Mary Poppins, the Captain and Picachu: a portrait of my 3 guides in North Korea.

In North Korea, where I travelled in October 2014, our group was constantly accompanied by the 3 same guides. Think about it, spending a whole week with 3 persons in charge of you gives you enough time to observe them and interact with them – and frankly this was fascinating. There were two aspects about it: their personality of course, and also the way they carried out their work.

The guides were not just doing their job, but also spending a lot of time with us. Guide is a very risky profession in North Korea, as you are responsible for the behaviour of the foreign tourists you are taking on a tour. Therefore trust is essential and this involves getting to know us well even on a personal level. Actually our guides were fantastic people; we all had long conversations with each of them and as our relationship progressed, we were joking and having a lot of fun as well. Based on their different personalities, we gave our guides nicknames – and we became so close with them that we did tell them on our last night.

Mary Poppins was a middle aged lady called Mrs Ri, who was our ‘real’ guide, master of the microphone in the bus we travelled in most of the time. Her job was to give us explanations about everything we saw and experienced, as well as translating from local guides that some museums and sites have. She was speaking with a strong British accent and dreaming to visit the UK, hence the nickname we gave her.

North Korea - Mrs Ri
Mrs Ri and I in the Pyongyang metro

Besides what she was telling us that she had to tell us, she was very approachable and sometimes answered questions in an implicit way that went beyond the official propaganda, which was highly insightful. For example, when asked about sex before marriage in North Korea, she laughed and said that she would give the answer only outside of the microphone! The way she told us about how her own marriage had been arranged was also very suggestive that this is the norm, but not necessarily what she would have wished for herself.

The Captain had been introduced as a guide, but very soon we realised that his role was more that of a coach. He had a military background and used to be a Captain in the army; and I wonder if he actually may still be an army guy.

The tasks he had to complete were twofold: on the bright side he was making sure everything was going fine and assisted us in every of our little needs, such as letting us know where to buy stamps or checking that those veggies amongst us had a vegetarian option offered at meals; but on the dark side, he was the one keeping our passports during the whole stay, keeping an eye on us at all times, making sure we were not using more freedom than what was agreed.

North Korea - Captain Jekyll
The captain (with normal glasses) and I at the Pyongyang fun fair.

This duality of his role, and his pair of spectacles, is what led us to also nickname him Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. One minute he would be the friendly guy, chatting and joking with you, making the impossible possible to help you; then suddenly he would switch to the sunglasses and turn into a spy, interrogating those who travelled in South Korea, calling you to order if you walked a bit too far, and even at some point recording what was being said during a museum visit using a small device hidden in the palm of his hand – which really was not the most discrete thing he did the whole week!

North Korea - Captain Hyde
The Captain (with sunglasses) watching at me while I make a photo of a building.

Years of experience in the corporate world made me aware that the Captain was extremely skilled in an extremely varied set of skills, and I was really impressed by him. Deep in myself I remain convinced that he is able to be both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the same time, and whenever he’s chatting with you, he’s also listening to what’s being said by others around you.

Nonetheless, he was a really nice guy. I had brought a small key ring of Big Ben with me in case I wanted to show locals where I live – after he said it was his dream to visit London and see Big Ben I gave him the key ring and I saw true emotion in his eyes.

Picachu was a student, joining us on the tour as a trainee. Picachu didn’t really have a role, besides observing and learning; very rarely did she have some simple task to carry out. She was very young and very cute, even somewhat naïve. A physical resemblance to the well-known Pokemon on top of that explains her nickname; shame these Pokemons have not made their way to North Korea so she was not able to fully grasp the reason for this nickname.

North Korea - Picachu
Picachu during our short hike in Manpok valley

The full week spent with us turned out to be a life changing experience for her. I can imagine she learnt a lot about the job; but I’m pretty sure she learnt even more about the soft part of the skills. My bet is that, in the briefing she had received, nobody had told her that she would engage in a personal relationship with all these foreigners and that she would actually become close to them, which was confirmed when her answer to the question “What was the most unexpected thing about us?”, was that we were actually very friendly. She did become close to us, until even bursting into tears on the platform when our train was ready to depart, which broke my heart and made me cry, too!


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