I pressed pause on the tape. I had been listening to this recording of an answer machine message for around 3 hours now, but I still didn't get it. A man crying for help and yet his voice... So calm. I knew the next part just as well. I hit play.
"I'm sorry. I can't leave this place now. All those years we spent together and now this is what my life will become. Until I die, Marie. Until I die."
Meanwhile, I was staring blankly at my computer screen - Google Maps to be precise. I had attentively searched for information on the People's Democratic Republic of Banpau to no conducive end. This was a country that nobody had heard about 3 months ago, and by my own judgement of America, nobody would particularly care about if we didn't hear its name repeated on the news channels. The loose description I could gather from the news was that it was a neighbour of China, and nothing more. Google Maps has no data for it when I search, and when I try to scroll around the satellite recreation of the Earth, I find nothing. Zilch. Zero.
Other than a few conspiracy theory forums and the website of the Chinese State Travel Company, I am able to find no information on this damn place. Having looked through the deletion logs of Wikipedia, I managed to surface an article that existed on the country about three years ago. You see, the news channels often paint this place as a nuclear state, an enemy of America. It made me inquisitive, as I'm sure you can imagine, and yet there is nothing here. The voice mail I am still listening to on repeat is sourced from Banpau. A tourist and wannabe backpacker who booked a vacation to this godforsaken country and well, you can only imagine what happened to him. I had to know more. And to do that, I had to go. I clicked tentatively onto that travel website. I clicked the "Book a vacation!" button, and that was it. I was going to Banpau.
Beijing. China. I too, as a 20 year old living in the late 80s, had a backpacking phase that had brought me to China, which was then the exotic, go-to place. I wished not to spend a second longer in this country, I was here only for transit. As I left the airport, I spluttered an intentional cough toward two gentlemen in suits, whom I had already presumed would be my guides. "Welcome Mr. Tenor. We will be taking you to the embassy." Ugh. More formality.
The embassy turned out to be a cold, dark room on the fourth floor of an office block. For the first time, I saw what I presumed was a Baupanese flag, it screamed Cold War Communism to me. I was attended to by a young gentleman. He was smiling. How nice. Wait. I could see small metal tabs in the corner of his mouth.
"Before you are transported into the country, you will have to sign the visa documents, contract and health insu..." He trailed off into the distance. I interrupted. "Is your mouth okay?" His facial expression looked like I had told him his mother had died.
The guards behind me must've performed some gesture as he sweated like a pig. Suddenly, he smiled at me again and continued. The tabs kept his jaw and mouth held in a permanent smile. What the hell was I getting myself into?
Before I could even answer that question, I was on a plane with thirty other keen Westerners, excited about the prospect of visiting an unexplored place. We were landing. Everyone immediately became silent. Our eyes glanced out of the window to see a completely empty landscape. This was it? An airport on a flat grassy plain? We were suddenly aware that this was not what we thought.
I watched as the air hostess, whom I had previously imagined oppressed, revealed an assault rifle from the overhead cabinet. Panic ensued. She shouted something in Mandarin. Nobody knew what was happening. All of a sudden we were joined by thirty heavily armed Chinese soldiers. I was kicked in the face. I was knocked out.
I awoke. I looked around to see the passengers chained against a wall. It took me a while to realise what was going on. We had been kidnapped. I felt my body lump against the floor as I was unchained and dragged by the scalp into a neighbouring room. They acted as if I was a piece of meat, threw me across the floor. "Where are your bombs?" Bombs? What bombs? "Tell me about your government!"
I choked as a Chinese soldier brutally held me against the wall. "There's... There's the President and..." I shook in fear. The soldier threw me against the ground. "You better tell me what you've heard about Tiananmen Square, or I swear your proud American brains will be spilt this day."
And that was the moment I realised. Banpau. This is what the recording was talking about. It's China's way of sourcing information out of Westerners. All you have to do is fake a few recordings, plant an actor as the Dictator and there you have it. The perfect plan. And then it struck me. I wasn't going to be leaving this place any time soon.