I just let the place surprise me. I didn’t know squat about Chuncheon. I only knew of the city when I googled the jump-off point for both Nami Island and Seorak Mountain, and that was as far as my research took me. I was traveling with friends, one of whom knew a local who graciously offered her flat. We hoped she would make touristy recommendations; otherwise, it would be no biggie to spend a couple of days in the city without any agenda.
The things that made me go om. One was any form of hiking. For months before my Nepal trip, I trained by climbing up the stairs to my workplace on the 15th floor every day. It turned out I beefed up my quads and lung power only to get on and off the tourist van. My travel girlfies and I did not have the luxury of time to do any Himalayan trekking.
Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
– Albert Camus
I fell for my first fall. Nature had made a canvas out of the countryside and masterfully painted it with vivid reds and yellows, a dramatic departure from my country where forests were all of 50 shades of green all year. As the bus pulled into Chuncheon in the northernmost province of South Korea, a ginkgo tree came into view, its crown of golden leaves glistening in the sun. I squinted at the glorious scene. Fall had me at first sight.
The first impression of foreign visitors is usually their experience at the airport and the ride out. If that proves to be more stressful than the flight itself, then that certainly levels expectations. Tragically, that’s the way the cookie crumbles in my city. While I relish such convenience in most cities I visit, it depresses me that we don’t have the same luxury back home. Case in point: Shanghai. I flew in past midnight with my girlfies, Perfy and Vang. No other choice but to take a taxi. Metered, no haggling and overcharging. For our return flight, we could not pass up taking the Maglev train, the first in the world.
The gigantic, gilded scepter was said to have packed the force of a thunderbolt. This indestructible weapon of destruction symbolized the power that had forged present-day Kathmandu Valley, the mountain-ringed dust bowl that cradled the city. Bhuwan, our guide, called it vajra, a legendary object laid out on a pedestal atop the 365-step stone stairway that led to Swayambhunath, a 1,500-year-old Buddhist temple at the center of Kathmandu.
Murphy’s Law had caught up with us even before we left Manila. Anything that could go wrong DID go wrong. Cindy, in charge of online airline booking, inexplicably unticked baggage options for Melds and me. With our suitcases (“fridge” to Cindy) in tow, we had to queue anew at the cashier and cough up twice the fee. At Busan, our port of entry, an airport bus conductor who had just carried my girlfies’ luggage stopped short at mine and blurted out condescendingly that men should carry their own. Melds knew enough Korean to translate for me. Not that I was expecting a hand from an adjussi like him, but he did push a button.
Archie starts to knead my bare back. I partly bury my face into the cushion to shield my eyes from the refracted glare of sunlight against a swath of white sand before me. As Archie untangles every knot of stress below my nape, so I throw each care to the sea breeze gently ruffling my hair. Such is la dolce vita. Stretched out luxuriously in a wooden cabana, I close my eyes to savor the moment before it becomes a memory all too quickly.
Two billion hits in YouTube sealed the deal. Of course, I had never heard of Gangnam before the video shot off the charts worldwide, but Gangnam Style brainwashed me into putting the trendy district into my itinerary in Korea. When my friend said our hotel was located right at Gangnam, I did the dance of joy with an imaginary horse and lasso. Images of Psy’s viral video played on repeat in my mind. My sole/Seoul agendum was to see the place that inspired a pop culture phenomenon.
San Fernando City and San Juan, La Union, the Philippines
April 11 – 12, 2015
It is high time for La Union to step out of the shadow of its more popular neighbors. Its day in the sun has come, and the beacon that shines on it emanates from Poro Point, an erstwhile American base on a peninsula within San Fernando City. The province does not lack in sights and delights, after all.
That indie romcom That Thing Called Tadhana – Tagalog for destiny – inspired me to trek the mountains of Sagada (sorry, not sorry to the recent “spare Sagada” online movement). As our group emerged from the rock art-adorned Latang Underground River, the guide pointed at a vertical wall of limestone we would be scaling up. Wooden coffins protruded out of niches seemingly beyond reach from any direction. It left to the imagination how the Applai tribe had hauled unwieldy log coffins up steep rock faces to inter them into narrow crevices.
Bhaktapur / Pokhara / Kathmandu, Nepal and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
February 25 – March 1, 2013
The low-hanging sun and a blanket of yellow flowers conspired to set a Pokhara hillside ablaze. This field of gold, one of enchanting natural beauty, was comprised of mustard plants, their flowers looking every bit as bright as the sauce squirted on hotdogs. Miles away in Bhaktapur, the dusty, sunny valley was similarly touched by Midas. I was reminded that it took mustard seed faith for me to realize my dream of visiting Nepal, and that dream bloomed before my eyes like a mustard flower.
Airplane turbulence aside, there had been very few instances, if any, in my travels when I feared for my life. I usually perished the thought of perishing on my journeys; otherwise, I would never embark on one. That sense of trepidation, however, came over me as I stood transfixed at the jagged jaws of Sumaguing Cave, aka The Big Cave, in Sagada. Stalactites and chiseled boulders protruded like menacing teeth around the black hole that dropped deep into the mountain. Would I offer myself to get swallowed up by this monster of rock?
Who would travel ten hours by bus to Banaue only to miss seeing the postcard-famous Batad Rice Terraces? This tourist, apparently. Fresh from a butt-busting bus ride, my friends and I were herded off by jeepney to People’s Lodge and Restaurant for a meet-up with tour guides. A blind date, as it were. They recommended less touristy rice terraces, although Batad was scribbled in the itinerary as a come-on. We could not tell whether it was our limited time or a web of lies that denied us a stop at Batad; instead, we spent our precious half-day in town at Hapao Rice Terraces.
The best vacay was not a place; it was time. Exactly what my BFF Ki needed: Time. Although he wanted to wake up in a different city, he actually needed “just one day out of life,” as my favorite holiday song went, away from the pressures of a sales job. He decided to drive to Baguio at the eleventh hour; we literally left at 11PM. With the connection of three expressways (NLEx, SCTEx, and TPLEx), travel time from Manila had been halved. In only four hours, we could feel the nippy Baguio breeze on our faces.
In my travels, seeing the beauty of the world was a given. The beauty of humanity? That was the cherry on top. In my first trip to Korea, I experienced no lack in genuine hospitality. Kindness was most disarming when least expected, and it was my most precious take-away. At the departure lounge for my return flight, I posted my gratitude on Facebook:
A friend said I conquered Korea, but it was Korea that conquered me. Coming from a K-hood, I thought the country was just a bigger version. Indeed, my Korean experience was bigger – in memorable firsts (1st fall colors, 1st summit climb, 1st studio recording, haha) & in K-style hospitality & kindness from friends & strangers alike. Language barrier be damned, we connected in more profound ways than words. That’s what travel is: both visitor & visited connecting in this shared space. To realize that the world is for sharing.