A big part of travel is the memories you take away from the experience and what is better than a photo to help you recall the visual details of a locale, the smiling face of a new friend or the pageantry of a local celebration? Today’s cameras are supposed to make it virtually foolproof to take photos. Heck, today you don’t even need a camera as evidenced by the number of acceptable photos that are taken by today’s smart phones. But by phone or by camera, apparently, this fool, meaning me, is digitally incompetent. I know I’m not alone as I hear other people griping about their digital cameras and not being able to take decent pictures or even figure out what the settings are for. I’m not completely convinced that it’s the camera’s fault though. I guess at some point you have to admit to “operator error” or digital phobia. That time came for me while I was travelling through South Korea and took a day trip to visit the DMZ which is short for Demilitarized Zone. You may have heard of it since North Korea has been in the news a lot lately. And not in a good way. But, as one of the most heavily protected borders in the world, our fascination with it has turned the DMZ into a major tourist attraction. Dividing the Country of Korea in to North and South sides, it runs almost 160 miles long and considering the amount of tension, it averages in some spots about only a few feet wide. Still a little too close for comfort if you ask me. If you’re adventurous, you can actually go visit the area also known as the 38th Parallel. Hundreds of curious people visit daily to watch the grand daddy of stare downs. North watching South and South watching North. They say that good fences make good neighbors but instead the Korean’s have a Military Demarcation Line which runs down the center of the DMZ and it still looked pretty militarized to me. People have lost their lives attempting to cross that line. And yet, curiosity is a strange thing. I was more than familiar with the 11 seasons of M.A.S.H,. the period comedy based on a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit located at the front lines of the Korean conflict. I wanted to see the actual place that was the focal point of the show.
It’s a bit of a drive to the border. As expected, there are statues erected to commemorate the events that took place half a century ago. There are also sculptures paying tribute to the virtue of peace. What’s unexpected is the long underground tunnel that takes you to the actual border. What was more surprising was how crowded the tunnel was. The mood was more of carnival than somber. That was until we got to the actual border. People fell silent at the sight of the guards. I suspect they may have been more ceremonial as the guys that really seemed to be keeping an eye on things were located much higher up in towers. The two guards at this border pretty much had their hands full with everyone who wanted to take a photo next to them.
My travel companion turned over his camera to me. The plan being that he would stand next to the guards and I would take the photo. After waiting for busload after busload of tourists to get their own photos, my companion finally stepped up for his turn. And I couldn’t get the shot! Ironically, today’s cameras practically make it fool proof, so what does that say about me? When it mattered most, I couldn’t get the photo. The soldiers aren’t permitted to speak but their body language very clearly said, “hurry up already, can’t you see that there are many more obviously competent visitors waiting for their turns.” Semi patient people waited while I tried again and again. I actually achieved the classic photo close up of my thumb and several over sized and out of focus images. In frustration and to minimize my embarrassment I gave up and yielded our turn to the newest group of visitors. I may not have captured the moment on film or in jpegs but it’s a memory I carry with me. It’s hard to forget that in today’s world there are still people living under controlled regimes and that while I spent a lot of energy and time worrying about capturing the moment for posterity I was still free to own a camera, free to travel to other countries to see how they live and returned home with the memory of those people who can only hope for a taste of the freedom that lies just across the border.