Chapter 14 – The Ultimate Mindfuck
In addition to the three North Korean guides, our group was also led by a Western guide named Richie from Young Pioneer Tours which is the company through which I’d signed myself up for this off-the-beaten track adventure. Veering far from the mental image I have when I think of your stereotypical tour guide, Richie was a chain-smoking booze-swilling twenty-two-year-old British bro with dreadlocks who’d dropped out of school at sixteen, had been travelling for five years straight and, for the duration of the tour, had been wearing a t-shirt depicting Oscar the Grouch popping out of a garbage can with the line “GETTING TRASHED” printed across the image.
In spite of his questionable hygiene, I gotta give credit where credit is due – Richie knew his shit and was a charismatic leader who’d kept the group entertained during long bus rides with his never-ending arsenal of trivia questions and little-known facts. More importantly than that, however, since in the DPRK there aren’t liquor stores here, there and everywhere from where we could pick up booze while on the go, Richie would encourage us to purchase all the drinks we thought we’d need from the shop in the hotel lobby before heading out and about for the day. And in that sentiment, he couldn’t have been more adamant than he’d been before exiting Yanggakdo International Hotel on our last night in the country.
I took what Richie had said very seriously, bought as many bottles of beer as I could carry as well as one bottle of soju – soju is a vodka-like liquor native to the Koreas – which I had intended on bringing back to the states as a present for my friends. Of course when you’re an alcoholic like I am, good intentions such as that don’t always work out as planned.
After spending the earlier parts of the evening seeing a play supposedly written by Kim Il-Sung that, to me, lacked a plot and came across as heavy on the random violence against women, we went over to an amusement park. A few days beforehand, back when I had no idea that we as a group were going to go to said amusement park which wasn’t that big and had about twice as many rides as your average travelling carnival, I’d been reading about one – not sure if it was the same one though – in the English version of a North Korean magazine I’d found at the base of the Juche Tower. The article was supposedly written by a child no more than ten years of age. The first three paragraphs went as follows:
“I used to have a dream of playing on amusements with my friends at the newly built Kaeson Youth Park at the foot of Moran Hill in Pyongyang. Awaking from the sleep, I missed the pleasure in the dream so much that I wanted to go back to sleep.
“And my dream became a reality last week when I visited Pyongyang as a delegate to the Korean Children’s Union functions held in celebration of its 66th founding anniversary in the presence of the dear respected Kim Jong Un. I enjoyed all the fantastic amusements in the park that I had done only in dream. When we went to the park, all the employees of the park warmly welcomed us which made me feel buoyed up.
“‘You are the honored guests of the dear respected Kim Jong Un,’ said the workers with a smile, patting us on the back whenever we got on the amusements. While I was riding the Z-Force, I pinched myself to see if it was a dream. The guide told me that Kim Jong Un tried the amusement three times to confirm its safety. The amusement carried me high up to the sky. Looking down, a picturesque scene of Pyongyang came into my eyes, which was really marvelous…”
Although none of the rides had gotten my dick so hard that I needed to pinch myself to see whether or not I was dreaming, I had a pretty awesome time at whatever amusement park we ended up at. Perhaps the amount of alcohol consumed had played a pretty big role in that. Regardless, one of my favorite memories on that trip had been partaking in a round of North Korean bumper cars.
Since the amusement park had employed a foreigners-first policy, after handing my bag of unopened beers to my Australian buddy Gavin to hold, I walked right to the front of the long-ass line of locals who’d been patiently awaiting their turns, hopped into one of the cars and strapped myself in with a beer in hand. Before our session began, some dad who was with his tiny little daughter in the car adjacent mine said something to me in Korean while waving and getting his girl to wave at me as well. I held my beer up to them, offered a cheers in the form of “ganbeh” then proceeded to slam right into the daddy-daughter duo as soon as the operator let the electricity flow. Over the course of the next couple minutes, I rammed, jammed and slammed into as many cars containing North Koreans as I could while trying not to spill my drink. When the fun was over, I reconvened with Gavin and proceeded to pound the rest of my beers while bouncing from ride to ride and cutting to the front of each and every line.
After “playing on amusements with my friends,” the group headed back to the Yanggakdo around ten at night where we were free to do whatever we wanted around the hotel before flying back to Beijing early the following morning. I spent this time posted up at the bar in the lobby of the hotel with Richie the Brit and Gavin the Aussie, both of whom had been filled with ridiculous stories to tell.
Gavin was an engineer a few years older than me that made his money working the mines in Western Australia and would regularly piss off for months at a time blowing it all on world travel. With his telling of the disastrous results of contests he and his college roommates used to hold of who could “slay the ugliest Bambi” during nights on the town coming in at second place, my favorite tale he’d imparted had been about the time a rugby mate at a rugby banquet had taken a loaf of bread off the buffet before anyone else had touched it, carved a neat replaceable chunk out of the thing, took a shit in it, replaced the replaceable chunk, put it back on the table and joyfully watched as teammates and coaches inadvertently cut into his filler loaf while cutting into the loaf that was legit.
“One time when I was on this six-month-long Cape Town to Cairo overland trip,” Gavin began amid the drunken storytelling marathon, “I camped out with this guy who told me that he’d just been robbed a few weeks back in Nairobi but wasn’t all that upset about it. In fact, he made a point of saying that these Kenyan robbers had been some of the nicest guys he’d ever met. He told me that when he’d been walking down the street by himself one night, someone had jumped out from behind the bushes, wrapped a cord around his neck and dragged him back into the bushes where another guy was waiting.
“Naturally, he was freakin’ out, thinking they were going to kill him, but they pinned him down took the cord away from his neck, emptied all his pockets and waited for him to calm down. The guy told me, ‘Yeah, they took my phone and my money, but once they assured me they didn’t wanna hurt me, we got to talkin’ and they let me keep my SIM card and my wallet which was really nice ‘cause I wouldn’t have to get a new credit card or driver’s license when I went back home.’ And then he’s like, ‘They turned out to be such accommodating robbers that I felt like asking them if they wanted to go out for a beer afterwards. Of course they’d have to pay though since they’d taken all my money but…’”
Since I haven’t yet been to Africa, I was mostly silent during this portion of the exchange. But Richie had also spent a considerable amount of time on the Dark Continent and followed up Gavin’s story with the following.
“A few years ago, some friends and I were roughing it in Tanzania. We were in a very rural area and, between the lot of us, barely had any money left. We actually had so very little money that we were hesitant to even spend it on food. So, to save what pennies we had, we ended up boiling some water and cooking up this random bag of rice we’d found laying around the tiny, block-long town we were in. Not the best idea, but we were pretty desperate. It turns out that everyone was okay except for my girlfriend at the time who’d gotten pretty sick from it. So, after a couple days of throwing up, shitting and not eating anything, she was lookin’ pretty bad – like she wasn’t gonna make it. And there weren’t any hospitals around either, not that any of us had insurance or could afford it.
“So, she needed to eat. We all needed to eat again actually. We needed to get some more food right away. And, uh, to solve the problem, we pooled the rest of our money together and bought a goat off some guy that we planned to kill and eat. The only problem was that none of us had the balls to slit its throat. But we had to kill it ‘cus we had to eat, ya know. So, what we did was draw sticks to decide who was going to murder the poor thing and who was going to run and get some water for the group. I, thankfully, turned out to be the water guy.
“As I’m making my way back into town with the pail of water, I see my mates on the roof of the highest building in the area – three stories up – standing near the edge with the goat. I guess the best way they could think of to kill the thing had been by shoving it off the roof and letting gravity do the dirty work for ‘em. So, I arrived just in time to see my mates throw this fucking goat off the roof, watching it fall and splatter on the ground below. It was a pretty gruesome sight but it got the job done. And, uh, after that, we did our best to carve the thing up and had ourselves a barbecue. And the best thing is, none of us ended up dying during our stint in rural Tanzania.”
The hours at the lobby bar of Yanggakdo International Hotel didn’t seem to be set in stone. I got the impression that the woman serving us kinda had to stay there feeding us drinks until we’d all had our fill. I remember her being barely able to keep her eyes open and asking us while fetching each round if that could be our last.
“Maybe, maybe,” we’d tell her, but then when that round was almost finished, we’d tell her to start preparing the next one.
This had gone on until the early hours of the morning when the three of us had been completely wasted and the woman finally worked up the balls to say something like, “No more. That’s enough. I need to go to bed. I need to be back here in a couple hours to start my next shift.”
“Yeah, yeah,” we grumbled and staggered over towards the elevator.
I got this thing where, when I’m drinking, I can never go to bed until every last drop of available booze has been consumed. So, even though we were all completely tanked and my flight outta Pyongyang had only been a handful of hours away, I put forth the proposition to these bros to come up to my room to help me go to work on the aforementioned bottle of souvenir soju I’d planned on bringing home for my friends. Since each of them had been as degenerate of an alcoholic as I am, they took me up on my offer. Cracking that bottle open – and it was a pretty good-sized bottle too – up in my room is the last I can remember of being in the DPRK.
Throughout the course of my life as a drinker, I’ve come out of blackouts in some pretty strange situations. Sometimes I actually do drink so much that I pass out in strange places, but mostly I wander around town on auto-pilot not knowing where I am or who I’m talking to and suddenly regain control of myself in bizarre situations.
The first time this had ever happened to me was during my first year of drinking, during my first couple months at school back when I was a freshman at Marquette U up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The freshman dormitory there known as McCormick Hall is a large twelve-story cylindrical building that I thought had been quite unique in its design and hard to miss. After blacking out at a bar down on Water Street, I guess I’d spent several hours wandering around the city that I hadn’t been familiar with and ended up venturing a bit into Milwaukee’s north side which is kind of a ghetto-ass shithole.
As it turns out, in this ghetto-ass shithole area, about a mile or two northwest of campus, there’d been a project building shaped exactly like McCormick Hall. In my state of no-mind I must’ve seen the cylindrical shape rising from the earth in the distance and staggered up towards it, thinking it was my dorm. So, when I eventually came out of the blackout around three in the morning, I – the only white boy around – had been standing around the entrance to this project with a bunch of shady-looking dudes hangin’ out, drinkin’ beers and smokin’ on dat good-good. When I awoke the next day, I remember feeling lucky that I hadn’t been robbed. That said, I’m not always that lucky.
A different time about a year after graduating college, I went out in Chicago with my neighborhood buddies Targosz and Schmidt – Schmidt picked us up – to go rape some twenty dollar happy hour deal down in Lincoln Park. I was drinking so fast that night that I blacked out within two hours of posting up at the bar. And when I emerged from this marathon of a blackout, it was 5am and I was magically back at my kitchen table eating a full slab of ribs.
How’d I get there? I couldn’t say. Where’d the ribs come from? I haven’t a clue. All’s I know is that – after sleeping off that hangover – I came to the realization around eight in the evening that my phone, my weed, my one-hitter and my wallet which had contained my debit card were no longer in my possession. And after checking my bank account online, I came to the even more horrifying realization that the eight-thousand dollars in my checking had all been withdrawn from a series of a dozen or so ATMs within the span of a couple hours on Chicago’s north side.
Who was I with? How could I not remember getting robbed? And where did those fucking ribs come from!? Were they a consolation prize from some guy who forced me to give him my PIN number at gunpoint? I have no idea. At least whoever jacked my shit had the courtesy to not take a picture of their dicks on my cell phone and send it to every one of my contacts the way some huge-cocked Milwaukee black dudes did on the stolen phone of some chick I knew back in college.
After filing a police report and dealing with the insurance people at my bank, I got my money back. And a couple days after the incident, I found out that Schmidt totaled his car on the expressway trying to drive home from that happy hour. What a fucked-up night that was.
One of the more interesting blackouts I’ve experienced had been in Hanoi, Vietnam, on a night that I decided to bring my camera out with me. After getting wasted all night out at the bars, some guy approached me on a motorcycle as I’d been staggering around by my lonesome.
“You want girl?”
“Yeah, I want girl.”
“Okay. Get on.”
So, I hop on this guy’s motorcycle and he’s flying around the streets of Hanoi. I have no idea where I am and only have the faint idea that I should have a helmet on. Eventually he’s pulls up in front of some building, hops off and tells me to follow him inside. I’m instructed to sit down on a leather couch across from another leather couch occupied by some ugly-ass Vietnamese guy in a red, open-topped robe with no shirt underneath, showing off his sag tits and fat gut. He had the style of Hugh Heffner and the looks of William Hung but that didn’t stop the three gross-looking hookers who’d been straddling him on the couch from rubbing every inch of his body as he sat there and sipped a cocktail.
I was told to choose from one of the three sloppy-ass skanks. I opted not to, walked out of the place and asked the motorcycle guy to take me back to where he’d found me. He cussed me out, hopped on his bike, gave me the finger and sped off. I had no idea where the fuck I was. So, I started wandering.
Eventually I came across a bar that was still open and went inside to finish myself off. The only two customers in the place had been two really unfriendly anti-American Saudi Arabian dudes. Their surly demeanor didn’t stop me from talking shit to them about how good Muslims shouldn’t drink as I sat on my stool like a loser, pounding whiskey after whiskey until my mind was gone. At the time I’d entered my memory lapse, I distinctly remember still having my camera on my person.
I came out of the blackout in some strange neighborhood of Hanoi when the sun had been on the rise. I found myself standing in the middle of the street looking over onto the sidewalk where some butcher had just killed a cow. It wasn’t sitting on a tarp or anything. It was just lying there on the bare ground. Its blood was running off the curb as the tiny middle-aged man continued hacking at the thing with a massive knife, occasionally looking up at me and giggling at my stupefied expression. I reached in my pocket to grab my camera so I could photograph the outrageous scene but it wasn’t there.
Although most of my wandering blackouts leave me in mind-boggling situations when I regain control, I don’t think any have been more shocking to me than coming out of the one I was launched into by that bottle of soju at Yanggakdo International Hotel during my last night in Pyongyang. When I emerged from it, some Asian guy had been shaking my shoulder. A bunch of people were standing around me, pulling their baggage from the overhead compartments on an airplane.
“Hello,” the guy said while pointing down with his index finger to indicate where we were, “Beijing.”
I mean, sure, it was an early-ass flight and all, but how does one black out leaving a country? How in the hell could I have blacked out leaving the fucking DPRK? Someone must’ve carried me and my bag to the airport. Someone had to have been holding my hand and shuffling me through border control. Someone must’ve set me in the seat on that plane and buckled my seatbelt for me. Someone had to have been lookin’ out for my sloppy drunken ass. I don’t really know what to say for myself. Words can’t really express how good it feels to not be getting butt-rammed in the showers right now – if they even have showers – at some remote-ass North Korean internment camp.