December 30, 2017
Checked in and waiting for our flight at the Santiago Airport, we were looking down the barrel of the grueling transit planned for the entirety of our trip: Santiago, Chile, to Delhi, India. What you don’t realize looking at two dimensional map of our planet, as we so often do, is that these two cities are almost exactly on opposite sides of the globe.
Because of this, it took us ages to decide how to get to Delhi. We could go east or west, and it wouldn’t dramatically increase the travel distance. So of course there were quite a few options, and when you give two scientists trained in optimization too many parameters you get a long forestalled decision. Ultimately though, we did what you would expect of backpackers, and optimized for cost.
We found a flight for only ~$500 that would get us to Seoul, South Korea from Santiago. This isn’t pretty. It involved a 12 hour flight to Auckland, a 5 hour layover there, followed by an 11 hour flight to Seoul. But the trick is, once you’re in Asia, getting around it isn’t nearly as expensive as getting there. From Seoul we used our Kris Flyer miles with Singapore Airlines to book one ticket, and paid for the other at $455. This got us to Delhi for a total of ~$1500 total, while booking an equivalent ticket from Santiago to Delhi would have easily cost that amount per person.
The catch of course, was that we left in the wee hours of Monday morning, and with three planes, three layovers, five cities, 33 hours of flight time, and the assistance of crossing the international dateline east to west, we weren’t scheduled to arrive in Delhi until almost 10 pm on Wednesday night.
Now, you might be wondering why we would haul our butts all the way around the planet instead of say, stopping in New Zealand, then Australia, and making our way over to India more progressively. The answer is: seasons. That was one of the biggest factors in scheduling our destinations. And we really didn’t want to be in India for the intense heat or rain that it can produce, among other conditions that could prove unpleasant elsewhere later on in the schedule.
The first flight from Santiago to Auckland was with LATAM, which has some reasonable food and is moderately generous with the (free) wine. Of course we still ended up hungry, and the cheapest filling food that we could find in Auckland airport were cheeseburgers at Burger King for $3.5 NZD.
The next flight to Seoul was on Korean Air, which I had never flown before, and proved delightful. Their food is pretty good, a step above LATAM (bibimbap? yes plz!), and they also serve ramen as a between-meal snack. I just punched the service button and got beer and ramen brought to me. That, my friends, is living the high life, literally and figuratively.
With three long flights, we planned in a bit of a break for ourselves, with about 17 hours in Seoul so that we could leave the airport, get dinner, sleep in an actual bed, and stretch our legs a bit before heading back for our final flight.
Now, remember how we just left Chile? Late sunny spring in South America? Well. It turns out, its bloody cold in South Korea in December. The high our last day in Santiago was 33 C. When we got off the plane in Incheon, it was -10 C. While we aren’t prepared to be out and about in weather like that for long, fortunately we had enough cold weather gear to get us to the hostel without dying (Dan had just bought a sweatshirt in Chile otherwise he would have been left with just a dress shirt and rain jacket as his only warm things).
Note that there’s an express train to Seoul from Incheon airport, but that fares can only be purchased with cash. There’s an ATM not too far from the train station entrance in Incheon, and the fare per person is 4650 Won, 500 of which is deposit you get back when you return your reusable fare card upon exit. The hostel we reserved was near the Hongik University metro stop, which was conveniently one of the stops on the Airport Express line, so we didn’t need to transfer.
The Easytrip Guest House where we stayed won several “strangest” awards, the first being that there was no one to greet us upon arrival. There was however, computer displaying all check-ins for the day, identifying our room and beds. It also mentioned a “handsome, but strict room manager” who it said was housed in our room.
As we were settling into our room, he showed up, and when it appeared it was going to be difficult to communicate with us in English (he didn’t speak much), he asked if we spoke Spanish.
No, no. Stop right there.
Remember how were on the exact opposite side of the planet now? How much more probable it is to find someone with English as a second language, than Spanish? And how we just coincidentally spent six months in Latin America practicing our Spanish? Where is 3PO, because I would like to know the odds on that one. Seriously. (Dan here: I would personally opt to ask K9 from the Tom Baker years of Doctor Who)
It turns out the room manager (who’s name we never got in the ensuing shock) had lived 15 years in Argentina and had just gotten back to Korea (his native country) three weeks prior. He also was totally unconcerned that we had done no official check in, not paid, or had a tour. He just showed us how to use the air conditioning, and left with his guitar slung across his back.
We found our way out for a tastey dinner nearby at Donsubaeg, where we ate a dish that involved putting meats and veggies into a bowl of hot broth (called what I can’t remember). On the way home we hit up a convenience store for some extra snacks. Never in my life have I seen so many types of ramen assembled in one place, let alone in a shop so small.
In the morning the computer screen at the entryway said that the included breakfast could be found a three minute walk away from the hostel, on the second floor at the given address. Feeling more and more as though we had been lost in a Korean Murakami novel where the hostel breakfast would be located in an alternated dimension that we would have to access my a magical elevator, we walked to the address, and finally found the hostel owner. The space on the second floor was a cafe that he also owns, and uses as co-working space and a common space for the hostel. Coffee though, had to be purchased, but with a 50% discount.
After breakfast we hopped the Airport Express back to Incheon, and to our plane without much fuss. It had started snowing heavily, but aside from a delay for de-icing the plane, it wasn’t a big deal. This last flight was on Air India. While AI doesn’t offer beer and ramen, it does have the best combo of filling and tasty for its meals, though the wine and whiskey are kind of terrible. Also, somehow it appeared to still be the 1970s on our airplane, which I kind of loved.
After a quick stop in Hong Kong where we weren’t allowed off the plane, we finally made it to Delhi a few hours late. And I thought the airport was maybe on fire? No. It turns out it was smog. The smog in Delhi actually has its own Wikipedia page. And it’s not just Delhi, the smog covers most of northern India during the winter due to urban pollution, agricultural burning, and a lack of wind and rain. It blankets everything, and in Delhi it’s considered to be a levels which are classified as hazardous or “airpocalypse“. Some of the best advice I found for coping with the smog, was to stay inside and keep the windows closed, and to walk on side streets instead of arterials.
The airport express train had closed for the night, so we took an Uber to our AirBnB in East Delhi. While we waited for our car, a persistent taxi driver kept telling us that Uber couldn’t be called from the airport, which was a load of BS. We had to cross to the metro station to meet our ride (entry to the airport proper is an extra fee), but its just a short walk within view of the arrivals area. Our Uber driver wasn’t very talkative, but he was very helpful when it turned out we had an incomplete address, and he called our hosts for us to get more specific instructions.
After a brief check in from our very patient hosts (we arrived past midnight), we showered and hit the hay… and proceed to sleep for over twenty hours straight. I didn’t even know my body could do that without being ill. We just slept the entirety of Thursday.
The place we got was lovely. With Christmas-gift money (a big thanks to my in-laws!) we splurged on an entire apartment for a few days.
Up and awake way too early on Friday (I was up at 1 am, Dan at 4 am), we made plans for the day, including getting our Japanese encephalitis vaccine. This was recommended to us by the travel doctor when we left DC, but its immunity only lasts for a year, so we waited, perhaps a bit too long, to get it done. We found a metro accessible travel clinic and headed over.
The metro was a bit different in Delhi. If you don’t buy a reusable fare card, the single use fare is a token that acts like a prox card. You can buy tokens or recharge your card from a person at a window. And queuing is… a little more loosey goosey in Delhi. What I learned is that if you aren’t hugged up to the backside of the person in front of you like a bridesmaid in a strapless dress on an unseasonably cold October day whose only hope of surviving the ceremony is unceremoniously cuddling the matron of honor’s butt… then someone is going to jump you in the queue. And someone may just jump the whole queue entirely anyway.
You also have to put your bag through and x-ray and go through a metal detector wand inspection to enter the metro. There is a separate line for men and for women for this procedure, and once through, then you can use your token to enter through the fare gate.
The TravelSafe clinic was actually located in the apartment of the doctor, an office being set aside from the doctor’s residence. From the signs we saw during our walks, it seems pretty common to have medical practices in apartment complexes like this. We were seen almost immediately as walk-ins and we paid 1500 rupees for each vaccination. We’ll be back to see this guy in a month to get our second round.
Wandering around Delhi was quite and experience. We had been told that Delhi was “crazy”. Crazy traffic, crazy dirty, overwhelming. Well, dirty it is, but crazy dirty? Not so much after what we’ve seen in certain parts of Latin America. But the traffic is legit nuts. It’s not just cars and trucks, its scooters, motorcycles, cyclists, pedestrians, vendors with carts, all moving along fighting for space on the same streets. It is easily the worst traffic we have seen so far, and the most constant honking (Peru comes in second for the honking). Thank goodness there’s metro to get around!
Also, they also call the metro drop off area for the metro a “Halt & Go,” which is so much more sensible than the “Kiss & Go” terminology used for the DC area metro.
Back in DC Dan had been working at the National Institute for Standards and Technology or NIST. They’re the people who tell you exactly how long a meter is, make atomic clocks, and sell things like standardized peanut butter and cigarettes. So the both of us had a little chuckle once when getting off the metro we saw a sign for NIFT, the National Institute for Fashion Technology.
And of course we did a bit of grocery shopping and discovered this fascinating substance called “shrikhana”. It’s basically cream (“milk solids”) and sugar (40% sugar in fact, yikes), and the particular one we got was cardamom flavored. It’s super viscous and very delicious, but definitely to be consumed in moderation, or per manufacturer instructions “anytime… or directly from the container”.
One evening our AirBnB hosts took us out to dinner, which was incredibly sweet of them and totally unexpected. They live in the apartment below the one we were staying in, and the invited us down to meet the family before heading out for a meal. This seems to be a mark of Indian culture: very generous hospitality.
They took us to the Salt Cafe where we had our first traditional Indian meal in India. Very exciting for us. India seemed like such a daunting change of pace for us, but of course, it wasn’t so scary after all. In fact, it was very friendly! A big thank you to Hershi and her family for their warmth and generosity.
On Sunday it was suddenly time for another change of pace: the beginning of my 4-week 200 hour yoga teacher training course at Rishikesh Yogpeeth. Since Dan doesn’t have much interest in yoga, we decided that he should go adventuring about on his own while I attended my course in Rishikesh. So for the month of January, Dan will be posting his adventures, while I will compose a single post detailing my experiences at the end of the training. Stay tuned for Dan’s next post!