Bus Dancing in Pyongyang

Our DPRK Mother Hubbard guides are occupied with hassling the Dutch guys, who for the umpteenth time have pointed their cameras in the wrong direction. I’ve noted there’s a trolley station right outside the stadium. I ask Mark to cover for me—tell ’em I’m using the restroom. I’m off.

What’s the worst that can happen to me? Arrested? Interrogated? Deported? Our group is leaving tomorrow anyway. Every night, looking out from my 32nd floor hotel window, I ask myself: Where is everybody and what are they doing? If this is a city of three million inhabitants, where in the hell are they hiding? Certainly not out on Yanggakdo Island where they keep us holed up. I didn’t come here to bow to statues and be schlepped through movie-set-authentic stagings of the Juche good life. I want to know where I really am.

Foreign visitors are allowed to take the metro, but not the buses, or so we’re told, yet no one tries to prevent me from getting on the first blue and white trolley that comes along. Sure, they’re staring at me, but no one intervenes. I’ve got some North Korean won on me—souvenir money—but the driver waves me by and the conductor looks the other way when I approach her. I find a seat near the back and try my inadequate best to look like I belong here. Fat chance.

We cross the Taedong River and turn left on Tongil. I recognize the dog-meat restaurant the tourist brochures claim is a must-do, but a few more turns and I no longer have any idea where I am nor where we’re heading.

It’s 8 P.M. and, with the exception of the floodlights on showpiece buildings and monuments, it is so dark outside we might as well be in a desert. One hundred and twenty miles due south, neon signs and jumbotron fireworks scream at you. Samsung and KFC logo-types bleach your retinas and seep into your dreams. Up here in this urban wilderness you can count on one hand the light bulbs burning on a city block.

A couple of more stations down the line two cops get on. They stare at me. I’m an anomaly—an intruder. I think it best to make a quick exit. At the next stop I get off at the last moment—just like in the movies—only I cut it a little too close: As I touch ground with my left foot the trolley door shuts on my right and the conductor has to open it again so that I can retrieve my shoe. Two girls in folk costumes giggle discretely but the policemen don’t follow me.

I’ve landed in one of those vacuous squares where nothing is happening. There are no stores, no restaurants, no kiosks, no cars. I sit on a concrete slab and retie my shoe. My search for the real Pyongyang has so far been fruitless.

On the other side of the square, people are lining up alongside a decrepit yellow bus—possibly Russian vintage from the sixties. I can see the chassis sinking incrementally as passengers board. I walk over and wedge my way into the queue at the bus’s rear door. I am propelled up the boarding steps by those behind me as one of the last to get on. People who don’t make it are murmuring on the street below. I know—I’m an asshole. I am going nowhere and I’ve taken the place of someone who has a reason to be here. Maybe this was their last ride home for the evening?

Seats have been removed to maximize the number of passengers. I reckon there are more than a hundred of us, all standing. The bus jolts forward and I grab an overhead strap for support. After passing two curb-loads of would-be passengers who don’t get picked up, we stop outside what I assume is a factory. There’s a large red banner suspended over the entrance. After eight days in North Korea, I can pick out the omnipresent chosongul characters — 김일성.

Some people depart here, but incredulously even more get on. We start up again, the bus’s engine is struggling with our weight. Men and women on the street outside pitch in with a collective shove to get us rolling.

I’m pushed farther into the interior of the bus by the newcomers, losing hold of my overhead strap. I’m kept on my feet only by the supporting force of the bodies surrounding me. Shoulders, breasts, butts, knees, elbows, thighs press against me. Someone lands on my foot. Hair brushes against my face. More than once I feel the sharp edge of a dear-leader pin on my bare arms.

The road we’re on is no longer paved and as our bus swerves and jerks over bumps and potholes we are thrown against each other, compacted and collectively tilted in first one direction and then another. The air is all soap and sweat, hair oil, motor fumes, nicotine and hemp. We breathe each others kimchi and doenjang. In headlight flashes from sporadic, oncoming trucks, dark ambiguous eyes meet with mine.

I brace myself for the creeping hands that a woman traveling alone in crowds knows all to well. Portugal, Italy, Turkey, Egypt . . .  the mosquito-men groping for my butt, fingering my crouch, palming my breasts. I’ve kicked one or two. I punched out that creep in Delhi, but you can never win against the swarm — there’s no revenge—only anger and disgust. Yet it’s not happening here. There is nothing to fear. I feel safe. For the moment we are all safe. North Korea is safe. The world is safe.

At a highway crossing, an operatic march squeaks metallic from loudspeakers, but its heroic call-to-duty is overpowered by the bus’s engine, the crunch of gears, the open windows rattling in their frames—our own orchestra that accompanies our entangled moves and provides the rhythm for our gyrations. The sweat of our bodies renders us lubricious. We slip and slide against each other, wet and salted as if newly risen from the sea.

We are dancing. We are human. We are dancers.

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