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.)

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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.

California dream drive

California’s Pacific Coast Highway, aka Highway 1, shows up often on lists of the most scenic drives in the US, even the world, but it’s not the most practical way to get from Southern California to the Bay Area. Planes fly from San Diego to San Francisco in just 90 minutes. Google Maps says the drive up Interstate 5 can be covered (at least theoretically) in 7 to 9 hours. Going up the coast road adds a minimum of 4-5 hours to the journey, but you trade the hot, flat, dusty Central Valley panoramas for sublime seascapes.

I’ve lived in California for more than 45 years but had only traveled Highway 1 once. In the summer of 1995, Steve and I incorporated the famous drive into a family road trip to San Francisco, where we had arranged a house trade. To be honest, my memories of the glorious views out the front windshield commingle with those of the awful traffic that bogged us down in some stretches and the complaints from our sons, then just 11 and 6. So when we decided to drive up to Palo Alto for a high-school reunion to be held in the fall of 2017, I agreed it was time we took the high, slow road again.

Then came the heavy rains in early 2017. They weakened the cliffs, and a huge landslide on May 20 (2017) wiped out a bridge and closed several sections of the road. Throughout the summer, we assumed we’d be able to find local back roads that would enable us to slip around the blocked parts. But when October rolled around, we had to face the grim reality that the impassable sections still were well and truly impassable. Sadly, we headed north instead on Highway 101, a pretty road. But no Highway 1.

This year another reason to visit the Bay Area materialized.And to our delight, we heard at the end of July that — after 18 months — Highway 1 was once again open to travelers. On August 15, we drove from San Diego to San Simeon, spending the night in a little hotel set a few blocks from the ocean.

We took our current service-dog trainee with us, another reason it made sense to drive.

North of Morro Bay (about a half hour south of San Simeon), the landscape changes dramatically. Most of the development disappears, and the scenery gets more rugged and arresting. But the road north from San Simeon is even more wondrous. Here are a few of the highlights we encountered.

About 4 miles past Hearst Castle, we stopped to see the colony of Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. They’re so much more huge than our local seals and sea lions; they astonished and delighted us.

Continuing north, some of the road looked pristine, but some sections, though passable, were clearly works in progress.

In Big Sur, we noted the presence of the legendary Esalen Institute…

…then we stopped for a brief hike to McWay Falls, one of the few waterfalls on earth that flows directly into the ocean.

We wound up with lunch at Nepenthe, where Steve remembered his folks taking him as a kid.

The day was misty, and we missed seeing some of the archetypal views. I wouldn’t mind going back sooner than in another few dozen years.

10 questions I had before our Amazon River adventure to which I now have answers

To prepare for our recent trip down the Amazon River across Brazil, I relied more heavily on blog reports than ever before. But I still had unanswered questions as we began. We learned a lot over the two weeks we were in and around the river. Here are some of the top answers we acquired.

1. What will the food be like?

We wound up taking three boats, and the food supply varied among them. For the first leg between Tabatinga and Alvaroes, our 1200-real ($320) cabin on the Monteiro II included two days of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for both of us, plus purified water. The breakfasts were all carb — bananas, bread, cake, hominy, super-sweet coffee.IMG_2133.jpg Lunches and dinners were much tastier — a meat stew with noodles, pot roast, ground beef. It was simple but hearty food (accompanied by high-carb side dishes.)IMG_2120.jpgMeals were also provided along with our two-day cabin passage on the Fenix (on which we traveled from Tefe to Manaus.) Once again, the food was passable. One dinner consisted of the typical meat hash, very good grilled sausages, white rice, and spaghetti. (We skipped the unappealing vegetable salad.) Lunch the next day was fried chicken legs and wings and more of the sausage.

We took the Amazon Star from Manaus to Santarem to Belem, and our cabin booking on it did not include meals. Food was available for purchase in the galley, but few of the passengers were eating it. Most preferred to buy meals sold at some of our stops along the way. Although we ate the ship’s offerings our first night, it made us nervous. In Manaus we stocked up on picnic supplies, but we should have bought more. Our final night we bought mixto quentes (grilled ham and cheese sandwiches from the little top-deck snack shop). They tasted better than we expected.IMG_2538.jpgAs for the purified water, we drank it for the first two days without incident, but after we both developed traveler’s diarrhea in Manaus, we began to question the sanitation. The water appeared to be coming straight from the river into the refrigerated holding tanks after passage only through a very small filter. We switched to bringing bottled water onboard and had no further intestinal trouble.IMG_2139.jpg

2. Will we drink too much alcohol?

Beer and other alcoholic beverages were less available than we expected. The Monteiro had none for sale (though passengers brought their own onboard). The snack shops on the Fenix and Amazon Star sold beer, and some passengers drank a lot of that. But we found the Brazilian beer to be uninspiring.

3. Will the ships carry lots creepy insects?

They might. The river does run smack through thick jungle. But we sure didn’t see many bugs. I spotted a couple of tiny spiders here and there, but neither of us ever saw or heard any mosquitos. The creepiest moment came when we pulled into Manaus around dawn and were hustling to disembark. Steve felt something crawling on him and brushed it away, with an shudder so visceral it was contagious. He saw a “large” spider disappearing into the gloom on the floor. I checked our belongings compulsively when we got to our hotel, but the arachnid didn’t appear to have hitched a ride with us into town.

4. Will there be mosquito nets?

We never found a hint that anyone on any of our three boats had ever heard of them. And there were none in any of the hotels we stayed at in the towns along the way. The one exception was the somewhat tattered netting over one of our two twin beds at the Casa do Caboclos in Mamiraua Sustainable Ecological Reserve. (Ironically, one of the vacationing biologists we met there said there’s no malaria in that immediate vicinity.)IMG_2261.jpg

5. Will we be attacked by river pirates?

Piracy on the river is apparently increasing. I had read several reports about it, and because so much of the river is so isolated, it’s not inconceivable. Still, on the large boats that we took, it seemed almost unimaginable. Any vessel big enough to attack a big ferry would be awfully easy for authorities to track down, or so we thought. And if ferry attacks were commonplace, a few machine guns would make the big boats easy to defend.

Furthermore, the police presence on the river was notable. Federal cops searched the boat before we left Tabatinga. And more federal officers boarded at two different towns along the way to search for drugs and then disembark.

6. Will I have many opportunities to practice my Portuguese?

Over and over, I felt grateful for every hour I worked to learn some Portuguese (starting about six months before our trip). It enabled me to ask simple questions — and roughly understand the answers. This was invaluable, as almost no one we met on any of the boats spoke English. (Even Spanish was scarce.) One exception was a friendly federal policemen who boarded the Amazon Star in Obidos and cornered us to chat about his upcoming vacation in the Southwest U.S. Steve also conversed with a truck driver who had learned passable English when he lived in London for 5 years. But not a single crew member on any of the ships spoke any English.

7. Will it be hot and steamy all the time?

Surprisingly not! Traveling in late May, we were almost never uncomfortably hot, and that’s only partly because our cabins were air-conditioned. Motoring down the water gave us a breeze that almost always made the days pleasant. Only when the boats docked (sometimes for more than an hour) did the temperature and humidity climb to oppressive levels.

8. Will the ships become disgusting after a day or two?

We were surprised and impressed by how hard the crew of the Monteiro worked to keep her shipshape. Workers were always sweeping up and mopping and cleaning. IMG_2135.jpg When I checked one of the hammock folks’ bathrooms, it seemed respectable even after two days of hard use. IMG_2136.jpg The other two boats were a bit less well-tended. Still, they seemed tidier than most long-distance trains we’ve traveled on.

9. Will there be WiFi onboard?

Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! In our dreams. The vast majority of the time we were on the river, there was no phone signal of any sort. Occasionally, approaching or docking at a town, a weak signal would show up on our phones. It invariably took an annoyingly long time to be able to start download data over the signal, and then we’d get headlines: Meghan Markle’s dad will not attend Royal Wedding!!! Trump claims he saved $999,800,000 on Jerusalem embassy! and if we were lucky, email. But then we’d be moving downstream, and the signal would soon evaporate.

10. Will we get bored?

No. The onboard entertainment that I described in my earlier post kept us endlessly engrossed. Beyond that, just being in a place so unusual — so normal on the ship but so alien for thousands of miles in every direction around us — never ceased to interest us. Depending on how the geographers measure it, the river is said to be about 4,130 miles long. We don’t know exactly how much of that is in Brazil, but we figure it’s at least 3,000 miles. We covered that distance at an average speed of 12-15 miles per hour. It takes a river of time. But we flowed with it.

A sporty day in Rio

On our last day in Rio, the police closed the street in front of our Copacabana hotel around 6:30 am. We understood what was happening. Runners in the half marathon had surged past on Saturday morning, and we’d seen posters for the big (26-mile) event beginning at 7:30 am Sunday. The lead runners, lean and fast as greyhounds, blasted by shortly after 9 am. I couldn’t resist taking the elevator down to the street, where handfuls of spectators were applauding and exclaiming, “Bravo! Bravo!” I applauded too, but the leaders were so few and far between, I went back to our room.IMG_1343 An hour later, I descended again, and the passing scene was much more lively.

I’d never cheered on marathon runners before, but it was a day of sporty firsts for Steve and me. We’d never before attended a professional soccer game, either, but we got tickets to watch Rio’s beloved Flamengos face off against the Sao Paolo Corinthians. I wasn’t brave enough to do this on our own. Some of the fans at the games are known to be a rough crew. Instead we signed up with Be a Local, a well-reputed Rio tour company to get not just the tickets but also transportation with a savvy escort.

At 1:30 pm we met up at a nearby hostel with Patrick, the Brazilian guide charged with shepherding about 20 young Brits and us. I’d been hoping he would teach Steve and me a lot about the subtle nuances of Brazilian football, but he didn’t speak English well enough for that. Still he seemed like a worrier, and conscientious, and when we got to the stadium, that was good enough for me. A vast sea of red and black (the Flamengo colors) surged around the entrance gates. In the thick of the contagious high spirits, I couldn’t resist buying a jersey for myself.IMG_2928.jpg

DSC00433.JPGI was excited about the chance to see this temple to that most beloved of South American sports. The Macarana, as the stadium is known, was built for the 1950 World Cup games, and when it opened, it was the biggest such venue in the world. On dozens of occasions, it has held more than 150,000 fans. It was remodeled, though, for the 2014 World Cup, and the redesign reduced the capacity to about 80,000. At one point, the scoreboard announced that almost 50,000 people were present on Sunday afternoon. It sure felt like a monster crowd, bigger than any I’ve ever been part of. When the fans sang or howled or cheered, the roar filled our ears and ballooned out like a shock wave. When one of the players missed a shot and the crowd moaned, the anguish punched you in the gut; made you feel like doubling over.DSC00421.JPG

I can’t report any play by play (and you would have to be a huge fan to find it interesting, if I did). We had to stand during the whole 90-plus minutes to see anything, as everyone else was on their feet nonstop. After the first half, I felt more exhausted than I ever have felt watching a World Cup game on TV. In person, the field is so huge and the players run so hard. The Flamengos seemed more dominant, but the Corinthians kept them from scoring until more than a half hour into the second half. Then a lot of stuff happened very fast, and the Flamengo fans were overtaken by a joy that bordered on dementia.DSC00439The Paolistas couldn’t even the 1-0 score, so the sea of Rio residents seemed relaxed and happy, post-orgasmic, as they flowed out of the stadium into the night. We tourists stuck together in a tight pack and made it back to the bus and the tamer beach neighborhoods. But Steve and I have reflected often throughout this trip that the Brazilians seem happy in general, happier than the residents of any other Central or South American countries we have visited.

We muse that maybe what explains this is the fact that Brazil never gave rise to a brutal, bloodthirsty civilization like the Aztecs or Incas or Mayans. When Europeans arrived, they exploited the place, but with a relatively light hand. Later, Brazilians never had to fight and die to win their independence. Instead the Portuguese king’s son, a fun-loving, licentious guy, asked his dad (who was returning to his throne in Portugal) if he could stay and rule, and the old man said, “Sure. But you should ask for independence.” The son did, the old king assented, and Pedro became the newly freed country’s first emperor. Later, Pedro’s son freed all the slaves without any grisly civil war.

Add to this tranquil history the fact that Brazil, bigger than the lower 48 states, has vast stores of mineral and other natural resources. It is rich in rainfall and sunshine. No natural disasters plague it; no earthquakes or tornadoes or hurricanes or wildfires routinely wreck havoc here. “Only social disasters,” said Valdo, our guide in Belem — crooked politicians, corrupt business elites, arthritic bureaucracies. If Brazil could just ditch the whole lot, become as free of the old ruling classes as life is on the beach in Copacabana, maybe, Steve and I tell ourselves, this could be the happiest place on earth.

At the beach, on steroids

As travelers, Steve and I have largely avoided beaches. We live just a few blocks from some of the greatest swimming and surfing spots in California; we walk and bicycle along the boardwalk often, so why should we seek out beaches out on vacation? However, we spent all of Saturday exploring Rio’s most famous set of beaches, and what we learned is: Southern California’s beach culture is baby stuff! The beach scene in Rio is world-class, overwhelming.

Copacabana Beach fills an arc that extends for almost two miles, a vast expanse of creamy, fine-grained sand. In yet another stroke of great travel karma, the temperature climbed into the high 80s yesterday and the skies were cloudless. It was also a holiday weekend; by 11 in the morning, locals were streaming in.

Probably the first thing that strikes the visitor is that women’s bathing suits in Rio are not just the stuff of legend. Real, live ladies almost universally wear the same outfit: two little triangles positioned over their nipples, and a minimal thong that wraps around their crotches and disappears between their buttocks. Some of the wearers look like Playboy centerfolds…But many do not.

Almost as eye-catching are the commercial offerings. In Copacabana we lost count of all the stands and little beachfront restaurants hawking caipirinhas (and other cocktails), and if you’re too lazy to walk to one, strolling booze vendors will come to you.(In our alternative universe, just sitting with one’s one private can of beer on the Mission Bay boardwalk can be punished with a pricy fine.) The vendors offer not only alcohol but a mini-mall’s worth of other merchandise.More energetic beach goers participate in several varieties of games played with paddles and balls of various sizes. With twilight, live music began to appear at the food stands.

Steve and I didn’t make it all the way to the end of Ipanema Beach. It was well past our lunchtime, and we wanted something other than a hot dog and a caipirinha. So we walked a block away from the water and chanced upon the very restaurant where Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes wrote The Girl from Ipanema in 1962. We consumed excellent sandwiches and beer, then returned to the beach. Fans have erected a statue of Jobim there. It gets a lot of well-deserved love.