Training for enlightenment

I don’t call myself a Buddhist, but in recent years, I have found much to admire in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (the northern Indian prince who became the Buddha). About 2600 years ago, he famously found enlightenment in a specific place in India: sitting under a fig tree in what is now the small town of Bodhgaya. When I learned that a direct descendant of that tree was roughly on the path between Kolkata and Varanasi, I wanted to see it.

From my clean, orderly desk in San Diego, this seemed reasonable. The Indian Railway website said several days a week a train left Howrah Station in Kolkata at 8:15 am that would arrive in the city of Gaya around 2:50 pm. From Gaya to Bodhgaya was supposed to be only a 30 or so-minute ride in a taxi or auto rickshaw. Lonely Planet said if there was space, we could stay at the peaceful Root Institute for Wisdom Culture, located in “a tranquil, tree-shaded part of town.” A double room with a private bathroom would cost about $20 a night, and we could join in the daily 6:45 am meditation session. As soon as I could, I made a reservation for two nights.

Our journey started off so well! The previous week, Steve and I had walked to Howrah Station to scope out the place. It’s a vast, churning complex, but we managed to find the platform we would depart from. On the actual departure morning, we checked in at the “Enquiry Office,” where the English-speaking clerk scrutinized my printed reservation and instructed us to board at Platform 9. We found our compartment (C in coach H1), took our seats, and chugged out of the station exactly on time.

Just two weeks into our Indian travels, we’ve identified a pattern in our interactions with the locals. We’ll take our seats next to someone on a train or a plane, and at first our seat mates are circumspect. We wonder if they even speak English. (Many people do, but more do not.) After a while, someone will ask one of us a question (often “What is your country?). We answer, and we’re off on a long, entertaining, invariably eye-opening gabfest.

This has happened over and over, and the Poorva Express to Gaya was no exception. One of our compartment mates was Swapan Chakraborty, a 43-year-old entrepreneur (clothing manufacturing and small hotels, among other things.) Another, Deepshri Bhattacharya, was a beautiful and perky 24-year-old who worked as a communications manager for a company off-sourcing customer service. (A third passenger, a 60-year-old business associate of Swapan, didn’t appear to speak any English.) For hours, we chatted happily about everything from the Bihari coal-mining industry to Deepshri’s dreams of graduate study in Canada.Sometime in the early afternoon, Steve noticed on our maps app that the train seemed to be headed away from Gaya, but we guessed it would take a turn south at Patna (the capital of the state, Bihar), and arrive at Gaya probably hours late. It was only about 3:30 that an announcement in Hindi caught Deepshri’s ears. “This train isn’t going to Gaya!” she exclaimed! “It’s going to Patna instead!”

“What?!?” I croaked.

After consultation with one of the conductors, who early in the trip had taken our ticket printout, scrutinized it carefully, and checked us off his own list, everyone agreed that sometime between when I bought the ticket (back in July) and now, the railway authorities had changed the routing. But no mechanism appeared to exist to let us know this, including the conductor’s reading of our ticket just a few hours earlier.

If there was a silver lining to this little travel tornado, it was the time we spent brainstorming with Swapan and Deepshri about what we should do. We could catch one of the local trains in Patna and arrive in Gaya before 10 pm, Swapan insisted. Or we could hire a taxi to drive us directly to Bodhgaya (but that would be expensive; it would involve driving for 3-4 hours in the dark, and we had no idea whether the Root Institute reception desk would even be open whenever we arrived.)

Here I should mention that while in Darjeeling, I had decided maybe we shouldn’t stay at the Root Institute for two nights. Our train to Varanasi on Saturday morning would be departing from Gaya at 5 am. From my orderly desk at home, I’d figured we’d have to get up at an ungodly hour (3:30 am?) but we could then take a taxi from the Root Institute to Gaya in time to catch the that pre-dawn Varanasi train. After our nightmare ride on the toy train, however, I began to think maybe it was insane to assume this would work. So I’d made a reservation online for a hotel in Gaya after our one night near the famous bodhi tree.

With the news of the routing change, and knowing that we had a hotel in Gaya for the next night, Steve and I finally came up with this plan: get off the train in Patna, find a hotel there, then catch a morning train to Gaya. We’d miss the Root Institute entirely, and this made me sad. But with luck, we reasoned, we might arrive by noon, drop off our suitcases at the Gaya joint I’d booked, and have most of the afternoon at the Buddhist holy site.

This is mostly what we did. Pulling into Patna, we exchanged tearful goodbyes with our new best friends for life, Deepshri and Swapan. Then we disembarked into pandemonium; if you told me 50,000 people were crammed into the station and its immediate surroundings, I’d believe it. Somehow we dragged our suitcases up and down multiple sets of stairs — 14 stories worth, according to my iPhone’s Health app), and shouldered our way out of the throng to check in at the City Centre Hotel, included in our guidebook and within sight of the train station. To say it lacked charm is an understatement. But we walked from it to a good South Indian vegetarian restaurant we found with the help of Google Maps, slept well enough…Dawn in beautiful downtown Patna, from our hotel window.

…and the next morning, in the madhouse of the station, miraculously secured tickets to Gaya.This was a big challenge for our puzzle-solving skills; we missed catching the 6:45 am express train, but we caught the express at 11:15, which not only left Patna on time; two and a half hours later, it also arrived in Gaya right on schedule. En route we were entertained by a wide-ranging conversation with a banker from Patna (to which about 6 other Indian guys in our immediate vicinity raptly listened.)The banker and I

The Gaya hotel was even worse than the one in Patna, but we didn’t linger after dropping off our bags. We were on a mission.

The auto rickshaw rides to and from Bodhgaya were jarring, terrifying, indescribably loud; by the time we reached our destination, I felt like blood should be running from my ears from the audible assault. But I’m happy to report the main temple complex, a pedestrian-only zone, is lovely. Steve and I strolled down a broad clean pathway along with hundreds of other pilgrims under rows of fluttering flags.The mood was calm and serene. Outside the main entrance to the most sacred buildings, we had to deposit our cellphones in a locker and pass through a metal detector. (Apparently some wacko set off a bomb a few years ago.) We also hired a guide who turned out to be excellent.

He showed us the highlights: a beautiful meditation garden, numerous shrines, a dramatic, enormous temple structure — and growing next to it, the famous tree. It is a massive, tangled creature but only 140 years old, our guide told us, the fourth generation of the tree that sheltered the Buddha-to-be..Devotees had prepared this offering to the tree.

Buddhists from all over the world shuffled past it and congregated near it. We noted Tibetans doing their bizarre prostrations; acetic looking Japanese, Burmese Buddhists, Indian Buddhists, others meditating in groups. It was a bit chaotic, and I longed to instead meditate in the lovely garden or some other peaceful spot…Like this…Or this…

Or to stay until dark, when our guide said the grounds were most beautiful.But it was growing dark, so we took another auto rickshaw back to the ugly Gaya flophouse. There we got to bed as early as we could. We knew we had to set the alarm for 4:15 to catch the train to the holiest spot in Hinduism.

They call these hills?

Based on books I can no longer remember, I had a mental picture of the Indian “hill stations,” towns like Simla and Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills where 18th-century Brits planted tea and officers of the Raj escaped the staggering summer heat of the lowlands. In my mind, these towns were cool and pleasant places, set in rolling hills that might look a bit like Kentucky. I wanted to get a taste of them. Now, having just spent three days in Darjeeling, I can report that my picture was so wrong. I’d forgotten that the foothills of the Himalayas make the Appalachians look like sand dunes. We have no mountains in North America like this.

Three years ago, Steve and I spent some time in Bhutan. That’s what the Indian hill country constantly reminded me of. There are differences, of course. Bhutan is a clean and orderly little kingdom, while the far northern reaches of India, so near to Bhutan and Nepal as the crow flies, are suffocating in smog, carpeted by garbage, deafened by incessant, ubiquitous car-honking. We found all that in Darjeeling. Yet with daytime highs in the low-60s and temperatures plunging to the 40s at night, clinging to vertiginous emerald mountainsides, the “hill” towns felt almost unimaginably different from Kolkata or the Sundarbans. Or Kentucky.

One thing our eco village in the Sundarbans and Darjeeling have in common is that neither are easy to reach. Darjeeling has no airport, and no normal train travels to it. Most tourists get there riding in cars or vans or jeeps. The other alternative is what people call the “toy train,” aka the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Built in 1880 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, our Lonely Planet guidebook included it among the area’s highlights. Steve and I don’t consider ourselves rail fanatics, but we have a soft spot for trains. So even though we knew it supposedly took 7 hours to cover 53 miles, we booked tickets.

We began to suspect this was a mistake shortly after getting to the New Jalpaiguri train station, a madhouse of confusing activity. After some difficulty, we found our way to the unmistakable toy train track; it’s only two feet wide. But at 8 am, we found no sign of the train itself, scheduled to leave at 8:30.There was no sign of it at 8:30 or 9. Only about 9:10 did this contraption — call it an older brother of the kiddy train that operates next to the San Diego Zoo — chug into the station.Pandemonium ensued as befuddled passengers (us chief among them) tried to figure out where to sit. Rail attendants seemed to be non-existent. But someone finally directed us to places in the “First Class” car, and around 9:30, we were off.By the time we departed, every seat was full.

We were off for about 10 minutes, then we stopped for a while in the middle of a field. When we started up again, we traveled for only 20 minutes, then stopped again under an underpass. We sat there for almost an hour. By the time we reached our first scheduled stop, we were almost two hours behind schedule. It didn’t get much better.

I will allow that the toy train has a few things going for it. After a few hours, we were chugging through tea plantations…… then beautiful green forests filled with enormous trees or moving along the edge of jaw-dropping precipices.The train has big windows you can open wide, so at times it felt like we were hiking through those landscapes. It’s an engineering marvel, climbing from under 500 feet above sea level to more than 7000 in less than 50 miles. To accomplish this, it does some fancy tricks that include occasionally backing up and switching onto another track on a higher level. It also cuts across the paved (auto) road often, which is entertaining.But by 3:30, our scheduled arrival time, when we were clearly hours from Darjeeling, stuck in a jolting hell overseen by workers who clearly did not care a whit what time got there, with only a hole in a tiny compartment to pee in, and only potato chips for lunch, we were pretty miserable.

We finally arrived three hours late, after more than 9 hours of torture, finally reached our hotel, and I can tell you: a good dinner and a shower and a comfy bed quickly erases the memory of a difficult transit. Over the next two days, I even came to appreciate Darjeeling. It was touristy (jammed with Indians gathered in the town for yet another holiday). They were in high spirits. They dressed up in traditional costumes for photo opportunities… They captured images of their kids enjoying pony rides. They shopped for pashminas and visited the ancient Buddhist temple that adjoined our hotel.Some of them did what we did the second day: hiked about a mile to the excellent local zoo (specializing in Himalayan animals). The zoo grounds also contain the marvelous Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.It trains aspiring peak-conquerers and also venerates the memory of past heroes, like Tenzin Norgay, who guided Sir Edmund Hillary to the first conquest of Mt. Everest.The museum displays some of the great sherpa’s gear from that historic climb.

It also helped that we were staying in a living museum — the sort of place I never normally would seek out. Built in the 1840s as a boarding house for young British officers, the Windamere Hotel, as it’s known today, later catered to the cream of British tea-planter society.Happily, we were upgraded to a suite, the very one in which a young American student of Asia named Hope Cooke was staying in 1959 when she met and fell in love with the Prince of Sikkim, later marrying him and becoming queen.All the facilities today are a bit creaky, but where else have I ever been served five-course meals by white-gloved waters (and coffee kept warm under a knitted cozy)…The Windamere’s dining room

… or warmed in the evening with a wood fire and genuine hot-water bottles? It felt like time travel, and it was a lot less rigorous than all those hours in locomotive hell.

My battle plan — Part 2

After Steve and I returned from the Sundarbans Friday night, we carried out the last step in the complex preparations we’ve undertaken to keep us healthy while we’re here in India. I detailed most of these in an earlier post.

The last step began in Seoul, site of the International Travel clinic I discovered online and where I’d made an appointment. It was tricky to find. We had to call them from the street and ask for directions.

Up on the fifth floor, we both had to fill out lengthy medical history forms……and have our height, weight, temperature, and blood pressure checked. Then we were ushered in to see the clinic’s owner, Dr. Sooyoung Kim, an urbane guy dressed in jeans and a casual longsleeve shirt who spoke English like an American. We chatted with him about what we wanted (vaccinations against Japanese encephalitis (for me) and cholera (both of us). He approved our plan and sent us off for processing by his efficient nurse.

The shot ($63 in Seoul versus the $868 it would have cost in San Diego) was painless. The Dukoral (approved by the World Health Organization for preventing cholera and traveler’s diarrhea, but unavailable in the US) sounded like it would be easy to take.

We didn’t realize there was a little problem until later that evening, when we went to take the first of the two required doses. The nurse had included an ice pack in the bag containing the boxes of vaccine ingredients, and that had chilled everything pretty well. (Taking the Dukoral required mixing a packet of fizzy stuff with water, then adding the liquid contents of a little vial.)But we wouldn’t be able to take the second dose for another week. And during that time, we had to travel to Kolkata via Singapore.

We did our best to keep those babies frosty: refroze the freezer pack the night before our journey and slipped the package through security in my carry-on backpack.

By the time we got to Singapore, the ice had thawed, but we filled up a plastic bag with ice cubes from the Priority Pass lounge. As we were heading to our gate, I noticed to my horror that we had to go through another security check. Confident that the bag of ice cubes wouldn’t make it through and might draw attention to the suspicious little vials, I ditched the ice and carried the vials in my liquids bag. They weren’t very cold by the time we reached our hotel in Kolkata. But our room there had a nice little refrigerator, where the Dukoral remained until we could polish it off.It surely got warmer than 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (what I think was the recommended temperature range) for several hours. I don’t know what difference that makes. If we don’t get cholera or traveler’s diarrhea, I don’t know if the Dukoral will deserve the credit. But I’d sure like to think it did.

No country for old gringos

I have another entry for my short list of the Worst Places in the World to Live. It only includes places where I’ve actually slept. (Otherwise it would be longer.) Up to now it has included two locations: the Tibetan plateau and the altiplano of Peru and Bolivia, both cursed with oxygen-poor altitudes, bad food, cold and wind and skin-cracking dryness. Joining their company now in my sour estimation is the Sundarbans, where Steve and I journeyed last Thursday.We didn’t go there to suffer. Rather, we wanted to see one of the geographic wonders of the world. The Sundarbans is the enormous estuary where some of India’s biggest rivers — the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and others — split into dozens of branches and flow into the Bay of Bengal. The area includes both an Indian and a Bangladeshi section. What grows there, mainly, are mangroves, the shrub which somehow learned to suck up seawater and excrete the salt. The Sundarbans mangrove forest is the biggest on earth. More than 80 species grow so densely you can’t see more then a few feet into them, and they shoot up stick-like “air roots” that can impale anything that steps on them. Despite that, a number of creatures survive in this harsh environment, the most famous being the Royal Bengal tiger.

On the Indian side, at least 100 of the big cats prowl an area a little smaller than San Diego County. Except for mothers and their cubs, they live alone, hunting spotted deer and wild boar and more than a few humans. Around 70 people perish in their jaws every year, we were told, mostly luckless fishermen and honey-collectors from the local villages. Companies that take tourists here play up this creepy record.

Steve and I and an eccentric old Israeli guy were the only non-Indians in our excursion group. I found the three-hour ride from Kolkata to the end of the highway fascinating, if terrifying, as we avoided by inches head-on collisions with oncoming buses, trucks, cars, bulldozers, motorcycles, bicyclists, dogs, meandering cows, pedestrians, motorcycle-powered carts loaded with goods and humans, and flocks of lambs.

The road wasn’t horrible. We slowed more often for speed bumps than potholes. But the bouncy, uneven ride, the constant swerving and accelerating, the incessant horn-blowing wearied me.

After the van ride, we had to trudge in blistering heat through a couple of villages and take two ferries before arriving at the island “eco-village” created by our outfitter (Backpackers de Sundarbans).The village may be poor and backward, but the Indian ladies still dress sharply.

As mud-walled cabins go, ours wasn’t bad. It had lots of hooks on which to hang things and a private marble-floored bathroom. There was electricity to charge our phones, and if the lights were weak, the ceiling fan whirled vigorously, alleviating the heat and humidity.

That afternoon we hiked through the eco-village……where you can find unexpected beauty.

Then we clambered into oversized canoes for a sunset paddle into one of the narrow channels through the mangroves.

I felt serene, until one of the Indian civil engineers emitted a piercing shriek. I look in the direction where she was staring, petrified, and yelped too. Tarantulas appeared to be climbing up the tree trunks, just inches away from our vessel.

When I learned they were tree-climbing crabs, not giant spiders, that calmed me, but the young Indian woman and one of her colleagues generated lots of hilarity with their unrestrained crabophobia. It was a highlight of the day along with our foray after dinner to the village moonshiner to taste his rice wine. (Revolting, with strong sour buttermilk notes.)

I barely slept that night. Our bed was rock hard, and roosters crowed long before dawn. I’d found a three-inch-wide spider (no crab this time) in our bathroom, and when a staff member came to relocate it, it had disappeared.

Where DID he go?

Although our bed had a decent mosquito net, I kept thinking of the tree vipers and other extravagantly venomous snakes that call the Sundarbans home. The next day brought more physical hardship after we all boarded a much bigger motorboat, chugged to the tiger reserve office to get permission to enter, and picked up another guide. Parts of our river rambles reminded Steve and me of our recent Amazon River adventure. But whereas the skies there enthralled us, the murky Indian air reminded us of Los Angeles in the 50s. Before noon everything I was wearing was soaked with sweat. Mangroves may be interesting, but their charm fades when they’re the only thing to look at for hour after hour.

Animal spottings jolted us awake, though. These included:

Indian spotted deer grazing near the riverbanks…

A 5-foot-long monitor lizard enjoying the sun.

Macaques. We watched this group chase the one guy into the water. They seemed to be mad at him.

This is a yellow fiddler crab. Don’t you love his eyes?

Most menacing was this mature crocodile. Alligators also ply these waters, but it’s the crocs who are murderous, taking down even tigers when they’re swimming from island to island.

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, we didn’t see any tigers. We did spot recent tracks, and from them it was unmistakable the fiercesome man-eaters weren’t far away.

Because of the heat and snakes and air pollution and tigers and disease-laden mosquitoes and inhospitable mangroves and more, I will never move to the tiger’s neighborhood, nor likely ever return. But on balance, we were happy to visit.

Three cheers for the 10-armed goddess

When I planned our Indian itinerary, I did NOT know that our arrival in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) would coincide with the festival known as Durga Puja. I’d never heard of Durga Puja. Now I think that’s pretty pathetic, considering that millions and millions of Indians think it’s the coolest thing that happens all year long. But it only entered my consciousness when I started reading my Lonely Planet guidebook’s Kolkata chapter and noticed the sidebar which begins, “Much as Carnival transforms Rio or New Orleans, Durga Puja brings Kolkata to a fever pitch of colorfully chaotic mayhem.” Uh-oh, I thought.

But it was too late to change our plans, and even while waiting for a taxi in that line from hell at the airport, a couple of folks told me how incredibly lucky our timing was. When Steve and I chatted with the concierge the next morning, he confirmed that almost all the city’s business and cultural institutions would be closed, all week long. But no matter, he assured us. Durga Puja was more wonderful than anything we could have otherwise seen.

He elaborated on what the guidebook had sketched out. This festival honors the warrior goddess Durga — one of the most important and popular deities in the Hindu pantheon. While folks all over India pay some attention to her holiday, it is supremely special in West Bengal (of which Kolkata is the capital). Here it feels like Christmas, New Year’s, and Halloween all rolled into a weeklong blockbuster of a party. Dozens and dozens of temporary shrines (called pandals) are set up all over the city, blocking streets and requiring major rerouting of the traffic. The shrines house clay idols of Durga and her four children. We had to see them to believe them, the concierge declared. He offered to arrange for a driver to take us to various points where we could stroll around and view them. If we wanted, he would have one of his assistants accompany us. The whole thing would cost about $15 an hour, he said.

Who could resist? The next morning we set off at 9 with the driver and 20-year-old Arundhati, a charming hotel-management student currently interning at the Oberoi. It was a great time to be outside. The temperature had only climbed to about 80, and the streets were pleasantly uncongested. (Part of the Bengali approach to Durga Puja involves staying up every night till 3 or 4 in the morning, then sleeping in until midday.)

The approach to this government-sponsored pandal was elaborate.
Outside its entrance, this version of the goddess preached various civic messages. Note that the evil she’s attacking is a mosquito.

Artisans work for months to create the fantastic altars and the statues. The most astounding part of the festival (to me) is that on the final day, all the idols are immersed in the Hooghly and destroyed.

But during their brief existence, priests attend to the idols with arcane and complex rituals.

Over the next three hours, we learned that some of the pandals are enormous…

While some are small and intimate.

Corporate sponsorship pays for a lot of the most elaborate ones, which often have themes. One boasted an Under-the-Sea motif. I think the exterior was meant to suggest a wave…

While the interior evoked the spirit of an underwater cave.

It made me think of Disneyland. Or Vegas. But in neither of those places have I ever seen such fantastic detail and craftsmanship. This white-themed pandal looked like it was carved out of ivory, but instead it was made of some kind of heavy paper.

Another Durga and her entourage were made entirely of bamboo and jute.

And who could resist the modern-day goddess armed with weapons such as a book, a gavel, a steering wheel, a stethoscope and more?

We had seen only a small fraction of all the pandals when heat and exhaustion and the swelling crowds drove us back to the hotel. In the early evening Steve and I ventured out again, this time alone and saw a few more in our immediate neighborhood. But we were in bed by 9. I barely ever attended a midnight mass on Christmas Eve. I think you have to train from childhood to muster the stamina for a holiday the likes of this.

Welcome to India

Steve and I are staying at the best hotel I’ve ever experienced. But getting here was one of the tougher trips of my life.

I blame myself. I chose our routing partly because of the excellent price, but also because I thought we would benefit from breaking up the journey. We did relish our stopover in Seoul. But going from there to here was brutal.

We set our alarm Sunday morning for 6, and the plane for Singapore took off at 9. After six and a half hours in the air, we landed and spent six hours in Singapore’s Changi International Airport (rated consistently as the best in the world). We took off again at 9 pm for another three and a half hours aloft. There’s a two-hour time difference between Singapore and Calcutta, so it was only 10:30 pm when we landed, and we got through customs and immigration in just 45 minutes. Then we searched for the “pre-paid taxi” booth I’d read about in Lonely Planet.

The guidebook had made it sound like this was the best choice for getting into town. The municipal police oversee the safety and reliability of the vehicles, which travel from the airport to the center of town for a great price — about $5. Because I’d read about this, when our hotel (the Oberoi Grand) had emailed to ask if I wanted them to arrange for a driver and private car pickup for $60, I had thanked them politely but said we would just take a cab.

Ha! We found what we were looking for easily enough; the airport of India’s second-biggest city was eerily empty, approaching midnight. But we also found a throng of would be passengers more or less lined up before two stalls. Huge lines aren’t terrible if they move fast. But these didn’t appear to be moving at all.

We joined the flow and waited. We waited more. Nothing happened. Steve left a couple of times to search for alternatives, but the computers in the Uber booth were down and the guy in the Ola booth (an Indian competitor to Uber) said we couldn’t use his system without an Indian phone number. Steve found another prepaid taxi line out in front of the terminal. But it didn’t appear to be moving either.

Eventually it became clear we were inching forward, almost imperceptibly, to one of two windows, each manned by a harassed-looking clerk.

We didn’t reach ours until close to 12:30 (3:30 am Seoul time — and god knows what on our body clocks.) Weirdly, it took only a minute for us to pay for our ride (380 rupees or about $5.15), and out in the street, we quickly located the ancient taxi assigned to transport us. I can only guess that the line had moved so glacially because folks in front of us were going to more complicated destinations.

For years I’ve heard terrifying stories about Indian drivers; that they were more insane and reckless even than the seemingly suicidal motorists of Shanghai. Our ride into town confirmed the stereotype. Over and over we careened within inches of other vehicles. But I didn’t care, I felt so desperate to get to the hotel. I had a stabbing pain in my side that I hoped wasn’t appendicitis. (In retrospect, I see it was probably the wages of terrible airplane posture.) I felt so exhausted I wanted to throw up. Unfortunately, after about 10 minutes, we hit heavy traffic and the ride became downright hallucinogenic. We inched through vast crowds of people strolling past displays of colored lights unlike anything I’ve ever seen outside Las Vegas.Occasionally we passed a floodlit shrine containing what appeared to be a multi-armed goddess.

We finally reached the hotel around 1:30. And as I said, it is a paradise. When we got up the next morning and learned that virtually every tourist attraction in the city would be closed for the whole time we would be here, we didn’t even reel. The city’s normal jewels would be inaccessible, we learned, because something even more wonderful would be going on. Hard as it is to imagine, I can tell you this has proved true.

31 Hours in Seoul

I’ve wanted to go to India for as long as I can remember. Korea… eh, not so much. Still we began the longest trip in our life with a three-night, two-day whirlwind visit to Seoul.

The whimsical logic of airline routing explains why we did this. You can’t fly non-stop on any airline from North America to India. With a stop somewhere between the two, you’re looking at 20-24 hours aloft. If Steve and I routinely flew Business class, that might not be too bad. But we don’t. We’ve come to dread super-long trans-oceanic stints crammed into the Deep Vein Thrombosis zone. So last November when I saw a bargain fare on top-rated Singapore Airlines that would take us from LA to Seoul, let us lay over there for three nights, then continue on to Calcutta, via a 7-hour stop in Singapore, we jumped at it. We could rest up a bit in the South Korean capital, begin to recover from the jet lag, and add another country to our Visited list.

I’m composing this post on the flight from Seoul to SIngapore, and with the taste of garlic and kimchee still lingering in my mouth, I can report that our Korean interlude was strenuous. But satisfying. In the roughly 31 hours we were awake there, we:

— figured out the city’s superb metro system and covered a LOT of ground using it. My iPhone says we also walked 24 miles per the two days.

— went to our appointment at the International Travel Clinic for additional vaccines for India

— took a 2.5-hour free walking tour of a recently renovated riverside park and walkway course…

— zoomed through one of the city’s oldest (but still eye-popping) food markets and eating mega spaces…

— gaped at the incredible building and “culture park” designed by the late brilliant British architect Zaha Hadid…

— took a 90-minute walking tour of the most beautiful of the city’s ancient palaces…

— walked for several more hours through one of the few enclaves of traditional Korean houses (hanoks)…

A cultural appreciation event happened to be unfolding that day, so the streets were filled with young girls clad in traditional Korean dresses.

— ate breakfast at one of the most breathtaking bakery/confisserie/cafes I’ve ever visited…

— and enjoyed four good Korean meals, including two that required sitting on the floor.

Dumplings were the specialty of this place.

The city crackles with so much energy, I felt I might get zapped every time I touched something metal. The year I was born, Seoul lay in ruins. Since then, its tough, crazy-hard-working people have created things that have changed life all over the planet: electronics and cars and trucks and ships and steel and K-pop and cosmetics and more. The wealth and power that has flowed from all of that is evident everywhere: in the safe and spotless streets; the towering buildings; the profusion of public art. Through simple ignorance, I always overlooked Seoul on my mental list of Earth’s Greatest Cities. But it belongs there. The thought that it lies just 30 miles from the Demilitarized Zone, on the other side of which lies what it arguably the worst hellhole on the planet (populated by the literal cousins of the Seoul residents) left me speechless every time it crossed my mind.

One fear I had in making our oh-so-brief stop here was that it might result in our never returning to Korea. (“Been there. Done that.”) Now I urgently want to return. I’d like to see the DMZ myself (it still feels so unreal). I’d like to do dozens of other things in Seoul that we had no time for, as well as to glimpse some of the beautiful countryside. Steve is less keen to come back, but we’re a bit tired at the moment. Soon we’ll be relaxing in the chill vibrations of India. (Right.)


And we’re off!

We decided for for the first time ever to get from San Diego to LA via the combination of Amtrak train and shuttle bus (from Union Station to LAX). So why not go old school all the way? Instead of taking a Lyft to the train station, we walked from our house to the #30 city bus station and paid $1.10 each for the ride.

Amazingly, it worked like a charm. We arrived at the airport 35 minutes before we could even check in for our flight.

We’ll head to the boarding gate in a few minutes and see if Singapore Airlines can get us across the Pacific Ocean to Korea as smoothly

My battle plan

In nine days, Steve and I will depart on the longest trip of our lives: seven weeks in India, a week and a half in Sri Lanka, and a few days of South Korea and Japan (in transit). As I’ve planned the arrangements, the question I’ve been asked most is: aren’t you afraid of getting sick?

My answer (a bit of a dodge) is that I’ve done my best to prepare us for fending off germs. They’re likely to get at us in three main ways:

Breathed out by other people

Starting more than a dozen years ago, when we began traveling to more adventurous destinations, we’ve been vaccinated against a bunch of infectious diseases, including yellow fever, typhoid, polio, meningitis, hepatitis (A and B), tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough, and flu. Steve is a Kaiser patient, and when he called their excellent travel clinic back in August, the nurse confirmed that he (and I) have already been immunized against everything that people in India are likely to spread to us by breathing. Relief!

The bad news, however, is that illness spreads in other ways, including…

Via mosquito

Mosquitos in India transmit several nasty diseases, including yellow fever (for which we’ve had the vaccine) and several for which no effective vaccine exists (chikungunya, dengue, Zika). Japanese encephalitis also exists on the sub-continent and can kill people, but there IS a vaccine that works well against it. The nurse told Steve our chances of getting Japanese encephalitis are low since we won’t be spending months out in the countryside. But the vaccine is safe, and Kaiser could provide it at no charge (to him). He rolled up his sleeve, and apart from some transient soreness, suffered no ill effects.

Unlike Steve, I have no coverage for travel medicine. I must pay out of my own pocket for any shots or pills I get in preparation for any trip. When I inquired at a local travel-medicine clinic about protection against Japanese encephalitis, the news was stunning. The vaccine would cost $403 per shot, and two shots would be required. The clinic-visit fee would add another $65 to the total.

Since we’re spending three nights in South Korea en route to India, it occurred to me to research travel clinics there. I quickly found one with a good reputation, where I can get a single-dose version of the Japanese encephalitis vaccine for just $63 (instead of the $868 it would cost me in Mission Valley). I’ve made an appointment to visit that place, in Seoul, a week from Friday. There both of us also are hoping to obtain a reasonably priced vaccine against a scourge that attacks along the third major route…

Eating or drinking contaminated food or water

Although we were immunized against typhoid years ago, in India cholera poses another danger, one reportedly on the rise. For some reason, the cholera vaccine was unavailable from Kaiser, however. Instead the nurse simply warned Steve to be careful about what he eats and drinks.

I learned that my Mission Valley travel clinic could administer a cholera vaccine (by injection) for a mere $295. But the travel clinic in Seoul sells an oral version, taken in two doses a week apart, for about $64. Dukoral, as this version is called, was approved by the European Union in 2004 and is available over the counter in Canada. The World Health Organization has judged it to be safe and effective. It supposedly protects not only against cholera but also traveler’s diarrhea. That sounds good to us, so Steve will get it too.

India also has the fourth-highest number of malaria cases and deaths in the world, so we’ll be taking anti-malarial pills every day. Kaiser told Steve doxycycline should work well there. That was good news. We’ve taken it before, and the only obnoxious thing about it is that you have to continue on it for 30 days after you’ve left the affected region. Steve’s 80-day supply from Kaiser cost about $40, and my doctor didn’t make me come in for an appointment but instead kindly called in a similar prescription to CVS. To my shock, the cashier there told me my 80-day supply would cost $189. Suspecting that a different formulation might be cheaper, I asked if they could make the switch. When they did, the same number of almost-identical pills cost $2.20.

Our preparations won’t end there. This weekend, we’ll spray most of our clothes with (mosquito-repelling) Permethrin.

We’ve bought two tubes of time-release bug repellant that’s more than 30% DEET, and we’re assuming we’ll be able to buy more in India once we run out.

To further protect our guts, we’ve also resolved to each take two tablets of Pepto-Bismol with breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day. (The evidence that this can help protect against traveler’s diarrhea convinced me.) After intensive online shopping, I got 24 boxes of 30 tablets for $77 from Target.)

360 Pepto-Bismol tablets actually don’t take up much space

We won’t pack the UV water purifier that we bought years ago for some African trip; it turned out to be a pain in the neck, and we never trusted it. But after reading about how even bottled water in India can sometimes be contaminated, I did buy tiny bottles of iodine pills and taste neutralizer. If we never use them, at least we’re only out about $10 and a couple of square inches of suitcase space.

Of course, cars and traffic also kill a lot of people in India. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, only vigilance provides some immunity against getting hurt that way.