Well, I've had some really last minute trips in my life but this one definitely takes the cake as by far, the most disorganized of my life. So disorganized in fact that I was still calling to confirm that we had travel insurance on the freaking way to the airport!!! And then I had a 10 item long to do list for the Edmonton/Vancouver airport while still in Canada before i turned my phone to airplane mode for the forseeable future. And then I had to actually take the rest of my to do list with me to Korea and didnt complete it until Bangkok for the love of god.
Now in the weeks/days immediately prior to our leaving, there were definitely some unexpected and unforseen events which made us either stalled out or think again about wtf we are actually doing! You know, like Bridger and I fighting and barely speaking over christmas break, my car deciding days before our trip when we had nonstop running around to do that it would be a good time to stop starting (Thanks Alex!), spending about $8000 (ok thats an exaggeration!) on random shit before even starting the trip (seriously, plan and budget for that!)and the insanely gut wrenching, terrifying and tragic AirAsia story, the details of which we don't need to relive here.
And then there was the rabies incident. And then the post rabies incident. Neither of which, I should mention, were actually rabies. Regardless, let me tell you a story about rabies...
The rabies vaccine is expensive-like $600+ dollars but this time, as I found out last minute that my work insurance plan was going to cover 100% of it, I thought I'd give it a go--decision Especially solidified by my pharmacist saying "oh, you're backpacking...you should definitely get the shots because you're VERY high risk"! I good humouredly reminded him (I think we were like close personal friends after the rabies relationship we developed through multiple hours of discussion about rabies, his children's speech and language needs and his English ELL background haha) that as a backpacker I'd be at the high risk end of a low risk for goodness sake!! Anyways the rabies vaccine is a series of 3 injections specifically spaced apart and starting late already put my first two in Canada, my 3rd in Bangkok. Whatever, I'm super pro-meds/jamming in as many vaccinations as I can get and there's a good clinic in Bangkok so I'll make it happen. Anyways, got the shot in my left arm, sat around the pharmacy for like 20 min and was good. Like 10 minutes after I got home, my fingers in my right hand started tingling and slowly spread up my hand and my arm. WTF! Rabies is basically a disease that attacks your central nervous system and now here I am, after the vaccination, having a fucking neurological reaction in the opposite arm as I got my needle in...it doesn't take a neuroscientist to figure out that that's kind of fucked! So here I am, full blown panic thinking that they just put rabies into my neuro system and now instead of building antibodies, my body is just accepting rabies and is going to slowly cultivate it until it takes over and then Ill have lasting neurological damage forever, ah!
So I did a little research online re: normal and not normal reactions and definitely tingling/numbness was NOT normal. Called health link and of course, nobody knows shit about vaccination reactions so as long as I wasnt having an allergic reaction, their job was over. Eventually after a few hours the major tingling went away but still not quite right after that. So then my panic became, holy crap, what happens if I have some weird neuro reaction in Bangkok without immediate and easy access to medical care?! Anyways when I went to the pharmacist for my scheduled 2nd dose I told him all about what happened and he didn't really have any answers either as it was an unexpected response. So he got on the internet and we read the full drug document from the drug manufacturer for some answers about what went on and whether it is safe for me to pursue getting the rest of the doses. Basically in this doc under side effects, nothing about what I experienced was listed as any known researched side effect! However, there was one small section called "post market effects" that listed some random things that have been reported in people since the drug went to market and of which the company has no explanation or research to understand...in this section, under "neurological disorders" it said since being approved about 1 in 10 000 people reported some level of tingling or numbness. So I guess that's me...1 in 10 000! Its funny that Ive had a shit ton of vaccinations for travelling and never had any adverse side effect ever, yet the one I have, of course is off the grid and neurological--I always knew I had a qualitatively different nervous system than the average human! Anyways, I was literally sitting in the chair with my sleeve pulled up with the pharmacist ready to inject me w the 2nd dose going "yes...no....yes do it...no dont do it"...the poor man didn't know what to do as he cant really hit me with it until I was sure and confident! I eventually opted to just discontinue the sequence. It was an odd feeling bc here I was trying to make the best decision with very little understanding to go on and nobody else could help, give me info or decide for me and the consequences each way could be big...and for the first time I felt like that is probably the feeling parents have all the time about what the best course of action for decisions around their kids! Ultimately I just had to go with my gut and my gut (or my anxiety, I'll never know) said to not pursue any farther.
Ok, feeling good about the decision and then bam, the day before I we fly out, I wake up with the most bizarre, never experienced before in my RIGHT freaking ear (remember left arm vaccination and right arm reaction)--kind of like water in it or something stuck to my ear drum and when I talked, my voice reverberated SO loud in my head and literally vibrated my head painfully and I could feel it through my eyeballs and it was impossible to talk or really listen to anybody. NOT normal or like anything I experienced before. So of course, what is it--its next stage rabies now invading my neural hearing mechanisms. So I go to the walk-in who finds nothing in my ear so I tell him about my rabies theory and of course, its undocumented side effects that mean nothing to anyone so he says "you're fine, have fun on your trip" and sends me out but its still not fixed and now Im thinking "oh my god, do I go to the other side of the world with this that I dont know what it is and its now preexisting which means my medical insurance wont cover anything that happens as a result of it and if it continues and its serious I'll go broke and ruin the rest of my liiiiiiiife!!!!". So then I went to a pharmacist and he told me to take Advil 3 times a day so I did...and it worked and it went away late that evening so I could fly out in peace and I don't think Ive ever been more grateful for anything!!! Seriously, nothing is ever like, just the beginning of a head cold or whatever, its immediately rabies taking over all my senses! I do hate my mind.
Anyways, I hope and pray every day that it was the right decision to stop the vaccination schedule but my god, one should NEVER know so much about rabies--it is better just to not know and not think about it! When once upon a time me and Sally collected and slept with stray cats in Thailand and took closeup pics of moms and baby monkeys, now I have a panic attack every time a dog, cat or monkey comes within 200 feet of me haha. And shockingly to me, Bridger, mostly not scared of anything except tsunami's, has also learned too much about rabies and is also skittish of all animals who now are all named a generic "rabies" (i.e. "watch out for that rabies" as we see an upcoming cat, dog or monkey wandering in the street)!
At the airport, we were checking in and I remembered I had an auto inflatable lifejacket (for those rickety ferries with not enough lifejackets for everyone on board--seriously this thing is a beast and SO not economical for space and such a stupid pack BUT it makes me feel better to have it so it defies all reason and thats ok!). Well, do you think airlines like compressed gas (CO2 container to inflate) on an airplane--they don't so had to disconnect it and give it away to the check in lady before even starting :( For real, I think 80% of my trips I somehow end up trying to board with some restricted substance (remember the Costa Rica butane incident and the Belize pocketknife in carryon incident!)!!!
When we get off the plane in Vancouver, Bridger was carrying his small backpack by his side on one of the walking escalators. Ya, remember when you were a kid and your parents always told you to be careful b.c your shoelaces might get caught in the escalator and try to suck you in and you thought they were crazy and paranoid--well apparently it was true b/c the escalator grates got hold of Bridger's dangling straps, sucked them in and chewed apart his buckles. So one hour into our trip and he's down to one backpack strap haha!
Anyways, we got on that 11.5 hour plane to Korea!!! Our favourite thing was that we were in row 38 of 39 right by the bathroom so we got 11.5 hours of smelling old urine (actually only a few hours bc remarkably your nose really does adjust thank god!). Our plane food into Korea was rice and meat and then a ramen noodle cup so I guess they really know who their audience is! Of course, they give me chopsticks which I cant use and now I have to somehow eat a noodle bowl so that was fun. Even my breaking of the chopsticks apart was a failure and somehow I ended up with two mismatched lengths with one jagged razor end.
When we left Canada it was like -20 and when we got to Korea it was like -10 and for some reason Bridger was wearing a light long sleeve plaid shirt, shorts and flip flops--mostly everyone in Korea thought he was INSANE and there was definitely pointing and giggling! For the record, for the love of god its cold in Seoul in January! Which to be fair, we were warned and we knew this but thought we were pretty hardy Canadians used to -20 and being only -10 max I thought wed be more than fine with a pair of long pants, shirts and a windbreaker...thought id be like kind of a nice Canadian winter day. Nope, not even close! I swear I spent my whole week there wearing this: Base layer bottoms and another pair of pants with a tank top, base layer top, another fleece top, scarf, headband and rainjacket which turned out useless so thank god Semi let me borrow a thicker, wintery, furry jacket and some gloves that I traded my raincoat for which was my saving grace...but I was still cold! To see a picture of me, I looked like an eskimo. And Bridger just walked around in his thin raincoat and fleece...he was cold too but the freak functioned ok somehow!
In Korea we were staying with Bridger's friend from university and his girlfriend so we took a train from the airport to close to their house where Semi came to meet us in a taxi to take us back to their house, god bless her! Our first day in Seoul we wanted to go to the war memorial museum so we took a local bus there. We were counting our coins to take the bus to get the exact right amount and then somehow, in the end I think we ended up paying half the fare as we figured out later b/c we cant understand basic instructions apparently. So essentially in our very first day of travel, we robbed the city bus...by accident! The war museum was really fantastic to get a clear explanation of the Korean war which to be honest, I didnt really know anything about. I was shocked to learn that it was actually North Korea, the invader, that had a way more impressive army and equipment and South Korea was actually very unprepared with very little by way of army and equipment...nuts considering that now we think of Korea as such an advanced country!
We also walked to and browsed a tourist/local craft market and randomly saw a man silently kicking his motorcycle helmet (no motorcycle to be seen) down the street...strange moments.
We attempted to go to a palace but I guess it was closed bc we stood in the big open dirt courtyard, took a picture and called it quits and just wandered around and got lost in Seoul.
Its insane how many little side streets there are full of lights, restaurants, bars, mini-marts--its endless and amazing that there are enough people to go to all of them bc it is quite literally, endless.
That night Bridger and I went up Seoul Tower, which is a tower that overlooks Seoul which was an amazing sight at dark. We took a cable car up the hill and when we thought we were just buying a ticket up to the observation deck, it turned out we were buying a whole package that included popcorn and two drinks-impossible to resist and then we were so full on popcorn we skipped dinner so ultimately had popcorn for dinner--very in line with our goal to drop a few pounds this trip ;)
In Korea, oh my god the selfie stick!!!!! It's taking over!!! Theres selfie sticks with bluetooth clickers so that you can take your picture on your phone with the clicker! At any given time you could look around and see like 5 groups of people using selfie sticks. My god, in all our time, I dont think I saw anybody ask anybody else to take their picture...we did once and it was so weird and unnatural! We laughed and poked fun at them at first but now I think we're going to buy one haha...
The next day Semi took us to a very local Korean food market where every street had a specialty product. The best thing about this day was going around on a "Korean food crawl" where we tried a bunch of different kinds of Korean food like seaweed rolls, dumplings, korean pancakes, rice salad mix, soup, Korean liquor...the Korean pancake was AMAZING! Walking around the market was definitely an assault on the senses with all sorts of exotic food sold from chicken feet to pig feet and snout to raw and ALIVE octopus, for the love of god! Everyone in Korea uses chopsticks so I struggle with chopsticks every day but I'm slowly getting better!
After that we went to meet Gord, Bridger's friend who has been living in Korea for several years (he had been working for the prior few days) and wandered around a trendy, hilly little local neighbourhood. Bridger tried grilled octopus for the first time (not good!) but I couldnt make myself do it bc the smell was too strong! That night we had a Korean barbeque which was delicious!!!
The next day we did the Demilitarized zone tour and the Joint Security Area tour btwn North and South Korea. You could only do it through a guided tour and it was SO expensive on our budget but Bridger was insistent on it so with some good arguments put forward, I agreed to join. Over the days prior and the course of the day there was a whole lot of passport checking to make sure you were not a security threat AND apparently Koreans are not allowed to go at all, only foreign nationals, crazy and kind of sad! I was definitely happy that we went to the military museum first before this tour as I had some good background knowledge to understand the tour more and in the end it kind of blew my mind. The first half of the day we visited the Dorasan station which is a train station that connects South and North Korea but due to poor government relations, it has shut down so is virtually a ghost station (thats what I understood anyways but I got really quite confused alot so I could be incorrect-Bridger knows much better!). Then we visited the lookout point where you could look across the miles of the DMZ and see a North Korean real and propaganda village (Im also not sure I understood that too well!) and the north and south Korea flags in the middle.
We also went to the freedom bridge where lots of POWs from the Korean war were released to their respective sides and went down into the tunnel that North Korea dug underground to attack South Korea again. That I did not know at all--there were several secret tunnels that were found in the 70's that had basically been dug from North Korea underground towards Seoul so that they could surprise attack Seoul again. Apparently North Korea has denied that they have built the tunnels for attacking the south and has said that they are actually old mining tunnels, however, the south has done testing on them and determined that they could not have been built for that purpose and North Korea is lying. What struck me was how the war is not actually over--North Korea clearly had or has plans to invade South Korea again and both sides continue to hope for reunification of the Koreas. It sounds like the DMZ was actually initiated and signed from out of the control of the South Koreans by the UN or something. However, inside info makes it sound like the South Koreans have a turbulent and untrustworthy relationship with their government so there also seems to be some speculation from the other side that actually South Korea built the tunnels to make it look like the North did and then told the South Koreans that the North built the tunnels...soooo I dont really know!
Anyways we went to the JSA in the afternoon. I guess not all tours include this part but would definitely highly recommend booking one with this portion as this was by far the most interesting part. Quite frankly, for me it was also quite intense and utterly terrifying and I didnt quite understand exactly what I was getting into, thank god or Im not certain I would have gone. This area is basically inside the DMZ and is the shared area btwn North and South Korean/UN forces to keep the peace of the demilitarized area agreement--so essentially an active military zone. And you definitely feel that as security is tight. Ugh, I'm still nervous thinking about it!
Apparently prior to a certain time frame I cant remember, this was an open area where North and South Korean/UN forces moved about freely until an incident called the "axe murder incident" happened where basically there was a conflict over the South soldiers cutting down a tree and the North soldiers feeling provoked so they attacked and killed 2 soldiers with the axe they were using to cut down the tree. After that incident, there was a line drawn across the JSA and each side's soldiers had to remain on their respective sides. Now North and South soldiers stand guard on the line staring at the other side. The south soldiers wear sunglasses and stand completely still with their fists clenched-an intense and intimidating sight.
Anyways, before we even go in, our passports are checked multiple times and we have to switch from a tour bus to specific, different colored JSA bus and we are debriefed about the very specific security rules--if someone breaks them the tour has every possibility of being cancelled. They basically made us leave all our bags and everything on the tour bus and could ONLY take our valuables and ONLY in our pockets but the ONLY thing that could be in our hands at any given time is our camera but we could ONLY take pictures when we were told it was ok and ONLY take pictures within that time of the things and directions they told us we could and ONLY for the very, very short time period they let us before telling us to stop...during those moments it was kind of like a furied frenzy of flashes. They also said that we can never take pictures while on the the bus nor can we ever point or otherwise make hand or facial gestures or laugh. And we were to follow a very specific dress code (no military colors, no ripped pants, no logos on your shirt, close toed shoes in case you needed to run presumably etc)-Basically anything that could be viewed by the North as a provocation was disallowed was my understanding. And that the soldiers have every right to cancel the tour at a moments notice if anything made it remotely unsafe (e.g. if firefight broke out, if it became too foggy that they could not certainly protect us) to enter and we could not have our money back, that's life in an active military zone and on it goes. When they let us off the bus and into some building with soldiers walking around everywhere, we got another debriefing about where we were and had to sign a waiver saying that we know the risks and whatnot and that we consent to going into this zone, ah! Do I want to anymore?! Then we went the line in the JSA btwn north and south and were allowed to take pictures ONLY facing forward and not to the sides and the soldiers stared at us to make sure we complied. I, being a dumbshit, misunderstood and thought they said we could take pictures to the sides so here I am snapping away and got the "ma'm, you cant do that" from a soldier...yep, felt like a real asshole. We also went inside the meeting room where the North and South do their talks together so for a brief moment were allowed to stand in North Korea (i.e. on their side of the line within this building).
The whole experience was pretty eerie--it felt like you were being watched very closely by North and South ALL the time which you probably were. Not sure exactly how much of it was actually real, legitimate security measures and how much if any of it was for tourist effect but, either way the atmosphere was palpably tense the whole day so I was quite happy to get out of there...alive! Especially glad when we went out with Gord and Semi that night for the most delicious Korean food I ever tasted...sooooooo good we still dream about it! Called something we cant remember unfortunately. In Korea most meals seem to be one big pile of food cooked in the middle and shared btwn all the diners which was really neat and different.
Well I made it 6 days into the trip before getting sick...pretty good right?!? Ugh. The next night we went out for some Japanese food which was also delicious but shortly after (ill never know if it was that or something I ate earlier in the day or day before) I started to feel yucky. Now my last flu/puke was in February 2009 so even though I was feeling pretty nauseous, Im not really much of a puker so didnt think too much about it...until I barfed away. And then more a few hours later. All in all, only two barfs but alot for me! Haha so once, again, I was pretty well in tears freezing and shaking on the cold bathroom floor for a few hours cursing myself for being the ignorant idiot who, when given the choice of when to take my anti-travellers diarrhea medication that takes a week to kick in but lasts only 3 months, said to myself "Ill wait as long as possible before I leave to take it so it kicks in in Thailand bc Korea is such a developed country that I wouldnt get sick there anyways but have much more of a likelihood of getting sick in Thailand and onwards so I'll save as much protection as I can for there". Stupid, naive girl. So pretty well I was laid out for the rest of the night while the others played a game and then all the next day. I was SO scared that maybe I had the flu and someone else would get sick too and Id feel so bad but never happened.
I was consistently amazed how well oiled and orderly everything was in Seoul! For a city with such a huge population, nothing really seemed that rushed, crowded or congested and everyone is always so patient and considerate of other people. People literally just patiently line up for the cable car, the airport train, they wait for their turn to get on and off trains and there didnt ever seem to be any pushing or honking or anything that ive seen in most other big cities in Asia! Seoul seemed to be a land of contradictions--do flush the toilet paper/dont flush the toilet paper (Im still not totally clear on the rules around this one even after a week there!), do drink the water/dont drink the water (apparently the government says they "have the best water in asia" but the people still drink bottled water bc they dont believe the government is telling the truth?!), north korea built the tunnels/south korea built the tunnels etc. etc. But for sure, Seoul has done an absolutely incredible job of building itself back up again after a not too distant war that took it out...you would never know that was the case with the absolutely magnificent set-up there now! I wish we had a bit longer to explore the rest of South Korea, but I guess well save it for another time...and another season ;) Thanks so much to Gord and Semi who were our hosts, our chefs, our tour guides, our interpreters and my doctors!!!