Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Prologue to My Solitary Travel

My first travel away from home was going to Cebu when I was six years old, about to enter Grade 1.  My older cousin, who was then a military sergeant, was really fond of me (perhaps i was too smarty and cute when i was little :-)) and asked my parents if he could tag me along for a summer vacation.  I can remember a little - playing with some kids amidst the differences in our dialects, going to the market, and taking the long bus trip. It was too late for my parents to realize why they allowed it to happen. I was just a kid and only in pre-school. But I cannot remember getting homesick. What I can remember was being afraid of the dark, as kids normally do, so I'd play with my watch in darkness until I fall into sleep.  I think it was the first time that travel bug bit me, very deep that it stung into my blood and kept on running through my veins.  The poison has never been cleared, until now!

Since then, my summer and school vacations were spent either in my grandparents' house for months or in a relative that were far from home - where I traveled by land, by the sea, and by air.  
Source: www.mychildmagazine.com

Travel, then, was all about F.U.N! It was when I played with new kids and met new friends (where I compelled them to write in my SlumBook).  It was where from the eyes of a grade schooler, I learned the different facets of life. When I started to have crushes and had a my childish version of a "long distance relationship".

Summer vacations meant travel to me. 

Fast forward.

A year after I passed the CPA Board exam, I applied for working visa to Canada. But as a newly grad, with less than a year of experience,  I did not meet the required number of  points.  Years passed, as I hopped from one job to another, I never stop trying. I applied for Singapore, Canada, US, New Zealand and Australia. But either fate or any other forces of nature was defying the chance. I've never been successful.  
When I was on the verge of completely giving up after I landed with my current job where complete compensation package is already at par with Singapore's experience level, I got a call from Apple Singapore offering a job very much similar to mine.  I did consider.  I may get the same bucks with I was getting with the local one for a managerial post and with Singapore's as an analyst, its the experience that matters - to work abroad and learn how to survive away from the perks of comfort life (in all aspects) in my country, to live and work with other nationalities, to adapt to their cultures, to be just independent.

But that opportunity also went away.  So I retreat. It's not my destiny. It's not my fate.

Eventually, I understand why.  There's always a reason for everything!

I can have the best of both worlds.  I still have the comforts of my home but I have the time, the opportunity, my created chances, and most of all, the resources to explore the world on my own - out of pleasure and not for the sake of living.

Off to board Singapore Airlines - my first trip abroad
Have I landed a job in Singapore, I'm not too sure if I would have this pleasure of solitary travel... so with my family and friends. ;-)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

My Heartwarming Journey to Snow Mountain in South Korea

To experience snow - scope a fistful of it
- this is my ultimate birthday wish 

My diligent research helped me find a place in South Korea where snow has not melted yet by mid-March. Search engines in the net and various travel stories in the blogsphere directed me to Seoraksan National Park that serves as the gateway to Mt. Seorak, the highest mountain in Taebak mountain range.  It's located in Gangwon-do Province nested in the eastern part of South Korea and can be reached via a two-to-three-hour-bus trip from Seoul.  It is named as the Snow Mountain with "Seol" meaning "Snow" and "Ak" meaning "Big Mountain" because the snow would not melt for the long time.  Indeed, it is the Snow Mountain.

At the top of Gwongeumseong Fortress

I took the 7:20 AM non-stop bus from Dong Seoul Express Terminal to Sokcho Intercity Bus Terminal after I missed it's first trip at 6:20AM.  Amidst the aching morning coldness of 2C degrees outside the holding area of the terminal, I opted to stay while carefully checking the bus signages with my ticket.  The scheduled time was a bit confusing - one bus was showing 7:19 and the Korean characters looked like the same with my ticket Sokcho’(속초)  but mine should be at 7:20.  
my ticket and the bus to Sokcho City
I got my confusion cleared-up when people started to fall in line to the bus with time indicated at 7:20AM. I went up the bus looking for seat number 5, it's on the window seat.. and someone was occupying it. I was about to tell him that it was mine when her daughter from the opposite row said something and then laughed.  She was seated beside her mother who also said something.  He then figured out that he should be sitting on the aisle seat, that is, seat number 6.  After I settled in my seat, I placed my backpack on the floor, took my bubble jacket off (buses in Korea are non-aircon for obvious reason that's its very cold outside but the lack of ventilation inside the bus make it suffocating instead), and just had my camera in handy.

The bus left exactly at 7:20AM.  Very efficient!

As soon as the bus started running, I kept on looking outside the window.  In just a few minutes, we were out on the highway where patches of greenfields, riverbanks, houses, lots of tunnels and mountains as the backdrop were part of my journey.  After awhile, the man beside me nudged me gently and I turned to him.  He was offering a cup full of cherry tomatoes.  I looked towards the opposite row and his wife smiling and speaking in Korean with hand gestures seemed like telling me to take the cup.  I shyly took it out of courtesy, uttered a "Thank You" and picked one tomato and with a constrained smile swallowed it.  I do not eat fresh tomato unless served with a salad dressing or dipped into vinegar seasoned with pepper and salt.  I sensed that the old man was observing me.  He was not talking but his face exuded an aura of friendliness with his smiling eyes.  I took another one and kind of like it.  Then, I put the cup at the holder at my front.

my cherry tomato

A few minutes later, the wife handed over an apple which she cut into halves and the husband gave me the other half.  I thanked both of them looking at their daughter who was smiling too.  They were so kind to me that I did not think of rejecting their presents.  In the remaining hours on the road, I was like an orphan fed by this kind family of three.  They offered me oranges after the apple which the husband himself peeled off before giving some to me.

the Korean family who fed me inside the bus 
The picnic on the bus momentarily stopped when the wife and her daughter took a nap while the husband still awake and also looking at the scenery outside.  How I wish he can talk in English or I can speak Korean.  I was getting sleepy as well and a bit frustrated that nearly two hours of the travel time had passed but I haven't seen any signs of snow yet. 

While contemplating what to do should I found out that the snow has melted already in Seoraksan National Park, I saw the wife rummaged the picnic bag and took out a cup and poured something from the flask and gave it to his husband.  I heard them talking again.  Then the husband asked me, "Kopi"? I turned to the wife who was carrying the flask in one hand smiling.  I shook my head and said, "No, thanks!"  As much as I want to take it, I was advised by my doctor not to take any caffeinated drink nor coffee yet. Three weeks before I left the Philippines, I was rushed to the hospital due to stomach spasm which attributed to either too much salty food, less water intake and too much coffee.   But the wife only heard or understood my last word, "thanks" and she thought I was thanking them already.

She then took another cup, poured the dark liquid with sinful aroma and passed it on to her daughter, then to her father and handed it to me.  I mumbled in prayer to spare me from any stomach pain. I should not get sick in this foreign land.  Then, with the same cup full of cherry tomato at my front, I saw the message imprinted on the cup as I took a sip from it.
"Love is likely to the wind. I can't see it but I can feel it".

I then surrendered to the thought that snow could be nowhere to find and I might not able to make my wish to scope a fistful of snow come true but I have received more than a fistful abundance of kindness from this Korean family. That would be enough for me and I'd be happy with it.

After awhile, I saw the mountain ranges covered in whiteness with trees brushing it like highlights of the painting.  My face suddenly lit as my heart filled with excitement.  I was nearing to the fulfillment of my dream.

Taebak mountain ranges as seen from the road
We arrived at Sokcho Intercity Terminal past 9:30AM and the family alighted from the bus ahead of me.  I wished I brought some dried mangoes with me so I can return back their goodness. When I got off, I saw them waiting so I approached and thanked them again.  I waved them good bye  as they went out of the exit for the arriving passengers while I walked towards the departure boarding area to check the bus schedules back to Seoul.  After taking notes of the time, I went to the exit of the terminal and looked for the tourist information booth.  I asked for the bus stop to Seoraksan National Park and took some travel brochures as well. 

Surprisingly, I saw that family in the bus stop as well.  And the wife started talking with me in Korean and I only understood the word "country".  I assumed she was asking where I came from so I answered "Philippines".  She was again talking, ecstatic and I was hoping I could understand where the excitement coming from.  Her daughter noticed the expression on my face and said something to her mom.  I then looked at the bus stop guide to check whether that was the right one.  The other lady who were then a witness of our early "conversations" asked something and pointed the bus stop.  She might have hinted that I was going to Seoraksan.  She asked me, "Seorak?". And I answered, "Yes".  She pointed Bus 7-1 printed on the board.  The wife kept talking again and seemed like asking me about Seoraksan but I did not understand anything.  Her daughter kept on telling her about something that I only managed to hear as "English".  I was just happy observing them how her daughter explained that I did not understand what they're saying but she kept on talking while her husband had smiles on his face.  I did not want to forget their faces so I asked them for a photo souvenir with me.
the wife and the husband with me
They were waiting for Bus 9-1 and when the bus arrived, they were saying goodbyes with the smiles on their faces.  It was like I've known them for so long.  It was such a heartwarming introduction.  I saw then that Bus 7-1 was behind Bus 9-1 but the daughter turned to me before she got on, "Unni, (in Korean) Bus 7-1" while pointing to the Bus 7-1.  I answered back while nodding so she'd understand me,"Yes, yes, I saw it!"  She then waved her hands and I still saw her smiling while saying her goodbyes to me.

the kind strangers, bless them with more blessings!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

I Speak in English, They Talk in Korean

I'm actually not a conversation starter, especially with strangers unless I have to ask something but I will only converse when one makes the move first.  I always have hesitations contemplating whether I'd be trespassing unto one's privacy or alone time.  When I started to write down my bucketlist during my prep days for my 10-day-solitary travel, I doubt if I can really make this happen.

That is, 

Talk with a stranger, not just anybody but a local Korean.

But I did! I had my most memorable conversations with Korean, the taxi drivers.  They talked in Korean, I answered in English, but we understood each other. Amazing, right?!

Conversation #1: The Fully Made-Up Lady Driver

I arrived Incheon International Airport at five in the morning from the four-hour-flight from Manila.  Without enough sleep and bit uncomfortable for not being able to freshen up as I went straight to the airport from the office, I was having the difficulty not to fall asleep on the bus from Incheon to Seoul and not to miss the 2nd bus stop - Hapjeong .

I was half-awake when I heard the bus announcement on the 2nd stop and I should have pressed the Stop button mid-way from the 1st stop to the 2nd stop. In South Korea, you have to press the Stop button as the bus approaches your designated bus stop station.  This will give signal to the driver to stop at certain bus stops, otherwise, they will just pass-through it.  At that moment, I remained seated and looked back at the bus stop as if I left something or somebody behind.  Suddenly, I got my senses back and listened attentively to the next bus stops but still did not lift my hand to press the Stop button.  It was either out of shyness or I just wanted to go farther and familiarized with the main bus stops.  Finally, after five announcements, somebody pressed the Stop button.  I quickly stood up, picked up my bag and got off the bus too - to a place that i know nothing at all!  what I thought of , it was probably where taxis can pick-up passengers.

Ajumma on the wheels
Right after the bus left, I saw a taxi approaching and I hurriedly hailed it.  Surprisingly, the driver was a woman, probably in her early 50's, with full make-up, hair properly teased in a bun and decorated with pins of Swarovski crystals while I looked like I just got out of bed from the last night's hang-over. 

And these how my first conversation happened.

Me: Hotel Seokyo?
Ajumma : In Korean (while typing something on the GPS placed at the top of the meter)
GPS: Also in Korean (and the taxi started to go)
Me: Hotel Seokyo? (while gesturing my hand with an "approve" sign) 
Ajumma : In Korean again
Me: "Hap-jeong?" (Worried painted on my face whether she got it right).
Ajumma : Yeh, Yeh .. (and talked in Korean again and was pointing something in GPS like she was explaining the best route to take)
Me: "Next, Hong-dae?" (while gesturing my hand as if it's next to hong-dae).
Ajumma : Yeh, Yeh

I then felt relief and comfortably lean back to my seat.  After awhile, the lady driver rummaged something from her purse and handed me a candy. It seemed like a peanut-flavored just looking at its wrapper.  

Me:  "Thank you!" (smiling while making a vow). 
I haven't mastered gamsahabnida yet 감사합니다 or "thank you" in Korean. I put the candy to my pocket.

Ajumma : Talking again in Korean, smiling and sounds happy while holding another candy and looking at the rear mirror.

She must have been talking about taking the candy so I obliged myself and uttered my thanks again.  She took my trash and turned her focus back on the street again.  Along the way, I saw some familiar signages and knew we were on the right direction.  After a couple of minutes, she pointed "Hotel Seokyo" and gestured her hand going to the left.  She meant, she'll pull-over to the left and that's where I could get off.  

My meter was only KRW6,400 so I gave her KRW10000.  She gave me back my exchange of KRW3,600.

Me:  "Thank you!" (smiling while making a vow)
Ajumma : "Byeee!!! (while waving her both hands)

That was the only English word that she uttered but how amazing that we're able to converse well.

Conversation #2:  The Unofficial Taxi Driver

On my 3rd day, my itineary was to take the 3-hour express bus from Seoul to Sokcho City for my other item in my bucketlist - to personally experience the snow.
The first trip was at 6:20AM and I had only a day to explore Sokcho, particularly, Seoraksan National Park so I was up to leave my hostel at 5:30AM.  I was not able to check the first trip of the train so the last option was to take a cab.

From the main road after my hurdles of running and walking along the dark alleys from the hostel, I hailed the approaching taxi.  It was not the right loading area, but I didn't know.  Still, the taxi stopped and the driver opened down the window.  

Me: "Dong Seoul Bus Terminal?" (while showing my Ipad with the snip-it of the address of the terminal with Korean characters).
Ahjussi Driver 1: In Korean waving his hand.
Me: Confused Look, Helpless Expression. 

He must have been seen the confusion on my face.

Ahjussi Driver 1: In Korean pointing his finger forward and I saw the taxi queue at the nearby intersection

I got it! The bus terminal was not his route or it was not allowed to pick-up passenger if not from the designated taxi area.  I hurriedly vow and uttered my thanks to run.  Then, I heard something like calling me and it was the driver honking to get my attention. 

Ahjussi Driver 1:  In Korean gesturing for me to get-in.

As if I understood, I got inside the taxi while he kept on talking in Korean.  While we were approaching the taxi queue, he honked his horn and gave some instructions to the next driver.  I was about to give him some Korean Won but he waved his hand and shook his head. I thanked him again and wish him well.

Conversation #3:  The Long one with the Official Taxi Driver

The next thing I knew, I was already passing over skyways, overpasses and through express lanes. It was 5:45AM already and the first trip was at 6:20AM.  Can I make it? More than the time, I was too busy looking at the meter as it ran while computing it's equivalent to Philippine Peso.  I thought I should have taken the train and I must have saved a few Korean Won.
Ahjussi on the wheels

Then, the driver started the conversation.

Ahjussi Driver 2: From the Philippines?
Me: Yes! Smiling
Ahjussi Driver 2: Holiday?
Me: Yes! For 10 days. (While showing my two hands)
Ahjussi Driver 2: What you like Korea?
Me: Cherry Blossoms and Snow
Ahjussi Driver 2: Like here than Philippines?
Me: Ah No. I like Philippines more, it's my home! I just like the weather here..and the people, of course.
Ahjussi Driver 2: Smiling. 

He then suggested places to visit and see in Seoul - Namsam, Myeongdong, Nandaemun and the palaces.  And I told him, laughing, that I've been there already.  He laughed too.  

Ahjussi Driver 2: How about Gyeongbokgung?  (And mentioned other palaces as well)
Me: Yes, I've seen those as well.

Poor man, he seemed to be lost of places to suggest so I told him I was going to Jeju and Busan.  He then suggested the places in Busan, what to eat and the good places in Jeju which mostly I have diligently made the research already and were included in my itinerary.  But I did not spoil this kind Ahjussi's excitement.  

After sometime, our topic changed to Kpop and KDrama.

Ahjussi Driver 2: "Favorite idol?"
Me: "CNBlue"
Ahjussi Driver 2: "Who? The Leader?"
Me: "Yes, Jonghwa?"
Ahjussi Driver 2: "Ah, Jung Yong Hwa".
Me: "Yes, that's him."
Ahjussi Driver 2: "Movie?"
Me: "None (while shaking my head) Kdrama only. "

I mentioned some of the Kdrama that I knew but he seemed not to know them. It's either I mispronounced the title or the English title is different.

Ahjussi Driver 2: "What is your name?"
Me: "I'm Claire".
Ahjussi Driver 2: "Cl..Cl..what again?"
Me: "Claire".

He laughed as he struggled to pronounce the sounds CL & R but he managed to get it right.

Ahjussi Driver 2: "Beautiful Name".
Me: "Thank you. And your name is?"
Ahjussi Driver 2: "Lee Seong Yong"

I tried many times to get his name right too.  He drove for a few minutes more and he repeatedly reminded me where to get off, take note of the subway station so I won't need to take the taxi back. He also wished me to enjoy my vacation in Busan and Jeju and to keep me healthy and safe.

I arrived at the terminal at 6:05AM, beyond the cut-off for the 6:20AM trip so I took the 7:20AM instead - enough hour to have my breakfast. I might have had spent more than my budget on the train fare but my conversations with Lee Seong Yong had given me more confidence and trust in myself that my first solitary travel experience would be something worthy of my existence in this world.

Also, it made me realized that conversations (communication) have no boundaries.  It's not just about talking ; it's about listening and understanding the gestures and expression in spite the differences in our language.