I love reading about countries with unique cultures, countries I either won’t or can’t visit. The 3 most different are North Korea, Paraguay, and Albania So far, I’ve only been to the last one.
This week, however, I finished reading a book I couldn’t easily put down. I read it in giant gulps because it was so….well….foreign to my understanding and existence. Wendy E. Simmons, a New York based travel writer and photographer who is determined to visit every country in the world, wrote a book called My Holiday in North Korea. Published in 2015, it recounts the 10 days she spent in what she called in her book’s subtitle “the Funniest/Worst Place on Earth”. I didn’t even know that tourists from the United States could go to North Korea, but Wendy figured out how to do it and wrote, as a result, the most different travel book I’ve ever read.
Most travel books are about the sights I’m likely to see and the food I’m likely to experience if I travel to another country. Not My Holiday in North Korea. There are, according to Wendy, no likable sights to see there. The places her handlers took her to–a wedding, a strange 3-D movie, an invisible wall, a truly weird clam bake, etc.– are reported on with surreal humor and horrified disbelief. She generally calls North Korea Noko. On page 110 she reports, “The Party tries to control 100% of what you see and do in NoKo, so most of what you see is at least mostly staged and anything completely real wasn’t supposed to happen. So things that seem normal or should be normal, just aren’t.” I believe if I asked Wendy if I should go to North Korea, she would say, “Are you crazy?”
I read At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig by John Gimlette with giddy fascination. The book’s subtitle is “Travels through Paraguay”. Before finding it, I had never read about a country with a history and culture so bizarre. John often referred to it as South America’s “island surrounded by land”. He went there because it’s little known, and he found it eccentric and contradictory. His weirdly humorous account begins, “My hostess was studying me with renewed interest. “Did you say,” she said slowly, “that he cut the child’s hands off with a blowtorch?” “Well, yes.” I fidgeted. This book never gets any less hypnagogic (resembling a dream).
I have already written a lot about Albania on this blog. While there, I was told to expect to see a lot of houses under construction but not really. Many are being built illegally. The builders are warned before bulldozers move in and dynamite is used. Rendered uninhabitable, the rubble remains. If the building gets half-completed, the constructors usually return each summer to add another level and go away leaving a teddy bear on the highest level to ward off the evil eye. Unlike Wendy in North Korea, I actually enjoyed my time in Albania. Before 2016 ends, I’m going to Uruguay, not Paraguay.