Catching the travel bug

by Paris Norris
Stripes Korea

Editor’s Note: Paris Norris is a former soldier turned student who is studying in Korea. She is chronicling her time on the peninsula in Stripes Korea and Korea.Stripes.com.

Rushing from plane, to taxi, to train. There’s always something oh so satisfying about arriving in a new place and experiencing the unfamiliarity - a different dialect, a new language, unusual sounds - all elements that fully shaped my experiences during my travels while abroad.

When preparing for my studies abroad, traveling in Asia crossed my mind, but I never made any definite plans to visit other countries. I was set on exploring every inch of South Korea, which I have still yet to achieve.

The mention of traveling while abroad leads many people to believe that you must leave the country you’re in to truly “travel,” but this is simply untrue. While studying abroad in one country doesn’t mean you have to stay in that country your entire time abroad, why wouldn’t you want to get to know the place you’re calling home for the next 6 months?

I, myself, am guilty of not even visiting half of the states in the U.S., so I definitely don’t want to miss out on visiting as much of Korea as possible.

Not one too many

Many of the cities I have visited in Korea, I traveled to alone. I think traveling alone is an eye-opening experience and it’s a great way to meet new people and bond with your surroundings.

While I don’t advise traveling alone, I do enjoy taking short trips by myself. When I was enlisted in the Army, I would always take a road trip to cities closest to the post I was stationed. These trips were so close to my home city that it seemed more like I was visiting extensions of the city I spent most of my time in.

I was also encouraged to visit some of Korea’s national treasures and historical landmarks by professors who assigned group “field projects.” I don’t think I have ever enjoyed doing homework as much in my entire college career, thus far, as I do in Korea.

I was lucky enough to be assigned to a group with two other like-minded people as myself, and we decided to visit the Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple, both of which form a religious architectural complex in the city of Gyeong-ju.

My group members and I decided to stay in a hostel, which I always prefer rather than a hotel, because in my experience, hostels are more comfortable and accommodating. Not to mention, all of the different people you meet who are, like you, luxuriating their desire to wander the world. My journey to Gyeong-ju was a relaxing exploration, but my trip to Busan, South Korea’s second largest metropolitan area, was a wild and thrilling adventure.

Initially, I had planned to visit Busan on my own, but a group of my classmates were planning a weekend get-away after midterms. I was in desperate need of a vacation after a grueling week of exams, so when they offered that I tag along, I happily obliged. I was unaware that I was joining a group of nine people, all of whom were looking to have their own adventures in Busan.

The group’s travel arrangements were entrusted to one guy, whom I hardly knew, so I opted to make my own travel preparations. The group took the bus on Friday night and wouldn’t arrive until Saturday morning. I wanted to spend as much of my weekend in Busan as possible, so I purchased a KTX train ticket and arrived in Busan Friday evening alone.

I stayed in a cozy hostel nestled in Nam-gu near Kyungsung University, a district popular among young adults for its vibrant nightlife. I explored the area that night and met up with my classmates the next evening for dinner.

I must say, I don’t think I will ever again travel in such a large group. There was so much disorganization and chaos, as everyone wanted to do something different. There were those of us who wanted to eat seafood and tour the beach area of Haeundae and the rest of the group who wanted to spa in one of Busan’s renowned jjimjilbangs.

In the end, we decided to have dinner together, and we went to a carnival that we happen to pass by just before splitting up for the night. The rest of my weekend was spent alone exploring the Jagalchi Fish Market and various shopping areas nearby. Of all of the trips I have taken so far, Busan is the one trip I was more thankful than ever that I enjoy traveling solo.

Ready, set, go to Tokyo

With many of my classmates disappearing on the weekends to Thailand beaches and buzzing shopping districts in Hong Kong, I soon found myself longing to venture out beyond Korean borders.

Throughout the semester, a majority of my friends had already visited more than four other countries in Asia. With all of their stories of the fabulousity that is all of Asia, I too decided to get in on the action.

For this trip, I considered going alone, but being that I had never been to any other Asian countries and was unfamiliar with other cultures and languages, I decided it would be best if I was accompanied by someone I could have fun with and above all else, someone who could help me navigate and communicate in another country.

Luckily, one close friend and I had been discussing our recently developed travel bug, and we decided to visit Tokyo, Japan, before winter break. We were welcomed to the Narita International Airport and received help almost immediately with transportation to our hostel in Ryogoku.

Yes, even in luxurious Tokyo I opted to stay in what has to be the nicest hostel I’ve yet to stay in my entire life. Tokyo was a complete shock to my system. Everything from the language to the money and the cuisine was new and exciting. And thanks to my friend who speaks fluent Japanese, not overwhelming.

Tokyo has so much to offer. There is something that will appeal to almost everyone, be it sightseeing, excursions, or what my friend and I indulged in, possibly a little too much, shopping. Tokyo has some of the most interesting fashions and souvenir worthy items, it’s a wonder I didn’t spend my short-lived life savings during my five-day spree.

Perhaps the most thrilling part of being a tourist in Tokyo is all of the attractions that are setup for visitors. Tokyo has many themed restaurants and my friend and I visited a few ranging from a vampire café in Ginza to a robot restaurant in Shinjuku, which has to be the coolest thing I’ve seen in 2014.

Of course we visited the famous Harajuku, but the most unexpected and interesting part of our entire trip was the underground dance festival we stumbled upon. I like to think of myself as a non-conventional tourist. Whenever I travel, I like to go beyond the tourist attractions and actually experience life as a local doing things that locals do.

It’s so fascinating and enlivening to experience what life is like for another culture, even if only for a day, and it is because of my curiosity that my friend and I discovered the dance festival. Initially, we were looking for a popular nightclub the manager at our hostel suggested we visit. We ended up getting lost in the neighborhood and spotted a lot of people going into a dark building with tethering bass pounding from behind its brick walls.

We walked up to an olive-toned handsome guy who seemed very nervous to talk to us, because we weren’t Japanese. He told us there was an event happening inside and we were free to check it out, which, of course is what we decided to do.

The dance festival set the precedence for the remainder of our time in Tokyo. It was so pleasantly unexpected, we deemed that the theme of our trip: to welcome the uninvited an unplanned. Traveling to Tokyo was such an amazing experience; I’ve already begun planning my return later in the year.

Though I haven’t traveled much around Asia, traveling around Korea and even the districts in Seoul presented a new challenge in each place that I went. I was challenged to speak and communicate in different languages, taste the various cuisines, and explore the gems and relics every city is most proud of. Although I must say, I always enjoy coming back to the familiarity of Sinchon, my home in Seoul.

It’s amazing how much like home Seoul is beginning to feel. At this point, I wonder if returning back to the States is even an option for me. As travel writer and comedic actor Michael Palin says, “Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life.”

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