Wednesday morning, with the day to kill before the flight down to Singapore, I took the hydrofoil down to the island of Macau. Settled by the Portuguese in 1554, Macau is now known for its casinos. It is also one of the few places that the government of North Korea maintains contact with the western world.
I took a cab down the stately Rua da Praia Grande to the Commercial Building. On the 23rd floor, I got off at the Talented Dragon Investment Company, Ltd., where I asked for Mr. Cho.
I ended up in this situation as a result of my dinner the previous evening with my friend Harry Rolnick, a writer who, among his many other accomplishments, is the music critic for the South China Morning Post.
“What’s new?” I asked.
“Nothing much,” Harry responded. He paused and took a drink of his Mekong whiskey.
“Oh,” he added, “I’m writing a tourism guide to North Korea.”
I laughed. Harry has a great sense of humor.
“Really, I am,” he insisted.
The week before, he had noticed a small want ad in the Post which read “Tours to DPR Korea - Inquire Mr. Gpu.” So he inquired.
Over a long lunch of rice wine and kimchi, Mr. Gpu had told Harry that of course Americans were welcome in North Korea. He could issue a visa on the spot. And, by the way, did Harry know perchance where to get large quantities of American cigarettes?
Harry had introduced Mr. Gpu to a distributor in Hong Kong and presumably somebody is now smuggling cigarettes into North Korea, because Harry got his visa. I figured nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I asked Harry to tell Mr. Gpu that I would pay him a visit.
I was ushered into a paneled conference room and presented Mr. Gpu with a copy of Stacks, dutifully inscribed “To the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with best wishes.” I had never inscribed a book to a country before.
I explained the idea behind Exploring the Internet and my desire to visit Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang to see the status of networking under the Great/Dear Leaders. I had heard that the complete works of Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, were available in digital form and wished to meet the people behind the software.
Mr. Gpu abruptly got up and left the room. I wondered if he was going to get my visa. He returned a few minutes later with a shopping list of equipment which included a strange device called a “down converter” which, as best as I could make out, translated radio waves from one frequency to another. I confessed I had no idea what a down converter did, let alone why anybody would want one. I had this funny feeling that I didn’t really want to know.
My ignorance appeared to have blown my credibility as a computer expert. The interview quickly ended. No offers of rice wine or kimchi. No visa.
I strolled back on the Avenida Do Doutor Rodrigo Rodrigues, stopping on the way for a fine lunch of Galinka Piri-Piri, a grilled chicken Macanese style smothered in spices.
The hydrofoil on the way back to Hong Kong was almost empty, with no tourists taking snaps of the boat floor or pointing to each island and asking “is that China?”
The tourists must have known something. We hit rough seas and the hydrofoil started to resemble a rollercoaster ride. I closed my eyes and hung on tight, finally arriving at the hydrofoil dock. I collected my bags from Harry’s friends at the Macau Tourist Office and headed across the bay to the airport.