A word about Koreans, who made our trip special

After our trip to Seoul, I was really inspired to write a piece about Korean people. I’m not sure if my experience was a typical one, but we came across so many amazing people that I think it’s worth writing about.

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I was delightfully surprised to find how friendly Koreans were. As a group of 6 brown people we stood out like sore thumbs, so it was easy for people to know we were tourists. Most people were curious to find out where we were from, others wanted to offer us their help to ensure we knew where we were going and others just wanted to welcome us to Korea. Of course most of this was our interpretation of their sign language since most people didn’t speak English.

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Here are some of the people and instances that stood out

Sign language subway lady

We took the express train from the airport to Seoul station which is the easiest and cheapest way to get to the city. We then switched to the city subway to get to our hotel. Here we met a lady who tried her best to ask us if we knew where we had to get off. It may have been a simple act, but had never happened in our travels before. So it was a great start to our trip and a very nice way to make a foreigner feel welcome.

Coffee ladies – mum & daughter

Berkleys is a small coffee shop in Bukchon. It really is very small and can seat only 5 people, but while we were there we realized it was quite a popular place to grab a coffee on the go. It’s run by a mum and her daughter. While we were contemplating whether to enter the place, they greeted us with a “hello, we have great coffee, wanna try?”. Who’s going to say no to that. Not only do they serve great coffee they make the best sandwich (yes, singular, they have only one option on the menu).

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While we were munching our breakfast they explained the interesting process of cold brewed coffee and offered us some free samples to taste. It’s random seemingly simple conversations like this that made a difference.

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Director, Cameraman

We visited Changdeokgung Palace and it’s beautiful secret garden. Fall definitely is the best time to visit Korea, the foliage was amazing. Tesh and I wanted a typical touristy “jumping picture” with fall colours as our background. While we were attempting the perfect shot, a gentleman with a very professional looking camera walked up to us and started directing how we should pose and jump. All of this was in Korean (which we didn’t understand) and sign language. We tried several times and each time he explained how we could do it better and by the end of it we were surrounded by 5 other cameramen photographing two girls attempting to jump, not so gracefully may I add.

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After the shoot and once the crowd dispersed I wanted to take a shot lying on the leaves on the grass. While Pramodh was taking this picture of me, the same director/cameraman gentleman walked back. He started once again directing the scene. He even collected handfuls of leaves and handed it over to passers-by to sprinkle it on me to get that perfect, natural shot! Lol

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Summer

We spent two nights in a traditional Sopoong Guest House, a Korean Hanok. Summer was the bubbly girl who came every morning to clean the place. We got talking, she was extremely interested in where we were from and what we did. We even managed to induct her to some famous sights in Seoul she hadn’t yet been to before we took a gazillion Polaroids.

Polaroids with Summer

At the end of a long chat on the second day she offered to accompany us to lunch. She took us to a local restaurant, which served the most amazing food, it was definitely one of my best meals in Seoul. We walked about a kilometer from our Hanok along tiny streets and alleyways to get to this place. We would’ve never thought of eating here nor would we ever have stumbled upon the place while exploring the ancient Bukchon area. We only realized how popular the place was seeing the long queue stretching all the way along the narrow winding alleyway. The pepper pork bulgoggi was their specialty (to die for), their bibimbap was also out of this world (worth rising from the dead to die for again).

Summer with the Spicy Pork Bulgogi

Back to Summer..she decided to give us Korean names judging by our personalities and the vibe we gave her. I was named Ji Hei, which meant wisdom; what a very perceptive girl 🙂 The hotel had given us postcards which we were very excited to send back home. She was so helpful and even offered to mail our postcards for us.

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Bubbly Jemma

Given its reputation for great food we thought it would be a good idea to take a food tour. Tripadvisor had great reviews for O’ngo so we decided to try that on our second night in Seoul. Jemma, our guide was one funny, friendly, bubbly person. She gave us a great intro into Korean cuisine and ensured we were all well fed and taken care of throughout the tour.

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We chatted the whole night, well after our tour was scheduled to end.One might say that all tour guides are chatty, fun and helpful, but I’ve been around too many to know that Jemma was one of a kind. She had 20 min conversation with this lovely Latvian couple on our tour to help them find envelopes (yes envelopes are apparently almost extinct and they couldn’t find it for 3 whole days despite searching high and low). DSC_0565

It was hard to pin point what it was about Jemma that made her extra special, it might have been that she seemed to be talking to everyone at the same time about different topics, it could have been how she ensured we all knew what we were eating and more than enough to stuff ourselves or maybe it was because she took a personal interest in each one of us and definitely because she taught us how to take photos “the Korean Style” – i.e. covering half your face with the peace sign to look thinner! Either way, Jemma really made an impression. DSC_0583

Antique hair ornament lady

We spent an afternoon in Insadong, the old artsy area in Seoul. Seeing some beautiful antiques I walked into a store. The owner seeing me exploring her merchandise, grabbed my arm and surprised me by sticking traditional hair ornaments into my hair and taking pictures while giving me a detailed explanation in Korean (did I mention I didn’t understand the language?). I was completely caught off guard; and if it weren’t for Tesh who was with me and explained what was happening, I would have been a little worried.

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Free hug people

Insadong is full of interesting performers, people in costume, promoters of the word of god and tourists. We met a great group of people giving free hugs! It kinda was like a goodbye hug on our last day in Seoul. The hug was accompanied with an interesting chat about everything from where we were from to walking on fire! I suspect they thought all brown people walked on fire. We didn’t mind the generalization, I wish I could walk on fire!

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There were countless others who stopped us to randomly ask where we were from and were generally helpful. I wish I had stopped to take a few pictures with them. It was the people that really did make Seoul special. Farewell souls of Seoul, till we meet again.

Provençal charm – Lavender fields and much more

Have you seen these pictures of the lavender fields in Provence? If you have and you don’t have it in your bucket list, we can never be friends.

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We chose the end of July to visit France, just so that we can see the Provençal summer and see lavenders in bloom. After carefully mapping out a route to give us the best that Provence had to offer we were on our way. We took an early morning train from Paris to Avignon and hired a car from one of the many rental companies at the station. We spent that night in St. Remy, a slight diversion from our route, but probably one of the best decisions we made.

Saint Remy de Provence is an idyllic French village with tree lined streets, amazing villas, cafés surrounded by vineyards. We had booked a place via Airbnb, our first time using the site. This probably was the second best decision we made! Our room was in an amazing French villa, Chambre Sous la tonnelle, one seemingly out of a magazine.

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Our hosts Marie Annick & Roman were everything we wished for and more! They served us home made bread, jam and pies for breakfast before we set off on our road trip.

Breakfast

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So why did we pick this seemingly random village? They have a very famous market on Wednesdays that sells everything from olives to cured meat to soap to lavender! This is what I call paradise. If Pramodh hadn’t dragged me – almost kicking and screaming – I think I’d still be walking from store to store inspecting every bit of merchandise and tasting every free sample. We bought door knobs, lavender soaps, mini lavender filled cushions and an amazing array of sauces and dips – olive, sundried tomato, artichokes, chili, and everything in between..Mouth-watering!!

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Finally we were on the road in search of those picturesque lavender fields. Our first stop – Gordes. This beautiful village set on a cliff welcomes you with a jaw dropping view. You have to have to stop at the viewing point to breathe it in.

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Gordes seem to be a holiday resort for the rich and famous. We made a quick stop and left in search of the lavender dream which we were yet to see.

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Our next stop did. not. disappoint. Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque merely 15 mins down the cliff from Gordes. If you google lavender fields in Provence you will most definitely see this picture. Well not this picture because I took this, but a picture of this very same landscape.

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Monks in this abbey have over the years cultivated the seemingly most photographed lavender field, god bless them!

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After snapping a gazillion pictures and almost being stung by bees in the field we were on the road again. You can enjoy the view of the lavender fields on each side of the road as you drive past. Those google pictures don’t lie. Just pray your timing is right and you are there when the flower is blooming just before they are harvested, which happens to be around mid July to mid August.

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In between vineyards and lavender fields the countryside was decorated with sunflower patches. Never realized that these flowers were enormous, bigger than my whole face!

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Our next stop, the interesting little town of Roussillon. The mineral rocks in the area used to build the town are red as is the whole town.

The red mineral rocks

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Our final destination for the day was Aix-en-Provence. But before that we had to stop for a very late lunch in Loumarin, we were famished! This is as idyllic as a Provençal town can get – beautiful sandstone buildings decorated with colorful windows adorned with running vines – I could photograph them forever

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I’m adding Provence to my list places to retire in, if I earn enough to buy a villa in a vineyard on a cliff overlooking a lavender field with my own patch of sunflowers

Volcanic Adventure – Mount Bromo & Ijen

Visiting one of the many volcanoes in the region was on my bucket list before leaving south east Asia, so our pick both in terms of natural beauty/diversity and ease of climb was Bromo. We took a 2 hr flight from Singapore to Surabaya, Indonesia’s next largest city and the closest airport to Mount Bromo. It takes 3 to 4 hours from Surabaya to get to Bromo. So plan for this especially if u are landing at night and planning on climbing the next morning.

We got to our hotel, Java Banana by 11pm and got 3 hours of sleep before leaving the hotel at 3 am for our adventure.

You need to 4wd to get there. It was very dark and we couldn’t see the road at all, it was only lit by the hundreds of other jeeps making the same drive, but my body definitely felt ruggard road.

45 mins later we jumped off the jeep to trek abt 5 mins to the sun rise viewing point. Yes it is 3 am but the shops here are in full swing selling tea, coffee, banana fritters and corn on the cob. The sun is only set to rise just after 5am, so we kill time drinking tea in a shop. Just past 4 we walk to the viewing platform already full of people and find ourselves quite a great spot facing east. And there we stood for the next hour and a half freezing till madam sun shone her face.

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It’s cold, very cold. We were both wearing a few layers but that wasn’t enough so we had to dance in one place to keep warm.

The three volcanoes are on the west side directly opposite to where the sun rise is. Here’s a tip, while the sun rise, any sun rise is spectacular there is nothing extra special about the one here, so perch yourself facing west so you see the volcanoes through the clouds and most making them look almost mystical. Don’t forget to walk around the platform as there are many breathtaking angles for pictures

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A hundred or so photos later, snapped under near freezing temperatures we set off to get a closer look of Mount Bromo. On the way down there is yet another great spot to take pics of the three destroyers called lovers hill.

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The geography surrounding Bromo is quite spectacular. Volcanic ashes and sand have created what is known as the sea of sand right around the mountain making it almost separate from the rest of the world. You can walk or hop on a horse to cross the sea of sand. We paid 80k per person and opted for the latter. I’m not sure we got the best price as our guide did the talking, but it was 6am and we were cold so a few dollars here or there didn’t matter.

Sea of sandOn horse back
The horses take you all the way up to a very steep staircase to reach the crater. There are enough rest areas along the stairs so it’s not too bad.

Horse drop off point

The stairs
Once we reached the top we couldn’t help but we wowed by nature. Bromo is still an active volcano and last erupted in November 2010 (just ash). When you peer into the crater you can see clouds of smoke coming up from within while your nostrils are filled with the unmistakable smell of sulfur.

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Some people do the 3km crater rim walk, but our guide promptly said “crazy people”. I suspect the path isn’t very stable.

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That morning after breakfast at the hotel we started our 6 hour journey to Banyuwangi where Ijen is. We stayed overnight at Ketapang Indah, a hotel by the sea overlooking Bali. Now it made sense why most tours of these two volcanoes ended up in Bali.

Our adventure to Ijen started at 1am. We left the hotel thinking it probably wasn’t going to be as cold as bromo, boy were we wrong. I fell asleep going there and coming back so u have no idea how long it took, but the drive itself was at least over an hour. Our guide had packed breakfast for us, so after munching that down around 2 maybe 3 am we started our 3km hike to the top of Ijen. But first we had to buy entrance tickets 150k per person sold by a shivering man in a tent in front of a mini bonfire.

The start Buying tickets from the "counter"

The trek started off easily on flat ground and then it became steeper and steeper. It’s pitch black with only the moon and stars above you so don’t forget a torch. We hiked for what seemed like forever making small stops and then reached the half way point marked by a shop (closed at that hour) and this sulfur collection point. We rested there for a while sitting in the cold admiring the starry night and once again began our journey. All at once it got a whole lot more difficult and then much much easier. Just remember of walk on your left, the right is a dead drop which u may not see in the darkness. Dawn was almost approaching when we got to the top, the view seemed spectacular but it was too dark to see.

We now had to make our way into the crater, 800m down. If you thought the first 3km was bad, oh dear…there is absolutely no pathway to get to the bottom so you just have to balance on the rocks, cling on to dear life, pray that you don’t fall and give it ago. It takes about 45 mins to get down. We could almost see some blue flames from a midway point but very very sadly once we got to the bottom it was too lit up that we missed the fire. What a pity, laboring this whole journey to see it and missing it by maybe 30 mins. So my advice, leave early (maybe midnight) and take shorter breaks on the way up and plan to be inside the crater by 4am.
Blue flames
It was dark all this while and the climb down was dangerous so I never bothered to look around. Once at the bottom and you’ve had a moment to catch your breath and for me get over the disappointment of missing the flames you look around and realize that you might as well as be on the moon. The surroundings were mostly grey with bits of yellow to mark the sulfur. I was 800m deep inside a volcano! It was quite an amazing sight. The crater lake was bright green surrounded by yellow sulfur rocks.

View from the bottom Sulfur fumes Liquid suflur

We saw a few miners on the way down but right at the bottom there was one guy stationed inside the volcano.There are miners and then there are entrepreneurs. This guy was collecting liquid sulfur and pouring it in different shaped moulds to make souvenirs! You can buy bits of sulfur shaped as hearts, animals, flowers, you name it. Liquid sulfur once in contact with water freezes up. So he pours in the dark yellow liquid and drops a bit of water to make his masterpieces. I was afraid my whole house will smell like rotten eggs, the infamous sulfur stench so didn’t bother buying any.
Making sulfur sovenirs
The sides of the crater full of sulfur was emitting smoke that the wind took to the top. At first there was a bit of smoke on the lake but it soon cleared up and then suddenly the whole place filled with smoke. Sulfur dioxide! My eyes were burning and my lungs were coughing up. For a moment I thought I would pass out. The guide grabbed my hand and said “let’s go!!!”. With involuntary tears pouring down we made our way back.

A fellow traveller The crater lake At the crater lake

Solidified sulfur
It’s a very difficult very scary journey up to the top. You can easily slip and break your neck. To add to the difficulty of the path I was now tearing coughing and sneezing!!! Most people around me were clearing their throats and spitting out. Not the most hygienic conditions. Even though I could hardly breathe the photographer inside me stopped several times to take in the scenery and snap a few shots. Every time we came across sulfur baskets that miners had left behind I couldn’t help but stop to snap it.

Making their way back up Sulfur collected

The trek up

45 more mins of clinging on to dear life and we were back on top. Only then did I notice a sign that said visitors are not allowed inside the crater for safety reasons, oh well!

Apparently you arent allowed to go down The view from top
Even the top of the volcano was filled with smoke so we didn’t wait to see the view from the top but made our way down. After a while the smoked cleared up and we could enjoy the beautiful scenery that we had missed on the way up.
Walking back

Sulfur on a backdrop of more volcanic mountains
We met a few miners down at the collection point, but today was a public holiday and most of them were not working. Each miner carries about 70kg of sulfur at a time up the crater to the collection point. 70kg!!!! And they do it 2 maybe 3 times a day! Suffocating through the inevitable smoke. Now I know why this particular job was classified as one of the worst in the world. The health risks are imminent but apparently the government has a insurance scheme, not sure how much that helps! They sell 1kg of sulfur for merely 1000idr which is just about $0.10.

We met a miner with his collection and Pramodh tried to give a shot at carrying it. He could only manage it for a few mins, god knows how these guys do it every day!
The miners Hard at work The minors
Going down the path was a hundred times more difficult than climbing up. It was completely slippery and we had to walk sideways like crabs. Some parts of the path had ditches so we walked in them to prevent ourselves from tumbling down. My legs were giving way, but managed to make the 3km journey back.

Ijen was difficult, in any standard. If you want to make the trip there are a few essentials: 1. A proper mask with filters, not the small surgical one, but the heavy duty type. 2. Proper shoes for the trek and climb 3 proper clothes to stay warm 4. Some form of gloves partly because of the cold but mostly because you have to grab hold of the volcanic sulfur rocks when climbing up or down the crater. 5. Ideally some foam of goggles, at least carry them in your bag so that you can put them on when the smoke sets in. I had only number 3, 4 and partly 2 and trust me I regretted it.

The adventure part of our trip was complete and now for the charity part. We had brought with us clothes to give away to the miners. We stopped in a factory to give those away. They were highly excited to receive this gift especially on a religious holiday. Our next stop was an orphanage to give away books and stationery that we had bought. The kids were super curious but shy. The brave few managed to ask us where we were from and what we were doing there. They were grateful too and thanked us with the little English they knew.

With our new miner friends Giving donations at the orphanage Giving donations at the orphanage Giving donations at the orphanage

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