Odyssey of love and healthThere was a man.
He was the son of a poor farmer.
He worked at a bank after graduating from high school.
He worked hard.
After 27 years he finally became a branch manager, which he’d long dreamed of.
But suddenly his wife collapsed.
It was from a rare case of a disease, a form of lupus.
It is a disease caused when the body’s antibodies are overactive and destroy even normal cells.
It could not be easily cured.
He resigned from his job.
Now his reason for living is to heal his wife.
There was a woman.
She met and married a man working in a bank.
She gave birth to two daughters.
For over 20 years she looked after her family.
One day she fainted in her bed.
She stayed in the hospital for two years.
Sometimes her condition became critical.
The only way to live, she was told, was to change her environment and improve her physical constitution.
Her husband resigned from his job.
He said “Let’s go and live in the forest.”
The woman said she would like the forest but that she would love to travel to a faraway place, just once, before she dies.
A couple travels the world for the benefit of a sick wife
“They must be crazy.”
That’s what everyone said when Choi Oh-gyun, 56, and his wife, Park Jeong-hui, 55, announced they were going backpacking in Europe for a month. Many folks told Mr. Choi, “You want to make your wife ill or something?” but the couple persisted. This was back in November 1998.
Fast forward five years. This past June Mr. Choi published a collection of travel diary entries he and his wife kept as they meandered through 40 countries since 1998. This book, called “Leave When You Are In Love,” contains stories on their excursions in Europe, the United States and Mexico. If circumstances permit, the couple plans to produce another book on their wanderings in India, Nepal, Australia, New Zealand and Egypt.
When Mr. Choi quit his bank job in 1998, his wife could not move well, never mind contemplate independent travel. They explored medical approaches both Western and oriental and visited several renowned physicians. Mr. Choi nodded when his wife one day suggested “Let’s go on a trip” but in his heart he didn’t think it was feasible.
When Mr. Choi began to attend to his wife’s health on a daily basis, she began to show signs of improvement. While in the hospital, Ms. Park sought out her husband more than her mother or children. That is why, even though he had just been promoted and had 10 years until retirement, Mr. Choi left his job. His wife could barely walk and was in no shape to travel.
Ms. Park had been suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, rheumatism and weak thyroid glands, and took more than 10 pills a day, in addition to four shots of insulin. The doctor advised the couple that Ms. Park’s sickness would worsen if she gets stressed out “so let her do whatever she wants.” Those words prompted the couple to begin planning their overseas travel.
Before packing up, Ms. Park wrote out her will to her two daughters, who were in college at the time. The healthier Mr. Choi also penned a will, believing that if something terrible befell his wife during the trip, “I didn’t think I could bear it.” For the couple, their trip was no mere outing; it was an adventure.
The couple’s first crisis came in Vienna, Austria. While admiring the sunset during a stroll along the Danube River, Ms. Park lost consciousness. The cause was low blood sugar from her diabetes.
With hands trembling, Mr. Choi gave his pale wife some chocolate, melting it first in his mouth before feeding it to his partner. Only afterward did he give her a shot of insulin. After 20 minutes of what seemed like hell, his wife regained consciousness. She smiled, and he reached out to hug her.
After this startling incident, Mr. Choi wanted to pack their bags and return home. But his wife refused, saying, “My illnesses will not be cured by being home or at a hospital.”
In other words, Ms. Park loved traveling. For example, one month after giving birth to her first child, she begged her husband to take her to the West Sea near Incheon.
After her first trip abroad, Ms. Park’s health began to show signs of rebounding. She no longer had insomnia or felt depressed. Instead of relying on her husband to administer shots and pills, she took them herself.
Several months after their first overseas excursion, Ms. Park told her husband, “I think the effect of the travel medicine has worn off.” Mr. Choi laughed off the comment but inside felt troubled. He immediately set out to organize another trip abroad. Since then, the couple has traveled at least twice a year.
Being on the road with a sick person provides moments of anxiety and fear. While at a San Francisco youth hostel and while trekking with a medical volunteer group through the jungles of Nepal, Ms. Park lost consciousness. But even her husband could not ask her to return home. He began to feel proud of his wife, whose spirits were lifted by her exposure to new environments and people. He adored her for being so brave, for finding hope from their travels.
Their trips were not always fraught with difficulty and distress, and there were lighter moments. In Barcelona, Spain, the lights of an entire hotel floor blacked out while they attempted to cook ramen from a coffee pot. While on a train in India, they had to subsist on a bowl of ramen for 16 hours because the train had no snack booth. On a climb up a foggy 2,918-meter (9,570-foot) Mount Olympus in Greece, a white dog appeared and showed them an easier path up the mountain. The experience left an indelible impression on the couple.
The couple will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary on Nov. 11. On that day, they plan to be in South America. If Ms. Park’s health permits, they hope to reach Africa.
“My wife’s illness has been a blessing to us as a couple,” Mr. Choi says. “If she wasn’t ill, we would not think of traveling so much and I would never have known the love that I have for my wife.”
Tips for couples traveling abroad
The first bit of advice Ms. Park and Mr. Choi extend to any couple planning on long-term overseas travel is simple: practice speaking.
If a couple leads a hectic life where they rarely have time to speak to one another, then goes on a trip abroad where their free time together suddenly grows, fights are likely to break out, they explain. This is especially true of middle-aged and older couples.
“I have heard of a lot of couples, who are unable to handle the sudden time alone together, fight throughout their trip,” Ms. Park says. “They ruin their time together and decide to quit early.”
A backpacking-style trip makes the ideal form of travel for one-on-one bonding, the couple explains, whereas if a couple travels in a group, there is an overemphasis on the touring and learning about culture. This limits the travelers’ ability to gain a firm understanding of the meaning of travel abroad.
“If you really want to go on a trip with a group, use a travel agency connected with the desired destination and go on a program managed by them,” Mr. Choi says. “This will also help you meet people from a variety of countries and create unique friendships.”
Using youth hostels and other cheap forms of lodging is another way of becoming a stylish middle-aged couple.
“Though I have met many older foreigners at youth hostels, I have never met any middle-aged Koreans,” Ms. Park says. “Also, people who use these sorts of facilities, starting with the youngsters, can experience great travel experiences while saving extra money.”
The couple admonishes others to refrain from bringing Korean food such as rice, ramen, hot pepper paste and soy sauce along, as this will prevent them from experiencing a country’s food culture. “Before, we used to bring a few packages of ramen, but now we don’t bring anything,” Mr. Choi says, adding “It is especially imperative that you leave the soju at home.”
by Kim Sun-ha
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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