Friday, December 19, 2014

A Tale of Two Travelers

The world is full of opposites: early birds and night owls, introverts and extroverts, beach lovers and those who prefer to pitch a tent in the forest.  I like to plan trips; my husband doesn’t.

By “plan trips,” I mean schedule trains, planes, shuttles, and the like. I don’t schedule specific activities for each day of a vacation because I like to discover places in real time. It’s the framework of the trip--getting from Point A to Point B and on to Point C--that consumes me for weeks (or months) ahead of time. What can I tell you? I like to read train schedules.

Our recent trip to South Korea to visit our daughter provided the too-good-to-pass-up chance to spend time with my husband’s brother and his wife, who live in Kyushu, southern Japan.

From South Korea, we could, of course, have flown to southern Japan, but I like to mix up my modes of transportation.  The high-speed Beetle hydrofoil ferry from Busan, Korea to Fukuoka, Japan proved irresistible: its price compared favorably to airfare fares, the voyage took three hours, and hydrofoils represented a new-to-me means of transportation. What's more, the Internet offered up several YouTube videos of travelers’ experiences with the ferry. I booked round-trip tickets. 

Even though I have control issues enjoy planning trips, I made my husband watch at least one of those YouTube videos and thought he was on board, literally and figuratively, with my decision.

Turns out the world is full of planners and those who second-guess planners. Within a week of booking the tickets, my husband had amassed a collection of stories from people who’d had bad experiences on ferries. (The tragic sinking in April of a Korean ferry carrying high schoolers and others to Jeju Island had never left my mind, but I’d booked a different type of ferry, owned by a different company, on a different route.) Even my brother-in-law in Japan dissed ferries, and the Beetle’s Japanese.

When the day came to board, my husband, like a man resigned to his fate, quit bringing up the horror stories he’d heard. At departure, I, the person who'd booked the voyage, met with the desk clerk. When she asked whether I preferred seats on the ferry's top or bottom deck, I said “Top deck” without a second thought. I’m all about the view.

We boarded the vessel, and my husband voiced his approval of the layout, the seats, and the view. All was well for half a minute, and then the ferry, still at the dock, swayed.

“We’ll experience more sway here on the top deck,” he said.

What fresh hell is this? “You’d rather be on the bottom deck?”

“It’s more stable.”

Shoot me now. “Let’s wait until we’re underway. If the swaying bothers you then, we'll ask about moving.” Heck, if we sway like a live oak in hurricane-force winds, I’ll beg to move.

In fact, the voyage went off without a hitch or sway, and, once in Japan, my husband was the first to assure his brother the ferry had been a good choice.

On this particular trip, Mother Nature, bless her, made me look like a genius because the Mt. Aso volcano on Kyushu erupted and caused the cancellation of all flights to my brother-in-law’s city of Kumamoto.  I did, not, however, gloat. As trip-planners know, Mother Nature could have whipped up the sea and turned me and the ferry into losers.

What about you? Are you a trip planner, second-guesser, or someone who’s happy to go along for the ride?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Six Things That Surprised Me about South Korea

Oh! Mountains in South  Korea
  1.     Mountains! A whopping seventy percent of South Korea is made up of mountains and uplands. Ulsan and Busan, two cities I visited, are semi-ringed by mountains, making for gorgeous vistas. The majority of South Koreans name hiking as their favorite leisure sport, and now I understand why. Those mountains beckon city dwellers to explore in the fresh, fir-scented air.

  2.    So many coffee shops! I expected tea to be the beverage of choice in Korea, so the number of coffee shops, including chains, astonished me. It’s not unusual in cities like Ulsan and Busan to find four or five within a ten-minute walk. Some chains were born in Korea, like Angel-in-Us, but Starbucks is popular, too. On weekday mornings, coffee shops fill with young moms and babies. In the late afternoon, teens in school uniforms stream in.

Yummy food! 
 3.   Delicious food! I didn’t have a bad meal in Korea. When in doubt, I fell back on soup or soup-like bowls of noodles, vegetables, and some kind of protein. Although Korean barbecue now is popular in the U.S., I hadn’t tried it before my trip. Now, I’ll seek out spots for cooked-at-the-table meats wrapped in lettuce or sesame leaves. Ah,  the tofu in Korea proved a silky revelation. Why can’t I find tofu that good in Texas? It must exist, but I’ll have to hunt for it.
       4. My lack of self-consciousness. My Caucasian face and I didn’t look forward to standing out in a crowd. To my surprise, I had no time to think about how others perceived. Why? Because I was too busy studying everything around me: vehicles, the variety of winter hats, cloth-wrapped packages from stores, red-cheeked children bundled up against the cold, teens in their school uniforms, the variety of book bags, the narrow, soaring apartment buildings, and, of course, the mountains.

5. Public transportation arrives and departs on time. The U.S. does many things well, but public-transport-one-can-set-a-watch-to isn’t one of them. In Korea, my husband and I rode buses all over Ulsan, and we took the KTX—high-speed train—from Incheon to Ulsan and from Busan to Seoul. Everything ran on schedule.

      6.  Drivers in Houston, Texas are sedate compared to those in Ulsan. Pedestrians in crosswalks must proceed with caution even when the green walking man light glows. Small wonder Lonely Planet warns its readers not to be the first or last person in a crosswalk in South Korea.

Outside of the crosswalks, we encountered kind, helpful people. That wasn’t a revelation, but the degree of warmth surprised and charmed me.

Next post: We ferry to Kyushu, Japan, home of my husband’s brother and sister-in-law.


Big news: Lark Howard started this blog and invited me to join it. I jumped on the invite because I like and respect her. (Every woman needs a fashion-forward friend who encourages her to try a boot instead of another pair of black ballet flats.) Lark and I share a love of writing, France, and food. Like me, you’ve missed her here for the past year, but she’s been busy. Now, Lark has a pen name and a three-book contract. Here’s the announcement from Publishers Marketplace: 

Fiction: Debut
Lark Brennan's DANGEROUSLY YOURS, a contemporary paranormal romance in which two sexy power players, each with hidden abilities and agendas, must work together to solve a mystery in the Caribbean islands, and the next two books in the series, to Mary Cummings at Diversion Books, by Becca Stumpf at Prospect Agency (World).

Congrats, Lark! I can’t wait to read Dangerously.



Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Give Thanks for Kimchi

Turkey didn't make the dinner line-up for me this past Thanksgiving. I celebrated the holiday in Korea, where cabbage rules November.

November is the traditional month to prepare kimchi, the cabbage and chili pepper-based condiment that accompanies every meal, even breakfast.

Kimchi ferments over months (or years). Traditionally, its ingredients go into clay pots that are buried in the ground. Today, many Koreans live in high-rise apartments, so pot-burying is out. Kimchi refrigerators are the solution.

My younger daughter, who lives in Ulsan, took me to Home Plus, a plus-sized store that could be the love child of Target and Walmart. There, we looked at kimchi refrigerators that dwarfed my fridge at home. In many Korean households, the kimchi fridge stands shoulder to shoulder with the regular model. That's a lot of kimchi.

High-rise dwellers can't grow their own cabbage, so they buy it in three-head sacks. I gaped at women pushing carts filled with sacks of cabbage. They, of course, have big kimchi refrigerators to fill.

On the outskirts of Ulsan, in addition to many family-owned garden plots, people have appropriated strips of roadside right-of-way to grow cabbage and other greens. The latter practice, though illegal, is tolerated, because who wants to deprive others of kimchi?

In the U.S., everyone makes dressing/pecan pie/cranberry sauce in his or her special way. In Ulsan, everyone adds personal tweaks to the basic kimchi recipe. While cabbage is the typical base, scallions, radishes, and cucumbers are used, too. The spice level ranges from mild to Help, I'm Burning Up!

Did I miss turkey and all the fixings this year? Yes, but I'd happily trade a gallon of my special cranberry/orange sauce for a half-liter of kimchi. Like travel, it gives life an edge.

What's your favorite condiment? I have a thing for salsa with a hint of chipotle.