I can say Thank You in thirteen different languages
Review of ‘There are no Gods in North Korea’ by Anjaly Thomas
Travel is like an ‘amazing kaleidoscope’ that stays on in the system even long after the actual travel has happened. It has the power to change the very dna of a person and the way one tends to look at the world. Travel isn’t just ‘fast trains, slow trains, local buses, metros, and ferry rides’ because it goes beyond the sights into the surreal world of insights.
Talking of insights, I must mention right in the beginning of this review that Anjaly Thomas, the author of ‘There are no Gods in North Korea’ is a young backpacker who has transcended from being a mere traveller to bringing in more meaning to it all. She mentions that for her at one stage during her visit to china ‘just as suddenly, Travel & relief was born. And with that, from being just a backpacker, I became a relief traveller.’ She goes on to tell us that a relief traveller is forever ‘adding a little thought to the fun of travel’ and this is so vital wherever the ‘local population is in need of basic necessities’. I guess insights such as this are what turns her book into something more than a mere travelogue.
I have always felt that travel writing, with the influx of so many bloggers who travel to either impress their friends and relatives on the social media or want to earn a quick buck or simply do it so long as there are freebies thrown at them, has actually turned into some sort of a catalogue of information that is anyway existing in pamphlets and brochures and on so many online travel portals. These blog posts and sometimes even books are all about information that anyway exists somewhere else as well. Anjaly has taken care to not fall into this trap and leads us gently into chapter after chapter of her impressions and experiences in various countries that she has been to. This is definitely the second reason that endeared her style of writing to the travel enthusiast within me.
To be able to say thank you in thirteen different languages and yet sound as if each of them is heartfelt and not a mere pretension, one should have had the sort of rugged and brave experiences that I read in this book. And so I willingly travelled with her through her words into the heart of China, North Korea, Mongolia, and a few countries in Africa and the Middle East. I understood the reasons for being fascinated by the big ovoo, donning the role of a fake Muzungu, the importance of know the difference between a ‘short call or long call’, the sublime feeling of a dip in the Nile, standing in front of ‘a coffee shop ambitiously named 1000 Cups of Coffee’, relishing hamsi, exploring a cave of hair, and knowing when to utter Bu Xie Xie. So now if you’re suitably immersed in a sea of curiosity, let me add here that the book isn’t just about North Korea… though that happens to feature in the initial chapters and is spell-binding, to say the least.
As a reader I loved it as I wandered through the hermit kingdom or North Korea with her where ‘arrest was the solution to everything’ and realised, as she did, that despite all the restrictions ‘had I been airdropped without the knowledge of where, I’d have found the scenery very captivating. Endless fields of rice, peaceful rivers and green hills all the way to the horizon and if it weren’t for the mountains that crept in here and there ruining the picture perfect scenery, I’d have given the scenery a huge thumbs up.’ This doesn’t mean that the author doesn’t have the guts to tell us the truth about DPRK as when she writes, ‘what it did not have was people. And life. And colour. Traffic jam. Noise. It was missing something essential called – people’ I literally could feel the truth of this nation. The author does go on to write that ‘if you look carefully enough, meaning if you had a great camera lens and zoomed in close, you could notice the absence of glass on the windows or electric bulbs or people in those drab apartment blocks. Period. Pyongyang was more like a city to be seen and toured, not lived in.’ The mark of a great travel writer is obvious when he or she is able to talk uninhibitedly about the strange unreality of what is observed and not just keep repeating what we all think we know or believe in. Yes, North Korea did emerge like a ‘gap, between two worlds, one of the visitors and the other real one for the locals’ particularly when ‘we sat in a well-lit restaurant for dinner, the city outside turned pitch-black’… and it was as if the locals there ‘lived in constant fear’.
The book though, as I have said earlier, not just about her trip to DPRK. There are other countries too which even in the few pages allocated to them, manage to give a travel reader all the gonadal giggles possible. It is true that ‘to really stop complaining about lack of freedom and intellectual deprivation, I would strongly recommend a visit to North Korea at least once in your lifetime’… because ‘as a good traveller it helps to keep an open mind, to be surprised and even shocked by other cultures’.
Travel, in many ways, is all about applauding the opportunity to be there in Uganda and loving the way they have created another version of the Indian chapati and so enjoying ‘chipati with beans, chipati with eggs, and Rolex – a chipati wrapped around an omelette’ in Kampala sounds really mouth-watering. The entire book is full of real-life incidents that include the author’s escapades with lovelorn men in different countries that I was at times prodded to believe that this too left her ‘hungry for more’. But then I was more attracted to read about hippos who ‘don’t charge through the canvas tent to trample you to death because they think the tent is a wall. They stand there unmoving and when their brain starts functioning again, move on to wherever their fancy takes them.’
And so the book pushes us from one country to another though as a reader I did want to read more. Well, one limitation of writing a book where multiple countries are clubbed by travel writers is that it does leave a reader slightly sore… and not because the writing lacks in the right jabs and punches or details but because you know in your heart that there was more to be written about and the author got attracted by the thought of redefining ‘more’ as more variation in travel. I wouldn’t say that the writer has kept us away from worthy insights but just that we readers intuitively know that a country cannot possibly be fitted into one small chapter. And so we hop on from learning about the plate breaking tradition in Turkey and being hailed as a musafir from Hindustan to reading that China ‘definitely is not a solo-traveller destination and I thought singletons like me stood out like a sore thumb… it is a land of frustrations, fascinations and some fun – it does have a lot to offer.’ It is almost like being asked to take a mouthful or a bite of Trabzon or Vakfikebir Ekmegi for breakfast and move on to pay tugriks for platefuls of ‘buuz, aruul, noodles with chunks of meat and potatoes and khuushuur washed down by milk tea’ for the next meal! This can disorientate even the staunchest of readers in the universe of books… but I must add that this is also an adventure of sorts.
The book does lead us on from one adventure to another… and there is one that I am tempted to mention. This isn’t really travel-oriented but has everything to do with taking a long breath in and then not letting out until the sentence is done. I guess I am one of the few early readers of this book who did this and so here is the longest sentence from this book that could possibly be one in the history of all travel writing: ‘I had quite forgotten what it was like to feel the road under my ass, to have the dust blow in through every window of the creaking matatu, to feel every bone in my body rattle and shake every time the matatu went over crevices in the roads, to have breakdowns in the middle of nowhere, to flag down the next matatu that was no better than the one I had arrived in, the ‘long’ and ‘short’ calls undertaken at the bush toilets, to get stung by plants and insects I had never seen or heard of, to shout out Jambo to anyone who cared to listen, to wave at little kids hustling their bony-ribbed herd into the bush as we drove past, to panic when a stray goat made straight for the vehicle at full speed – all this was what I really loved and missed.’
Well, to tell you the truth, all this is also what I have loved reading in this book and have resolved to visit these countries and tell tales in my own way.
Title: There are no Gods in North Korea
Author: Anjaly Thomas
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Price: Rs 350/- (in 2016)
Buy this book here:
Amazon: There Are No Gods in North Korea
03 May 2016