Do Cruise Ship Stops Count?

Sometimes when people find out that I like to travel, they’ll let me know how many states or countries they’ve been to and which ones. And I am genuinely interested to hear about it. However, I’ve found that everyone has different ideas about what counts as having visited a place. Here are some situations people argue about:

– airports

-driving through

-cruise ship stops

-living somewhere

I know that I 100% don’t count airports. All airports are the same everywhere, no matter the state or the country. You can see as much culture and as many different nationalities in the Columbus, Ohio airport as you can see in the Beijing, China airport. You don’t even step on the land itself. You see people from other countries more than you see the natives of that place while in an airport. I have been in more airports than I can count on my fingers and toes, but I don’t count a single one of them. Yes, I have been to the LA airport; in fact, I have even stepped on LA’s ground because you have to walk outside to change terminals. However, I have never been to LA.

Driving through. Oh, this one is argued about quite a bit. If you drive through a state to get to another state, does this count as having been there? If you’re going to South Carolina and drive through North Carolina, does that mean you can check North Carolina off your list? But what about if you stop to eat there? Or what if you just open your car door and plant your 2 feet firmly on the ground. Does it count? In my humble opinion, no.

When people tell me their cruise ship stops, I am a little hesitant to count those as countries visited. Yes, you may have stepped on the shore of Puerto Rico, but does 4 hours there actually count as having visited the country? Especially when you have only seen the touristy parts that your cruise guides you to….I know when I only get to stay in a country for a week, I feel like I haven’t got to experience even 1% of the country- its people, its food, its culture. How can a few hour stop allow you to understand a country’s essence?

I also wonder when people speak of “living” in a country. I heard a student say that she lived in Italy once when referring to staying for 2 months of the summer during a study abroad experience. I would venture to say that a person needs to have a permanent address before they can say they lived in a country. I guess my best bet would be to see if the locals consider you a neighbor, if they see you as a permanent part of their space in the world.

To know a place means to experience its food, its language, its religion, its people, its traditions, and its government. Perhaps you don’t have much time to spend in a country or a state. Well, spend some time learning about the place beforehand, so that you’ll know what you’re seeing when the time comes. Every time I visit a new country, or even a new area of my country, I try to read the history of the place, know what the racial makeup is, learn what the dominant religion is there and so on. When you get there, browse the local market or grocery store, walk around a college campus, try the local cuisine, and talk to the people. This will help you know the place you are. Then, you can say you have been to a place.

What are your rules about where you’ve been? Am I being too strict? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

State lines

That One Time I Saw North Korea…

While I was disappointed to leave Japan, I knew I had the excitement of visiting yet another new-to-me country: South Korea. My flight from Tokyo to Seoul was only about 2.5 hours, and since my last flight was 12 hours, that flight was a breeze! My flight didn’t arrive in Seoul until 9 pm, so after my contact, Sang, picked me up from the airport and took me to where I was staying, I called it an early night.

The next day, Sang picked me up to do a little sight-seeing. After going to a park by the river, Sang said, “Hey, do you want to see North Korea? The DMZ is only about 45 minutes from here.” I wasn’t expecting that, but I absolutely wanted to!

In the US, the Korean War is sometimes called “The Forgotten War” because this war’s issues were deemed as a little more unclear than previous wars and people today tend to forget about this war. In South Korea, it’s known as “625”, which refers to the date the war started (June 25th). In North Korea, they call it the “Fatherland Liberation War”, and in China (because China aided North Korea in this war), it’s known as the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea”. Wow! Everyone has some different viewpoints on this conflict.

The war, which took place between 1950 and 1953, erupted because at the end of World War II, Korea ceased to be a Japanese colony after Japan’s defeat. Who would help this newly freed nation? The Soviets would assist in the north, while American troops would help in the south. The Soviets ended up bringing communism to the North, and the situation turned into the first military act of the Cold War. Harry Truman, US president at the time, said that the US had to intervene because if not “the Soviet[s] will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another.” Nearly 5 million people died during these 3 years, and, as you know, North Korea is still communist.

Now the DMZ, the demilitarized zone,  exists. It’s a 150 mile area that serves as a large border between North and South Korea. It is the most heavily fortified border in the world with soldiers on the edges of it always standing guard, barbed-wire fences everywhere, and the knowledge that anyone that tries to cross illegally will be shot on site with no questions asked. The part of the DMZ that I went to was just right at the edge of it-still on the South Korean side.

People on the South Korean side decorate the fences with ribbons that have wishes written on them-wishes to be reunited with their loved ones. Can you imagine if someone suddenly cut your country in half and you were never allowed to see or hear from your friends and loved ones on the other side? North Koreans aren’t allowed to leave their country. They can’t make a phone call to family. They aren’t permitted to even use the internet. They are completely isolated. Sang translated some of the messages on the ribbons for me, and they made me so sad. One of the most touching was one that simply said, “Grandma. Grandpa. I miss you.” There was also a birthday card that said something like this, “I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again or if you’re even still alive, but happy birthday.” That’s when I just started crying. I just can’t even fathom how hard that must be on the Korean people on both sides.


North Korean Border

North Korean Border

North Korean Border

North Korea

There is also an official border crossing that is really only for South Koreans to cross. South Korea built a great deal of factories that give 100’s of 1,000’s of North Koreans jobs and many South Koreans cross that border daily to work there as well. I was allowed to take pictures from the car, but I wasn’t allowed to get out of the car.

North Korea

Going to the DMZ was an eye-opening experience for me. I knew a few things about the Korean conflict, but this made it real to me. It is a sad situation that I hope can be fixed sooner rather than later.

When we were leaving, I asked Sang, “Do you have any family in North Korea?”

He said, “I do. But I try not to think about them. I don’t know if they’re living or dead. I can’t think about it, or I’d be sad every day of my life. I must put it out of my mind.”

Just Nod and Smile

Well, I have been trying my hand at some travel writing. I have had so many funny and unique experiences while traveling, I feel like I need to share them. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoy reliving the experience. Get ready to read about my adventure in crossing the Vietnamese border!

      I have found that my best response in life is a nod and a smile. This is especially useful when dealing with gun-toting, communist boarding crossing guards. After a very long and interesting 24 hour train ride from Hangzhou, China to Nanning, China, I was finally ready to make my way across the border from one communist country to another. We had to get off the bus and walk through customs and exit China, then walk across the Vietnamese border and do customs on that side.

      So, here I go walking through with my 30 pound traveler’s backpack on my back and my friend Danny by my side. Even though I haven’t done anything criminal or wrong, I always feel a little edgy going across borders. Are they going to deny me entry? Have I unknowingly let my passport expire, and they’re going to send me on the next slow boat back to America? After being pushed and pushing back to get to the front of the mass of people that should, in an American’s eyes, be a nice, neat line, I finally make it to the window.  

     As Danny finishes up at the window, he stands off to the side, as I start my smile and nod routine. There are two Vietnamese officers behind the grimy, plexi-glass window. They both look like they are growing weary of seeing 20-something year old foreign backpackers trying to enter their country. I hand one angry-looking man my passport. He flips it open, looks at it, looks at me, looks at it, looks at me. He’s grumbling to the man beside him as he slams a rubber stamp down on my Vietnamese visa. Then he looks at my entry paper. The second man starts talking rapidly to the man holding my precious passport. If only these two gentlemen spoke English and didn’t frighten me slightly, I might have had the courage to ask if there was a problem. Finally, after much deliberation in a language that I couldn’t even pick a single word out of, the man with my passport looks at me from under his little, blue hat and says in English, “Is dat man your husband?” while pointing to Danny who was already safely through the line.

     My mind begins racing. I am thinking they have discovered that Danny has smuggled some illegal substance into the country; maybe he is even hiding a small child somewhere in his backpack, and he forgot to mention it to me. I’m already picturing us being escorted to a back room filled with rats the size of my head. I quickly spout out an, “Um, no?” hoping that is indeed the right answer.

     “Oh good!” he says as he slaps the other man on the shoulder enough times to constitute as the himlec maneuver. “Because he thinks you are soooooo beautiful and is very happy dat you are not da wife of that man!” he says while crying with laughter. I glance in the direction of my admirer who is red in the face and is swatting at the hand on his shoulder. I figure that that information was supposed to be a secret between comrades. I take my passport back and tuck it back into my bag as I nod, smile, and walk away. 

Me with my travelin' gear