Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Travel, interrupted

By 4 a.m. Wednesday I would have seen, for the first time, the interiors of the new NAIA Terminal 3, our departure point. Two hours later and we'd be off to Singapore on the first leg of our exciting, momentous trip. But at 3 p.m. today I got the news: The trip had been cancelled.

To say I was crestfallen would be an understatement. I had dreamed of this trip for months--begged for it even, since it wasn't me who was initially assigned to go. But I nagged my colleague to give me this one, because there might not be another opportunity like it. When she learned that cellphones or the Internet wouldn't be allowed in this trip, she--mother to two kids--had cold feet and finally relented.

No phones and no Internet? Yes. Our destination was North Korea--one of the most secretive, least accessible places on earth at this time, a country that, if reports are to be believed, is a shadowy, volatile, highly dangerous place to find yourself in. But if the trip had pushed through, I'd have been part of a historic event--the first official chartered flight from the Philippines to North Korea, via Singapore which hosts an office of Nokor's government-run travel agency (the only one operating out of the communist country).

We were to join some other journalists and travelers from other countries in touring designated spots in North Korea and witnessing its annual Arirang Festival--sort of like their Olympics, with hundreds of thousands of colorfully garbed citizens participating in spectacular parades, dances, mass calisthenics. This was going to be the first time the country would open its doors to ordinary tourists and visitors, and we'd be there to document the important event.

It wasn't going to be a lark, though. The advance guidelines made clear how the North Koreans intended to keep us on a very short leash, even though we were their invited guests. Upon arrival, we had to deposit our cellphones with immigration. We could only get them back when we leave the country. Cameras, laptops and other electronic gegaws had to be registered. Obviously, there wouldn't be any Internet available to us under such set-up. In short, we were to be kept incommunicado for seven days, from September 18 to 24.

That didn't faze me. I had travelled before without roaming services, and as long as we had a handler we could trust (the Nokor travel agency rep in Singapore is a Filipina), I didn't see any reason to be fearful. I was much more excited to discover with my own eyes a country that few people had seen, and whose every mention in the world press seems always in negative, bellicose terms. Well, how true are those stories? What lay behind those forbidding, highly militarized borders? And why this invitation? What did the government want us to see?

I suppose I won't find out--not in the near-term, anyway. All press visas were revoked with no explanation or word on when a new trip might take place. Except for the notice of cancellation, there is zero information at this point--something not unheard of from the unpredictable government running this hermetic nation. Reports in the last few weeks have indicated that the Nokor's lifetime leader, Kim Jong-Il, has fallen ill, which might account for the sudden developments.

Our itinerary didn't include any meeting with him or lesser apparatchiks (thank God), but I was thinking that, in the event I did encounter the Dear Leader, I had a very serious question for him: Sir, who's your hairstylist?

Don't mind me, I'm just trying to cheer myself up. I've got luggage to unpack and extra toiletries to consume. What do I do with all these damn disposable undies? (Yes, they're very handy during travel.) Everything's been ready for the trip since Monday evening--I was that excited, and that OC. More difficult is banishing away this deflated feeling, that I had something mysterious and otherwise unreachable within grasp (in a little over 24 hours!), only for it to be snatched away at the last minute. Grrr.

Hmp, now where did Nanay stash all those Jewel in the Palace DVDs?

PLUS: Okay, for some good news this time--Vince de Jesus is selling copies of the double-CD album of Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah, Ze Musikal for only P300 here. Exie Abola reviews PETA'S Noli at Fili Dekada 2000 and Tosca in today's Philippine Star. Anton Juan's Hinabing Pakpak ng Ating Mga Anak just got accepted to the Skena Up Film and Theater Festival in Kosovo; 10 UP students will represent the country, and they need our help. Lastly, remember the Philippine booth in the Zaragoza World Expo that I wrote about here? It won the highest prize in its category during the closing ceremonies a day ago. Winner!


amateur ear said...

Hmm, yeah, I agree, the trip would have been something. A free trip to twilight zone. But I'm sure there'll be a next time.

waltzang said...

achk! na mercury retrograde ka! but it's okay i'm sure you will have lots more chance.

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