&#91OUTLOOK&#93Guacamole and mushroom clouds

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&#91OUTLOOK&#93Guacamole and mushroom clouds

To see and hear the words "North Korea" and "Santa Fe" in the same sentence, as I did several times last weekend, was at first rather jarring.

As most everyone knows, two North Korean envoys, Han Seong-ryol, deputy ambassador to the United Nations, and Mun Jeong-chul, the first secretary, recently traveled to remote Santa Fe, the capital city of the southwestern state of New Mexico, to hold discussions with that state's governor, Bill Richardson. In years past, Mr. Richardson had been to North Korea for various powwows when he was a U.S. congressman and then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

As someone who once lived and worked in Santa Fe, and has relatives there, I was particularly drawn to this unlikely turn of events. And yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Santa Fe was not at all an unusual place to hold chats on nuclear holocaust. Why? Because in little Santa Fe, an artsy, funky place often called the City Different, anything can happen and frequently has.

News stories had the two dark-suited foreigners walking through the centuries-old Santa Fe Plaza, now home to all things brazenly commercial. I closed my eyes as I tried to imagine what the visiting North Koreans might have said about the tumbleweeds that some clever local entrepreneur scooped off a mesa on the edge of town, spray-painted hot pink and was offering to gullible tourists -- for $25 a pair.

As they explored the plaza, Mr. Han and Mr. Mun surely passed La Fonda, a venerable hotel in whose bar a gent once showed up to order two beers. One beer for himself and one for the horse upon which he sat.

There are no Korean restaurants in Santa Fe but scores of Mexican places to eat. One news story last weekend reported the two diplomats from the North tried enchiladas. I smiled as I pictured a typical over-solicitous waiter with a Ph.D. asking the pair, as he took their orders, "Red or green?" What did the two men say? Or think? Red or green ... napkins? The waiter, of course, would be inquiring as to the type of chile they wanted in their enchiladas, green generally being hotter than red. Some New Mexicans have actually lobbied to make the "Red or Green?" phrase the state's motto.

As they toured the City Different, the North Koreans probably heard someone speak about local politics, which gets almost as much mouth-time as green chile. Santa Fe once had a mayor named Sam Pick. Failing to be re-elected, Mr. Pick came out with a men's aftershave named Santa Fe Cologne. More people bought it than had voted for Mr. Pick. Some years back, Tommy Maccione, an octogenerian artist, also ran for mayor. He did not get elected, though it was close. Some critics pointed to Mr. Maccione's lack of experience. Others blamed his loss on the 85 cats he lived with. A few years later, Mr. Maccione ran again. Trouble is, he was now dead. A Santa Fe woman was going to "channel" him, or invade Mr. Maccione's spirit and speak through it. She would make decisions as mayor based on what he told her. The woman lost, but like Tommy Maccione, not by much.

The art of communicating with the great beyond is as common in Santa Fe as genuine American Indian crockery manufactured in Malaysia is. The most popular channeling devotee around is the actress Shirley MacLaine, who makes a nice living selling others stories of her past lives, including her days as a dog and her time spent as God.

Ms. MacLaine likes Santa Fe, as do many Hollywood stars. At one point she coveted a mountain outside of town, a pristine, high peak where residential development was not allowed. She tried to circumvent that ruling by offering -- and fortunately failing -- to buy the entire mountain chain. The actor Robert Redford found a place on the side of another Santa Fe mountain that he liked, but finally decided against it. There would be people living above him, and Mr. Redford preferred top billing.

Bill Richardson's predecessor as governor was Gary Johnson, a fellow known chiefly for urging the legalization of marijuana. Mr. Johnson believed there would be fewer troubles on this planet if puffing dope were permitted. His idea eventually went up in smoke.

Santa Fe, I'm convinced, was a good place for the two North Koreans -- for anyone, in fact -- to discuss serious issues. The world is made up of many people with a slew of unusual beliefs. Nothing wrong with that, for we can learn from everyone, and maybe even learn that turning this earth into confetti won't solve a blessed thing.

Now on to the most serious issue of all: Red or green?

by Toby Smith

* The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Daily.
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