psychology 202: the path to Everest Base Camp

Well, we did it! On October 8 we woke up at 4 A.M. and climbed up 500 meters (that’s about 5 football fields lined up end-to-end, vertically) to the top of Kala Patthar, where we had great sunrise views of Mt. Everest and the Everest Himalayan Range.

Everest and Nuptse sunrise

After a few hours up there, we headed down for breakfast and then took off for Everest Base Camp. The camp is situated atop the Khumbu Glacier at the bottom of the Western Cwm snow fall, which is fed by Everest and Nuptse, so for the last 200 meters to the camp we walked on the glacier. It wasn’t slippery because the glacier is covered with rocks and boulders that the ice ripped from the mountains decades ago as it made its slow descent down the valley.

Everest Base Camp 1

You wouldn’t even know you were standing on a glacier except that in random places giant lakes had been melted out of the surface by the afternoon sun. Jessie said that they looked like the lake where the narwhal lives in the Christmas claymation special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Narwal Lake

As we neared the camp I was reflecting on all the events leading up to this day. I thought of how we’d crossed from India to Nepal by land and sat on a 10-hour long patience-testing bus ride. During those ten hours the bus stopped three times: two times for “toilet breaks” on the side of the highway where you had to duck behind skinny bushes to do any business; and once for “dinner,” which meant that the bus stopped in the middle of a busy intersection and allowed three teenage boys with enormous wicker baskets to climb aboard and shove people standing in the aisle aside to sell their snacks. You could purchase a giant cucumber the size of your forearm which was sliced in half lengthwise or you could buy a cob of corn that had been blackened on an open kerosene fire. We decided we’d tap into the baguettes we’d purchased before leaving Varanasi the previous day. As night fell and the scenery outside the windows blackened, we closed our eyes to sleep but the giant gaudy lights on the bus ceiling blared blue and red and orange through our eyelids while the speakers pumped ridiculously synthesized Indian music through the speakers at ear-splitting decibels. Seriously, it’s a much easier and attainable goal to trek to Everest Base Camp than to sleep on a Nepali bus.

After acquiring all our gear over the next several days (a big thanks to Shona’s Trekking Company near Thamel…we highly recommend them) we set out for the airport. Most people doing the Everest trek fly from Kathmandu to Lukla, which has the distinction of being the scariest airport to fly into in the world because it’s tiny runway sits at the edge of a cliff that gives no room for second chances.

Tenzing-Hillary

The domestic terminal was somewhat empty when we arrived, but after the clerks put up a handwritten sign that said “Flights delayed due to Lukla weather” the small space slowly became a disaster area. Guides and porters kept dragging in more people and their bags and trying to deposit them in front of the lines where people had been waiting for 2+ hours.

KTM domestic airport

Tensions were high. Every time a clerk approached one of the check-in counters, lines half the length of the terminal immediately formed, only to have the clerk tell everyone INDIVIDUALLY that it wasn’t time for them to check in yet. The whole system is just completely insufficient and it seems the problem could be solved with a simple white board and dry/erase marker displaying which flight was currently being checked in. After we’d sat there for about four hours we finally were issued a boarding pass, and with giant smiles on our faces approached the boarding gate. However, our excitement was premature. Only ten minutes before boarding time they announced that all flights to Lukla were canceled for the day. So we had to go back out, reacquire our flight itinerary and get our ticket changed for the next day.

On that second day we held our breath and our expectations back until we were airborne. The short flight took us past miles of rolling hills entirely covered by farming terraces and steep footpaths between villages before depositing us 2800 meters above sea level (9,200 ft) in Lukla. And so we began our trek to Everest. The trek generally takes at least 12 days, but we’d given ourselves 16 days so that we would have plenty of time to acclimatize and to enjoy the scenery. We had great weather the first two days as we climbed our way up to Namche Bazaar at 3440m (11,300ft). Jessie had the camera and kept pausing to take pictures of hills and waterfalls and other beautiful landscapes. But I told her, “Make sure you take plenty pictures of the path.

Path 1

The path is so important. As in all other aspects of life, following a path leads you from where you are to the desired destination. So I wanted to make sure that we had a lot of images that would remind us of all the places we’d gone through, some easy and fun, others hard and demanding, that pointed us toward our final goal. I also realized that this path had started long before our feet touched the ground at Tensing-Hillary Airport. It had been discovered, cultivated and encouraged over the past three years, from the moment I marveled at the mountaineers in Jon Krakauer’s classic Everest summit account in “Into Thin Air,” to the auspicious meeting of another traveler in Korea who’d just done the trek himself, to the moment on my 30th birthday when Jessie set the background image on our laptop to a picture of Everest and then told me she was giving it to me for my birthday.

Path 2

After the first two gorgeous days, we had five days of constant fog. It was infuriating and dispiriting. We knew that if the clouds would just roll away we’d be able to look up and see a stadium of white-capped mountains encircling us. But instead we could barely see more than 10 feet around us. Day after day, one foot in front of the other, our hearts sank deeper and deeper. After we’d done so much to get here, were we going to miss seeing the very things we’d come for? We kept overhearing people say their guides had checked and the weather should clear up the next day. We’d get our hopes up, only to have them dashed down when we woke up and looked out the window to see another cold grey day.

Fog Path 3

At one point we were walking through a valley. The fog had retreated for a few hours and we were enjoying finally being able to see some of the mountains. We looked back toward the valley’s entrance and we saw the clouds scrambling up the valley like a schoolyard bully coming to steal the little joy we’d found from the momentary sunshine. It came on so thick and so fast that we lost the path and were concerned that if we didn’t find it soon we’d also lose what little sunlight was left of the day and be caught outdoors without shelter. I never knew that weather could influence moods so harshly. I was so angry but had no one to be angry with. We grew increasingly bitter. We even started making up sarcastic jokes about the Everest Base Camp trek, like how it’s harder to see than a polar bear in a snow storm.

Fog Path 4

The weather cleared up a day before we reached our highest elevation at 5500 meters (18,044 feet). We knew we were really lucky. We got to see Everest and the Himalayan range with hardly a cloud in the sky! And we sincerely appreciated the fact that we were seeing it.

Himalayan Range

The sky continued to be clear as we walked the path all the way back to Lukla over the next four days. So in the end, we got to see almost everything we’d missed on the way up while heading back down.

Despite the fog-induced emotional rollercoaster we faced on our journey, it was an amazing trip. Several times we found ourselves choking back tears. About halfway through the trip we hiked 800 meters up a hill. It took a lot of time and hard breathing, and as we turtled our way up the path the clouds kept billowing around us, obscuring the wonderful views we sensed were all about. We considered turning back several times. After all, what was the point of reaching the top just to see the same old wall of white we’d been walking through? But I decided that I wouldn’t stop, that it was going to clear up for us. I reached the peak several minutes before Jessie and looked out to see a handful of snow covered mountains unveiled atop the mist. And tears just flowed from my eyes.

Chukkung Ri

I’m still trying to digest all the emotional and physical mountains we climbed on this trip. If they’re like everything else in my life, the meanings will continue to unravel and reveal themselves over time and future sleepless nights. But we did it! We conquered Everest Base Camp!

Ryan at Everest Base Camp

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psychology 201: as much you can

It’s now been four whole days since we walked across the border from India to Nepal, and I’m struggling to find words to describe India. The cliche truth is, you can’t understand it until you’ve experienced it.

Early on in our journey we stopped in Rishikesh for a week to stay at a yoga ashram. Rishikesh, by the way, is the place where The Beatles came to study eastern transcendental meditation practices. Their stay in India influenced some of their music thereafter (The White Album, Abbey Road). Jessie had been taking yoga classes in Korea for several months leading up to our departure, so we decided it would be nice for us to try it together with instructions in English!  Our friend Jody had spent several months in Rishikesh for a yoga instructor certification course and recommended the beautiful ashram to us.  We had a great teacher, Ravi, who dealt carefully with my weak back and Jessie’s tight hip flexors but also pushed us to become more flexible in these areas. Ravi has a glowing smile and a voice that cascades like the Ganges that flows outside the yoga studio. Several times during each session I’d find myself hunched over in a very awkward position, astonished at how inflexible certain parts of my body are, and he’d tell me to try to make my back and legs completely straight…adding after a short pause in his distinctive lilt, “As much you can.”

As much you can. That phrase has stuck in our minds and we’ve joked to each other quite frequently during our India adventure to do things “as much you can.”

Ravi yoga

We experienced so many emotions, ups and downs, on a daily basis in India. Just walking down a street in anytown India you see so much.  You’re forced to weave your way back and forth through crowds of people walking in every direction at every moment. Pedestrians, motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, taxis, cows with massive pointy horns, ice cream vendors and miniature trucks packed twice their height with bundled up bags of mystery merchandise vie for every inch of pavement on the roads as well as the sidewalks. They incessantly honk their horns or yell out what sounds to my English-hearing ear as “The side!” at every hour of the day and night. When you do find a brief stretch of open cement to walk upon, you still have to navigate your feet around the mounds of cow, goat and dog dung. There are just people EVERYWHERE. Even in the remotest places in the country, when you think no one is around and you pause to have a tinkle, there is always someone just behind the next bush. Especially as a foreigner, it seemed that no matter where I was there were always at least three pairs of eyes on me, if not a hundred.

crowded Indian street

Several scents compete for your nostrils. The cumin and curry odors from fresh samosas make you salivate while the sicky sweet smell of condensed milk balls being fried in ghee and dropped in sugar syrup baffle your stomach. Souring milk knocks you out as you walk past huge chunks of paneer (Indian unfermented cheese) in cheese cloth that are being pressed down by heavy flat rocks; they drip their vinegary, milky water down into the alley. Ginger, garlic, saffron, coriander, mint, lemon, onion, cardamom and masala spices dance in and out of your nose, then are swept away with a passing blast of motorbike exhaust. On each corner you grimace as you catch the ever familiar scent of urine coming from the public, unsheltered urinal stalls. Doesn’t matter; most guys don’t use them. You can’t walk ten minutes without seeing some guy pull up to a building and start weeing. You try to give that guy a wide berth as you pass him…as much you can.

policeman peeing

As you shift your body to avoid being run over by a passing man-powered lorry, you fumble to not stop on the merchant and his wares that are strewn over a worn red blanket before him on the ground. Shops line the street for miles, each offering the exact same items as the previous hundred. Their storefronts can barely manage two people walking shoulder-to-shoulder through the entry, but many extend back from the road a hundred feet. As you pass them, trying not to make eye contact, the shop owners call out to you, “Hello! Yes, sir! You want to look my shop? Good prices. Many things for you. Come look, make your eyes happy.” We just shake our heads, smile and say, “No thank you.” Undeterred, many follow you down the block for the next two minutes trying to convince you that you need to drink chai with them and see their shop. They shake your hand but then won’t let go while they play twenty questions. It’s always the same questions: My friend, where are you from? Ah, America! What city in America? California, New York, Washington? How long you stay in (insert present city name)? When you come here? How long you stay in India? What cities you see? What is your job in America? What is your good name? Is this your sister, friend, wife? Oh, very lucky man! Where you go now? You want to look my shop? Why no?

Jaipur shop

Eventually they give up and leave you to your peace. This peace is immediately fractured by an auto rickshaw driver motioning for you to get into his tuk-tuk and demanding to know where you are going, despite the fact that you just keep walking and saying, “No. No. No. No.” As he drives slowly to keep up with your pace, you’re suddenly tripped up by a small straggly looking child who is repeatedly making the ubiquitous motion of holding her hand outstretched, palm upwards, fingertips pressed together, then quickly bringing this gesture up to her mouth and back, signifying that she’s hungry.  It’s accompanied by a pitiful yet determined expression and some hardly recognizable words, “Please sir! One rupee! One chapati (cheap pita-like bread)!” Over and over and over. The beggar children will often follow you for whole street blocks. Sometimes they’ll be joined by their parents or other children. It’s hard to see so much need in their eyes and know that you can’t possibly give to everyone who asks.  It is typically more effective to support local holistic empowerment programs, so usually we smile at them and say hello, but shake our heads no.  Those asking for money and food were not actually as numerous as we expected.  Probably not even as prevalent as the street pee-ers.  Still, at each encounter as you are walking away and telling them no, it’s hard keeping your heart from flaring up in anger. Anger that these people won’t leave you alone. Anger that you feel guilt and shame because you have everything and this person has nothing. Anger that the government does so little to help their own people. You suppress it, swallowing it together with a bite of hopelessness…as much you can.

You look up and see a tangle of electricity wires extending everywhere overhead. People stare out of glassless windows at all the bustle below. If you look beyond them you start catching glimpses of huge temples or mosques or municipal buildings that have been carefully and intricately carved down to the last elephant or warrior sculpture. These buildings are so grand, their architecture is so amazing. I’ve previously posted an article with many large pictures of them, which you can access by clicking here. At the same time, they are everywhere, like the people. After weeks of visiting this temple and that temple, you start to walk by them with just a cursory, uninterested glance.

Some days you wake up and are bursting to get up and out there into the manic energy of the street. Other days you want to stay in bed and hide under the blankets. When you’re out, there’s an internal pull to keep walking, a desire to see what unique sight you’ll find just around the next corner, and the next. It competes with the desire to escape the madness, the tragic, the uber-complexity of caste and overpopulation that causes all this desperation.

Finally you duck into a restaurant or go back to your guesthouse. For a while you can relax and let your guard down. You can breathe easy and not have to think about what the popular t-shirt sold everywhere in India says: No rickshaw, No one rupee, No chocolate, No hashish, No change money, No problem. You unwind. As much you can.

You begin to feel that everyone you meet, both menacing and friendly, is only interested in squeezing money out of you. But this is a mistake. Many times people just want to help you because they can see you are a foreigner. We met lots of men, women, children and families who just wanted to shake our hands or snap a quick picture with us (blog post here). The kids laugh with glee and jump up and down with excitement just to shake hands with us. We were continually offered chances to go look inside people’s houses or to go with them to their villages. The few times we took them up on these offers we were never asked for money.

We met so many lovely, vibrant, talkative, colorful, helpful people along the way. All the taxi drivers who surrounded us and waited with us for our massively delayed night bus in Delhi (blog post here). Our dear friends at Mahatma Yoga Ashram in Rishikesh. Vinod at Milkman Guesthouse in Pushkar. The returning Indian expatriate from Germany in the German bakery in Udaipur. Lokesh and his wife, who taught us how to make delicious Indian food and gave us excellent restaurant recommendations. The rickshaw driver who drove us to our hotel in Jodhpur in the middle of the night, and when we couldn’t find the entrance, banged down doors all over the neighborhood until we got in safely. Delroy and Chito and the whole Trotters Camel Safari crew, who made us feel at home from minute one. The teenagers in Khajuraho who walked with us from one end of town to the other, talking and laughing and smiling the whole way. And countless others who supplied us with our needs, wants and unwants.

Khajuraho teens

I’m still mulling all these experiences over, and will for years to come. It’s why I started this blog in the first place: to have an avenue for expressing, remembering, grappling with, re-visioning and sharing all the experiences I’ve learned while traveling. I hope you get something good out of reading it too, reader. As much you can.

psychology 300: the concept of time in Indian transportation

If you’re ever in India and need to travel by bus and think that you’re really smart and can book your bus tickets online, thereby foregoing the travel agent fees, then I’ve only one thing to tell you: get ready for an adventure! Jessie and I are pretty competent travelers and we usually opt to figure out transport on our own. However, after getting burned twice with online bookings, we decided it was worth the extra fees to book bus travel through travel agents. (And honestly, the fees were only like a dollar extra anyway.)

dodgy old bus

We weren’t planning to take buses in the first place, though. Three days after we’d arrived in Delhi we realized that there was no way we were going to get a seat on the train up to Rishikesh at such short notice. It’s not like Thailand, where you can walk into the station an hour before your train and get a seat or sleeper berth. So we found this website called ‘Make My Trip’ (I’ve not included a hyperlink here because India’s chaotic and unpredictable bus system has no business trying to sell orderly, scheduled tickets online), and booked an overnight sleeper bus.

The stated departure time was 8:45pm, but the ticket warned that we should arrive at least 15 minutes before just in case the bus arrived early. Looking back now after almost 6 weeks of travel in India, I’m laughing hysterically at this notion! Early? Who are you kidding?!

waiting for the bus

Of course, to be extra sure we made the bus we arrived super early. At 8:00 we found the pickup point at Ram Krishna Ashram Marg Metro Station Gate 2. That’s a mouthful, huh?! The gate was at the end of a wide lane with no exit that was choked full of parked auto rickshaws and street food stalls. We wondered how a giant sleeper bus would be able to come down the lane and reverse its way back out, but hey it’s India and we’d already seen about a thousand miraculously near calls and eekings by within the ten minutes it took for us to walk from our hotel to here, so why not?

waiting for a break in the traffic

It was very dark and so many people were coming and going through the metro gate. We waited patiently until 8:45. When no bus came I found the text message with our e-ticket and called up the service number. The operator only spoke Hindi, so our conversation consisted of me saying “Hello! English please!” and the operator saying “Yes, hello?” and then speaking something I couldn’t understand.

Talking on the phone in India is always difficult because Indians answer their phones by saying “Hello?” And when you say “Hello!” back they automatically assume you’re Indian and so they speak rapidly in Hindi to you. Sometimes it takes a considerable amount of time just to get them to realize you are speaking English!

The operator hung up on me and my mood turned from apprehensive to flabbergasted. At this point some of the people around us must have seen the exasperated looks I was giving as Jessie and I talked about our options. A well groomed young man stepped up and asked in almost crystal clear English if he could help us. I shoved my phone at him and asked him to talk with the operator. The operator gave him the bus driver’s cell phone number. He called the bus driver. The bus driver said he was running 30 minutes late but that he couldn’t pick us up at gate 2. We had to meet him at gate 16. Great! We asked around to some of the shop owners where we could find gate 16. They looked at us as if we were crazy and told us there were only 5 gates for this station.

Our new friend got back on the phone to the driver and figured out that we weren’t supposed to meet him at gate 16, but pillar 16. You see, outside the Ram Krishna Ashram there’s a four-way intersection. Over the intersection there’s a highway, which is supported by pillars. Each pillar has a large black number on it. And one of those pillars presumably had a giant number 16 painted on it. So he led us away from the metro station down some back alleys where garbage was piled high along the road and rats chased each other in plain sight. Our hearts were racing as we side-stepped huge cow patties and murky puddles from the day’s rain. Jessie and I both felt super uncomfortable, but what else could we do? We held our bags tightly to ourselves and slid out onto a slightly busier road. We found pillar 16 under the highway in a dark, sketchy looking area with hardly any traffic. Our friend told us to wait there and the bus would be coming down the street to get us in 20 minutes. Then he left us.

A pig at a bacon factory couldn’t feel more conspicuous. (That’s right, I made that one up all on my own!)

tired rickshaw puller

“This can’t be safe. This is stupid, right? Is this stupid? Yeah, this is stupid. How much longer should we wait?”

Half an hour passed. No bus. We were hot and tired from standing for 1 1/2 hours now with all our luggage hanging from our bodies. But the only other option we could see was checking back into our hotel and going through this again tomorrow. That also seemed like a terrible idea. A man with a red turban and a comedically high-pitched voice walked up and asked us what we were doing standing there. As we explained our situation to him, more men gathered around us until we were completely surrounded. Instinctively my hands curled up into fists at my side, even though my head told me that it was going to be alright. Jessie and I exchanged a look and a little nervous laughter. The man asked to see our bus ticket. We had no paper ticket, just the one on our phone, so I tentatively handed it over to him. He immediately called up the operator. As he joked around with the bus driver the other curious guys around us were leaning in over our shoulders and trying to find out, all at the same time, what was happening. It transpired that they were taxi drivers and that the lot behind us was a parking lot that they parked in overnight while waiting for call outs. We were so relieved, and ironically enough, now felt safer knowing that this endearing mob of drivers understood our dilemma and had our backs.

“Ten minutes.” He handed the phone back to me and said the bus was delayed in a traffic jam.

creative ride

Around 9:30pm two French women walked up and asked if this was where they could catch the bus to Rishikesh. “Yes!” we almost screamed, relieved that other foreigners had been directed to this unmarked location as well. How they knew to show up in this place 45 minutes after the scheduled departure time baffled me. But just then, before I could ask, I received a phone call from someone who could speak English and who’d been instructed to notify me that the bus would be arriving in about another 10 minutes. It seems that no matter how often you call, the bus is always ‘just 10 minutes away.’ So we all waited: two sweat-drenched exhausted Americans, two lovely old French ladies, and a mob of giggling Indian taxi drivers.

The bus never came. Instead, they sent a minivan to pick us up and drive us an hour outside the city to a less crowded bus station. We got on our bus around 11:15pm. It had no sleeper units. But, it did have air conditioning (which ended up dripping from the ceiling and raining on Jessie all night long until we had to put up an umbrella over her…picture that!). The driver seemed nowhere near ready to leave. Thirty-six expectant faces stared at him, silently pleading with him to get going. But he still had five open seats to fill, and by gosh he was going to fill them. He kept darting outside the door, dragging people up into the bus, and having some kind of altercation with them, which usually resulted in the people exiting the bus. But eventually at 12:15am, four hours after the time we were asked to be ‘promptly’ waiting for our bus, there was a pair of cheeks in every seat and the bus roared to life. As the driver made our way to Rishikesh, honking at anything that moved and swerving every two seconds in pointless attempts to avoid all the unavoidable potholes, I just had to smile.

In the chaos and absurdity of it all, I had the first thought flicker somewhere in the back of my mind that maybe I could fall in love with this country. It’s unexplainable, I know. But that’s what I thought just then.

petrol station

Since that ridiculous first bus journey, we’ve had three more bus rides. Only one of them was another complete fiasco. The other two departed reasonably according to schedule (about a half hour late), and only one of them took five hours to complete a 3-hour trip because the driver insisted on stopping for half hour breaks at three separate roadside stalls. The rest of our trip has been, and will be, by train (cue sounds of rejoicing!).

The lesson we learned about transit in India is this: if you’re booking buses make sure to buy a Costco-sized bottle of extra strength tums…you’re gonna need them. Alternatively, we’ve had great success booking train trips online.* The booking website for train travel is www.cleartrip.com. You should book your whole trip well in advance and all at once. Then the only hassle you’ll have is needing to change platforms at the station when the announcer calls out that your train has been switched from track 2 to track 5, and then once you get over to track 5, back to track 2.

 

* An unfortunate quirk about booking train or bus travel online is that it’s next to impossible to do until you’ve entered the country and obtained a registered Indian mobile number. You must have this in order to proceed to the payment page of the websites. I’ve read that you can work around this through emailing the company with a copy of your passport information page, but it sounds like not many have had success with this method.

India train 2 tier AC

psychology 200: my dark storm in El Nido

On July 7, 2009, I woke up at 7:00 in the morning to the sounds of hammers breaking tiles and workers calling loudly to each other. After double checking Jessie’s watch to make sure the time was correct, I pulled the pillow over my head, trying to block out the sounds. After ten minutes it was clear that I wouldn’t be winning that battle. This was how I ended up sitting on the porch of our beachfront cottage overlooking one of the most scenic beaches in the world, with the sun starting to rise over the distant island mountain peaks, and with a bad attitude that threatened to ruin my whole day.

Jessie and I had just finished 14 months working at an English academy in Seoul and we’d found super cheap roundtrip tickets to the Philippines. We’d gone there to relax for three weeks while waiting for our English summer camp jobs to begin. It was the first country Jessie and I had ever traveled to together (except for day stops on some islands in the Caribbean) for the sole purpose of rest and relaxation. Some friends had been to the Philippines recently and highly praised the beauty of El Nido, an isolated village on the island of Palawan. So when we found the tickets we knew it would be perfect.

Jessie suggested we find breakfast in order to get away from all the racket. But I knew I couldn’t put up with this noise all day and any more mornings. We went off in search of quieter cottages halfway down the beach. After enquiring after two or three places, I found a decent second story room with a large outdoor porch whose view of the water was framed by ancient palm trees. After a breakfast of muesli and fresh fruit, we packed up our bags and carried them the 200 meters to our new place. We got inside just in time to avoid a short but heavy tropical thunderstorm.

We’d seen that the weather report called for clouds and showers on half of the ten days we’d planned to be in El Nido. Still, we truly believed that the weather was going to cooperate for us. So despite the storm and the early wakeup call, I forced myself to get in a better mood. The rain stopped within an hour and we headed out to explore the town, get food, and book an island hopping and snorkeling trip. We finished that first day eating at a restaurant set up on the beach with white tables, tiki torches and romantic moonlighting. Things were definitely improving and I could feel myself starting to relax. At night we kept waking up to the thunderclaps of a massive lightning storm which shook the building’s walls. It was kind of scary because the high winds were pulling at the roof and it felt like they might actually succeed in tearing it off. But at the same time the sound of rain on the tin roof was soothing.

On July 8, 2009, I woke up at 6:15 in the morning to the sounds of an unknown language being spoken at roughly 100 decibels emanating through the walls from our next door neighbors. They were having a good ol’ time just laughing and talking happily. I was furious at being woken up so early again. I lied still in bed talking myself down, knowing that if I allowed myself to get up I’d end up in our neighbor’s room standing over a bleeding Asian with a horribly bent bed lamp in my hands. (Okay, okay! I’m actually super non-confrontational so that would never happen….but I was sure thinking it!) That whole day was rainy and overcast. I found myself sitting on our porch, my heart feeling as dark as the clouds that surrounded us. I was angry that my vacation in ‘paradise’ was being ruined by rude people and even ruder weather. Several times I stated out loud, “I hate this place. This sucks!”

I have to give Jessie credit. I have no idea how she was able to put up with my sour disposition those first few days. We moved back to our original cottage after discovering that they’d finished their flooring project, and things started to get better. The weather continued to be schizophrenic over the course of the vacation, but we had some days with good weather and were able to get out on the water. Our first time was a chartered snorkeling trip. We and eight others boarded a long, narrow outrigger, which is a boat that has arms stretching out from the sides to keep it from tipping. Halfway to our first destination we ran into a storm that sprayed cold rain and waves at us relentlessly. We were soaked head to toe within two minutes. The boat’s only shelter was a roof with thin flaps to cover the sides. The captain refused to put the flaps down because he thought the winds would tear them apart. We took that as a sign we should turn around and go back. We even took up a vote and everyone decided to call it quits. Everyone, that is, except for the man driving the boat. It was low season and he wasn’t getting much business lately with all the monsoon action. So he stubbornly motored on. I saw mutiny flash in the eyes of the young guys sitting across from us. Eventually we reached our first island and begrudgingly snorkeled in the rain. But by the time we crawled back up on the beach the clouds were already receding and our guide had cooked lunch for us on a grill over an open fire pit.

The second time we went out on the water it was a beautiful, cloudless day. We rented kayaks and paddled out to an island half an hour away that was shaped like a helicopter. We spent the day sunbathing and playing in the sand. There were a million hermit crabs crawling over the sand, so I decided to amuse myself by building an obstacle course for them. I formed a tall circular wall around a group of twenty crabs, then put sticks and stones around the edges. I was surprised by their quick problem solving skills. First, they’d crawl the whole diameter of the wall. Once a crab learned there was no way out along the perimeter, it would climb onto the stick in the middle and up to freedom. I also became a hero on that island. We were snorkeling by a rocky outcropping with a group that had come on a boat tour. They were being beckoned back to their boat when a big Italian guy cried out that he’d lost his wedding band. I swam over to him and asked where it had slipped off. He pointed in a general area and I dove down to the bottom. Miraculously, the first place I looked had a shiny gold object in it and I surfaced seconds later with his ring!

We had some really great experiences on that trip. We found the best black forest frappe in the world (and went back several times to have it again!). We listened to live island music while eating a giant plate of curry-covered crabs. We got hour-long massages. We walked half a mile down the shore and had the beach all to ourselves. We saw Nemo fish cuddled up inside of sea anemones. We paddled up to a beach where hundreds of monkeys were playing and swinging in the trees and just watched them for a while.

I’m so glad I was able to turn my bad attitude around. I’ve found since then that with almost every trip I go on there’s always at least one thing, and usually more, that threatens to destroy the joy I’m experiencing. Here’s how I’ve learned to deal with it: 1) recognize what’s happening and how I’m reacting to it; 2) affirm that it’s not ideal and let myself “hate” it for a while; 3) remind myself that there’s nowhere in the world where trouble doesn’t exist; 4) think about past bad experiences that I’ve put behind me; 5) start feeling joy out of knowing I have another ridiculous travel story to tell; 6) move on.

Don’t let uncontrollable variables like bad weather or stupid people ruin your vacation. You’ll later regret the needless time you spent on those emotions, and you might miss out on some of the many great things that place has to offer.

El Nido collage

psychology 100: shopping at a Korean Costco

Last week Jessie and I decided to grit our teeth and, once again, do one of the craziest things you can do in the thriving metropolis of Seoul: shop at Costco. “What?” you say! Costco has such large aisles and is rarely busy. FALSE. The experience of shopping at the Costco nearest to our apartment is unlike any wholesale retail store I’ve ever seen in the States. Think Black Friday crowds but without the sales. Now imagine this happening every day from the time the doors open until they close. If you go on a weekend, multiply that image by two and you’re starting to get the picture of how busy this place is.

It’s a good thing that Jessie and I like to stroll. Every time we go we remind ourselves that we’re in no hurry. That helps to keep the anxiety levels down.

From the moment we walk through the doors things get crazy. I walk over to the carts and just as I’m about to put my hand on one an old lady swoops in and grabs it. I step back quickly so that she doesn’t take out my feet as she swings the cart around without so much as a peek to see if anyone’s in her way. I look at the next cart. A man has just planted his boogery two-year old daughter in the seat and is calling halfway across the building to his wife, whom I’m assuming he left behind in an open sprint to beat me to the next one. He waits a whole 30 seconds for her to catch up before pulling the cart free from the others. By this time there is a crowd of people hovering around the one long line of carts like sharks, eying them impatiently and getting ready to dart in as soon as there’s an opening. But I have an advantage. I’m tall and have long arms. I reach out and grab the handle, backing up through the sea of people until I get to a place where I can comfortably turn around.

We enter the “members” section of the store and make our way over to the escalator. The main floor has clothing, kitchen and other household items. Not interested. We’re here for the food, which is down a level. In Korea, Costco is the cheapest place to find foreign food if you’re prepared to buy it in bulk. As we near the escalator we see a line has formed. We turn our cart and follow it, trying to find the end. It goes the whole length of the building. When we get to the rear wall, we turn into the last aisle and realize the line stretches 3/4 of the way down that side of the building as well. We get our spot in line and guard our position diligently. When the man in front of us moves even a step, our cart is on his heels in a heartbeat. Two carts ahead someone’s on his cell phone and not paying attention. A family makes a move to push into the line, but Jessie pulls out her best mean mug and thwarts their effort.

After riding the escalator down we merge onto the grocery floor, or as I like to call it, ‘The Labyrinth.’ Jessie moves freely between the deluge of bodies and carts. She scouts out items as I try to maneuver our cart around each traffic jam. Several times as I’m waiting for someone to move, a person walks in front of me and physically pushes my cart out of their way. This happens mostly around the food samples. I feel so bad for the food sample ladies. They’re in constant motion trying to fill up a tray with morsels of their products, but each sample is nabbed as soon as it leaves their hands. What’s worse, there’s always some ajima (old woman) who’s decided that it’s her right to station herself directly in front of the tray and take every sample until there’s none left. Seriously, I’ve seen this happen about a million times here. Once I watched one eat two whole oranges, piece by piece, while everyone else stood around waiting for her to leave. Needless to say, in order to get a sample I have to abandon my cart and physically box out everyone else. I knew those basketball camps would come in handy some day! Jessie comes back from a different sample line with a victorious smile on her face. She’s so excited because, for the first time, she had the presence of mind to elbow someone back when they tried to push past her. That’s my girl!

We slowly make our way back and forth through the aisles, deciding what to splurge on this time. A two-pound block of cheddar cheese: $10. Four pounds of bacon: $20. A family-size bag of tortilla chips: $7. A tub of sour cream: $6. A package of Johnsonville Polish sausages: $7. An apple pie: $12. A liter of caramel coffee syrup: $9. Prices are pretty steep, but after being gone from home for 9 months it’s definitely worth it. At these prices we reach our spending limit quickly. Then it’s time to join another line. Four checkout lines run halfway down the massive center thoroughfare of the store. I know it’ll take me about 15 minutes to reach the register so I send Jessie ahead to the food court to buy us a pizza.

The food court is usually packed tighter than a women’s restroom at a sporting event. It’s nearly impossible to get two seats next to each other without standing over a couple as they finish their food. Everyone has just come from shopping, so there are carts pushed to the walls and between tables and just about anywhere where free space can be found. I nudge my cart through the congestion to the far corner of the room and start moving in on a soon-to-be vacated table. Jessie comes back with our giant pizza. We’ll be eating it for the next two days but that’s okay because it’s the best and cheapest pizza you can get here that has heaps of real mozzarella cheese.

I do some people-watching as I eat. On either side of us the Korean customers are fully enjoying their Costco experience. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in the past it became a popular custom for the food court customers to load a plate sky-high with free chopped onions (which are meant for the hotdogs only) and top them with gobs of mustard and ketchup. I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that a family will fill the plate until the onions are toppling over the sides and then use the equivalent of half a bottle of each condiment. They stir the mixture at their tables and shovel it into their mouths like its the finest casserole. I resist the urge to gag and enjoy the rest of my pizza with my eyes closed.

We head back to the main floor and pack up our backpacks and oversized bags with the precious food. The fun isn’t over just yet. We still have to get onto a busy subway and ride half an hour to our district, then transfer to a small bus before we can walk the last 500 meters to our apartment. It’s an exhausting three or four hour trip, but once we get home we always say that it was well worth it. By the time the sun goes down we’re pigging out on chips and dip and cookies, and that goes a long way in helping us to forget our bruises and psychological trauma.

P.S. I wrote this blog post while munching on gummy bears from a 6-pound bag I found at Costco. Life is good!

Sangbong CostCo