THE BLOG
04/19/2016 03:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Which Like Alice, I Fall Down into a Hole Known as North Korea

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Local Handler in front of the Pohynsa Temple in North Korea

"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

INTRODUCTION

You just know some things are wrong. Being shaken down by a Buddhist monk at a thousand-plus-year-old temple is one of those things.

It was my second-to-last day in NoKo. How anything could still surprise me by that point in my trip, I have no idea. Yet somehow, it did.

Fresh Handler, Local Handler, and I were touring the Pohynsa Temple (Older Handler had decided to sit this one out and wait with Driver near the car), an eleventh-century temple complex that Local Handler was quick to point out "had suffered extensive damage from American Imperialists during the Korean War."

After we climbed a short set of concrete stairs to the main pagoda and went inside, I put a donation in the wooden box, lit a candle, stood in front of Buddha, and said a silent prayer. I prayed for Fresh Handler's well-being and happiness, hoping against all hope that she would be okay, and I prayed for Older Handler and Driver, since by then I'd grown fond of both of them, too. Then I prayed for all North Korean people, because let's face it, there but for the grace of God go I. It's a stroke of luck, this life we lead: where we're born, how we die. And finally I said a prayer for the Buddhist monk I'd seen standing outside. In a country that "actively discourages" all religion, I couldn't imagine he was having a great time.

When we exited the pagoda, the monk stood waiting. I naively thought to say hello. But no, this was North Korea (silly Wendy). He wanted money for my sins:

LOCAL HANDLER, FRESH HANDLER translating:
The monk says the last time an American Imperialist visited this temple, he felt so ashamed of himself for the damage his American Imperialist bombs caused to the temple in the war, that he gave lots money to feel better.

ME, to myself, feeling an improbable mix of apoplexy and apathy: Are you frricking kidding me? (Then out loud.) Please let the monk know that I'm an American, not an American Imperialist, and that wasn't my war. I wasn't even alive. I don't advocate violence of a kind. I don't even kill bugs! And in all my years of traveling to dozens of Buddhist temples around the world, never has a monk tried extort money from me. Oh, and please let the monk know I said prayer for him inside.

Put a fork in me. I was done.

Excerpted from MY HOLIDAY IN NORTH KOREA: THE FUNNIEST/WORST PLACE ON EARTH. Copyright © 2016 by Wendy E. Simmons, Vendeloo, Inc., all rights reserved. To be published by RosettaBooks on May 3, 2016.