Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Hello 2009: Looking Back, and Forward

ferry

SEOUL — THE FERRY PITCHED AND ROCKED in the dark waters of the Tsushima Strait. Foamy white caps spun off the tops of waves outside as attendants rushed wobbly-legged around the cabin, passing out sick-bags left and right to passengers appearing in need. The engine of the hydrofoil shuddered to a stop and then started again as the captain negotiated the rollers. An older, heavyset woman stumbled to the back row looking pale and queasy before she was escorted to first class to lay down on top of a blanket. I looked across the aisle at Janice; her eyes were shut tight and her hand cupped around her lips. Things were not looking good.

It was an unfitting end to what had been a calm, even enlightening trip to the southwest of Japan. Our initial voyage to Fukuoka from the South Korean port city of Busan had been smooth: we knocked out soon after we hit the seats, thanks to the Dramamine. Since then we had rocketed to Kyoto aboard the Shinkansen Hikari bullet train, meandered peacefully from temple to temple and soaked in the public baths of our ryokan. We had strolled the Blade Runner landscape of Osaka, ate tacoyaki along its famed Dotonbori and watched the last sunset of 2008 from the top floor of the Umeda Sky Building.

Our journey (what I say was “Honeymoon Part I,” with promises that “Part II” will involve beaches and hammocks) also gave me the opportunity I had been craving to evaluate the raft of changes that have taken place in my life. Looking back on the past six months I saw transformations in myself with which I am uncomfortable, mostly relating to my attitudes towards work and my ambitions as a writer and to how I’ve (not) settled myself in Seoul. But orienting oneself on the map is only the first step; the next is determining the heading.

One of my major regrets is allowing my posts to this blog to become so infrequent. I feel confident that the quality of content still maintains a high standard, but I aim to make the site flower over the next few months to the tune of my new mantra: substance first, then style. Expect to see more, if not truly daily, writing here in the near future — beginning with a thorough travelogue of my adventures in Japan and unfolding into what I hope will be an insightful look at the complex nation in which I now reside.

I wrote when I moved here that this site would not become a Korea blog, a vague term I used to encompass the lot of blogs run by expats here: those both shallow and incisive, aimed at keeping in touch with family back home, venting about the maddening aspects of this society or following and dissecting its news. While I still aim to keep The Daily Transit cosmopolitan and travel-oriented, it seems foolish to avoid publishing my observations or leave unexplored issues into which I now have a unique window.

Cheers to you readers who have stuck with me and best wishes in the New Year.  Stay tuned for the full chronicle of our Japan journey, and safe travels.

A Different Tack: Winter in Japan

Golden Pavilion, Kyoto. Photo by oudodou.

Golden Pavilion, Kyoto. Photo by oudodou.

SEOUL — IT ALL STARTED WITH a warning about leech socks. My wife and I were beginning to plan a long-overdue honeymoon and were taken by the notion of going someplace less conventional. So when I hit upon the idea of going to Borneo, we got excited. I bought a Lonely Planet and a Malay phrasebook, and eagerly skimmed through passages describing Sarawak’s primate-inhabited jungles, dreaming of riverboat rides to Iban villages as I rode the train to work.

Then I passed LP off to Janice, who — being a much more methodical person than myself — started reading from the beginning. Only a few minutes had passed before she brought the aforementioned warning to my attention, raising a skeptical eyebrow as to whether our honeymoon should involve insidious crawlies used to bleed people in the middle ages.  Leech socks (actually thigh-length leg guards made of durable fabric) were highly recommended when trekking around any of Borneo’s mystifying national parks, our guidebook told us.  And with a few more Google searches on the likelihood of getting vampired, my wife was recommending we go somewhere else.

A trip to Bangkok and Koh Samui was our next idea. A heavy shift towards the typical honeymoon, perhaps, but it would still bring us to a part of the world we had never seen. We did extensive research, feeling the pressure build for “the perfect trip” and then watching our options dissolve as it became clear we would be arriving in the eye of the 30-day peak tourism season. Hotel rates, even for those with “meh” reviews, were ludicrously high. Flight availability was also drying up. It began to appear as though we would be draining our savings for a vacation that would ultimately feel like work.

We dumped the plans and went back to the drawing board. And reading the news this past week, we’re glad we did.

Meiji lantern. Photo by Abrilon.

Meiji lantern. Photo by Abrilon.

Japan should have come to mind sooner, but our pursuit of a warm beach had kept the idea outside the realm of our travel imagination. Only after I gave some thought to the ease of heading somewhere so nearby — if we took the ferry to Fukuoka, we wouldn’t even have to step foot on an airplane — did it become clear that this was the trip we had been seeking. With barely a month left before my wife’s vacation time, we kicked planning into high gear.

Making arrangements was not as simple as I had envisioned. With the autmn leaves mulch on the ground and cherry blossom season a long ways off, I figured booking a room in a traditional Kyoto guesthouse  for five nights would be a cinch. I had, of course, failed to take into account the hubbub New Years might bring to the ancient capital. But Janice and I manuevered around this mostly without panic, locking in three nights at a mid-range ryokan and then opting to head towards Osaka to ring in 2009.

The process has brought home a couple of travel truisms: planning is half the battle, and “the perfect trip” is most elusive when sought after. Also, keep your eyes open to destinations in off-peak seasons. (The New York Times did a great piece about Prague last Februrary.)

We’re extremely excited about our upcoming jaunt, and we’d be lying if we said we didn’t have any expectations. But we are also, ideally, determined to just roll with how it unfolds, in the mode of the planning process itself. It’s a state of mind we hope to retain, for use when we finally decide to trek through the wild of Borneo — donning a pair of leech socks.

On Dislocation

Lake Wingra. Madison, Wis. Photo by windelbo.

Lake Wingra. Madison, Wis. Photo by windelbo.

SEOUL — I WAKE UP AND EVERYTHING is gone. The familiar props have vanished like a set on Broadway, and in their place is a just a big window and the day ahead. There are bare walls; an apartment without memories. Slowly, the inertia of routine animates my limbs into showering, putting on socks. I’m out the door and I press the elevator call button. Night is draining from the sky.

Hours pass.

My legs gyrate awkwardly on an elliptical machine and I wonder who I’ve become. I am not someone who joins health clubs. I see flashes of the University of Wisconsin arboretum. The road is covered in patches of snow and I can see my breath. There’s tall grass on the edge of the the lake. My tires hum.

Pounding techno pulls me from my reverie. My reflection bounces up and down on the window; people on the street below scurry off to somewhere.

Everything about moving here has been harder than I expected. Stripped of the elements that made up what I called life — the time to write, my bicycle, locally grown food, coffee shops and friends — I’ve found myself in an identity funk. I slip back and forth between welcoming this, in hopes that the experience is somehow making me richer, and feeling like I’ve just lost track.

Korea, ironically, has in some ways felt more distant and elusive than I when I was Stateside. I mainly see three places: the apartment, the subway car and the office. What keeps me grounded in the fact that I am actually here is an often acute sense of alienation from my surroundings and occasional bouts of homesickness. What has also escaped me is progress towards finishing a set of personal projects: language fluency, regular posting and an in-depth piece of journalism among them.

I once read that a person can only successfully do 2.5 things during a given period of time. A job counts as one thing, a new marriage another, the saying went. I’ve been testing this theory since I got here, railing against it with inflated ambitions and strict time schedules. Still, the rule has held true. Which is why I find myself squeezing in 40 minutes at the gym on the odd day to keep from becoming totally sedentary, instead of taking the long, daily bike rides I would prefer. And why this blog has fallen into disarray.

All of this, however, is being viewed from a perspective that is too muddled in the daily without respect to the full equation. When I am afforded the presence of mind to observe where I am — both geographically and in life — I feel more satisfied. I notice the how the leaves are changing off in the mountains, the way Seoul’s air seems purer with the crackle of autumn.

What its even more enlivening is when I think about travel. My wife and I recently found a block of time in which to escape, and as soon as we had set the dates we stirred into action. Laptops flew open, clicking over maps and researching phrasebooks. Malaysia has taken our imagination. The idea of waking up in Sarawak and peering out towards the South China Sea sends a cool ripple through me; the unfamiliar once again inspires.

World Savers Congress: Educating China on Green Travel

Bamboo forest, Sichuan. Photo by Pat Rioux.

Bamboo forest, Sichuan. Photo by Pat Rioux.

WHEN A HEAVING EARTHQUAKE leveled China’s heartland earlier this year — taking nearly 70,000 lives and leaving 5 million homeless — the reaction exhibited both the best and the worst of human behavior. Grassroots leaders organized to bring relief to those affected by the disaster, and the government functioned with surprising transparency in addressing the region’s needs. But it wasn’t long before the Party grew tired of the bad press about shoddy construction and resumed its old tack, silencing the voices of those who lost the most.

It’s not an inspiring example of either sustainability or responsibility. Yet in the rubble some locals saw an opportunity to bring out the beauty of Sichuan — to reinvigorate it and share it with the world in a way that would embody the meaning of both those terms.

Albert Ng, CEO of adventure travel company Wild China, conveyed to attendees of the Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress two weeks ago the reality that environmental and tourism authorities faced after the dust settled: facilities, paths and roads linking the region’s nature reserves had been destroyed. Over a year of daunting reconstruction work lay ahead.

“But what is interesting is that the authorities really understood that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to reshape tourism in this area,” Ng said. Previously the reserves had been geared towards one-size-fits-all tourism, he explained, the kind that chews the landscape and leaves more of an impact on the environs that it does on the traveler.

The challenge, according to Ng, lay as much in training as it does in actual building. His company has been working both with local governments and non-governmental organizations to develop travel infrastructure, and provide the tools and cultural understanding that must form its foundation.

“When we go to these remote places the local governments…believe they should be doing something right, they should be doing something responsible,” Ng said. “And we have been working with them on doing camping, doing hiking trails. They all believe in those ideas..the problem is that they do not know how to do it.”

Ng said his group’s education efforts range from discussions on how to build trails to preparing bedding and meals that will be acceptable to foreign travelers, all while protecting sensitive ecosystems and preserving local culture.

It’s a massive challenge, but one of pressing importance. In 2001, there were 89 million international travelers going to China. In 2007, the figure jumped to 132 million and has only showed signs of going up — not to mention domestic tourism.

As China fumbles through one scandal after the other — whether it be the poor construction of schools, the razing of traditional neighborhoods, tainted milk or polluted lakes — it is clear that the country needs an infusion of new ideas and dedicated individuals. The sprouting of initiatives like Wild China is hopeful, but there are also a thicket of “green” options exploding onto the scene. Mindful travelers must also educate themselves as to which are really interested in reducing the impact of their growing numbers.

Japan Opens New Tourism Office, Will Ease Screening Procedures

Autumn in Kyoto. Photo by El Fotopakismo.

Autumn in Kyoto. Photo by El Fotopakismo.

SEOUL — AS ASIAN ECONOMIES SWIRL in a hot mess tipped off by the collapse of Wall Street’s monoliths, Japan is looking to travelers in hopes of stimulating local business. Backpackers and camera-toting gawkers may not save the Nikkei, but if the island nation achieves its goal of 20 million visitors annually by 2020, that can’t hurt.

To achieve such ambitious figures, the government announced yesterday the launch of the Japan Tourism Agency, according to the Daily Yomiuri. The agency is to serve as a directive towards breaking down “bureaucratic sectionalism” and attracting visitors by easing screening procedures. The Daily says that latter bit may create friction with the country’s National Police Agency and Justice Ministry.

Japan’s visitors totaled 8.35 million in 2007. The year before, the country ranked seventh in Asia in terms of overseas tourist arrivals.

United States citizens can visit Japan without a visa for a period of 90 days for tourism purposes only, and travelers must have an onward/return ticket. Visitors from the States who have old-fashioned passports should still be admitted under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which South Korea recently joined. Japanese and Korean citizens, however, must have chip-embedded documents.

Important fun-fact? Citizens of VWP-member countries still require a visa if entering the U.S. via land or sea port, according to a Q&A from Korea’s Donga Daily.

‘Security Theater': Is Amtrak Too Wide-Open?

Seoul Staion. Photo by dnc.

Seoul Staion. Photo by d'n'c.

SEOUL — LAST YEAR, AS I WEIGHED whether to commit to a 42-hour train ride from Seattle to Wisconsin, one chief factor helped me ultimately decide to see the northern part of the country by rail: “At least I won’t have to mess with security.” But a recent contingency exercise carried out at Amtrak stations along the eastern seaboard raises questions about how long passengers will be able to rely on that reasoning:

Amtrak and the Transportation Security Administration deployed officers from about 100 local police departments to 150 train stations in 13 states and the District of Columbia during the morning rush on Tuesday in a drill to familiarize law enforcement personnel with the rail system and to practice working together. An Amtrak spokesman said some travelers were asked for identification and some were told to open their bags for inspection. […]

Participants drilled on a variety of tasks, [TSA spokesman Christopher White] said, including looking for bombs near the periphery of train stations, where crowds might flee after an explosion within the station. Attacks on mass transit in Madrid and London involved bombs that exploded more or less simultaneously, not sequentially, but, Mr. White said, “We need to prepare for scenarios we haven’t seen in the past.”

The drill perhaps has some valid goals. Everyone gripes about getting stuck in the security line, but when things go wrong the citizenry is quick to point at holes and ask why didn’t somebody do something? Yet the exercise also raises questions about civil liberties, and whether such a show of force demonstrates any real ability to address legitimate threats. The ACLU’s technology and liberty program director asked rhetorically in the NYT article excerpted above whether “this isn’t just security theater.”

A journey from Seoul Station to Busan puts passengers through nary a security measure; conductors hardly check tickets. There hasn’t been an attack here in recent memory. I imagine the Eurail system to be a bit tighter, especially following London and Madrid, though I’ve no direct experience (comments are welcome). Either way, I can’t imagine seeing the same kind elaborate drill being carried out in any of the nations around the globe where train travel is a primary mode of transit — it feels vaguely Orwellian, and at the same time inadequate.

This may be too idyllic a dream, but it seems to me that instead of rehearsing iron-fisted tactics, Amtrak and the TSA would to better to put in place a light network of well-trained, courteous, regular-duty personnel who can maintain order should something get out of hand — whether it’s a rowdy drunk on the train or something a bit more serious. Checking bags or IDs isn’t necessary as such measures are largely useless anyway. We do what we can to keep ourselves safe, but after that we just have to roll.

Journal Entries: In These Shoes

Map of Oregon, Vodka Tonic

Map of Oregon state. Seattle, September 2007

SEOUL, Sept. 3 (5:25 AM at our apartment) — I WOKE UP THIS MORNING thinking about the fact that it was almost exactly one year ago today that I was loading up the car and heading down to Portland. I’d just graduated from college and had spent the previous month both in LA visiting friends and up in Seattle riding my bicycle on familiar streets, absorbing all the places I had missed while living in Wisconsin. I was confused as to the direction of my life, but not so concerned as to yet feel anxious. Things, however messy and uncertain, felt free.

It seems funny now to think that on the other side of the world (indeed, as I pen these very words) my parents are driving down in the same direction I myself was headed all those months ago. They’ll stop for breakfast at the Country Cousin, as I did, and watch the fog sweep its misty fingertips over the coastal hills as they drive out along Sunset Highway. Their final stop is Cannon Beach  — also the last leg of my own West Coast journey, as Nick and I came full circle before returning home.

Strangely, I can’t help feeling a bit envious of my parents. Seoul is in its last throes of summer, still hot and cacophonous. I want to take my wife somewhere calm and beautiful, where the air is all seawater and pine.

What I remember most about the trip last September was that it was lended a sense of momentousness, though not by any artificial attempts to make it so. Big things were shifting all around us, and driving south gave Nick and I the escape — the distance — we needed to sort it all out and become ourselves. Those four weeks lasted months and years. I will never forget the sunset at Capitola.

I must admit that I wish I could recapture something from that time, hold it now as I struggle with a new kind of confusion and this adjustment to the working life. It seems painfully ironic that despite being halfway around the globe, my current experience in some ways feel less adventuresome than my time in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of perspective. Either way, I could use a good road trip.

Continue reading ‘Journal Entries: In These Shoes’


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