India Part 3: Pelling, Sikkim and Darjeeling

View from our hotel in Pelling, Sikkim

View from our hotel in Pelling, Sikkim

When we visited Darjeeling six years ago, people constantly told us, “Oh you love it here? You have to visit Sikkim.”

Pelling, Sikkim

Pelling, Sikkim

Sikkim is a part of that weird region of India between Bangladesh, Nepal, and Tibet that looks like it shouldn’t be India. Resting in the shadows of the world’s highest mountains, this region of the Himalayas is culturally more Nepali than Indian (which it joined only 40 years ago). The Lonely Planet listed Sikkim as the #1 region to visit in 2014, and with good reason. It offers a tranquil respite to a the rest of India which tends to be hot, hectic and (sadly) polluted.

And if those clouds were to get out of the way, you'd see Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak in the world

And if those clouds were to get out of the way, you’d see Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak in the world

Breathtaking views everywhere. But it's the Himalayas... what'd you expect?

Breathtaking views everywhere. But it’s the Himalayas… what’d you expect?

Corny as it sounds, there's an almost magical feeling in the air here

Corny as it sounds, there’s an almost magical feeling in the air here

Getting to Sikkim proved to be an adventure in itself. We flew into Bagdogra Airport. From there we caught a taxi to Siliguri bus station for 350 rupees. Unfortunately, the bus to Pelling (our destination in Sikkim) only leaves once a day at 10:30. The tourist office recommended we hire a jeep. A kind older man at the jeep lot helped us figure out that we were at the wrong jeep lot and put us in bike rickshaws to the right jeep lot.

If an old Indian man tells you to get on the bike and go to god know’s where, you do it without question.

The bus station to Sikkim

The bus station to Sikkim

The shady man who ran the next jeep lot (and clearly trafficked drugs on the side) told us that the next jeep to Pelling left at 2:30, so we hunkered down for a few games of Rummy. We instantly became the primary entertainment for everyone else waiting for a jeep. 2:30 came and went. Around 3:30 they began loading up our jeep … with bushels of fish that were leaking blood everywhere. Let me tell you, nothing improves a 5-hour drive along dangerously narrow Himalayan roads like the overwhelming reek of dead fish. We finally rolled out around 4:30. The driver was kind enough to stop half-way in Jorethang, offering Sara and I some much-needed relief for our Delhi-belly. By then it was dark out, limiting our ability to see much of our surroundings–and considering the way the driver was ripping around the hairpin turns, I’m not sure that was much of a bad thing. Nevertheless, we made it to Pelling safe and relatively sound.

Playing cards and entertaining the locals

Playing cards and entertaining the locals

The next morning we awoke to a view of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. After breakfast we went out looking for something to do. We noticed a Sikkimese man sitting outside of one of the tour booths. We approached him and asked him to take us to the Changey Waterfall. After some hesitation (which confused us) he offered to drive us there for 300 rupees. We negotiated him down to 200, to which he reluctantly agreed. We hopped in the jeep and sped off.

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Changey Waterfall

Sara enjoying the refreshingly cool, clean water

Sara enjoying the refreshingly cool, clean water

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What’s the only thing that can improve an impressive waterfall? Duh. Beer.

When we got to the waterfall, he went into a nearby shack and emerged a few minutes later with two bottles of HIT, a surprisingly-delicious Sikkimese beer. He handed the bottles to us and shooed us off towards the waterfall. We spent some time playing around in the water, taking pictures, and sipping the beer he gave us. We eventually figured out that today was Sunday, meaning that it was probably our driver’s only day off. Feeling guilty, we decided to find him and head back. When we entered the shack we found him at a table with four of his friends and three more bottles of HIT. They invited us to sit down, poured us cups of beer, and started talking to us. When we were about finished, a woman appeared from the back with four more beers.

It would have been rude to refuse.

Our newfound friends

Our newfound friends

A dozen-ish beers later our guide stood up and announced that we were going to the river. We piled back into the jeep and zipped off down the road again. For the most part everyone was enjoying themselves. However one of our guide’s friends was clearly displeased that these three random foreigners were crashing their party on his day off. He was polite enough but clearly disinterested in us. When we got to the river, we timidly waded in. Standing knee deep in the river, I plunged my hands in and splashed the clean, icy water on my face. A minute later, Mr. Not-Jazzed-About-The-Foreigners splashed a handful of water on my face as well. I returned the favor. The ensuing water fight broke the ice between us and him. We spent the next several hours laughing, swimming and soaking in the sun. It was the first time I had felt clean, cold and refreshed since arriving in India.

Nothing breaks the ice like a splash of icy-cold water to the face

Nothing breaks the ice like a splash of icy-cold water to the face

Playing in the river

Playing in the river

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River romp

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Dentam River

This spontaneous experience was the highlight of the trip for me. I usually feel obligated to partake in the significant historical and cultural experiences that a destination has to offer (Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Times Square). However, my favorite experiences are always the ones where we make real connections with the local culture and have little to do with anything marketed to tourists.

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Sara, getting some much needed solitude on a rickety, wooden bridge

We were a little disappointed when we woke up the next day to clouds and scattered showers blocking our view of the mountains. The town of Pelling offers amazing views and incredible hiking, but on a rainy day there’s not much to do. After putzing around for a few hours, we decided to head to Darjeeling a day earlier.

This was the right decision.

Saying goodbye to Pelling

Saying goodbye to Pelling

We found out later that the clouds and scattered showers were actually the precursor for the first monsoon of the season–a whole month earlier than anyone anticipated. (Monsoon season usually starts mid-June). The drive from Pelling to Darjeeling was already tricky enough. There were several times when our jeep required two or three attempts to make it up a hill, as the red dirt had turned to slick mud from the rain. One time we actually started sliding backwards down the hill, a startling prospect considering the 150-foot drop to our left. However, had we waited until the next morning to leave Pelling like we had originally planned, the rains would have certainly made the trip impossible. We would have been stranded and missed our flight home.

Leaving Sikkim

Leaving Sikkim

"Wait, we're going to drive across that? I can feel the bridge moving under us. Are you sure this is safe?

“Wait, we’re going to drive across that? I can feel the bridge moving under us. Are you sure this is safe?

We made it to Darjeeling only to meet another challenge. With the scorching temperatures across the rest of India (108°F in Kolkata, 114°F in Jaipur), May is high-tourist season in the comfortably mild Darjeeling. Our driver Roman ended up driving us all over the city looking for a hotel with a vacant room. We went down one street, then another, then another, looking anywhere for a spare room. As we turned on the last street, high above the city center, he turned to me and said, “Last chance. I have wife and son. If no hotel, you stay with me.” Thankfully, the second-to-last hotel on the last street had a room. We checked in, relieved to have a place to sleep.

Roman, our awesome driver who offered to let us stay at his house if we didn't find a hotel

Roman, our awesome driver who offered to let us stay at his house if we didn’t find a hotel

The next couple days were lazy and restful. We did some shopping and tried (unsuccessfully) to stay out of the rain. At one point we got stranded in a cafe that was a 20 minute walk from our hotel. After hours of waiting for the rain to stop, we gave up and asked an employee for three trash bags. The entire shop watched with astonishment and amusement at us as we made our grand exit.

Thukpa hits the spot on a rainy day

Thukpa hits the spot on a rainy day

Eating momos and avoiding the rain

Eating momos and avoiding the rain

One final memory from Darjeeling. We went back to our favorite momo restaurant, located just off the city center where the jeeps leave in the morning for Tiger Hill. It’s hands down the best food in the city. After much anticipation and a little trepidation, I finally mustered up the courage to try the regional specialty: butter tea (or Tibetan tea). Made from salted, fermented yak butter, this beverage is essentially like sipping on a thick, rich cup of gorgonzola cheese. I realized that salted beverages are rare in western cuisine. In that sense, this drink takes a bit of mental preparation. However, I actually found it to be pretty tasty. Unlike other weird foods I’ve had (century eggs, baluts), I would voluntarily have this one again. It’s milder than your average blue cheese, so if you like strong cheese, be brave and try this drink.

Getting more momos and thukpa at our favorite restaurant. Notice the butter tea which I am about to partake in

Getting more momos and thukpa at our favorite restaurant. Notice the butter tea which I am about to partake in

After Darjeeling we headed back to the Bagdogra Airport and began our harrowing 36-hour journey back to Chicago. (We accidentally got stuck in one room in the Delhi airport for 8 hours. They wouldn’t let us leave. Sigh… you win again, Delhi. Every. Time.) It was unfortunate that we happened to be in Darjeeling and Sikkim for the unexpected monsoon. However the day we spent drinking and swimming in the Dentam River made the entire experience worthwhile. It’s certainly one that Sara and I will be telling stories about for years to come.

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On the side of the road in Pelling

Visiting Sikkim:

Sikkim is considered a protected region. In order to visit there, you need to obtain a Restricted Area and Inner Line Permit. You’ll need a photocopy of your passport and a passport-sized photo when filling out the form. You can complete the paperwork at any Indian embassy, in several major cities in India, and in Siliguri, Bagdogra and Darjeeling. Visit the Sikkim Tourism website for more information.

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India Part 2: Kolkata and the Missionaries of Charity

May 2006 was my first trip to Kolkata, India. I went with my now alma mater, Anderson University. I did not have a clue what I was walking into when I signed up for the trip, but it was love at first sight for Kolkata and me. I worked with the Sisters of Charity, founded by Mother Theresa, in a home called Shanti Dan meaning “to give peace” in English. Working with mentally challenged older adult women was a huge stretch for me at my 19 years of age, but those two weeks of my life served the catalyst for a revolution in my world view. I came back an entirely changed person and my family witnessed my less than graceful transformation in an up close and personal way. I begged my family to return with me, but the only person who was crazy enough to entertain this idea was my youngest sister Sidney, who was 11 at the time.

Catching the bus to Shanti Dan

Sidney catching the bus to Shanti Dan

During my senior year of college (2009), I returned to Kolkata with a group of near and dear friends and my—at the time—fiancé Davo. I had the pleasure of bringing 4 of my closest friends with me and experienced the city and Shanti Dan for the second time through my wiser, more-traveled eyes. My love for the city and Shanti Dan only grew, and I knew that I would never grow tired of returning. Kolkata would be a lifelong home for me.

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Still fresh off the plane and jet lagged, I am writing about my third experience. As I have grown and developed in the past 4-and-a-half years, so too has Kolkata. This was apparent upon arrival at the airport. The airport has been remodeled since 2009, and what was once an extremely hot, un-air-conditioned, crowded and outdated mess of a space is now orderly, cool, and modern. Before arriving, I instructed my sister to run from the airport to the taxi without engaging with any of the mass quantities of beggars. I realized these instructions were laughable when we exited the airport. No chaos, no hordes of people, no beggars. We arrived at Hotel Circular to find it newly painted hot pink and purple (although much to my relief the lobby was still eerily dark, damp and green.) I slept well in great anticipation of being able to return to Shanti Dan the next morning.

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Saying the Morning Prayer with my sister and husband at the Mother House before volunteering gave me an incredible sense of peace and belonging. In some ways it felt like a homecoming. Upon arrival at Shanti Dan that morning, I immediately had goose bumps. It was all so familiar but different at the same time. Some of the women were the same; many were different, but love and light radiated from the place the same as I remember. I was overjoyed to be back.

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One woman whose face and spirit was most etched in my mind heart was still there. I named her “granny” because until this trip I did not know how to ask her name in Bengali. Although smaller, older and slightly more frail, her face lit up when she saw me. She immediately greeted me with the same greeting I remember so well: one “Namaste,” one kiss on the hand, one kiss on each of my cheeks, and a back rub. It is up for debate whether or not she remembered me among the endless cycle of volunteer faces; however my sister swears—and I agree—that she did interact differently with me. I relished the time I got to spend with her over the week and received one incredibly soft back rub from her tiny frail hands each day.

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This extraordinary women and her back rubs are a small story that parallels the larger narrative when working in the homes. Thousands of volunteers flood in every year with great hopes of “serving” and bringing Jesus’ light and love to these people. Yet every time I am reminded that Jesus is in fact already very present, and the light and love is already there. While at Shanti Dan I receive a level of joy unmatched by any other experience. Even though I am the person who makes beds, does laundry and feeds people lunch, the women at Shanti Dan serve me. With the women I am able to be fully present, engaged, joyful, and at peace. When I am at Shanti Dan, I am receiving a back rub and am refreshed by the beautifully simple things in life like doing laundry by hand. I am the one who receives and for that I am humbled and eternally grateful.

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The city of Kolkata appeared to be modernizing at a rapid pace. What was once a city thick with children and adults begging around every corner, people sleeping on every surface imaginable, and obtrusive grinding poverty is now a much more orderly and manageable city. I was shocked to find Park Street has many air-conditioned fancy restaurants and even an Au Bon Pain cafe. I am hopeful that this is positive development and that there has been social change for the better, however in the back of my mind, I am fearful that the streets have merely been swept and the poor are hidden away somewhere or maybe incarcerated.

Fine dining at Peter Cat

Overall our time in Kolkata was incredibly meaningful. It was a shorter trip, which was difficult, however we all know we will be back. This is what makes leaving bearable. Shanti Dan is not going anywhere, life will continue on at its rapid pace, but I can always return for refreshment. I eagerly anticipate the growth that will occur between now and my next visit. Each time I visit there are new lessons to be learned and each time I am further molded by the “City of God.”

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India Part 1: Delhi, Agra and the Taj Mahal Blitz

The adventures began even before landing in the Delhi airport. As we were beginning our approach, the pilot came over the intercom and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I just wanted to inform you that the preliminary results from the elections are in, and it looks like Modi will be the winner.” Like a rookie, I was ignorant of the fact that elections were underway. It made me nervous. How did the Indian people feel about these results? What if they disliked them? Would there be protests, demonstrations, unrest, or riots? I was especially nervous about the situation in West Bengal, where Kolkata is… a primarily communist state.

Upon leaving the airport, we were able to more accurately gauge the reaction to the election. The streets were mayhem… in a good way. We quickly learned any anxiety we had in this regard was baseless. Modi had won the election with 80% of the popular vote. Celebratory parades wound through the local thoroughfares. A random man on the street bought us gulab jamuns (honey-soaked donut balls). Flowers and fireworks abounded. (I feel like my ears are still ringing from a near-miss with a firework). Music blasted from every corner, and the streets were painted in orange, white and green.

Monkeys on the rooftop in Agra

Monkeys on the rooftop in Agra

This was my second trip to India, Sara’s third. This time we brought Sara’s sister Sidney with us, who has wanted to go to India since Sara first visited there 8 years ago. Our first night in Delhi we stayed near the New Delhi Station since we were taking a train the next morning to Agra. We spent the afternoon window-shopping, eating, and trying to avoid jet lag and being blown up by fireworks.

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I wish the doors in my house looked like this.

The next morning we made our way to the train station. During the train ride we were befriended by an English teacher who wanted help with honing his American pronunciation. After meticulously picking through the finer details of every phonetic sound in the English language, we pumped him for recommendations about traveling in India. A local opinion will always trump the travel book, in my opinion. He told us more about his hometown and language (Malayalam).

At the train station

At the train station

View from our hostel in Agra

View from our hostel in Agra

We arrived in Agra late morning and caught an auto-rickshaw to our hostel, which had a stunning view of the Taj Mahal from the rooftop. After dropping our bags, we headed to Agra Fort. Overlooking the Yamuna River and the Taj Mahal, this millennium-old for was briefly a luxurious prison to the creator of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, after he was deposed by his son. The fort’s beautiful architecture is a mix of red sandstone and the same white marble used to construct the Taj Mahal.

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Red sandstone from Rajastan at Agra Fort

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Soft light filtered by white marble in Agra Fort

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Some much-appreciated shade at Agra Fort

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If I’m ever imprisoned, I want to my view to look like this.

Next, we made our way to the Taj Mahal. I’ll admit: I had high expectations of the Taj Mahal. But even with the punishing heat of the afternoon sun, the building did not disappoint. I can’t decide what is more impressive: that the entire mausoleum is constructed of white marble, or that it was constructed in the 1640s. The central dome is estimated to weight over 13,000 tons. All of the walls (inside and out) are inlaid with precious stones, a process demonstrated for us by a nearby shop owner. Craftspeople would cut the precious stone into the desired shape and trace the outline on a piece of marble. Then they would hand-chisel an indentation barely 1/8″ deep into the marble before cementing the stone onto the marble. It’s no wonder the structure took over a decade to complete.

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Taj Mahal

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Minaret

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Intricate, hand-chiseled inlays in the marble

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Beautiful designs on the interior

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Door to the central tomb area

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Mandatory shoe covers to keep the white marble pretty

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Obligatory group picture

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My tomb probably won’t look like this

There was one unpleasant aspect of visiting the Taj Mahal: everyone taking pictures. The odd thing was they didn’t want to take pictures of the Taj Mahal. They wanted to take their pictures with us. At first it was funny and endearing. But after the 250th person asked to take our picture, it got a little old. Apparently, it’s good luck to take a picture with a tourist. Still, we felt compelled to point out that, while we may be worthy subjects for a photo on an average day, behind us is one of the greatest buildings ever constructed. Sidney suggested we start charging 5 rupees a piece. We could’ve probably funded our entire trip that way.

Excuse me, may I take your picture?

Excuse me, may I take your picture?

After a long, hot (104°F) day, we headed back to the hostel for some rest. The next morning we took the train back to Delhi. After getting a little lost during a frantic search for anywhere that had AC, we settled into a Nepali restaurant and killed time before our evening flight to Kolkata. Our time in Delhi and Agra was short. I would have enjoyed spending another day or two exploring each city. However, we were all anxious to get to Kolkata.

Ahhh. Relief! Air conditioning and frapaccinos

Ahhh. Relief! Air conditioning and frapaccinos

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Goodbye Asia: Beijing solo adventure

When I arrived in Beijing I was terrified.  Could I figure out how to get to my hostel? What if I got lost?  What if something happened with my money?  What if someone took me away to a Chinese brothel and sold me?  Ok so obviously some of these fears were a bit irrational.  But I came to China terrified.

When I arrived in Beijing, a Chinese university student immediately befriended me.  He had never traveled before, and I knew no Chinese so we were a perfect match.  I helped him with things like what line to stand in for passports and where to go next, and he helped me with things like what subway to get on where and where I should store my bags.  I was off to a good start and feeling more confident.

When I stepped out of the airport armed with the new knowledge and maps my friend had given me, I was immediately hit with the insane heat and smoggy air.  Similar to in Kolkata, I could not see the sun and a grey haze was consuming the sky.  The heat was overwhelming.  I got to my hostel with the unsolicited help from a British man who lived in the area.  Upon arriving at the hostel, I met two Americans who had just left a year of teaching in Korea as well, and I made plans to take the bus to see the Great Wall with them in the morning.  That evening I explored the area around the hostel, got dinner, and did some wrong things and got yelled at, you know the usual.

The next morning we went to the Mutianyu portion of the Great Wall. After a 3-hour, sweaty, air-conditioning-less bus ride where my legs were buried in the seat in front of me because they were too long, we arrived at our destination.  Ever since my Chinese history class at AU, I had wanted to visit the Great Wall, and it was pretty unfathomable to me that I was actually there.  We climbed up the mountain, climbed the wall, and I imagined what it would be like to be a solider at my post, guarding China from its enemies.  It really is remarkable that the wall is still there and bears so much history.  I also think I have never been so sweaty in my entire life.

Sweatiest I have ever been in my life.

Sweatiest I have ever been in my life.

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Great wall and lost of fog.

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There are lots of steps to climb a the great wall.

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Tower on the wall.

After the 3-hour, sweaty, air-conditioning-less bus ride home with my knees buried in the seat in front of me, I was pretty well exhausted, but I knew I only had a precious few days in Beijing.  So, I rested up, went to dinner and then headed to the night market.  Where I saw all these interesting ObaMao things. Weird.

ObaMao

ObaMao

Night market.

Night market.

The next day I set off to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.  The thing that sticks out most in my mind about the Forbidden City is that it was incredibly ornate and massive.  (Sorry Gyungbukgung and Korea, but you are just not as cool as the Forbidden City.) I moseyed around for hours, took a lot of pictures, listened to my automated guide, which sometimes worked, and tried to dodge all the people who wanted to take pictures with me.

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By the time I was finished with the Forbidden City, I was exhausted and again possibly the hottest I have ever been in my life, so that did not leave a lot of room for walking around Tiananmen.  Luckily there is not a whole lot to do at Tiananmen but just be there.  The one thing I did notice was how much security was there. When you walk in every Chinese citizen has to give some form of ID to the security guards. For those of you that do not know, you will never seen the famous man standing in front of the tank picture, because it is illegal to publish in China.  If you Google Tiananmen Square anywhere but in China you will be flooded with scenes from the 1989 protests in the square.  But if you Google this in China, nothing comes up but pictures of tourists walking around and other pleasantries.  Just like China blocks Facebook from its citizens, it also blocks some of its history.

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After Tiananmen I went to the wrong temple.  I thought I was going to the Temple of Heaven, which looked interesting to me because it looked a little different than the dozens of other temples I had seen in Asia.  But I was actually at the Lama temple.  So rather than be disappointed about my mistake, I sat for a long time taking in the scenery and trying to absorb the fact that this was my last day in Asia.  This is where it somewhat hit me, and I was tossed into an emotional whirlwind for the rest of the evening.

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My last evening in Asia was spent eating dinner with an American on his way to North Korea and drinking terrible Chinese liquor on the side of the road with some meat on a stick.  The people I met that evening helped me though the emotions of my last night in Asia and my grand adventure coming to a close.  It is funny how awesome people can be that you have met only hours before.  I woke up the next morning at 5am with some help from a friend and went to the airport.  And that, my friends, was the end of my Asian adventure.

I did not eat these but crazy, hu?

I did not eat these but crazy, hu?

DMZ

This post is coming a few weeks late, but life and preparing to leave has kept us rather busy! We are both now in Prague for a few days, and the pace has slowed considerably!

On our third-to-last weekend in Ulsan, Sara and I headed up to Seoul to join the USO tour of Panmunjeom (the Joint Security Area) and the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. The tour was bizarre mix of history and propaganda regarding an even more bizarre historical and geo-political situation.

I read a story one time about this Japanese soldier who had been stationed at a lonely outpost in the Philippines in WWII. Things happened, and he lost contact with his command. He finally surrendered in 1974. He had no idea that WWII had been over for several decades. That’s kind of how this tour felt. The entire thing seemed like stepping back in time 30 or 40 years.  It’s like the Cold War ended, but no one bothered to inform North Korea.

The Korean War is technically still ongoing today. However, a ceasefire was reached in 1954, and a demilitarized zone (DMZ) was created. The 4-km wide 250-km long border between the divided Koreas remains the most militarized region in the entire world. A series of white fenceposts placed every 10 meters demarcates the border. The DMZ extends out for 2 km on either side. Lining the edge of the DMZ are anti-tank walls and signs warning of land mines.

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Fortifications along the river that flows from the North to the South… to keep spies from crossing.

As we took the bus up from Seoul, we drove up a river which flows from the North into the South. The river is lined solid with fences and spotted with manned guard towers at regular intervals. After a short drive, we arrived at Panmunjeom. The Joint Security Area (JSA) is the UN-run, official location for talks between the two Koreas. There’s a line of concrete slabs running through the center of the JSA, which runs through and cuts several buildings in half. North and South Korean soldiers face off against each other every day, staring at each other from across the line. The central building is the one used for talks, and even here the line of demarcation is clear.

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Staring contest

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Sara and I technically standing in North Korea. (That’s a South Korean soldier, though. Inside this room, they’re allowed either side).

The border between North and South. I'm slightly on the North side.

The border between North and South. I’m slightly on the North side.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the tour happened on the bus as we were leaving the JSA and headed to our next destination. Our tour guide explained that there are two villages located inside the DMZ. One is operated by the North and the other by the South. These villages are meant to be signs of good faith between the two countries. “The names of these villages,” our tour guide told us, “are ‘Freedom Village’ and ‘Propaganda Village.'” I immediately glanced around the bus to see if anyone caught the irony.

It turns out the irony didn’t stop there. Residents of the so-called “Freedom Village” live under a perpetual state of martial law. They are required to back in the village by 6pm and be inside with the lights out by 9pm. If a resident spends too many days away, they can be ejected permanently from the village. Life in “Freedom Village” sounds pretty great, especially compared to “Propaganda Village”! The entire thing just blew my mind. I still can’t wrap my mind around the blatant contradictions, and the seemingly complete obliviousness of our tour guide.

From there we visited the last train station in South Korea before the tracks head into the North. The tracks exist and the infrastructure is there, but North Korea does not allow trains from South Korea to cross into it. South Korea seems open and willing to allow train travel, but the North disallows it. It was actually kind of sad.  Although Korea is a peninsula, South Korea remains an island, essentially cut off from the mainland by its neighbors to the north. Instead of being able to connect to the rest of the continent and the Trans-Siberian Railway, travel to South Korea is restricted to sea or air.

To Pyeongyang

To Pyeongyang

Next we visited the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. North Korea dug four (known) tunnels into South Korea. This tunnel is 350m below ground and over a mile long. It is apparently big enough for North Korean soldiers to march two by two through, however in most places it was too short for me to stand up straight. I was thankful for the hardhat, as I bumped my head on the ceiling a good, several dozen times.

Sara and the line of demarcation. On the other side of the blast door is North Korea.

Sara and the line of demarcation. On the other side of the blast door is North Korea.

Our last stop of the day was to the Dora observatory. From here you could get a sweeping view into the North. For 50 cents, you could look through telescopes and see more clearly the goings-on in the North. I didn’t really notice until Sara mentioned it later, but neither of us remember seeing any cars driving around on the roads. We also got a decent view of the world’s 3rd-tallest flagpole, touting a 600-pound North Korean flag.

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The monster flag

Despite all the blatant propaganda, one cool thing about the tour was the strong focus on reunification. While they had little positive to say about the government of North Korea, they refrained from alienating the people of North Korea. After all, many families were torn apart when Korea split. Every South Korean I’ve talked to hopes that they will one day be reunified.

Children's art depicting their hopes for reconciliation and reunification.

Children’s art depicting their hopes for reconciliation and reunification.

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Good-bye Korea

This is my final goodbye to Korea.  I am sitting in the Busan airport about to board my flight to Beijing, and I am strangely unemotional.  This morning was emotional saying goodbye to Davo for 3 days (I know I am a wuss), but I was not emotional about leaving Korea.  It is possible though that my brain just cannot process what is happening.  I don’t feel like I am leaving.  I feel like I will be back here after China, but I won’t.

This weekend we said goodbye to all our friends, our favorite restaurants, our coffee shops and our bars.  Saying goodbye to friends was emotional.  We have met many cool people here and their company has helped us throughout the year to forget the massive heartache of missing friends and family back home.  We now have friends all over the world and it makes the world feel a bit smaller and more homey.

Korea has been a huge growing experience.  I have learned a lot about myself and the way that I connect with people.  I have learned to just roll with things.  I have learned that I am more adaptable than I once thought.  I hope that these experiences will resonate with me and stay with me.   I am capable of more than I thought.  And now I am about to embark on a journey that is wildly out of my comfort zone.  Traveling solo.  No friends, no family, and no Davo.

I know I am capable of navigating China alone.  But it is still scary.  Luckily, I have an incredibly supportive partner who encouraged me to clear this hurdle that I have always wanted to clear.  The solo female traveler.   During our time aboard I have met many amazing women who have come to Korea on their own and traveled all over the world on their own.  I always wanted to see if I could do it, too.  Three days in Bejing hardly begins to touch the experience of moving to Korea on your own, but it is a start.  I love  my partner more than anything, but I can do things without him, and I am looking forward to learning more about myself during this experience.

After Beijing I will meet Davo and his family in Prague.  It only seems right that this year-long journey began in Prague, and it will end in Prague.  Soon I will be making grilled pizzas with my family and partner, and I can take comfort in that as I am navigating an Asian sprawling metropolitan giant all-alone.

I can do this! Bring it, China! I am sure there will be a blog about China shortly upon my arrival in Prague.  Stay tuned.

Warm Desks

It’s one of those weeks. One that baffles most and provokes teachers in America to an irate frenzy. This week I am desk warming. It’s 95 degrees outside, 83 in my classroom (with the AC at full), and I’m keeping my warm desk company.

The kids are all gone on summer vacation. I have summer camp until I leave, but for some reason there is no class this week. So I will sit at my desk and get paid to watch YouTube videos. “Why?” you may ask. “Why is Korea paying you to literally do nothing? Why can’t you go on vacation, or at least stay home? Why are you coming in to work for no reason instead?”

Rule #1 of Life in Korea: Don’t ask questions that you don’t know the answer to.

Alright, so I’m not just watching YouTube videos.  I’m trying to be productive and forward-looking. I’m leaving Korea in a couple weeks, and I’ll be landing back in Chicago (jobless as yet) within a month. So this week I’m focusing on applying for jobs. I’ve got a dozen apps out, a few solid leads, and even an interview later this week. Hopefully that goes well. I’ve been looking mostly at web development jobs. We’ll see where I land.

YouTube: Check. Job applications: Check. Next on the docket: Prepping to leave. This includes auctioning off all of our stuff that we’re not bringing home with us. Anyone need a blender? Mattress topper? Dehumidifier? Going once. Going twice. Then there are the goodbyes. Last weekend we made our last trip down to Busan to say goodbye. This coming weekend we’ll be heading to Seoul for the last time. We’re also taking a quick and long-overdue tour to the DMZ. In two weekends will be our going away party.

Overall I’m pretty excited about going home. I will certainly miss certain aspects about life in Korea. Free time is abundant, booze and cabs are cheap, and money is bountiful. It’s a carefree lifestyle that is simply impossible to maintain in Chicago. That said, there is plenty to look forward to in Chicago: our church, good friends, the cats, our neighborhood, and our house.

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How to book the perfect flight on the cheap

I do not claim to have very many areas of expertise.  I am decent at a lot of things but it is rare that I call myself an expert in anything.  Actually, I think I only have two areas that I am willing to self-proclaim expertise in: sleeping and international travel planning.  One of the aspects of travel planning I get asked about most is how to book the perfect plane tickets.  So I am dedicating this post to the process that I go about when booking international flights.

Choose Your Destination

The first thing that needs to be considered is: are you going somewhere specific or do you just want to get out of the country?  When I am planning a trip, I usually have some ideas of where I want to go, but I find it is best to let the price of plane tickets balanced with the cost of staying in that country be my guide. (I will discuss more about this balance later).  When we get time off of work and we know we have a chunk of time to globe trot, the first thing I do is get on the Kayak Explore application.

Kayak Explore is the best place to get a rough estimate of how much it will cost for you to go where. Poke around the map and you can choose options for when you want to travel such as: seasons, the entire year, or a specific month.  This can serve as a rough—and I do mean rough—guide to the places you can get to within your price range and some rough timing.  This tool is really just a way to narrow things down from anywhere on the globe to specific regions.  You can also cross-reference this with Sky Scanner, which has a search “everywhere” option.

Book Your Flight

Once you have decided a region you want to visit or a specific country, then there are many websites to use in order to insure that you are getting the cheapest flights.  These websites are the best for long intercontinental flights.  They work for in-country flights or small, cross-country flights as well, however I have found that there are sometimes small, local airlines that do not show up on the major websites that can be better if, say, you want to fly from Kolkata to Kathmandu.  These are ranked in the order in which I use them and in order of my preference.  But it is important to check them all so as to make sure that you really are getting the best deal.

  1. Kayak.com – This website is the love of my life (don’t tell Davo).  Besides the Explore option, it also offers just straight, plane ticket searches.  This website searches most of the major airlines in the world and comes up with the cheapest flights found for your destination.  It then links you to the website that it found the flights on, and you can book from there.  Genius, really.  Make sure to look at other options.  Flexibility is the key to cheap tickets.  There are places on this website that show you the cheapest days to fly on in specific months, etc.  It is really wonderful, and you can do a lot with this website.
  2. Orbitz.com – This is the first website I use after kayak.com in order to make sure that there is not a better deal on Orbitz.  Sometimes, even though Kayak is the greatest thing in the world, this website finds a way to make it a little cheaper.  So, I always like to check before I book.  This website also scans the web for different flights on many different airlines.
  3. Expedia.com – Generally I have found that this website is better for domestic US travel, but I still always check it before I buy international plane tickets.  Sometimes it will surprise you with the best deal!

Additional Considerations

  • Price of tickets vs. cost of country. Some countries cost drastically more than others.  For example, it might be much cheaper to fly to London than it is to fly to Delhi, however, it is much more expensive to stay in London that it is to stay in Delhi.  So even if you are footing a huge bill to get to a country, you might end up saving money in the end because of the small cost to stay in that country.
  • Land travel. Some times it best to fly into a major city and then bus or train to the place you want to go.  The bigger the airport, the cheaper the flight, and if you are willing to take the extra time to bus or train overland you can cut a lot of cost and see more of the country! (See our Thailand post about the “sitting with fan” train.)
  • Booking small in country flights. If you are flying within one country or to a neighboring country, check with locals or people you know who have been to the country.  Oftentimes there are small, cheap airlines that are not easily found on the Internet.
  • Order of events. If you have multiple destinations in your travels make sure to try as many permutations of the order of destinations.  Sometimes it is much cheaper if you fly to one place first and then the next rather than vice versa.  For example, Davo and I got to go to Iceland because I figured out that if we added Helsinki to our trip we could take save hundreds on the flight from Reykjavik.

Technical Advice

A few other technical notes (from Davo) on optimizing your buying/shopping experience. Occasionally, the cheapest flight on Kayak will have a notice under it saying “Only 3 seats left! Book now!” I was recently looking at booking such a flight, but waited too long and it disappeared the next day. However, a day or two later the flight reappeared for the same price with the same notice. (I’m guessing that it’s an advertising ploy, where the airlines only release a certain number of tickets each day at a certain price). If the site gives you such a warning then the flight disappears, there’s a chance that it will reappear. Obviously, I can’t guarantee that, but if you’re not pressed for time in booking the tickets, it might be worth waiting a day or two to see.

Additionally, I’ve read (although I have no direct experience to confirm this) that ticket-booking websites sometimes track visits to their site. If they see that you frequently search for airline tickets, they won’t display the cheapest flights. Apparently, if you clear your browsing history, cookies, etc., you will get cheaper flights. It might also work to use the incognito/private browsing mode available in your browser. Again, none of this is confirmed, but it might be worth trying.

Go to Geojedo

Last weekend to celebrated our 4th wedding anniversary, Sara and I headed two hours south to Geojedo. Geojedo is a little island paradise at the very tip of the Korean peninsula, known for it’s seafood and natural beauty. We spent two days exploring a sleepy seaside town and the surrounding area.

After dropping off our bags at a cute hotel overlooking the seashore, we headed into town and explored a bit. After wadding into the icy water at the black pebble beach, we stopped in a little restaurant for some fresh seafood.

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This was actually a historic moment for the two of us. It was the first time in our 10 months in Korea that we voluntarily ordered fish at a restaurant. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Korean food, and I love seafood. However, most Korean seafood isn’t quite to my taste. As I explained to my coteachers (and blew their minds in the process), most Americans like fish; we just don’t like our fish to taste like fish. Not so here in Korea. Needless to say, Sara and I were nervous about trying fish, but it was actually pretty good!

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After dinner we headed back to the hotel and watched the sun set. There was even a rainbow! We befriended the hotel owner and his daughter (who spoke excellent English). They helped us plan our activities for the next day, and we ended up chatting with them for over an hour.

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The next morning we headed to the other side of the bay (under the rainbow in the picture above). We spent the first half of the afternoon exploring the purply-red, rocky shore.

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We then boarded a ferry which took us around Haegeumgang. These towering stones jutting out of the ocean have been named the #2 scenic site in all of Korea. They are fascinating to observe from afar. You can even see a cave that the ocean has carved out of a fissure in the stone.

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We quickly found out that you get to see the cave from closer than afar. The captain piloted the boat in until we had less than a foot of clearance on either side. It was a little scary, but pretty cool at the same time.

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From there the ferry headed over to Oedo. The entire island has been converted into a garden. We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling the winding, immaculately manicured, Dr. Seuss-esque paths.

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It was a wonderfully relaxing weekend. Our only regret is that we didn’t know about this place sooner! It’s hard to believe that such a beautiful place exists just two hours away.

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Flushinator 3000

Korean bathrooms. Who knew they could be so entertaining? I’ve regaled many a’folk with tales of our shower. The shower is connected to the sink, so if you forget to turn the knob to disable the shower, you get a refreshing surprise next time you turn on the sink. Inevitably, this always happens when you’re fully clothed. I’ve learned the skillful art of dodging, and can even do it while holding a toothbrush.

Today brought another such adventure.

Let me first offer a bit of back-story. Last week, my sister and her husband visited us. On their last day here, they went on a morning hike up the mountain behind our house. When they returned home, they found the apartment locked. Sara came home for lunch, but had lost her key several months ago. The landlord and I are the only two people who have that key, which means he must have come into our apartment at some point during the day and locked the door on his way out. Sara had to call her coteacher, who called the landlord, who wasn’t home, who had to come home and let them in. Her coteacher also asked if the landlord had entered our apartment when we weren’t there.

The landlord denied doing any such thing.

So this afternoon, I come home from work. I walk into the bathroom and am greeted with this:

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The Flushinator 3000

Now, I’m not the most observant person in the world, but I think I would have noticed all those buttons on the toilet this morning. I was shocked and amazed. Not by all of the incredible features on the Flushinator 3000, but by the fact that the contraption had teleported into my apartment and installed itself. (After all, our landlord would certainly not enter our apartment without our permission).

After I regained composure, I took a seat on the new Flushinator 3000. As soon as I sat, I immediately stood back up. The Flushinator has a heated seat, and the heat was cranked up to 11. As my backside recovered from its singeing, I attempted to turn off the heater. Since the Flushinator is only in Korean, I resorted to randomly pushing buttons.

If in doubt, push buttons at random.

If in doubt, push buttons at random.

I was standing directly in front of the toilet, when this happened (it must be Karma)…