Wednesday, April 09, 2008

North Korea or Bust; Me, my Shenyang hotel and

(Photos are of my hotel room, its view and the entrance to a Manchu tomb)

If you want to get a press pass to either the Republican or Democratic convention this fall, you have to apply for it through the congressional press office before April 15. This means that I won't be getting vetted for media credentials by the parties themselves. This is a good thing. I don't think either party likes me all that much.

The Republicans don't like me because I think they are wimps. They let the Bush-Cheney neo-cons use slime, name-calling, dirty tricks and lies to steam-roller over their principles, patriotism and "family values" and allow these fast-talking con-men to steal their party's very soul. Wimps.

And the Democrats don't like me because I think that they are wimps too -- afraid to think outside the box, call themselves liberals and get on with representing the working class and saving the world.

Anyway, in order to get a press pass to the two conventions, one apparently needs to have "authority" from Technorati. Nobody else has ever given me any authority. Why should Technorati start now?

And what exactly IS Technorati? I googled it and found out. And guess what? It turns out that I actually do have authority with Techorati. And my "authority" is the number 305,278. Sounds authoritative to me.

And now I'm over in northeastern China, but not getting any authority over here either. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is still refusing to give me a visa.

I was supposed to leave for North Korea yesterday with a tour group that arrived in Shenyang two days ago, spent a day sightseeing around at the tombs and palaces and a museum devoted to the Revolution and then happily toddled off to the airport without me, with their DPRK visas in hand. And here's me, stranded at my hotel without a visa, sadly waving goodbye.

I've been here in Shenyang for five days and I've spent most of those five days bugging various officials regarding my visa request. Now whenever anyone who has anything to do with granting visas sees me coming, you can just see them thinking to themselves, "Oh, no. Here comes Jane again. Where can I hide!"

The guards at the North Korea embassy know me by sight. The clerks at the North Korea travel agency are helpful but firm. "We can't do anything for you, Jane." The personnel at the North Korea airline office are really friendly and nice but the bottom line is that they are not allowed to put me on a plane without a visa. I've learned a lot about North Koreans just by trying to get a visa. They are truly polite and friendly. But definitely know how to stand their ground.

As I was standing in front of the DPRK embassy today, I met some Christian Koreans from Australia who were going there to deliver food for the children, and they offered to talk with the consulate on my behalf. I totally appreciated that they would do that for me but doubted they would get a response.

I somehow got the embassy's inside phone number and gave them a call. Their answering machine said, "Leave a message," in Korean. Or maybe it just said, "Don't call us, we'll call you."

Apparently North Korea's visa-granting committee only meets once a week in Pyongyang and they aren't scheduled to meet until next week. But next week will be too late for me. My flight back to California leaves on April 17.

This whole thing is SO frustrating. I've come all this way for nothing. North Korea is just over the freaking border from me but it might as well be on the moon. How frustrating. And this is the exact same way I felt in February at the Kuwait City airport when I was SO close to Iraq but the US military wouldn't let me in there either. What is WRONG with me? What is wrong with them? "Jane, you just don't have the authority." Crap.

I'm really sorry for bugging you with all this whining, guys, but nobody in Shenyang seems to speak English or I'd whine to them instead. Never mind. I'll whine to them anyway, English-speaking or not.

Also, it's been so very frustrating regarding my love of story-telling, knowing that 7,204,000 people live in this city, that each one of them has a story and that the glass wall of language is keeping me from finding out what they are. I saw an old dude wearing a Chairman Mao uniform yesterday. What is his story? Or the punk rocker girl with the spiked hair and chains? I bet that she's got a story. Or, of the thousands and thousands of Chinese I've seen here in the last week, only one of them was pregnant. And I bet all these teenage boys at the internet cafe have stories too. And the woman who sells me stick-figure chicken....

Why do I want to go to the DPRK so badly? To hear DPRK stories too. I don't want to go there to be able to praise their government for being so wonderful or condemn it for being so bad. I just want to hear people's stories. What is it like to be Kim Yong Il? What is it like to be a man on the street? Are there things they are doing there or ways they live that have been successful or that have failed? Can they teach me anything about their lives that will help me to better live mine?

Do they have any "authority"?

And will they give me some if they do?

Maybe that is why I try to travel so much -- to learn what other people all over the world do or don't do that makes them better people, that gives them "authority" -- moral authority.

That's what I hate most about Republicans -- and some Democrats too. They sold their moral authority for shekels -- no, they gave it away for free -- to a small un-American band of fast-talking con-men who then stole their rights, their ideals and their moral justification as well.

And I've got no "authority" here at my hotel either. What's with that? They keep looking at me like I'm going to run out without paying my bill. "We need another deposit from you," they say every day.

"But I gave you one yesterday!" I whine. Oops. They forgot. If only I could speak Chinese I'd be able to tell them, "Stop doing this to me. I'm a person of authority! I'm number 305,278!"

PS: If ANYONE out there reading this has ANY authority with anyone in the DPRK, now is the time to make your move! The last plane to North Korea that I can take and still get back to Shenyang by April 17 leaves here on Saturday. If I'm not on it, visa in hand, I won't be able to go and will just have to sit around Shenyang for the next seven days.

PPS: I seem to have a love-hate relationship with my hotel. Sometimes I feel like that little girl in the children's book who lived in a hotel too. Like Eloise, I appear to be here for the duration.

"We are going send a fruit plate up to your room tonight," said the assistant manager. How sweet. Every time I think that I really hate this hotel, something else happens to make me love it.

Two nights ago, some newlyweds kept me up all night listening to them fight. She sobbed, he cajoled. But last night I slept like a baby. Three nights ago, some drunks down the hall started banging on doors at 3 am. But yesterday the dining room staff pulled my chair out for me, brought me coffee without asking -- even though I would have preferred tea -- and smiled.

This morning the freaking elevator was broken and I had to hobble down EIGHT FLIGHTS of stairs on my poor painful knees, one step at a time and mumbling, "Ouch, ouch, ouch, that really hurts!" all the way down. And crying and cursing this hotel.

But when I came back to the hotel from the internet cafe a few hours later, there was the doorman, waiting for me, to show me how to take the service elevator up to my room.

For the past five days, I've been continually accused of not paying my "deposit". Three times they have actually gone so far as to change the locks on my door so my key card wouldn't work. "You owe us money," they grumble. But every time I think that I'll just pack my bags and move to the hotel next door, the assistant manager sends me fruit. The doorman smiles. The elevator mechanic apologizes for the inconvenience. And, feeling like the little girl in the storybook, I realize that, for good or for bad, this hotel is my home. And I smile and stay another night.

China is like that -- the good and the bad. And America is like that too. And most people also are like that as well -- not perfect all the time but perfect just enough of the time to make you smile.