Wendy E. Simmons visited North Korea for ten days in the summer of 2014. My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth is her account of her trip. Since I myself took a similar trip–mine in 2011 and lasting twenty days–I knew exactly where she was coming from when she expressed her often frustration with her guides (whom she called Older Handler and Fresh Handler). I knew I was in for an irreverent travel diary from the start, based in the dedication page, where Simmons wrote:
“For Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of NoKo, for being batshit crazy enough to make this book possible. And my handlers, for showing me around.”
The book was light on text and heavy on photos (as well as heavy on profanity), since Simmons is after all a photographer, yet it still took me three days to read this book. Although I know I could have finished it in one sitting, I didn’t want to. Her stunning photographs and my personal reminiscences made me want to relive my own trip to the DPRK and I was mentally comparing notes all the time. The text was however too small and the font too faint, and I needed a magnifying glass to read it.
Simmons is a seasoned traveller having visited more than eighty-five countries and territories. She still experiences the thrill of arriving in a new place. When she landed in Pyongyang and was cleared through immigration:
“I was euphoric. The most exciting moments in my life, when I feel most alive, happen when I’m touching down anywhere in the world I’ve never been. I am reborn into a new world, where everything is a curiosity to wonder at, and even the smallest accomplishment is a victory. There was nothing but discovery and learning ahead of me. And I was in North Korea–the most reclusive country on Earth. This was going to be amazing.”
It was a buildup that you know was just teetering towards a collapse. It wouldn’t take long for Simmons to feel that she was being treated like an inmate travelling between prisons as she was shunted from site to site. She suffered a mini-nervous breakdown when the spa she was told she would soon be enjoying ended up being nothing more than a lukewarm bath. Suddenly all the past deceptions and outright lies that her guides had been telling her, along with their refusals, frowns and knitted brows came crashing upon her. She could not bear it any longer: this was no holiday unless you wanted to take a holiday in a country-wide prison camp.
Perhaps the main reason Simmons felt this way was that she was travelling for ten days on her own. She had two guides and a driver, but no other travelling companions. When I visited the DPRK in 2011, I was among a group of fifteen, and we still travelled with two guides and a driver. Our ratio was 15:3 versus hers of 1:3. We even had a UK-born member of the Peking-based travel company accompanying us. Simmons didn’t even have that. So there were two pairs of guides’ eyes always directed her way. In my case our two guides could not keep all fifteen of us in check. No wonder Simmons felt suffocated. She was exposed to the same rules as I was:
“…you are not allowed to take photos of anything outside of Pyongyang without prior authorization from your handlers or local guides because the rest of the country is a primitive, third-world shithole. You will entertain yourself devising ways to thwart this.”
Thus Simmons had to devise ways to thwart her guides’ prying eyes. Meanwhile, I just snapped photos of anything and everything I wanted since the guides were preoccupied with the four members of my travel group who were known to have taken unauthorized pictures. I had more freedoms in North Korea while some of my travelling companions did not, owing to their poor behaviour. I can see how even the most respectful and obedient traveller might go crazy with paranoia if travelling to the DPRK alone.
Some of her observations were laugh-out-loud funny, and it didn’t require a journey to the same place to find such amusement:
“My waiter arrives, and somehow we discover that we both speak Spanish. From then on, hablamos en español sólo. There are no words to describe how horrible his accent is, except perhaps horrible–it was damn bad.”
“There weren’t any benches to sit on, since I guess no one just sits around relaxing in the park, except for old people, who weren’t so much relaxing as they were waiting to die…”
We both took trips to the DMZ and experienced similar reactions when we approached the frontier with freedom in South Korea. It wasn’t so much approaching the border as leaving it. In Simmons’s case:
“Back outside and in North Korea, I have the weirdest sensation of being on the wrong side of the tracks. I feel like a traitor, or a Potemkin trophy being paraded around like a hostage by his or her captors.”
After she turned away from the border and in so doing turned her back on freedom, she claimed to have felt “like a traitor”. I know what she means, for it wasn’t just me but my entire tour group who expressed the same surreal experience when we returned to our tour bus after our visit to the DMZ. All of us were from democratic free nations, yet we “chose” to remain in the communist North when we arrived at the border with the South. Not that any of us could have stepped over the border curb into South Korea anyway–but we could leave the country while none of its countrymen could.
The exhibits Simmons saw were anything but impressive. She had me laughing out loud as I recalled my own visits to the same museums where I saw the very same things. The guides expected you to be awed by all the stellar technology and marvel at the advances in North Korean industry. In reality, they were in effect proudly showing us the equivalents of brand new 8-track tapes, cordless phones and boxy colour TV sets:
“Glass case after glass case meant to showcase Korea’s engineering and manufacturing prowess displayed objects so mind-numbingly boring, anachronistic, and quotidian, I truly felt like they were fucking with me. Polyester brown pants with a matching brown shirt hung proudly in one case. Another case held a few cans of food, and another housed electronics so old, I honestly had to ask what some were (one answer, ‘to make light shine on wall,’ did little to clarify).”
I enjoyed My Holiday in North Korea, but felt that had Simmons done her homework, she would not have suffered the culture shock of always being told NO. The DPRK is a country where it takes thirty people to say yes, yet only one person to say NO. All of my fellow travellers read voraciously on travel to the country before leaving on their journey. A well-read traveller is prepared and even amenable to sudden change when the destination is North Korea.