‘One of the first acts of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un upon assuming power was to execute his own uncle. Accused of plotting a coup, Jang is rumoured to have been stripped naked and fed alive to a pack of hungry, ravenous dogs’. ‘Kim Jong-Un executes his defence minister with an anti-aircraft gun in front of hundreds of spectators for the crime of dozing off during a military ceremony’. Thus go a couple of news items emanating from North Korea in recent years that makes you not want to go anywhere near the dreaded country.
Well, not if your name is Anjaly Thomas that is.
The widely traveled, Dubai based writer has come out with yet another stellar account of her world travels, this one setting off in Democratic People’s Republic (DPR) Korea simply known as North Korea. Its iron-fisted ruler, the cherubic 33 year old Kim is third in line of tyrants ruling the land since 70 years and ostensibly implementing a self-determinist Juche philosophy. Stalin can smirk in his grave in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.
In his book Clandestine in Chile, Gabriel Garcia Marquez described how the Chilean film-maker Miguel Littin sneaked in and lived a year in his home country from where the dictator Pinochet had exiled him. North Korea did not have any personal animosity for Anjaly but it did frown upon the profession that she belonged to, that of the writer. So she too wore a disguise of sorts and presented herself as a kindergarten teacher to secure entry. The book’s title could well have been ‘There are no Gods in North Korea but the string of dynastic despots lording it over there.’
False identity is not the only sacrifice that Anjaly makes for this trip. It is a comedown of sorts for the backpacking traveler in her to transform into a regimented tourist with a watertight itinerary and led by Goebbelsian guides. I had read and immensely loved Anjaly’s first book ‘Almost Intrepid’ and so could tell one thing at the outset. A fancy Pyongyang hotel is a far cry from her usual escapades where a dorm is the norm after a tired day’s travels and travails.
The Koreas might be in a dog eat dog cold war but they see eye to eye when it comes to a man eat dog culinary regimen. And you can bet your last Won that Anjaly is not one to shy away from local cuisine, however exotic the land. But still China at one time grosses her out in the dietary department, but that is another story. Along with her fellow tourists she partakes of a taste of the megalomania via a mandatory visit to the Kim family mausoleums. Like Soviet Russia of yore which embalmed Lenin, these worshippers of the dead had her struggling to keep a straight and somber face. The breath of fresh air in the Korean sojourn comes in a brief visit to the countryside where women make clothes and duly stamp them with Made in China labels with an eye for the global market. Korea was indeed a novel experience for the writer, but an encore is understandably not on the cards.
The book is not all North Korea. That trip takes up just a quarter of the 235 page book. From there the one member caravan ambles on to a range of locales from Mongolia to Turkey to Kenya. It is the kind of continent hopping that gives you the feeling of curling up with a stack of Tintin comics. Only there is no Ottokar’s scepter to be restored in the present day Ottoman Empire. No loyal dog Snowy joins in barking moral support for her Tintin either. It is an essentially solo trip although at almost all places Anjaly couch surfs for reasons of budget bed and breakfast. Cities and whole countries have a habit of resting on their laurels and also infamy. Mongolia is all about Chengis Khan and Uganda has not grown out of Idi Amin’s shadow yet. In the African nation she reconnects with her Swahili guide from an earlier trek up Mt Kilimanjaro. Also in the capital city Kampala she experiences her most hilarious ‘Indian’ encounter of the book.
The foodie in Anjaly is evident throughout. One is tempted to dub the book a food travel one. Like the protagonist of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel Eat, Pray, Love, she takes a break from her comfort cocoons and treads the vast unknown. In the process she encounters sublime love in unlikely places and revels in flashes of spiritual bliss. Wading in the crocodile infested waters of the Nile is when she gets an inkling of the latter. If the world is a giant trapezium, Anjaly the ever curious traveler maneuvers it with consummate artistry.
Despite not being a monument person she takes pain to visit Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence in Istanbul and is quite unguarded in informing us that she lacks the ‘fine taste in literature’ to have read the Nobel Laureate’s eponymous book. Africa where she once barely escaped becoming a Masai bride is her favorite haunt. It is no wonder that she started her charity initiative Travel and Relief in the Dark Continent.
As a reader what impressed me most about her book is the candidness of its tone. It enriched me at many levels – places, people, cuisine, flora, fauna and profound insights into cultures. Anjaly Thomas has truly imbibed the spirit of Ithaca, the Greek poem of Constantine P. Cavafy which begins with ‘When you depart for Ithaca/ wish for the road to be long/ full of adventure, full of knowledge./Don't fear the Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,/the angry Poseidon……‘. I wish the publishers Niyogi Books had included some of the pictures of the travels also to embellish this lovely book better.