Armchair Adventures

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Jeju Island, South Korea, where it’s still rainy season. So. Much. Rain. I’m pretty sure there’s moss growing on my northern side.

Armchair Adventures

It probably comes as no surprise that I’m a bookworm. I have a long history with books about travel. Back in my suburban soccer mom days, I favored titles like No Touch Monkey and Sand in My Bra and Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals (all actual books that I have actually read). They were all of a type: ‘I went on this really long backpacking trip on a shoestring budget and all these amusing/horrifying/eye-opening adventures changed me for life.’ It was escapism at its finest.

I don’t read those books anymore. My life (pre-Covid, anyway) pretty much looks like one of those books, when it doesn’t look like a tediously long day spent in front of the computer because #rainyseason.

Now I prefer location-specific books that teach me a little something about where we are. History, biography, memoir, and of course fiction—all can add texture and depth to our experience of a place. When we were in Panama, I read (listened to, actually) David McCullough’s massive volume about the building of the Panama Canal. Every afternoon Lee and I would walk back to our hotel after lunch, sweating in the sticky heat, and I’d yammer on about how yellow fever and malaria nearly derailed the construction, or how the workers struggled with sunburn and heat exhaustion, or how the French and American politicians who were clamoring for the canal, but had never been to Panama, had no earthly idea what they were getting into. When we went to the Canal visitor center, we were both absolutely fascinated by the extraordinary feats of engineering that had enabled massive ships to glide across that tiny, swampy, bug-infested spit of land. Thank you, Mr. Mccollough. 

I do still, on occasion, revert to type and pick up one of those mildly humorous travel memoirs—there was one about an American who took his young child to Hong Kong, for reasons I can’t remember, and struggled with the food. That was reassuring; we went to Hong Kong very early in our travels, and this vegetarian-who-doesn’t-speak-Cantonese struggled mightily with the food. I really felt for the child in that scenario.

Eat, Pray, Love was a fun one, as well. I hated the book the first time I picked it up, back when it first came out, but when I finally got around to actually finishing it (and watching the movie), we were in Bali, and locals were able to point out filming locations, which is always mildly entertaining.

I’ve read several books about South Korea since we arrived in the country—about the war, about the fraught relationships with Japan and China, about the economic growth and cultural changes of the last fifty years.

But the book that’s going to stay with me is a novel by Lisa See, called The Island of Sea Women. It’s set here on Jeju Island; I got about halfway through the book, and checked the map, just out of curiosity. It turns out the majority of the story takes place in a village about 5 miles up the road from us.

A difficult fact that we’ve learned in our travels is that human history is littered with war and destruction. Jeju Island, it turns out, is no exception. Nowadays it’s a tourist hotspot. Lee read recently that the most heavily trafficked flight route in the world is Seoul to Jeju—now, but also pre-Covid. But for much of the twentieth century, it was either occupied or war-torn, or both. The manicured walking trails and abundant hotels present a tourism face that belies the tragic history of this beautiful spot.

The haenyo—the sea women of the title—still dive in the waters surrounding the island. The history of their female-only collectives, a stark contrast to South Korea’s historically patriarchal Confucian past, is beautifully portrayed in this book. See’s book follows one particular diver over the course of seventy eventful years, from 1938 to 2008. 

It’s a beautiful, thought-provoking book, full of strong, earthy women engaging in dangerous work. There’s one particularly violent scene (the war and destruction I mentioned above), in roughly the middle of the book, so keep that in mind if you’re sensitive, but the violence is well-balanced with complex characters and relationships. It’s absolutely worth picking up if you’re looking for something that will transport you to a time and a place that have nothing to do with Covid-19.

Because ultimately, that’s the beauty of fiction, right? Call it armchair travel, or escapism, or whatever expresses the joy you get from stories. Fiction can take you places, or it can show you exactly where you already are.

I’m always looking for another good read (and given the way things are going in the world, that armchair travel is going to be back in rotation) —give a shout if you have any suggestions.

From my writer’s notebook: Fun fact—rare and antique books are even easier to steal/smuggle than paintings. The rare book trade is a tiny, fascinating corner of the world, filled with quirky characters and stories of unexpected bravery, as well as unexpected depravity.

Take, for instance, the rare books collection at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. A former archivist was recently convicted of stealing from the collection that he was meant to be protecting and caring for. Apparently he’d been nabbing one item at a time—sometimes even cutting pages out with an X-Acto knife—and walking out with them, for nearly twenty years. He had an ongoing agreement with a nearby rare book dealer, to whom he would sell the items. Over the years, the two stole over 300 items from the library, one of which was a 400-year-old Pilgrim-era Bible, which was traced to a museum in the Netherlands last year. The museum willingly returned it (wrapped in bubble wrap, which proves once again that you just never know when you’re going to need some bubble wrap, either to relieve quarantine boredom, or to solve a crime).

Anyway. The upshot of that long, rambling story is this: never underestimate a bookworm. 😜

Take care,


P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to to subscribe.

Things That No Longer Surprise Me

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Still hanging out in the countryside, on Jeju Island, South Korea

Things that no longer surprise me:

Buying deodorant and toothpaste in someone’s living room.

Glimpsing the chef’s toddler wandering around the kitchen of a restaurant.

The staff’s mopeds parked in the lobby of the hotel, all lined up in tidy rows.

People relieving themselves. Pretty much anywhere.

Five year olds walking unaccompanied on the streets, in the poorest countries in the world. Five year olds walking unaccompanied on the streets, in the richest countries in the world.

Income disparity. It’s worse in some places than others, but my innate American ability to not see it is long gone.

Meat being sold in open air. I used to see it in the Caribbean, long before we started traveling full time, but now I realize it’s basically everywhere except the US. Maybe it’s in the US too, and I’ve just never noticed it. I’m not sure—see the previous item. I used to be really good at ignoring things that freaked me out, and flies hanging out in the vicinity of raw meat definitely freak me out.

Barbers plying their trade on the sidewalk—a little kid getting his first haircut, a businessman getting a quick trim on his way to work, a young man and his buddy egging each other on to go a little shorter, a little edgier.

Garbage. The world is full of garbage, and no one—and I do mean NO ONE—has truly figured out how to deal with it. In countries that don’t have much empty space, or much money for government systems, the garbage is just part of the community. Step around it, step over it, burn it on the sidewalk, dump it in the river. It has to go somewhere.

Sort of like the animals. I’m no longer surprised by stray cats and dogs, and sometimes cows, pigs, chickens, monkeys. I mostly try to give them a wide berth (except the cats, because cat pictures are the whole point of the internet, right?). As a matter of fact, I’m terrified of dogs, plus there’s always the rabies to worry about, so I give them an extra-wide berth. But animals live in the world and as long as there are hungry children, and there are lots of those, in case you are wondering, I suspect dealing with stray animals will continue to be a low priority.

Unreliable sidewalks. In some places, they’re too broken to be of much use. In other places, motorcycles are as likely to be zooming along on the sidewalk as the road. And in many places, there’s at least some risk of falling into a sewer. I’m pretty sure that’s how I’m going to die.

Steep/uneven stairs at tourist attractions, coupled with a lack of railings. Safety regulations? Hahahaha.

Tourists writing scathing reviews of things they haven’t even tried to understand. The hotel staff weren’t humble enough. The waiter didn’t anticipate my every desire. The ticket agent didn’t speak my language. There were too many tourists at the thing I traveled here to see. The people in the shops all wanted to sell me something. The people in the shops wouldn’t pay attention to me.

Most foods (and beverages: I’m looking at you, Vietnamese coffee) that have strong roots in a place are best consumed in that place. Except pizza. Pizza is rarely a bad idea.

People touching the art. Don’t touch the art. Just . . . don’t.

Drying racks. At this point I’m so accustomed to air drying my clothes that dryers actually make me a little nervous. Once all my socks shrank down to the size of baby booties. That was suboptimal.

Different entry prices for locals versus visitors. Yes, it’s reasonable. If you can afford to travel to a place, you can pay the visitor price. If you can’t, maybe don’t go.

Hipster coffee shops. They’re truly everywhere. Luckily I really love a hipster coffee shop.

From my writer’s notebook:

Facebook has announced that they will no longer allow their site to be used as a marketplace for historical artifacts. It seems the black market antiquities trade has been flourishing on Facebook, with buyers and sellers going so far as to instruct thieves in the fine arts of excavation and looting. Yet another strike against social media.

Take care,


P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to to subscribe.

A Handful of Lemons

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Outside of Seongsan, Jeju Island, South Korea

A Handful of Lemons

It’s rainy season in South Korea, and I fear I’m starting to mildew. Plus, while one day of rain is a nice change of pace, much more than that makes me cranky. As a result, my tolerance for things-I-don’t-understand (aka cultural differences) is running a little thin right now.

Unfortunately, one of those cultural differences is service. It isn’t always what you might expect.

When we stay in an Airbnb for more than a week, we usually ask the host to send us a cleaning person/service. We’re happy to pay, of course. Having a weekly clean sends the message that we’re taking care of the place, someone gets the work, and we like having things freshened up. It’s a win for everyone, I hope.

So we messaged our host—a man named Hun, who seems very nice, but who doesn’t speak a single word of English (note: I don’t speak a single word of Korean, and I’m the one who is a guest in this country, so I’m definitely not complaining about his lack of English; I’m just pointing out that our communications are challenging). Anyway, we asked Hun to send someone yesterday to clean. He said (I think) that he would come.

Someone did come while we were out, as expected, but it was . . . odd. Basically, the floors were cleaned, the toilets were cleaned, and the bathrooms were sprayed. None of the sinks were cleaned. The garbage was left piled up in the kitchen. The dishes were left in the sink. But the throw pillows on the couch were artfully placed in a decorative array.

Whatever—it’s fine. Odd, but unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

These weird service glitches, though, are ubiquitous, and always a little startling.

In Uruguay, we got into the habit of going for a long walk after lunch, and stopping off at a fancy food court for a cold drink and a snack. Lee liked the ice cream, and I liked the fried-round-things booth. They had a chocolate ball of deliciousness, sort of like a Brazilian brigadeiro. I’d order two, and the server would put a napkin on the counter, and put the two balls on the napkin. I’d pay, then take my napkin of dessert to our table.

This was a very fancy, expensive, hipster-style food hall. It was full of beautiful people, eating all sorts of imported delicacies. There was something vaguely uncivilized about that napkin. It was odd.

Once, another time, we were in a seafood restaurant—you know the type: picnic tables covered with butcher paper, platters of fried or boiled shellfish. I asked the waiter for some extra lemon wedges.

He came back a few minutes later with—wait for it—a handful of lemon wedges. No saucer, no bowl, just a bunch of lemon wedges. In his hand. He plopped them down on the table with a nod, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Again, it was odd.

For what it’s worth, that particular odd lemon service moment was in the US.

Things can get weird at any moment, in any place. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by anything at this point.

From my writer’s notebook: Several months ago, I mentioned that a Van Gogh painting had been stolen from a museum in The Netherlands. There was an interesting development this week—a famous Dutch detective received ‘proof of life’ photos (the kind you’ve seen on television shows about kidnappings) of the painting. The painting was photographed with a copy of the May 30th New York Times. Another photo showed the back of the painting, which museum authorities said was not a publicly available image.

Apparently this has never happened before in an art theft. 

Again, odd.

Take care,


P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to to subscribe.

A Proper Cup of Tea

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: An Airbnb in a small subdivision outside of a small town in the rural, eastern part of Jeju Island, South Korea. Hanging out in Nowheresville seemed like a good way to avoid the ‘rona, and this island has indeed had very few cases (19, to be precise; population 700,000), but being in a more rural area definitely has its drawbacks.

When we arrived Tuesday evening, I had exactly six tea bags in my purse (Twinings English Breakfast, in case you were wondering). My primary agenda for Wednesday, after I had used up three of those tea bags, was to buy more.

We went to three grocery stores. THERE WAS NO BLACK TEA. Barley tea, corn silk tea, bellflower tea, and every variation on the theme of green tea you can imagine, but no plain old black tea. Panic began to nibble at the edges of my equanimity, and I briefly wondered how much of a hassle it would be to fly back to Seoul and stock up.

Finally, late Wednesday afternoon, we managed to find a place that Google maps told me was called “Hong’s Mart”—the sign on the building indicated that it’s actually called “Dong 365” (thus the challenges of every tiny task in South Korea). Mr. Hong/Dong (or whatever his name is) earned my undying loyalty by having not one, but TWO brands of black tea.

For what it’s worth, an eight minute drive from our apartment takes us to a beautiful Starbucks, with a drive-through and everything. So it’s not exactly as if we’re on the back side of beyond. This just isn’t a black-tea-drinking culture, and my dependence on my morning cup(s) is . . . complicated. I remembered, during my determined search on Wednesday, the tea problems that plagued me back in February. What follows is the last thing I wrote in the days BC—Before Covid, when getting a proper cup of tea was pretty much the only problem on my mind.

A Proper Cup of Tea

It started in Nicaragua. Little Corn Island is an edenic spit of jungle in the Caribbean, with about five hundred permanent residents. No cars. No roads. Nothing the average American would call a store. There are a few backpackers who never moved on, a lot of standard-issue free-range dogs, and even more coconut trees. Everything else (including tourists, who are the entire economy) has to come from either Big Corn Island, or the mainland. 

We checked into the only hotel on the island that has round-the-clock electricity, and settled in for a two-week stay in paradise.

But at breakfast the first morning, I discovered that the hotel had no black tea.

I had difficulty even wrapping my brain around this. In five years of hotels, I’ve never, not once, been unable to get a cup of tea. The Victorians screwed up a lot of things in the world, but I thank them daily for spreading the Camellia sinensis habit around the world.

My morning cup of tea (or three) is my backstop. Once I’ve had that, I can tolerate everything else in my world being upside down or unpredictable. Can’t flush the toilet paper? Fine, I’ll pile it up in the rubbish bin. Lizards on the ceiling? No problem. Cricket under my pillow? I’ll just scoop him up and put him outside. My skin’s beginning to smell like mildew? This too shall pass.

I’ll cover my head, or take off my shoes, or hold your baby, or pose for pictures, or help you practice English. Whatever—I’m flexible. 


The hotel was wonderful—they actually had an employee pick up some tea in Managua (the capital) and bring it for me—that’s a flight and two boat rides, for the record. It was literally the best hotel service we’ve ever had, anywhere. They earned every star in that TripAdvisor review.

But then we got to El Salvador, and the wheels really came off the wagon. There was no tea to be had. Mercifully, I had grabbed some Lipton during our layover in Managua (mama didn’t raise no dummy) but now there was a new problem: no hot water. The hotel had a small coffee area in the lobby, with 2 perpetually-ready coffee pots that no one ever used, but no hot water. Also, no milk, because the owner’s sister is vegan. (No refrigeration either, but at this point, I guess that’s just splitting hairs.) There was no way to make myself a cup of tea. The restaurant served me chamomile the first day and wanted to argue over whether it was the te negro I had ordered. Then they charged me anyway.

In Guatemala, there were tea bags, but the water was tepid. Not like oh, it cooled off on the way to the table. More like, you didn’t want that hot, did you?

I coped, but barely. Lee pointed out very helpfully (insert sarcasm) that maybe I have a caffeine problem—this from the man who will just keep drinking the coffee as long as someone will pour it.

am addicted to my morning cup of tea, and maybe the caffeine is part of it, but I don’t think it’s the entire explanation. If it were, a cup of coffee would suffice. But it won’t. I like good coffee, and I’m happy to have an artfully prepared hipster cappuccino or mocha a little later in the morning, but not first thing—it’s too strong, before I’ve gotten my feet under me and my eyes propped open. My day doesn’t fit right or work right if I don’t get to sit for an hour, sipping. Days when we have early flights make me super cranky, because I’m pretty much out of sorts before I’ve even gotten started. Princess is fussy.

Is it worse because it’s a caffeine issue? Is it because it’s first thing in the morning? How much are those two things combined? How much of your hot morning beverage is about the ritual, however you make it happen? Many, if not most, of us are running on auto-pilot when we get up in the morning: alarm-shower-kids-lunches-carpool-coffee-keys.

I gave up that predictability (I’m not complaining—I did it willingly), except in this one moment of the day.

On some uncomfortable level, it feels like I’m rejecting the local culture—the countries of Central America are, after all, justifiably proud of their coffee farms. Maybe that little voice in my head that says I’m being a jerk is on to something. Maybe I am, ultimately, unwilling to wade fully into the river of unfamiliarity that rushes around me. Breakfast is the branch I’m hanging on to, the branch that keeps me close to familiar shores. I am unwilling to let go, just like I am unwilling to eat soup for breakfast, or salad or fish or cold cuts or instant noodles. I’d like to be the kind of person who enthusiastically embraces everything the world serves up, but until I magically become that person, all challenging meals and activities will have to wait till after I’ve had my tea.

Take care,


P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to to subscribe.

Test, Trace, Treat

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Back in Seoul, South Korea

Test, Trace, Treat

I’ve gotten several questions recently from friends, worrying that the pandemic is picking up again in South Korea. Apparently there’ve been headlines in the west indicating that the case numbers here are ticking up again.

Well, yes and no. I think it’s probably a matter of perspective.

Today’s statistics:

12,003 cases total

277 deaths

56 cases today (Friday)

[Population of South Korea: a little over 51 million]

Yes, there have been more cases in recent weeks than there were in late April/early May. Has that impacted our activities or movement in any way? Nope. As far as we can tell, the control measures here are working exactly as they’re intended to.

Some of those questions, though, made me realize that not everyone reads news about the virus’s progress around the globe quite as obsessively as I do, so I thought this would be a good time to share my observations/experience about what South Korea is doing. We’ve found it enlightening; I hope you do as well.

Quarantine (or, How South Korea is Stopping Transmission from Other Countries):

You already know, if you’ve been reading my emails, that Lee and I were quarantined for two weeks when we arrived in the country. Our isolation really began with an email we received when we booked our plane tickets: we’d need to wear masks and social distance from the moment we arrived at the airport and throughout the flight. From the time we landed, everyone we encountered assumed we were contagious and behaved accordingly—in other words, everyone was dressed in PPE, head-to-toe. Our temperature was checked and recorded several times. They tested our phone numbers to make sure we could be contacted. We had to download a public health app and demonstrate that it was working. We were kept in a well-supervised area, away from the general public. There was hand sanitizer at every stop.

Eventually, we were put on a private bus, with a police officer on board to supervise, and sent off to the quarantine facility. I’ve already described that, so I won’t go into detail, except to say that the goal was to ensure that if we developed symptoms of the illness during out time there, we wouldn’t be able to spread it to anyone else. At one point while we were there, an ambulance came, so we assume someone had gotten sick and been transported to a treatment center.

When our requisite quarantine period ended, another bus dropped us off in the center of Seoul (yes, it felt like liberation, but honestly, being released into a fully-functioning, busy city after so much isolation was a bit of sensory overload).

We’ve now been out of quarantine for a month, and have been reading up on South Korea’s pandemic response, as well as paying close attention to what we see around us.

The ‘New’ Normal (or, how South Korea is Managing Community Transmission):

Everything Lee and I want to do here is business-as-usual. We go to fantastic hipster coffee shops, we utilize the excellent transit system, we buy cheese in the fancy (and crowded) food halls. We thought about going to the theatre (Phantom of the Opera has managed to stay open with only a three-week break), and we still might. Touristy things like temples and parks and museums are open. We don’t feel any particular tension when we’re out and about.

This is all made possible by South Korea’s much-vaunted system of tracking and tracing. For those of you who aren’t entirely clear on what that means, I’ll use the fictional example that helped me understand.

Lee and I are staying in a hotel, where our room is cleaned by the housekeeping staff every day. If one of the housekeepers gets sick, she will get tested (tests are widely available, convenient, free, fast, and highly encouraged).

If she tests positive, contact tracers will interview her, and supplement whatever information she gives them with the extraordinary detail they can uncover using big data—What time did she ride the metro to work? Which car was she on? Was she wearing a mask? Who else was on the car at the same time, who was sitting near her, who was or wasn’t wearing a mask? Did she stop off at a convenience store on the way? Did she drop off a kid at school?

All of the people she crossed paths with, who might have been infected, will be contacted, and told to a) get tested, and b) self-isolate for 14 days.

Additionally, public service alerts will go out to everyone in the relevant districts, with information regarding who might be at risk—we get alerts on our phones every day, saying, basically, ‘a person at such-and-such building at this date-and-time has tested positive; if you were there, please contact your public health center.’

Because our housekeeper was in our room, we will also be contacted, and told to get tested and self-isolate for 14 days.

If you’re following along and doing the math on this, you’ll realize two things. 

A) We are at some risk of being quarantined again, at any moment. I didn’t fully process this until we were well into our initial quarantine, so since our release, I’ve been careful to always have a minimal supply of teabags and chocolate on hand, just in case. I like to be prepared.

B) At any given time, there are a LOT of people here who are self-isolating. What does this mean? Well, we haven’t had to do it (yet), but from what we understand, it means you are required to stay home. Local health officials check in with you twice a day to ensure that you are following the rules, to find out if you have developed symptoms, and to see if you need anything. I believe everyone gets a basic supply package, including a thermometer, some food, disinfecting supplies, and masks.

Our (fictional) housekeeper will be isolated in the hospital until she recovers (and she very likely will—as of this writing, the death toll here is 277). 

So here’s what we see when we’re out:

Temperature checks are common, but not ubiquitous.

Masks, which are inexpensive and widely available, are required (and enforced) on the transit system.

Most people wear masks whenever they’re in public—on the street, in stores, at work.

Public messaging is strong and clear, and compliance seems to be the norm.

There is hand sanitizer available everywhere—at bike share stations on the sidewalk, on busses, in metro stations, by cash registers, by the entrance/exit of almost every public space. It’s also easily available for purchase in convenience stores and grocery stores.

People are still encouraged to work from home whenever possible. Schools have just restarted in the last few weeks, with a number of distancing/hygiene measures that will likely be in place for the foreseeable future.

Group gatherings are required to keep a list of contact information for everyone present (there’s an event venue in our building, so we’ve seen this in action). There was a cluster last month that began in the nightclub district, so all nightclubs in the capital were closed down until a system could be devised to more closely verify tracing information. This week, a QR code system became operational; hopefully it will solve the problem.

 Some of these measures may sound intrusive or inconvenient, and I’ll be the first to admit that wearing a mask outside when it’s hot is no fun. But it’s a trade-off, for being able to live life relatively normally. As much as I would like for this virus to go away already, I haven’t seen any evidence that it’s going to. I’m afraid that learning to live with it is the best we can do, for now.

Take care,


P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to to subscribe.

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