Picture Perfect

11707898_10152965278836581_6630775547099813289_oA 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.

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The Grey Beret

Apparently, there are two types of people: shoppers and non-shoppers. I don’t know if your shopping profile is assigned at birth or a trait that develops like a finely honed skill over time. I do know that I fall into the category of non-shopper, apparently having been born without the shopping gene and this includes souvenir shopping as well. Sexism aside, as a female, it would seem that I am in the minority as far as searching for the next treasure, especially when I’m travelling. When I do make a purchase I prefer useable, wearable items that serve a purpose in my daily life. That’s the best type of souvenir, something that perhaps can be used on a regular basis that reminds me ever so subtly of a previous visit to someplace interesting. Sure, I bring home gifts for others, but for myself, I usually wait for something to strike my fancy, inspire me, before I make a purchase. One of my favorite souvenirs is a beautiful scarf that I found in Hong Kong. Sometimes it appears burgundy colored but at other times it appears as if it is black and I like that dichotomy. During the winter I wear it daily and only I know its origin and when I wear it I am always reminded of the night market where it was purchased. I also carry a tote bag emblazoned with the picture of a dog, a West Highland Terrier and people often comment on the cute dog. I think of England and remember that it was purchased in Harrods, probably the most famous department store in London. Ordinarily, I don’t approach any place I visit with intent to purchase a particular item, however, this time I had one specific item on my personal wish list. I was in France and I wanted a beret and if it wasn’t asking too much, I wanted one that was grey. Why specifically grey? In the right shade, it is soothing and classy. Grey is neutral enough to coexist with other colors and intriguing enough to make a boring outfit look chic. It also happens to be my favorite color. Travelling through France via riverboat gave me access to a lot of smaller towns with unique shops and a multitude of markets. I approached each retailer with optimism and anticipation of finding the perfect chapeau only to be disappointed over and over and in several different languages. Finding a beret in France seemed to become the equivalent of finding a leprechaun in Ireland. You hear they exist yet you never see one.

My quest continued on land as we returned to Paris after the cruise but I admit that I was far less optimistic at this point in the trip than I was at the beginning. It was difficult to focus on shopping when there were so many beautiful and historical sites to visit without taking time out for every pop up market. I will confess that one particular market caught my attention in a way that only the smell of warm fresh dough could do. I happened upon a bread festival set up in front of Notre Dame and like a siren song, it lured me in, seduced me to stay and made it impossible to resist the sinful luxury of the just out of the oven, fragrant chocolate croissants. My quest for the beret was temporarily halted as I took in sustenance in the form of freshly baked goods. The thought occurred to me that perhaps the French Beret was more of a legend and less a part of the Parisian’s daily wardrobe. Upon reflection, I can’t actually remember seeing a single person in France wearing a beret. The search, however, did lead us to some wonderful little shops, even if most of them were selling chocolate! I was ready to admit defeat and with a wistful c’est la vie, I returned to the hotel empty handed but confident in the promise that tomorrow, my last day in Paris, would be fully dedicated to souvenir shopping.

As with each morning, I awoke without the aid of an alarm, however this morning something was different. I had a touch of vertigo which worsened when I tried to sit upright. Certainly, if I couldn’t sit without getting queasy, then standing and walking were definitely out of the question.  However, I had a mission to complete and was determined to give it my best effort, but the virus had other plans. I had no choice other than to give in and rest with the hope that I would be able to rally in the afternoon. Reluctantly, I encouraged my fellow traveler to go on without me and I returned to bed. I admire the confidence she displayed as she departed for her solo venture, going off to explore and experience the Left Bank region of Paris on her own. Around midday, when I had hoped to have felt a bit better, she popped into the hotel room to check on my condition and to offer to bring food. It was kind of her to touch base but I had no appetite and clearly whatever energy I might have been able to muster now needed to be conserved for the long journey back home the next day. It became obvious that I would be forfeiting my entire last day in Paris and the final opportunity to find my grey beret. I surrendered to the virus and remained prone, drifting in and out of sleep. My travel companion returned in the early evening enthused about the markets she explored and the food she had sampled. I was finally feeling well enough to stay awake and sit up for a bit and admire the souvenirs and gifts she had purchased for others. I watched as she pulled out multiple packages from her tote bag. I oohed and aahed and tried to muster enthusiasm over each item as I wondered if she was going to exceed the maximum weight the airlines allowed for checked luggage. When she had at last emptied her bags one final item remained. She handed me a small crumpled paper bag and I peeked inside to find the elusive beret, and yes, it was most definitely grey! But as much as I enjoyed the triumph of a quest completed, this souvenir will always be remembered, less for France and more for the kindness that inspired it.

Principles

As I walked about the travel convention hall reviewing the many exhibitors, it was difficult to choose which one to visit first. However, one booth stopped me in my tracks. Standing at the entrance of the booth was a young woman in beautiful wedding attire. Perhaps two travel industry people who met through work were choosing to hold their nuptials in a location that was meaningful to them? Curious, I approached the booth and while the woman was indeed a bride, she was actually for sale. The host of the booth was a mail order Bride company and the young girl was part of their inventory. I was horrified! She was apparently a merchandise sample with the remainder of their “product line” being shown in a glossy catalogue. Interested men were able to shop from a large book that was broken down into age groups with foot notes that referenced their height, weight and childbearing status. We weren’t on American soil and as guests we had no rights to prohibit something that was not only practiced but considered acceptable in other countries. Acknowledging that we were on foreign soil I still protested that the convention was hosted by an American organization. Shouldn’t our principles follow us at least within the confines of a trade show that we had organized? Yes, we accepted money from the vendors who set up booths to show us their products and yes, it was a diverse collection of vendors that represented companies from many different countries. But surely, we had the option to say “thanks, but no thanks” to money from a company that was literally selling human beings. Apparently, the difference came down to free will. Without better options and the promise of a bright future with untold wealth in the United States or other countries, these women were supposedly signing up willingly for the venture. I requested a discreet conversation with the organizer of the event. I expressed my thoughts in a respectful nature which was met by an equally respectful reminder about accepting the unacceptable when visiting another country. Recognizing a brick wall and a thick one at that, I moved on. This wasn’t the first time that my principles have been stretched to their furthest boundaries. Travel does offer many wonderful opportunities for incredible experiences and interactions but it also exposes you to situations that can trouble your soul. Those who know me know that animal rescue occupies a good amount of my free time. I invest enormous energy is supporting stray cats and dogs but I advocate and care deeply for all animals. America is one of the most progressive countries in terms of animal protection yet we still have a long way to go. I constantly battle with the ethical dilemma of supporting travel that yields tourist related income, to countries that routinely abuse or consume animals that we in the United States welcome into our homes and keep as pets. I will spare you the details but I believe that if an animal needs to serve a purpose for food or clothing, it certainly doesn’t need to suffer to reach its inevitable conclusion. As much as I do care for animals I am even more pained to see children abused. In many countries it is acceptable to sell your daughters as child brides. Some call it an arranged marriage. It often turns out to be modern day slavery combined with physical and sexual abuse. In some nations children are deliberately maimed in order to elicit sympathy thus making them more successful at begging. I was once admonished to not give into the pleas of island children as the adults did not wish to raise a nation of beggars and yet it’s hard to turn your back on someone who seems to need so much. In some African nations it’s become a routine stop on most itineraries to visit an AIDS orphanage. Much like you would visit a famous statue in the center of any town or a landmark building, it has been added to the itineraries as a must see “tourist attraction”. However, in defense of the practice, I will publicly state that it was one of the more meaningful experiences I have had. You get to meet children who have so little, who lead a simple life and yet are happy and smiling. It remains a very positive memory for me and I made an effort to only purchase souvenirs from shops that supported the children.

And yes, I willingly choose to visit these countries. Each time I remind myself that we travel to learn and to gain an understanding of other cultures and sometimes what I see isn’t always pretty. In some cases it’s downright abhorrent. But, if real change is ever to come I believe it comes first from tolerance and finding common ground. I remind myself that some countries revere cows and in the United States we regularly consume them. Other areas of the world are forbidden to eat pork and yet it’s on a lot of American breakfast and dinner plates. We have strict child labor laws and in other parts of the world children are expected to contribute to the household income at an early age, lest they be given away or worse, sold. So, the question remains; should our collective principles travel with us no matter where we go? Yes, but not to the extent that we should expect everyone else to abide by them. However, our personal principles should always guide our own decisions and certainly our own behavior no matter where in the world we choose to roam.