Visiting the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – A view inside a strange world

On my recent trip through Korea, I had the opportunity to visit the demilitarized zone or DMZ between South Korea and North Korea. It was the one of the most unique travel experiences of my life – a view into a strange world where the Cold War is held in stasis and placed on disturbingly-close display.

Since neither side would admit defeat at the end of the Korean War, the armistice created the DMZ, a band of land 260 kilometers long and 4 km wide, as a buffer zone stretching across the Korean peninsula. There are three significant boundary lines within the DMZ.

IMG_0110.JPG

Southern Border: This border is fully controlled by South Korean and UN forces. Home of Imjingak Park, Dorasan Observatory and Dorasan station – the last train station before North Korea. Most DMZ tours only take you this far, and in doing so they miss the best part.

Military Demarcation Line: This is the true border between North and South Korea. It’s the home of the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is the best part of the tour. As its name would indicate, South Korea and North Korea split control of the Joint Security Area, along with support from the United Nations and a team of Neutral Nations (Sweden, Switzerland, etc.)

Northern Border: Fully controlled by North Korea. You cannot access this area unless you’re part of a North Korea tour group.

MORNING TOUR: SOUTHERN BORDER

The morning started in Imjingak Park. This area was originally created as a place where families that had been separated could gather to pray for reunification with their relatives in North Korea. Over time, the Park transformed into an amusement park. This led to some truly odd sights – the Peace Bell and memorials built from stones collected from battlefields around the world shared space with a neon-lit swinging pirate ship.

On our way to the next stop, we stopped for a passport check on a bridge filled with anti-tank blockades. Officially, we were forbidden to take photos during this time… but isn’t that what smartphones are for?

2014-09-26 09.48.18

The most stable image taken by a nervous photographer

Then it was on to the Third Tunnel, the largest underground tunnel yet discovered dug under the DMZ. Our tour guide mentioned that there might be at least 20 tunnels in all, and they’ve only discovered four. According to South Korea, North Korea dug the tunnels as part of their ongoing plans to invade Seoul. Some of my fellow tourists had gone on the same tunnel tour from the North Korean side, and according to their tour guides, of course South Korea dug these tunnels in order to invade Pyeongyang.

The path sloped at an 11 degree angle and went down the equivalent of a 23-story building. In other words, just like a walk to brunch in San Francisco.

Propaganda is strong in both Koreas

Propaganda is strong in both Koreas

Next up was the Dorasan Observatory. For 500 KRW (about $0.50), you got 3 minutes of viewing time on a set of high-power binoculars aimed across the North Korean border. We must have spent nearly half an hour here, feeding coins into the binoculars. If we hadn’t gone to the JSA in the afternoon, this would have been the coolest part of the trip.

Peering through binoculars at Dorasan Observatory

Peering through binoculars at Dorasan Observatory

North Korea knows that this Observatory exists and therefore constructed a very big and very empty village directly within its line of sight. It’s called “Propaganda Village” because up until several decades ago, no one lived there. Nowadays, a fraction of the tall, clean, windowless buildings are occupied by factory workers. These factories were built by South Korean companies and employed North Korean workers – further evidence of the bizarre and ever-shifting nature of the North/South Korean relationship.

Working South Korean factory in an empty North Korean village

Working South Korean factory in an empty North Korean village

IMG_0111

After observing that South Korea had built a flagpole 100 meters tall, North Korea responded with a flagpole 160 meters tall. Rather than responding again, South Korea decided that its money was better spent elsewhere.

Not far from the Observatory was Dorasan Station. Between 2000-2008, during the period of greatest cooperation between the Koreas, South Korea was permitted to build factories and to run freight trains into North Korea in order to supply their factories. Dorasan was the last stop before the North Korean border. The dream of eventually running regular passenger trains between the Koreas was dashed when Kim Jong-Il took power and took an extremely anti-South Korea stance.

To this day, South Korea keeps Dorasan Station immaculately clean in preparation so that when reunification finally happens, trains can start leaving from this station immediately.

Tracks that will lead to Pyeongyang

Tracks that will lead to Pyeongyang

Signs in three languages warned us not to place these stamps in our passports, due to the risk that we might not be allowed into South Korea again.

Signs in three languages warned us not to place these stamps in our passports, due to the risk that we might not be allowed into South Korea again.

AFTERNOON: MILITARY DEMARCATION LINE at the JOINT SECURITY AREA (JSA)

The passport check at the Southern Border was a mere formality. The South Korean soldier that boarded the bus barely glanced at our faces before waving us through. The passport check at the JSA was a whole different story. The soldier that boarded the bus scrutinized our passports and faces intensely, matching it against a list provided by the UN.

He also confirmed that all passengers met the dress code. Before I joined the tour this morning, I’d been told that my shirt collar was too low and to cover it up with a scarf – making the JSA dress code more conservative than the Vatican’s. I would find out the reason for the strict code later that afternoon.

IMG_0115We were told to wear this badge in the most visible location, therefore identifying ourselves as a guest of the UN. The idea was that if the North Koreans attacked, they would know that shooting us would seriously anger the UN.

What followed next was a 15-minute safety briefing. We would line up, walk and turn when we were told. No standing up in the bus. No pointing, no gesturing, no taking photos unless explicitly invited. It felt a lot like being back in elementary school, except that you were surrounded by heavily armed soldiers.

Just to make sure that we understood what we getting into, they had us sign a waiver that reiterated how our trip would “entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”

We all signed our lives away on the dotted line and walked into the heavily guarded border.

We walked in two orderly queues into a low building that was painted light blue. The table in the center of the room was where they signed the armistice ending the Korean War. The table itself was a country border: North Korea sat on one side – in North Korea – while the South Korean representative sat in his own country on the other side of the table.

The soldier stands at the country border. I’m in South Korea, and Jeremy is in North Korea.

The soldier stands at the country border. I’m in South Korea, and Jeremy is in North Korea.

Only UN flags were allowed on the table. The Koreas had launched another flag height war when their countries had been permitted to place their own flags on the table.

The concrete slab is a country border. The pebbly ground is South Korea and the plain sandy ground is North Korea.

The concrete slab is a country border. The pebbly ground is South Korea and the plain sandy ground is North Korea.

Outside the building, South Korean guards stand half hidden behind the low blue buildings, ready to duck back to safety should the North Koreans start shooting. This did not put my mind at ease when we were told to line up in rows directly facing the white North Korean building.

IMG_0116

Before we entered the JSA, our tour guide had told us – almost as if we were visiting a zoo – that since the weather was nice, we had a good chance of seeing North Koreans. Apparently they liked to stay hidden behind the mirrored doors of their main building, spying on the tourists with cameras and binoculars. They especially loved taking pictures of tourists behaving badly that could be used as propaganda material back in North Korea. And that was the reason for the strict dress code and the restrictions against pointing or gesturing in any way towards them.

We were lucky today since we could clearly see a single North Korean soldier staring at us through binoculars. Our tour guide told us there were at least a dozen other soldiers also staring from behind the mirrored doors.

Our North Korean paparazzi

Our North Korean paparazzi

We were only given two minutes to look and take photos, after which we obediently took two steps back, turned 180 degrees and then formed two queues into gift shop.

My entire experience of the DMZ, especially at the JSA, felt like playing a minor role in a theater drama – at once cheeky and deadly serious. On one hand, the JSA has a history of violent skirmishes that have left people dead, so the danger is real. On the other hand, the guards on both sides were minimally armed and carefully selected. The requirements for a soldier to be stationed at the DMZ were: be proficient in at least one martial art, be taller than the average South Korean male, and finally – be handsome.

The primary purpose of the JSA in the present day appears to be one of posturing.

Why, after all, did the UN and South Korean troops encourage civilian tourism if not to show the watching North Koreans how little of a threat they posed?

This general aura of indifference was not isolated to the military. Our tour guide admitted that each new generation of South Koreans has fewer family members and memories from North Korea. While they admit that reunification would be ideal, fewer than half of South Koreans in their 20s think that it’s necessary. The Koreas have been different countries for so long that the Peace Bell is surrounded by an amusement park and North Koreans are now the people that you can see on a sunny day, if you’re lucky.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1990 to cheers and euphoria. Only time will tell when the DMZ will be removed and whether it will be greeted with joy or indifference.

Advertisements

What to pack for a trip around the world (and still feel human)

I’ve dreamed since I was a child that “someday” I would take a multi-month trip around the world. That day is finally today, and I’m sorely tempted to pinch myself for reassurance that it’s really happening. The story of how this trip became possible is for another blog post (seriously, it’s a great story). Today, I’ll share with you how to pack 3 months of living into two carry-ons and still feel like a civilized human.

This is not a packing list for a backpacking trip. My goal is to not to look like a tourist, so zip-off canvas pants are out of the picture. Surprisingly, it was easier than expected to reduce my everyday wardrobe to carry-on size.

Your luggage

There are many areas to save money while traveling. Your luggage should not be one of them. Your luggage needs to be durable, water-resistant (since we had the brilliant idea of traveling during monsoon season) and above all – comfortable.

These are my two primary pieces of luggage:

Duffel + day pack

Duffel + day pack

The day pack on the left is the North Face Pinyon daypack. At 1 lb 4 oz, it’s super lightweight but roomy enough to hold your laptop and several tablets. The women’s version of the pack has especially comfortable straps for – ahem – feminine figures. Other things I love about it include a side zipper for easy access to your laptop and a chest strap for better load balance.

The primary pack on the right is the Patagonia Black Hole Duffel 60L. As it’s name indicates, this pack is a bottomless pit. It expands and conforms to fit anything you may want to stuff inside. Rather than a single shoulder strap for carrying (which always leaves me feeling super imbalanced), this duffel comes with two backpack straps that you can either carry in your hand for brief periods or throw on like a backpack for sprinting through airports to make your transfer. The material is also utterly indestructible.

Your stuff

2014-08-03 02.01.05

This is everything that went into my luggage

Your clothes

While women tend to own more clothes per person than men, our wonderful little secret is that we can create many more outfits per piece of clothing. Your destination also makes a big difference. We’re saving loads of space by the fact that we won’t need any cold weather clothing. What you see above is enough clothing for a full month’s worth of outfits.

I went overboard, you should be able to get away with just two week’s worth. I justify the decision by the fact that I’m so small that my clothing is nearly weightless.

  • 2 T-shirts
  • 3 nice blouses
  • 3 tank tops
  • 1 long-sleeve layering shirt
  • 1 nice sweater
  • 1 rain jacket (Also my primary jacket)
  • 2 skirts
  • 1 sundress
  • 1 pair of leggings
  • 1 pair of jeans
  • 2 pairs of shorts
  • Sleep shirt + pants
  • 7 pairs of underwear
  • 2 strapless-convertible bras
  • 1 bikini
  • 3 pairs of socks (WrightSock CoolMesh II Double-Layer Lo Socks)
  • 1 pair of Nike Frees
  • 1 pair of dress flats
  • 1 pair of sandals
  • Two lightweight packing cubes
  • 1 sari (We’re going to an Indian wedding!)

In addition to the sari, I fully expect that I’ll end up shipping up to half of my stuff back. I’ll follow up with a post halfway through the trip with an update on how much of my clothing I actually needed.

Your electronics

  • Samsung Chromebook (Same weight as 11-inch Macbook Air at 1/4th of the price. Offline access and Google Drive sync work like a charm.)
  • Nexus 5 with T-Mobile Simple Choice International Plan (The best Android phone out there with the best mobile plan I’ve ever heard of. Unlimited talk, text and data worldwide for $50/month.)
  • iPad (I never upgraded from my iPad 2 and it still works as smoothly as the day I bought it. This will be my primary reading device on long plane and train rides.)
  • Worldwide adapter (I’m a fan of the I/OMagic one that includes USB ports.)
  • Airport Express (To get free wifi in hotels)

Your toiletries

  • Sunscreen (Listen to Baz Luhrmann)
  • Lotions and soaps of choice in no-leak Nalgene bottles (I like this small-mouth and this dropper)
  • Sonicare toothbrush
  • Floss
  • 60 pairs of 1-day contact lenses (Wish I’d gotten Lasik when I had decent health insurance)
  • Drugs of choice (Ours include Advil, Tylenol, Dulcolax and Cipro)
  • Band Aids
  • Brush
  • Tweezers (Had to use this yesterday to remove a stubborn ethernet cable from the Airport Express)

Your money and documents

Miscellaneous

  • Sturdy water bottle
  • Headlamp
  • Purse
  • Earplugs + eyemask (Essential for a good night’s sleep)
  • Jump rope (Post on staying fit while traveling coming soon)
  • Tennis ball (Better than a deep tissue massage for recovering from long plane rides and cramped bus seats)

That’s it. Faced with the reality of needing to carry all of your belongings on your back for months, it’s easier than you think to reduce your needs to the basic essentials and still have room for indulgences.

Hiking Half Dome: What It Takes to Stand on Top of the World

This is a long post, so I’ve added a few bookmarks if you’d like to skip to a particular section.

Preparation
Part 1: Trailhead to Nevada Falls (0-3.4 miles)
Part 2: Nevada Falls to Little Yosemite Valley (3.4-5.0 miles)
Part 3: The switchbacks to the Sub Dome (5.0-7.9 miles)
Part 4: Sub Dome to the cables (7.9-8.1 miles)
Part 5: The cables to Half Dome summit (8.1-8.2 miles)
Part 6: Half Dome Summit
Part 7: Descent
Nomnomnom

Why did I look forward to 14 hours of hiking with almost a vertical mile of elevation gain in mostly exposed terrain where temperatures reached up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit on a trail that has a website dedicated to cataloguing deaths and injuries resulting from the trek?

Because of this.

The view to end all views (c) Justin D



The Half Dome hike in Yosemite should be on everybody’s bucket list. No pictures can get across how breathtaking the views are and no words cannot describe the sense of triumph when you set foot on that summit – though I sure will try.

Preparation

What does it take to get here?

Fitness level: You need to be in good physical condition to do this hike. No, you don’t have to have the endurance of a marathoner or have completed P90X like some reviews might say. But you will be gaining 4800 feet, or almost a mile, in vertical elevation – and for the last 400 feet you need to have enough strength left to haul your body weight up cables on a 45-degree incline where there’s absolutely no room for error. Be smart about evaluating whether you’re prepared for this hike.

Gear:

  • Footwear: Broken-in hiking boots – meaning that you’ve walked around in them for the equivalent of one week – are a must. Yes, you will see people doing the hike barefoot or wearing Vibrams or sandals, but just because they’re crazy doesn’t mean you should be too.
  • Clothes: You will be cold and soaking wet at the beginning of the hike, and sweating buckets at the end. So bring a light waterproof jacket for the morning and wear a quick-drying or wicking shirt, shorts and underwear made of synthetic material underneath. Do not forget a hat either.
  • Food and Water: Depending on your body weight, you will burn between 2500-4000 calories on this hike. Stock up on easily-digestible, non-melting food. My sustenance of choice was: tortilla filled with almond butter, strawberry jam, Greek yogurt, Nutella, honey and fresh blueberries. It seemed over-indulgent when I packed it, but immediately after eating one on the summit, I was still starving. Having enough water – at least one gallon – is also essential. I’m a pretty small person and drained 3 liters dry by the summit. Fortunately, we had a water filter and could refill at the river in Little Yosemite Valley on the way down. If you sweat a lot, bringing some Gatorade in addition to water wouldn’t be a bad idea.
  • Other gear: Bring gloves for the cables as your palms will be rubbed raw otherwise. If you’re feeling adventurous, grab a pair from the glove pile at the base of the cables – cleanliness not guaranteed. If you have knee or IT band problems (I overpronate like crazy) get sole inserts and trekking poles. I used to think that hikers using poles were silly – until I got my own pair and found that it cut my effort level almost in half. Imagine all of the thousands of pounds of pressure on your knees and ankles over the course of 12 hours, now distributed evenly amongst your arms and chest. Your body will thank you.
  • Sunscreen: Do not forget this if you value your skin.


The night before: Go to sleep by 10pm, you’ll need it.

Part 1: Trailhead to Nevada Falls (0-3.4 miles)
If you want to beat the rush and get back to your car at a reasonable time – get to the trailhead parking lot by 5am. This way you’ll actually get a parking spot, a spot in a bear locker for your extra food and food-like substances and will return by sunset.

Hiking by moonlight (c) James C

Bring a flashlight or headlamp as the path will be pitch dark from the trailhead (about 0.5 miles from the lot) until you reach the Vernal Falls Bridge, about one mile straight uphill. At this point, you have two choices of how to get to the top of Nevada Falls:

1) The shorter, steeper Mist Trail: You will curse the endless stairs and get soaked from the waterfalls in the process – making the Mist Trail live up to its name. You will also get spectacular views.

Up up and up the Mist Trail (c) James C

Soaked, shivering and ecstatic next to Vernal Falls

2) The longer, gentler John Muir Trail (JMT): This trail is about a mile longer than the Mist Trail but it’s a gentle slope all the way up. Make sure to step around the horse poo.

Either way, you end up here at the top of Nevada Falls, ready to tackle the next portion of the trail, which is…

Part 2: Nevada Falls to Little Yosemite Valley (3.4-5.0 miles)
This is the easiest portion of the hike. Flat almost the whole way, with beautiful, rolling meadows and deer that will dart across your path every once in awhile. Enjoy the scenery and prepare your quads for what’s coming next. This is also the last place with a toilet that does not involve squatting in the woods.

Part 3: The switchbacks to the Sub Dome (5.0-7.9 miles)
This is the least fun part of the hike – the most elevation gain without much scenery to show for it. A little ways into this part you will see a sign that says 2.0 miles to Half Dome. Take the left fork here and now the switchbacks – zigzagging trails cut into the side of a mountain to make the steep ascent easier – begin in earnest. Rest when you need to and drink lots of water. The best part of this portion of the hike is that there’s usually a lot of wildlife around. I’ve seen deer as well as a rare sighting of a mother black bear and three cubs (fortunately, from very far away!)

Only time I've ever been glad of a blurry image, as it meant I was a safe distance away

Part 4: Sub Dome to the cables (7.9-8.1 miles)
This is the part where the rangers will collect your permits. This is also the last place you can go relieve yourself, as the terrain is bare, exposed granite from here on.

0.2 miles sounds easy, until you realize that you’re doing the distance over this:

The Sub Dome climb (c) James C

At some point, you realize that the steps have disappeared

Take breaks under the few scraggly pine trees if you need to and yield to descending climbers. You’ll be at the scary part soon.

Part 5: The cables to Half Dome summit (8.1-8.2 miles)
REST. Eat your lunch and let some strength return to your body. Remember, you’ve just hiked 8 miles uphill just to get to this point.

Group lunch at the base of the cables (c) Justin D

When you’re ready, go to the base of the cables. You may be tempted to leave your bag behind – I would advise against this since the squirrels and marmots that live all around have been known to rip bags apart looking for food.

If you didn’t bring your own gloves, grab a pair from the communal pile and hope they’re sanitary.

Not recommended (c) James C

Climbing the cables requires walking up a granite surface at a 45-degree incline. This doesn’t sound like much until you realize that the world’s steepest street is only at a 35-degree incline.

Your feet will slip all around on the rock, so you’ll have to use a lot of arm strength to pull yourself up. There are wooden planks every couple of yards that you can stand on to rest. Tip: when stopping on a wooden plank, lean forward towards the mountain to rest most effectively. And for the sake of everyone’s safety, try never have more two people standing on a plank – one going up and one going down – at any time.

Up, up and up we go (c) Jeremy W

A better look at the epicness of the cables (c) Justin D

This part is hard, but your reward is so, so close.

Part 6: Half Dome Summit

(click the image for larger version)

Panorama of the Half Dome Summit (c) Chris C

Incredible views from all sides. Walk around and indulge in your accomplishment.

*Jurassic Park theme playing in the background* (c) Justin D

If you’re feeling adventurous, go to the Diving Board and have someone take a photo of you from the opposite ledge.

Peering into the abyss (c) Justin D

And take a nap if you want. You have a long way to go down the mountain in the afternoon.

Napping on Half Dome (c) Justin D


Before you go down, let it sink in that you are now part of a unique group of people in the world that have conquered Half Dome. Congratulations 🙂

Part 7: Descent
This part should have been a lot easier than it was. But given that you’re really tired and your knees are about to take a pounding vertical mile descent, prepare to take as long with your descent as with the climb.

Cables: I prefer to slide down backwards (holding both cables) rather than sliding down as you face forward. In any case, prepare for traffic because if you left around 5am as suggested, the main rush of hikers will just be coming up.

Pit stop at Merced River: You’re probably tired and running out of water by the time you reach Little Yosemite Valley, so head over to the Merced River nearby to rest and filter some more drinking water.

Sand, seats and swimming pool at the Merced pit stop (c) Justin D

Mist Trail vs John Muir Trail return: If you don’t have knee problems, take the Mist Trail back. It’s scenic and shorter. If you do, JMT is a better bet, but insect repellent is essential on JMT. That’s because horses drop poo throughout the day on this trail and by late afternoon, the mosquitos will eat you alive if you pause for a split second.

Before you know it, you’re back at the start and done for the day.

I conquer you!

We were camping for a second night, and dinner made all my aches and pains go away. Hobo meals are an amazing post-hike dinner: mix chopped chicken apple sausage, hot links, eggplant, carrots, zucchini, onion and garlic with a splash (or two) of a dark Belgian ale, wrap twice in aluminum foil and slide into the coals of a campfire. Ready to eat in 20 minutes and taste great with mustard and hot sauce.

Nomnomnom

By the morning, I was planning to do it again next year. Here’s to being crazy 🙂

A tale of two islands

In the week and a half I spent in England and Ireland, I learned that…

There’s no better place than Southbank on a clear night in London

Tower Bridge at night

The UK has consistently the best Indian food of any Western country. I’m partial to Tayyabs and Shampan on Brick Lane.

Welsh words make me smile

Say that three time fast

The Irish are known for amazing beer

Honestly, Guinness outside the UK tastes watered down

…delicious wild strawberries

The smaller, the sweeter

beautiful, haunting ruins

Muckross Abbey in Killarney

amazing bed & breakfasts
I can’t recommend Petra House in Galway or Friars Glen in Killarney enough.

The dogs of Friars Glen

gorgeous countryside

The Burren in County Clare

…did I mention gorgeous countryside?

Cliffs of Moher

The Irish are *not* known for efficiency

Yes, the other counter is closed

considerate pedestrians

Just another day in the countryside

or wide streets

No side mirrors were harmed in this trip

I want to go back so badly.

A weekend in Paris

There has been so much written about the “City of Love” that it’s not worth my writing up yet another trip summary or Guide to Paris. Yes, the Mona Lisa is a bit underwhelming. No, you cannot see the Eiffel Tower from everywhere. Yes, Versailles is expensive and crowded, but you should go anyway. Etc. Instead, I’ve written up some tips and unexpected discoveries from my trip that I hope will prove useful to any of you. If you are a frequent traveler, you might find something new. If it’s your first trip to Paris, you might be mistaken for a local.

Cannonball into a fountain at Versailles

The best things I ever ate in Paris are…

Ice cream – Parisians are very proud of their ice cream, and they have good reason to be. Go to Berthillon. Not to the dozens of ice cream shops that happen to sell their ice cream – go to the original location on Île Saint-Louis, the one with the longest line. This might be the only location where they serve “fraise des bois” (wild strawberry) flavor. You’ll pay a little extra for this one flavor, but it’s unbelievably worth it. Also, beware, Berthillon closes for most of August.

Falafel – I would not have found this if I hadn’t made a mistake of searching for “Jewish Quarter” when I meant “Latin Quarter”. The first result was called L’As du Fallafel with over 1000 positive reviews. Make your way to Rue des Rosiers, weaving between Vespas and carousing groups of Hasidics to this little eatery and get the Falafel Special. For around 5 EUR, you’ll get a magical concoction of falafel, eggplant and 3 kinds of pickled cabbage stuffed into a pita. I can now safely say – the best falafel I’ve ever had was in Paris.

Extra harissa, please!

Pot de Fer – This street, meaning “Iron Kettle” is near the Place Monge Metro stop and is absolutely packed with delicious, lively restaurants of all manners of cuisine, from French to Japanese to Italian and more.

Scallops at Chez Lena et Mimile

Some ways to save money are…

Eiffel Tower – Go to the East Pillar (Pillar Est) and take the stairs. Not only will it be cheaper, but there will be a shorter line, and the views while climbing inside one of the Tower’s legs are amazing. Don’t worry, you can still take an elevator between the 2nd and 3rd level.

Museum Pass – Only get this if you love museums and plan to go to more than four on a tight schedule. The only museum on this pass when it might have been worth it to skip a line was Saint Chapelle. Surprisingly, I got into the Louvre on a Saturday afternoon after only 10 minutes in line. Also, all museums are free on the 1st Sunday of each month, but beware the lines.

Metro tickets – The standard “single ride” ticket is misnamed. You can actually use your ticket (1.70 EUR within the city) as many times as you wish within a 1.5 hour period.

Do any of you have your own tips and discoveries to add to this list?

Next up: London!

Self-Experiment: Ignoring vacation e-mail

For most of us, taking a vacation is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you really need time off to recharge after a grueling year. On the other hand, you dread your e-mail inbox when you return – and by the time you’re finished cleaning out your inbox on your first day back, you need another vacation.

I once spent 4 hours cleaning my inbox after a 2-week vacation. This time, after my 2-week vacation I spent precisely zero minutes cleaning my inbox. The reason was simple: I auto-archived everything and didn’t read anything when I got back.

If a nervous sweat broke out on your forehead at the thought, keep reading. I had planned a vacation from December 24 through January 9. How to ensure that while I was in Costa Rica sipping water from a fresh coconut, the only things going through my head were electrolytes?

I knew myself well enough to be sure of two things:

1) No matter how good my intentions were, I would check e-mail at some point.
2) If I read anything that I desired to respond to but couldn’t, I’d stress out and vacation feeling was ruined.

Logically, the only possible solution that also ensured that I wouldn’t have a nervous breakdown from dealing with e-mail pileup when I returned was to make sure that I never saw it. But what of the consequences? At Google, your inbox is your umbilical cord to the world. In fact, it’s quite rare to ever hear the phone ring in my office. The first week without e-mail would be fine as things were always quiet in the last week of the year. But thefirst week of the new year would be a problem, as everyone clamored for your attention to finish things that didn’t get done in 2010.

What’s the worst that could happen? I tried to scare myself as much as possible: I’d miss a huge launch, I’d delay a huge launch, or I’d not respond in time to a VERY IMPORTANT E-MAIL (VIE). All of which would result in me getting fired.

Getting past this fear took time, but I eventually realized that: no one was going to fire me close to a major holiday week, and if a launch was so huge, they would have told me beforehand so I could arrange backup. Once the decision was made, I had to bring my co-workers around to the idea. This was my out of office auto-response:

I will be OOO until January 9, 2011. If you need to contact me, please resend your e-mail on January 9 as I am auto-archiving all messages received before then and won’t even see it. Happy holidays! Julie

And then I had to hold myself to it. In Gmail, set a filter where anything “To:*” is archived. This diverts any incoming message away from your inbox, whether addressed to you or a mailing list. And honestly, after the third time checking e-mail and seeing no messages, I stopped checking altogether.

So what did end up happening?

  • Several frantics e-mail about launch happening the day I got back. Later got pushed back two days, so I had no problem supporting it.
  • One blog post that I ended up launching one hour later than it was supposed to.
  • Several people worrying about my well-being due to not receiving e-mail responses
  • A massively improved sense of well-being and the most productive day back from vacation I’ve ever had

2000 = Number of e-mails filtered between Dec 24-Jan 9th
4 = Number of e-mails resent to me after vacation

The pros so massively outweighed the cons that I wondered why I’d ever had doubts. But if ever in doubt, put your worst fears into writing and you’ll see that they’re all manageable.

Then kick up your heels and relax. You deserve it.

Costa Rica Report: Pura Vida!

“Look at this, look at this!”

“What is – that’s a cockroach!”

“Come closer.”

“Urgh. Fine okay – oh, it’s a little frog! Get the camera!”

Show me your best webbed strut

The Frog Paparazzi

For the next few minutes, two camera-wielding tourists surrounded the 2-inch long tree frog that had decided to lounge on the wall of our hotel room, the bright camera flashes prompting it to edge further and further up the wall. Eventually we opened the front door, trying to shoo it back out to freedom. There was a moment of panic when the frog jumped from the top of the door frame to the bottom and lay very still. Surely that distance had been too great for that tiny animal? Fortunately not, as the amphibian happily bounded off into the night a few seconds later.

The frog-in-the-hotel incident happened on our last night of a week-long vacation in Costa Rica, the last of a string of happy encounters with nature. We’d had howler monkeys dropping fruit on our heads. Jesus lizards running on water away from our boat. A two-toed sloth mother and her baby hanging out in a tree to the side of the highway. Slathering on cancerous amounts of DEET to protect us from over 35000 species of insects from sunrise till well after sunset.

My beauty is too great for casual eyes

Spot the hidden lizard

I've always been a showmonkey

Squirrel monkey takes a flying leap

Mix into this a healthy dose of adventure. Rafting down a river that wasn’t so much a river as an endless series of rapids with toucans swooping overhead. Sitting in a 100-foot boat going 50mph around hairpin turns in a canal, guided by Roni, a driver that could have given F1 a run for its money. Hooking a set of handlebars over a metal cable and swinging half a mile through the canopy of a volcanic rainforest.

Gives new meaning to the term "hanging by a thread"

Our threadlike zipline in the canopy

Monkeying around

Hanging for dear life half a mile up

Finally add a dash of life-loving “Ticos” – Costa Rican residents. They are fiercely proud of their country. One driver spent two hours excitedly telling us how since the country had gotten rid of its army 50 years ago, they could now afford to build schools and provide complete healthcare for every single person.

Pura Vida” – essentially “everything’s okay” is the country motto. Something to shout after getting through an exciting rapid on the river. Or just a greeting when passing a friend in the street.

All in all, a recipe for an unforgettable vacation. Costa Rica has struck an ideal balance between the commercial and authentic. One of the most accommodating countries for tourists – voltage and outlets match those in the US, all vendors accept US Dollars – Costa Rica nonetheless has surprisingly few “tourist traps”. There’s too much natural beauty not to be amazed anywhere you go. And even the most remote locations – Tortuguero, a city floating on canals and accessible only by boat – have hot water and wi-fi.

And when you aren’t as remote, the amenities blow away all expectations.

I have a sudden urge to shoot an herbal shampoo commercial

Waterfall shower with live plants growing from the walls

Roughly 2 million tourists per year arrive in Costa Rica, a country that only has 4 million residents. A country whose largest industry is tourism has hospitality down to a science. Bags are carried to your room before you even notice they’re gone. Our booking company called us during our trip to confirm that we were having a good time. During a tropical downpour, I rushed into an arbitrary hotel lobby to wait out the storm. The receptionist offered me coffee and a large towel.

The tour guide noticed that the seats on the boat were too hard and by the next day, he had spread out the life vests as makeshift cushions.

Orange looks great with blue

Seats fit for a queen

A country so rich in natural resources has no need for artificial ingredients. Here, there’s nothing special about “free range”, “cage free”, “organic” or “shade grown” – there’s no other way to do it.

What you lookin' at?

Cows by the riverbank

Nomnomnomnom

Organic pineapple farm

Thank you for an amazing time, Costa Rica. I’ll be back.

Looking out on an active volcano

tl;dr? Fast facts:

Best activities: zip-lining with Sky Adventures (they’re in Arenal and Monteverde), natural hot springs at Eco Termales, pineapple tour with Collin Street Bakery, white-water rafting down the Sarapiqui River

Best accommodations: Hotel Mountain Paradise (jacuzzi, waterfall shower, giant beds), Corteza Amarilla Art Lodge

Best food: Salsa Lizano, fruit esp. pineapple, papaya and watermelon, coffee (the best coffee is usually exported, so get it from places catering to tourists), grass-fed organic beef

ALL PICTURES: http://picasaweb.google.com/julie.yi.zhou/CostaRicaJan2011?authkey=Gv1sRgCMvGhYrj54afbA&feat=directlink