders recognized or knew the name of the muscled likeness of Sylvester Stallone, his arms raised, boxing gloves on his hands. It was only one of two times that Rocky was not recognized (the other was in the Kalahari, when the Milnes produced Little Rocky for a photo op with a group of San people). North Koreans, of course, are deprived of Internet access, of literature, magazines and newspapers from the wider world, of popular television and of most films. That a movie glorifying an American fighting champion has never publicly screened in North Korea is hardly a surprise.
The Milnes are currently resting in New York and plotting their next moves—which may include writing a travel memoir as well as beginning a tour of North America. Whatever they do, they don’t want to settle just yet. They are enjoying a rare level of freedom, a nomadic lifestyle void of belongings as well as that thing most of us believe is only a blessing—a home.