Category Archives: Curiosities

The Five Takeaways of Gardening: Genie Gratto

Some of the best things in life happen by accident.  This was the case of Genie Gratto’s foray into the world of gardening.

“When I lived in the DC area, I tried to grow things and hadn’t been very successful.  My husband bought me an herb kit that had seeds, tools, pots, and an herb dryer.  I didn’t get anywhere close to having anything good that could even be dried!  Stuff sprouted up but couldn’t be used,” she sighs.

Gratto did not take up gardening again until she moved to Iowa City, a place described as having some of the best soil in the country.  Gratto put in a garden in 2006 and became fascinated with the idea of growing food.

“Gardening is a little bit miraculous to me – it amazes me that you can throw some stuff into the ground and have no idea what you’re doing, and then things, edible things, just grow out of there,” she says.

Gratto now lives in the Bay Area, and chronicles her adventures and misadventures in gardening in her blog, The Inadvertent Gardener. Below, are five takeaways gathered in conversation with Gratto.

1.  Gardening requires only a few basic tools.

Beyond the basics of seeds, soil, light and water, Gratto recommends a couple other tools.

“You need some kind of tool to dig.  It can vary based on the scale and size of your garden – for example a trowel for small containers, or a big shovel so you can move dirt around,” she explains.

“The other thing I recommend is having a sprinkly attachment for a hose or a watering can.  I thought they were silly at first, but I realized that if you pour a giant pitcher of water on a plant, it displaces the dirt.  You should sprinkle the water instead, let it soak into the ground, rather than creating runoff,” she says.

“If you want to get really fancy, a hoe is good to have to weed easily,” Gratto recommends.

2.  When planning a garden, remember that plants need their space.

“When you have a garden, you need to have a modicum of planning.  When you plant seeds into the ground, it’s easy to think ‘these plants will be small and cute,’” explains Gratto.

“However, most of the time, you don’t realize how big plants actually get.  For example, I had no idea how big zucchini plants would get. Artichokes are the same – they are these huge thistle-y plants that support one tiny artichoke, and they completely take over the space they’re in.  They consistently shade out the other guys,” she warns.

3.  Beware the guilt and heavy lifting of gardening.

Gardening, despite its geriatric and gentle connotations, has some minor hazards.

The first is a moral hazard.

“There is always that fear that you are killing things when you garden, and of course, guilt ensues,” says Gratto.

In one particular inadvertent gardening mishap, Gratto planted tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants under a tree that she hadn’t realized was poisonous – a black walnut tree.

“I had no idea how poisonous it was… I had never heard of this tree!  What happened was, as rain would run off the tree, the poison would run off with the rain and fall on the plants, and the plants were dying as a result.  This led to a transplant operation on a July 4th weekend – five tomato plants and two pepper plants were moved, but I left the eggplants under the tree,” she says guiltily.

On a more positive note, the post about the mishap ended up being one of the most popular storylines to ever hit her blog.

Transplanting operations also lead to the second hazard – that of physical hazards.

“There are standard physical things to be cautious of when gardening – remembering to lift from your knees and not your back, like when you’re hauling around piles of dirt or transplanting tomato plants.  There’s also a lot of resting on your hands and knees, so you need to remember to cushion all of that,” she recommends.

4.  Growing your food is the only way you can control what goes into it.

“One thing I do not understand is why someone would use something non-organic or synthetic in their garden.  Actually, a few years ago I caught my dad red-handed with a couple bags of Miracle-Gro, so I of course yelled at him.  This is your one opportunity to completely control what’s going in your food, without having to worry about government certification or about food miles.  This is the closest you’re going to get to your food source – why sully that?” exclaims Gratto emphatically.

5. After gardening for awhile, you begin to notice that plants have their own set of idiosyncrasies.

Michael Pollan discusses in his book The Botany of Desire, amongst other things, how certain plants have evolved in tandem with humans, how we both rely on each other for survival, and how some plants are quirky for a reason.  Gratto, while gardening, has noticed some of these quirks.

“One example is that of marigolds – if you plant them near tomatoes, it keeps the nasty bugs away.  There are also these flowers called Four O’ Clocks, which are both pretty and funny.  They have the name because they allegedly open at 4PM in the afternoon and after 12 hours, close again.  I planted them, and thought they were the lamest flower ever.  I would walk outside at 4PM and they were always closed.  However, one night when I walked out into the garden, they were actually open, and I thought to myself ‘how weird!  What kind of purpose does this have?  What kind of pollinating insects does it attract, how did it evolve into such a plant?’” explains Gratto.

There are certain things we will never answer, however Gratto nails on the head what it is that is so great about plants and gardening – that simple sense of wonder of caring for something and watching it grow.

Gratto’s The Inadvertent Gardener can be found at http://www.theinadvertentgardener.com.

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The Five Takeaways of Hula Hooping: Alexandra Malone

North Carolina is the unlikely setting for this week’s Five Takeaways.  It was where Alexandra Malone, the protagonist of our story, first saw people carrying something unusual down the street.  Hula hoops.

“I used to live in North Carolina, and hula hooping is really big there – it’s actually one of the main hooping centres in the US,” she says of the sparsely populated state.

“I ended up reading about it and thought it was interesting, but it wasn’t until I moved to Ottawa where I decided I needed a new hobby, and actually started hula hooping t here.”

Several years later, Malone is now a hooping teacher in Ottawa.  Below, she provides the five takeaways of hula hooping.

1.  There is more to hooping than flinging a hoop around your waist and awkwardly gyrating.

“The basic skill is being able to move the hoop around your waist.  To do this, you need a strong core, as well as balance and coordination, which you can develop through hooping.  The second move is bringing the hoop from your hips to your waist,” says Malone.

“Then there are a couple more advanced moves.  One is chest hooping, where you bring the hoop up to your chest with your hands above your head.  Then there’s shoulder hooping, neck hooping, and hooping with the thighs and knees.  There is also hooping ‘off the body’, where you are using your hands to spin the hoop or move it around your body,” Malone explains.

2.  Hula hooping is not really a competitive sport, but more about performance or fitness.

“Don’t get me wrong – there are competitions, Guinness Book of World Records “who can hoop for the longest duration” type events, but most hoopers are more focused on performance and teaching and sharing.  The performance aspect is the most prominent one – you’ll often see hoopers performing at festivals like Burning Man, or events like Cirque du Soleil, or even filming short hooping videos to post on YouTube” explains Malone. 

3.  Hula hoopers are mostly female, but beyond that there isn’t a specific age demographic.

“There isn’t an average hooper.  Basically anybody can hoop – it’s for all ages, shapes and sizes pretty much. The hooping community is mostly female, and anywhere from age 16 to age 60,” she says.  “That said, there are also some incredible male hoopers out there with very unique styles and impressive skills.”

4. Hooping is exercise cleverly hidden in nostalgia, self-expression, and amusement.

“Hooping has a whole range of health benefits – obviously it’s a good cardio workout and helps you strengthen your core, and increase muscle tone.  And it’s also really low impact, and helps with balance and coordination.  But beyond that, it reminds you of being a kid, and as you get more comfortable, it is extremely creative and people use it as a mode of expression, and even stress relief.  I’ve even seen people doing ‘meditative hooping’!” she exclaims.

“I’ve also taught people who are trying hooping for the first time and spend the whole hour laughing, so even if you don’t get the hang of it right away, most people want to keep at it because they’re having so much fun!” laughs Malone.

5.  Many hoopers make their own hoops (and it’s not that hard.)

Malone makes her own hoops for herself and sometimes for her friends.

“Some teachers have business making hoops and selling them.  It’s not that difficult – hoops are made out of polyethylene plumbing tubing, the kind that you use for radiant floor heating – and you can get them in all kind of weights and diameters.  There is a specific weight and diameter for a basic beginner hoop for adults, which is 3/4 inch 160psi.  If you’re more advanced, you get the tubing with a smaller diameter, and lighter weight, which makes it more difficult to control with your body.  Then, you cover your tube in pretty tape, and you’re done!” she explains.

Malone teaches classes at Fitness Fusion in Ottawa.  Find out more information at www.fitnessfusionstudio.com or by emailing hoopersonic@gmail.com.

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The Five Takeaways of LEGO: Nathan Sawaya

Nathan Sawaya has the job that every kid dreams of having.  He’s a LEGO Artist, a Certified LEGO Professional.  What does that mean exactly?  It means he spends his days in his New York studio building awesome things out of LEGO.  A casual scroll through his website reveals things like a LEGO replica of Stephen Colbert; a scale model of a Blackberry with a working screen, a giant set of LEGO milk and cookies, an anatomical heart, a life sized cello, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, Han Solo encased in carbonite.  Pop art, but in LEGO format.

How does one exactly do this sort of thing?

“I started doing large scale sculptures out of LEGO bricks about ten years ago.  I had sculpted with more traditional media, but I wanted to explore using a toy from my childhood as an art medium.  The sculptures got a pretty good response from friends and family, so I put photos of them up on my website.  Soon after, I was getting commissions from folks around the world.  Within a few years, I was a full time LEGO artist.”

Below, Sawaya provides his five takeaways of LEGO.

1.  LEGO can take you anywhere.

“Since becoming a Lego artist, I have put together museum exhibitions and gallery shows all over the globe.  I have been asked to send sculptures to Hong Kong, Dubai, Paris, London, Singapore, even Kansas City.  I never dreamed that creating with LEGO would take me to places like Hawaii, Stockholm or Appleton, Wisconsin, or even as a guest on the The Colbert Report and Mythbusters.  I got to design a LEGO room on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.  And weirdest of all, my LEGO artwork actually became a category on Jeopardy!” he exclaims.

2.  There is no such thing as cheating in LEGO.

“I don’t know how many times folks have come up to me and said ‘Are you gluing your bricks?  Well that’s cheating!’  And I wonder to myself, ‘Are you the LEGO referee?’ he laments.

“The thing is LEGO bricks hold together remarkably well.  They are an amazing construction tool.  But my sculptures are shipped around the world.  And the shipping process can take a toll on any artwork.  I find that museums get kind of grumpy when I ship them a sculpture and they receive a box of loose LEGO bricks, sometimes with a note reading ‘some assembly required’.  So to make sure my sculptures arrive in one piece, I glue them together.  This is not cheating.  Anything one does creatively with LEGO cannot be considered cheating.  In fact, the only way there might be cheating in LEGO is if one was to use only Lincoln Logs,” he says of the building toy made with wood that comes with instructions.

3.  There is nothing that cannot be built out of LEGO.

Sawaya sees infinite possibilities with Lego.

“When I was a child and wanted to get a dog, my folks didn’t let me, so I built myself a dog.  It was multi-colored, and of course being built out of those rectangular bricks, it was a bit boxy in places.  I called it a boxer,” he jokes.

“LEGO is a versatile medium.  As a toy, it lets your imagination rule the day.  Growing up, if I wanted to pretend to be a rock star, I could build myself a guitar.  If I wanted to pretend to be an astronaut, I could build myself a rocket,” he explains.

“As an artist LEGO is a great medium for creating anything I can imagine.  I still use those same rectangular plastic bricks that I had as a child, but now I try and use them in a way that hasn’t been seen before.  I have an entire museum exhibit touring North America that is very popular with both kids and adults, who are attracted to the idea that there is artwork that is created solely out of LEGO,”  Sawaya says.

4.  Having 1.5 million LEGO bricks is not enough.

At any given time, Sawaya’s New York studio has 1.5 million bricks stored in it.

“The LEGO company says that there are 62 LEGO bricks for every person on the planet.  That means there is a pretty big group of people who are missing some bricks all because of me.  As an artist, I want to make sure I have enough bricks on hand that I can build whatever I can think of, at any time.  That means I have to keep an art studio full of bricks in all shapes and colors.  They are all arranged by size, and are in clear plastic bins lined up on shelves based on color.  Walking into my studio is a little like walking into a rainbow.  I need all those bricks because who knows what I might be creating next:  a life-size human form, a dinosaur skeleton, maybe even a full size boat?  As I use the bricks up, I have to keep that inventory up to date, so I am ordering new bricks monthly.  I don’t know if that means there are less or more bricks for everyone on the planet,” he ponders.

5.  The LEGO art movement has begun.

“One of the most common questions people ask me is ‘How can I get your job?’  I tell them just to go do it.  I am an independent artist, and I use LEGO bricks as my art medium.  It can take weeks to create a LEGO sculpture, but I’m so passionate I fall into a near-trance while I’m working and creating.  Many of my works centre on the phenomena of how everyday life, people and raw emotion are intertwined.  Often my art is a reenactment of my personal feelings.  I am inspired by my own experiences, emotions and the journeys I am taking,” he explains.

But being an artist, why did Sawaya choose LEGO as his medium?

“I like using LEGO as a medium because I enjoy seeing people’s reactions to artwork created from something with which they are familiar.  Everyone can relate to it since it is a toy that many children have at home.  I want to elevate this simple plaything to a place it has never been before.  I also appreciate the cleanliness of the medium – the right angles, the distinct lines.  As so often in life, it is a matter of perspective.  Up close, the shape of the brick is distinctive.  But from a distance, those right angles and distinct lines change to curves.”

If pointillists worked with round dots and it looked like curves from afar, then the LEGO must be a cubed, three dimensional version.

Sawaya is optimistic about the future of LEGO art.

“Many people write to me and tell me they are going to become LEGO artists themselves.  They send me photos of their sculptures and creations.  It looks to me like a new art movement has begun.  I call it the LEGO art movement, and don’t be surprised if five or ten years from now they will be teaching it in art classes.”

More of Nathan Sawaya’s work can be found at his website, Brick Artist.

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The Five Takeaways of Logrolling: Jamie Fischer

For many a Canadian child growing up in the 1980s, the Log Driver’s Waltz by Wade Hemsworth and the accompanying cartoon short created by the National Film Board of Canada are a classic slice of Canadiana. The premise of the Log Driver’s Waltz is that log drivers, who would typically drive felled logs down the river by using their balance and agile feet, could be compared to great dancers.
While we were enjoying this cartoon in the Great White North, down in the US, Jamie Fischer was actually honing his logrolling skills.
“We knew of the Log Driver’s Waltz in the US, but the more popular song for us was I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay by Monty Python,” he laughs.
Fischer’s great grandfather was a lumberjack, and picked up logrolling, only to pass it on to his grandpa, then to his dad, then to Jamie. You might say that the Fischer family has a logrolling legacy.
Fischer was encouraged to take his logrolling professionally, and started Lumberjack Enterprises, a company which serves to increase the popularity of lumberjack sports in local communities.
Below, Fischer provides his five takeaways of logrolling.

1. The historical practice of logrolling was extremely dangerous.
“Logrolling was traditionally a way to transport logs – essentially, after they were felled in the spring, the logs would be put in the water, and rolled down to the city. Competitions emerged when say, two opposing camps would finish for the day and see who was better or faster at logrolling,” explains Fischer.
“At the time, log rolling was very dangerous – since it was the spring, the water was ice cold and there were risks of hypothermia. Literally, there would be chunks of ice floating in the water. Also, the logs were huge – if you fell, you could potentially be crushed between two logs, and drowning was very common at the time,” he says.
Occupational safety was probably not at the top of everyone’s list then. Nowadays, competitions take place in fairly temperate places where there aren’t any waves, large boats or logs, or exceptionally cold water.

2. Logrolling is a predominantly east coast Canadian and Midwest American tradition.
Not surprisingly, logrolling is popular in areas that used to or continue to be areas for heavy forestry activity.
“The Midwest of the United States is probably 95% of the world’s logrollers. The west coast of the US has some, and Japan used to have some in the 1970s. But overall, you’ll find that most logrollers are from the Midwest,” says Fischer.

3. The best logrollers are either small and quick, or big and strong.
“In order to win a logrolling competition, we’ve seen either those small people with quick feet to roll the log, or bigger people who have a lot of strength, who can control the log. However, we’ve noticed that people who compete in logrolling competitions usually weigh 200 lbs or under. That way, the log doesn’t just sink if they stand on it,” explains Fischer.

4. There is a whole host of lumberjack related sports.
Within lumberjack related sports, there are two categories. Water events, and chopping events. Birling, or logrolling, is one of these water events, while the other is boom running.
“In log rolling, competitions involve two logrollers standing on a log and trying to roll the other off without going touching the centre line or touching their opponent– whoever falls off first, loses,” says Fischer.
“Similarly, boom running is like logrolling. A bunch of logs, maybe half a dozen, are tied to a dock on one side and the person has to run to the other side and back again without falling into the water.”
The booms were originally put in to build a barrier, or a giant bridge to prevent logs from scattering across the river.

The other events are chopping events. There is an event to see who can chop down a tree faster, or nowadays, chopping a block of wood horizontally and vertically. There is also a ‘Crosscut saw’ event, where two people cut logs into specific dimensions or lengths, where the object is to cut a disk off of a horizontal log, forming a block that resembles a “cookie”, in the shortest amount of time.  An event called  ‘Hot Saw’ is similar, except competitors use saws with modified engines.

5. Logrolling, if you can find somewhere to do it, is physically and mentally challenging exercise.
After Jamie Fischer finished college, he wanted to start his own company to increase the availability and popularity of logging programs, which turned out to be Lumberjack Enterprises. Since then, he has gone around the country introducing these programs at different community centres and universities. There, he trains staff and faculty, and then encourages them to take over the program. To date, he’s started 25-30 programs around the US.
Learning how to logroll can be tough, though.
“When you’re learning, there is a huge learning curve. It looks really easy, but it’s actually very frustrating at first. Usually, people stand on the log for three or four seconds, and then boom! You end up falling in, wondering ‘why can’t I stay on the log?’”
However, those that do stay with it find that it’s extremely challenging, both mentally and physically.
“It is a great form of exercise when you get the hang of it, and at the end of the day the camaraderie you build, and the people you meet are a lot of fun to hang out with,” he says.

More information can be found at Lumberjack Enterprises and the US Logrolling Association.

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The Five Takeaways of Craft Shows: Benita Hsueh

Many of us dream of one day quitting our day jobs and doing what we love instead.

Several years ago, Benita Hsueh did just that.  She worked at a large computer company, and decided that she was tired of working for the man.  Instead, she decided to craft.

“It all started when I was little.  When I was growing up, I would make paper cutout dresses for my dolls – either doll clothes were really expensive to buy, or I always found something wrong with what was out there and wanted to make something I liked,” she explains.

All this designing and experimentation led Hsueh to build House of Hsueh and We are Wedges, her bag/accessory design and stuffed toy ventures, respectively.  Craft shows have been an integral vehicle to showcase her work and to earn a living.  To date, Hsueh has participated in over fifty craft shows, and is something of a Toronto craft show veteran.  Below, Benita provides the five takeaways of craft shows.

1.  The best time to do a craft show is hands down, Christmas.

When I ask Hsueh when the best time is to participate in craft shows, the question is a no-brainer.

“Christmastime!  Christmastime!” she says emphatically.

“Spring is okay, there’s more browsers then.  But Christmas, the time from September to the end of December, people are always looking for unique or odd gifts.  Any other time of the year is pretty hit or miss.”

2.  Participate in the established shows – if they build it, people will come.

“To figure out what show to participate in, I check with the organizer if the show is established.  The way to know is if these people know what numbers come through to the show each year, or the ones that I see who do advertising, both online and in any popular local papers,” she explains.

Otherwise, there are craft shows where the only thing moving through the aisles are a couple of tumbleweeds.

3.  Never underprice your work.

“I definitely encourage people to craft, however when doing this, I recommend that people don’t underprice their craft.  Selling for under cost doesn’t help anyone – you, because you’re not making your money back, and second, because it’s damaging for people who make a living out of this kind of work,” says Hsueh.

4. Etsy is often used as a supplement to craft shows, and can be both a bane and a boon.

Many crafters often use the website Etsy to create an online presence beyond craft shows.

“Etsy has made it really easy to set up an online store, and it is very user friendly.  The nice thing about it is that it makes the world your market.  However, Etsy is something you have to work at.  There are millions of products on Etsy, and there are so many new products every day that you have to pour hours of work into it.  It’s hard to keep up.  Also, if you’re trying to make original items, it’s really hard to keep it original, and it’s often a place where your ideas can be taken.”

5.  Lastly, at craft shows, never forget tape (especially of the duct variety), a pen, change, and coffee.

For those people who prefer to stick to physical craft shows, the above items have been necessities for Hsueh in a variety of scenarios.  Duct tape is good for sticking and fixing.  A pen is great to jot down information.  People always run out of change, and coffee is a godsend for early mornings.

And of course, don’t forget your crafts.

More information about Benita’s work can be found at House of Hsueh and We are Wedges.  Benita’s work is also going to be at the One of a Kind Show in Toronto.

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The Five Takeaways of Couchsurfing: Cesar Valentim

One of the great rites of passage into adulthood is backpacking around the world – staying in grotty backpacker hostels, experiencing different cultures, trying new foods, seeing sights that you haven’t seen before.  However, one begins to notice after visiting several cities, that this routine doesn’t provide for a lot of interaction or immersion with the people who actually live there.

Then, along came Couchsurfing.  Couchsurfing is “an international non-profit network that connects travelers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world.”  Couchsurfing has been around since 2004, and has focused on cultural exchange, friendship and learning exchange through sharing hospitality and cultural understanding.   A fancy way to say that if you find yourself in a strange place and don’t know anyone, Couchsurfing is a great way to find a couch to sleep on, or a friend to show you around town.

Cesar Valentim, does media for Couchsurfing and is a veteran couchsurfer.

“I can remember the first day that I couchsurfed – it was June 11, 2005,” he reminisces.  He recalls seeing a news article on television about the concept, and was intrigued.

Valentim has since couchsurfed and hosted couchsurfers at his home in Lisbon, Portugal, over 500 times.

“Actually, I’ve lost count,” he laughs.

Below, Valentim provides his five takeaways of couchsurfing.

1.  Couchsurfing is not for everyone.

“Why should you couchsurf?  Well, couchsurfing is for people that really want to see and feel a different culture, who want to mingle with locals.  Couchsurfing is for people who don’t want the tourist life, and don’t care for deluxe travelling accommodations,” explains Valentim.

This scene is not always for everyone, however.

“With couchsurfing, you have to be able to share some of your privacy – all this cultural exchange is not for everyone, and not everyone can open their house to a complete stranger.  You could be showering in a bathroom that is filthy, which you may not like.  You could be sleeping in someone’s living room, or sharing a room with the host’s kids.  There’s not a whole lot of privacy every time you have to couchsurf, and you have to be respectful,” says Valentim.

2.  There are couchsurfing hosts in places you couldn’t even imagine.

Two hundred and thirty countries is a lot of countries where you could potentially couchsurf.

“I’ve hosted people that come from the middle of the US and usually live in treehouses.  I’ve couchsurfed in East Timor, where there are no tourism facilities, and I couchsurfed with a family there, and ended up having an amazing time.”

If you can imagine a country, it’s more than likely that there will be a willing friend, if not a willing host, ready to receive you.

3.  Couchsurfing is quite safe, however instincts are very important.

“It’s up to you what couchsurfing it – it’s your own experience, and you have to use your own good sense.  Couchsurfing and all the volunteers and couchsurfing staff put a lot of effort into safety tools.  We have references, a vouching system, and other safety tools to provide a better and safer experience.  However, it all comes down to your judgment – if you don’t feel comfortable with something, it’s probably not right to do it.” says Cesar.

However, as reassurance, the initiative boasts 3.2 million positive experiences, which is an amazing 99.6% of all couchsurfing experiences.

4.  There is no such thing as an average couchsurfer.

“The average changes daily because the number of people who join couchsurfing each day – we’re at over a million couchsurfers now.  You never know who’s going to knock on your door – I’ve had 62 year old women, 48 year olds, 18 year old teenagers – there isn’t really a particular profile,” explains Valentim.

“However, if you want statistics – the average couchsurfer is 27 years old, almost 90% have a college education, and everyone speaks at least a second language, or tries to.  And generally, they all have an amazing will to experience new things,” he explains.

5.  Couchsurfing runs on a whole lotta love… and a whole lotta volunteer labour.

Couchsurfing is only run by a few paid staff members, and over 2,000 volunteers.  Pretty amazing for a site that boasts over a million users.

To learn more about Couchsurfing, head over to http://www.couchsurfing.org.

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The Five Takeaways of North Korea (DPRK): Simon Cockerell

North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has always been somewhat of an oddity.  Closed off to the world, the only exposure we’ve had to the country are fleeting images and stories, ranging from the frightening to the eccentric:  the sour face of former US President Bill Clinton with Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il; the harrowing plight of reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling ; the Dear Leader’s penchant for toro, fatty tuna belly; human rights abuses, rumours of political stand-ins, and the grinding poverty of its people.

This would often be enough to deter most people, but for the brave of heart, Koryo Tours is one company that specializes in tours to North Korea.  Simon Cockerell, a Brit and one of Koryo’s tour leaders, was once a participant himself eight years ago. That same year, he joined the team as general manager, and he now goes to North Korea once a month.  Below, Cockerell provides his five takeaways of DPRK.

1. North Korea is not as closed as we think it is.

There is a misconception that no one can visit North Korea.  In fact, North Korea does has some tourism albeit it being very small – approximately 2,000 people visit North Korea each year.

“We take about 50% of these 2,000 people – 10-15% of them are US citizens, and we take about 80-85% of the Americans.  We’re the only specialists in the field.  Besides not knowing that you can visit North Korea, it’s expensive to visit.  However, once you get over that, the visa process is quite easy – they don’t generally arbitrarily deny visas, but it is harder for journalists and South Korean citizens to get in.  Generally, Americans can only go for certain parts of the year,” explains Cockerell.

2.  North Korea is actually quite a safe place to visit.

In 2008, a  South Korean woman, Park Wang-Ja, was visiting a North Korean resort.  She was reportedly shot and killed by the military after allegedly sneaking away from the resort in the middle of the night.  However, this story doesn’t seem to be representative of most tourist accounts.

“Certainly there are some restrictions – tourists aren’t allowed to wander off anywhere they want, and generally they are asked to stick to an all-inclusive itinerary that doesn’t involve wandering around town – but they are generally not in danger.  They just have to be aware of some limitations,” explains Cockerell.

“There isn’t really any danger or risk of large scale uprisings or petty crime in DPRK for tourists – I’ve never heard of anyone being mugged, robbed, or taking any specific precautions before going,” says Cockerell.

3.  There are actually touristy things you can see in North Korea.  (No, not secret nuclear facilities or hard labour prison camps)

North Korea is a fairly spartan nation.  However, there are some highlights worth seeing.

“Every year, there’s an event called the Mass Games – this is what most people go to see.  It’s enormous, and takes place over a 10 week period in October.  Sixty to seventy percent of the market goes at this time.  The Mass Games are a spectacle of synchronized music, dance, sports and propaganda, not unlike the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.  Over 100,000 performers take part in a 90 minute show over this period every single day,” explains Cockerell.

People often visit during leaders’ birthdays and other holidays too.

“Really, the real highlight is just going there, and seeing what it’s like.  Every time I go back, I feel like I learn something new,” says Cockerell.

4.  North Koreans are friendly; but somewhat suspicious of foreigners.

There is another assumption that North Koreans, who are under state control, are not authorized to speak with foreigners.  This is untrue.

“North Koreans are by nature, very conservative. They don’t encounter a lot of foreigners, and no one there speaks English, and not many tourists speak Korean.  Generally, the message put across in DPRK about foreigners is a negative one.”

However, that is not to say that they will never speak with you.

“The best time to speak with locals is during Korean holidays – May Day for example.  People are shy and hesitant at first, but after they have some drinks, watch matches of Korean wrestling, have some homemade alcohol, you might have some people practicing languages with you.  It’s similar to if you were visiting any other country.”

5.  When all else fails, football is always a good fallback.

Cockerell often organizes friendly exhibition matches in North Korea.

“Football is a friendly game – it’s the world’s biggest sport, and there are very few exceptions in the world where people aren’t interested in it.  We’ve had teams from Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Netherlands – play against Korean teams.  We arrange a game, have lunch, talk about football – if you can’t talk about anything else, if there’s absolutely nothing else to talk about, we’ve got football.  Someone always has an opinion on Manchester United,” jokes Cockerell.

In 2008, a South Korean woman, Park Wag-ja, was shot and killed by the military as she reportedly snuck away from a resort in the middle of the night

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