Back to Life, Back to Reality

Remember this Soul II Soul song? 

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So, we’re adapting back to life in the U.S. and it feels great to be back. Lots of people have asked us the same questions.

Do you wish you were still out there on the road? 
 

Actually, no. We were ready to come home – the timing felt just right. After all, one year is a very long time, and it felt like the longest year of our lives. In our normal working lives the weeks and months fly by but in our travel lives we were experiencing different things every day – we made it count.

Would you do it again?
 

While there are so many more places in the world we still want to travel to, we’re not interested in traveling for an entire year again. It’s sort of like an itch that had to be scratched…and now we’ve scratched it. Having wanted to go to so many of these places for so many years, in some ways I feel like I just went on an all-out binge, and now I’m ready to detox! Ha.

How are we settling back into life in the U.S.? Any reverse culture shock?
 

I can’t say we’ve experienced it, though we got a huge kick out of certain things upon our return. We touched down for three days in Honolulu before flying into New York to spend time with my family, and then Maryland to spend time with Root’s family.  We were delighted to walk around with the benefit of real sidewalks and streetlights again. Just walking a few blocks and crossing the street was a real challenge in Asia, without the benefit of the infrastructure we take for granted in America where the government has the wealth and will to do more to enhance the quality of life for its citizens.

One night we went out to dinner and found the waitress to be incredibly jarring. The kind of service we’re accustomed to in America – it’s so different from the rest of the world. It didn’t take but a minute for the server to come over and loudly welcome us, introduce herself and give us the run down of specials. Ordering was simple – she understood ever word we said. She checked on us periodically through the meal. Everything we ordered came quickly. We were able to pay for the meal with a credit card (in fact – we could now use plastic again to pay for EVERYTHING.) The whole experience just made us laugh.

Other things… we get to wear jeans again! And other clothes too! The Internet and indoor plumbing – it works! Everything is just so damn easy.

Consumer Culture, and Having STUFF Again

The other striking thing about home to us was stores. We walked into a CVS to pick up a couple things and it felt massive. Clean and neat with nice wide aisles, and dozens of shampoos to choose from, and so brightly lit! A light bulb went on over my head: this whole operation is set up to make you want to BUY. It’s powerful, it's all shiny and gleaming and it draws you in. Nevermind whether or not you really need all these things… you WANT them… you’re subconsciously tricked into wanting stuff. 

By the time we were ready to move into a temporary rental in D.C. we had accumulated so much stuff we were overwhelmed and stressed. There was the suitcase of stuff we left at my parent's house, a suitcase of stuff we left at Root’s parent's (that didn’t fit into our storage pod), a large duffle bag of things I had bought around the world and mailed home, Root’s tools and laptop and other misc things we left at his parent’s house, Christmas gifts, and more. We had to rent a car to travel from New York to Maryland. We had to have Root’s parents follow us in their car to our D.C. rental because we couldn’t fit everything in our Mini Cooper. (OK, so the car doesn’t fit much, but still…)

It all makes you realize what a double-edged sword it is. Stuff makes you happy, but it’s also a huge burden.
 

Americans are incredibly attached to their stuff, and we’re not immune to it either. But it’s something we’re committed to keeping in check as we move towards settling down again.

The whole tiny house movement is so fascinating to me (Google “tiny house” to see what I’m talking about) as a reaction to out-of-control consumerism. So instead of working yourself to death to afford a huge house and all it’s associated costs and fill it with loads of stuff you don’t even have the time to enjoy, you buy a tiny house and focus on getting more out of life. 

First World Medical Care

If you’re a faithful reader of this blog, you know by now how much more we value our health and medical care. On Christmas morning, we had to take my sweet 94-year-old grandmother to the hospital…she had developed some kind of infection. She had a fever and couldn’t keep any food down. It was heartbreaking to see her like this but within a couple of hours at the hospital her fever was down and she was getting excellent care. A nice woman walked into her room at one point who was the hospitality coordinator. She was there to take care of non-medical things for my grandmother – like making sure her phone and TV worked – all in an effort to make her more comfortable.

I was floored. First World medical care… it’s like a fantasy world compared to some of the places we visited. (And by the way my grandmother is fine and doing just great now!)

Two-Month Breather

We realized it didn’t exactly make sense to come home for the holidays and rush to see everyone and jump right into the road trip. We decided to take a two-month break in D.C. to catch our breath, visit more with family and friends, make a little money to build back the bank account, and get things in order before heading out West. Our plan now is to get on the road on March 1 and spend around four weeks driving our car out to Portland, Oregon. We’ll take a Southerly route, stopping in places like Savanna and New Orleans, Arizona and New Mexico. Hopefully, the weather will be a bit warmer too – we are so cold here !! 

New Digs

We found a great furnished rental through Airbnb.com. We have the top (attic) floor of a house off 16th Street, 7 blocks from downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. The owner rents out two other rooms in the house so it feels like a cross between a group house, homestay and a hostel. There were two guys from Paris who stayed for a week, and there's a guy from San Diego who is re-locating to D.C. It’s really quiet though, and the owner isn’t here much. It felt strange at first, but I knew that feeling would go away within a few days. After traveling so much last year our ability to adapt is greater than ever, and I noticed after a few days somewhere I settled in. In some places I felt so comfortable, I really didn’t want to leave.

(ABOVE: The room we're currently staying in – in D.C.)

Working World

Root is consulting with the same company he was working for before we left. I am trying something new – volunteering for a non-profit and helping them with marketing communications, fundraising and events. I’m not gonna lie… sitting down to work for eight hours is hard, but we’re adjusting back to that old and familiar routine. Still, we’re taking Fridays off to have time for the other things.

So Much Has Happened

Catching up with family and friends, we know we’re not the only ones who experienced major life events. While we were half a world away life went on. Our nieces grew up. People broke up. There were health problems, new pregnancies, new jobs, new engagements, and so much more. A lot can happen in year, no matter where you are.

What Feels Different

Imagine you’re having a great time at a New Year’s party at your friend’s house. You’re planning to crash there but at some point you learn your car has been towed. Bummer, right? This actually happened to us, and you know it sucked and it was expensive too. But I just shook my head, half-laughed and said to Root “Man – we’re back home and we’re STILL dealing with stuff like this.” And he said, “Yeah, but we’ve dealt with so much worse.”

At my core, I don’t feel like a different person, but my perspective has changed radically. While traveling the world is one way to do this, you don’t need to go on a trip like we did to gain new perspective. All you have to do is venture a little bit outside “your bubble.” Challenge yourself to break your routine, try something new, meet new people, become a mentor or volunteer, seek new knowledge or gain a new skill, go out into nature and get some quiet time alone, keep a journal, turn off the TV and read more, talk to your grandparents. 

The perspective I’ve gained from the trip is the thing I value the most. It’s like I’ve been given a pair of new glasses in which to see the world. I got out of my bubble for a little while and now I appreciate certain things more and some things less. I get upset by certain things more and some things less. I know that travel, as in life, is filled with ups and downs and that’s the awful beautiful reality. I hope I never lose that perspective.

 

 

Year in Review: Beth’s Thoughts

I’m on the plane right now on our last flight from Honolulu to New York. I’m in a good mood even though I’m enduring a 9-hour cramped coach ride, flanked by two crying babies. The guy in front of me immediately reclined his seat all the way back (leaving about 3 inches from my nose to the seat) and he is farting non-stop. (I’m not kidding! Don’t laugh at my pain – I hear you!!) It’s so bad I have my earplugs in my nose.

I’m looking forward to seeing family and friends while I’m reviewing the year’s events in my mind. What did it all mean and how do I feel? 

Santorini, Greece. Some places really are as beautiful as you imagine.

I can tell you that it’s a powerful thing – and such a privilege – to see the world. Experiencing these far away places firsthand and fulfilling the dream to travel has made me feel more complete. Watching and reading news from around the world feels more tangible… it makes more sense to me. Setting out to do something bold and accomplishing it has brought a real feeling of satisfaction.

At the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

There were so many challenging and rewarding moments. You know the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” I can’t tell you how true that is. Certainly nothing had ever tested our marriage so much. But one year later, we’ve learned how to navigate the daily tasks of life on the road and how to cope and support each other when things go wrong. 

So Many Moments

Tri-shaw driver, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Astonishing...

Seeing a billion stars at night while camping in Uganda.

Amusing…

Negotiating to buy things in India.

Breathtaking…

Whale-watching in Kaikoura.

Scary…

Turning a corner near Taksim Square and walking into a wall of riot police.

Love locks on a bridge in Amsterdam.

Heart-Warming…

Sitting down to a home-cooked meal made by Wanchuk’s Mom in Sikkim.

Heart-Stopping…

Enduring a rollercoaster-like ride dubbed “dune bashing” in the desert near Abu Dhabi.

Surprising…

Finding a snake in our bathroom in Bali.

Peaceful…

Floating six miles up in a hot air balloon in Cappadocia.

Ornate tile work at Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.



Eye-Opening…

Learning about the genocide in Rwanda.

Mesmerizing…

Watching the hand and body movements of traditional dancers in Southeast Asia.

Mouthwatering…

Eating street food in Penang.

Fun…

Dancing on a bar on my 40th birthday in Zanzibar.

Shocking…

Walking around Delhi, India.

Frustrating…

Our main camera lens breaking just as we entered the Serengeti.

A water lantern display with 'supertrees' in the background in Singapore.

Traumatic…

Getting into a car accident in Sikkim.

Enlightening…

Witnessing various religious rituals across Asia and the Middle East.

A billion stars lit up the sky while camping in Uganda.

Meaningful Connections

At a local orphanage in Nairobi, we met Caroline, a girl my parents have sponsored for the last seven years. 

More than sightseeing, our travels provided an opportunity to interact with people and experience local life around the world. When language barriers meant few words could be exchanged, it’s remarkable how far a friendly smile, wave or acknowledging look went towards bridging the communication gap. I recall the conversation we had with a young man in Mumbai who later emailed me some of his favorite songs. The family we stayed with at a homestay in Indonesia. The women I danced with in Rwanda and the girl my parents sponsor in Kenya. The school children we met in Chiang Mai. The young warriors of the Masai tribe I let listen to my iPod. The men we played hackeysack with in Myanmar. 

Woman in a market in Luang Prabang, Laos.

School girls in India.

My Favorite Place?

A bowl of asam laksa, a fish-based noodle soup, in Penang.

It’s a hard question to answer because each place was so totally unique. How can you compare for example, New Zealand to India? You appreciate them in different ways for very different reasons. And yet still, you have your personal favorites.

The reasons why you love or hate a place can be hard to articulate why. It’s the sights, the sounds, the smells, the people, the culture… it’s just a feeling you get from being there.

My Top 5


JAIPUR, INDIA
Also known as “the pink city,” the buildings here are made with pink-painted sandstone. The streets are full of life and color with cows and camels mixed in with the tuk tuks and trucks. We had one seriously heart-stopping tuk tuk ride, saw a Bollywood film at an old movie palace, and a fun time negotiating with the shopkeepers.

A gate into the old city of Jaipur, India.

Dancer in Ubud, Indonesia.

UBUD, BALI, INDONESIA
“Enchanting” is the perfect word to describe Ubud. Known as the spiritual and cultural capital of Bali, there are countless temples, ceremonies and dances every night of the week. Women make offerings of flowers and incense and place them in spirit houses and on sidewalks. There’s a real community here (not all tourists) and chain businesses and clubs aren’t permitted. Take a walk through the rice paddies or monkey forest, eat at an organic café or take a yoga class… and enjoy.

INLE LAKE, MYANMAR
Inle Lake was one of the most scenic, unique and friendly places we visited. Here we witnessed local life in floating villages, the fisherman who row boats with one leg, ancient stupas and monasteries, floating markets and gardens.

Life on the water in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

SERENGETI, TANZANIA
Shortly after entering the Serengeti we stopped at a viewpoint. The view was incredible. It was that classic African landscape you could see for miles and miles and miles. It was one of those moments where you tear up and think “I made it here… I’m actually here and it was worth every difficult step.”

Looking out onto the Serengeti.

PRAGUE, CZECHOSLOVAKIA
I fell in love with every corner of the city and could not put my camera down. The elegant art and architecture and the old bridges and churches were lovely.

Pretty Prague.

Like a Dream

Now that we’re back, and everything is so familiar and comfortable again, it almost seems like a dream. Only the dream actually came true. I would say to anyone reading this that it’s incredibly empowering to take steps towards filling in whatever feels “missing” in your life. It’s incredibly empowering to make your biggest dreams a reality. What are your dreams?

John Lennon Wall in Prague.


THE BLOG CONTINUES IN 2015

Look for more posts about our adventures in Southeast Asia, as well as the rest of our photo galleries in the coming months.

Year in Review: Jon's Thoughts

“What was your favorite place?” It’s the hardest question because they were all my favorites. Each of them had their high points and low points, and together they make an incredible story filled with places, people, and adventures. Looking back at our Photo of the Week collection is incredible and just reminds me of our year-long unforgettable adventure.

Before we started, I had visions of far off lands with fantastical jungle temples, and stunning vistas. With the year of travel behind me, I still have those visions, but they are filled with real memories, and context. It shattered ideas and conceptions I had about the world, and spawned so many new ideas and thoughts. A bit like knowing how the magician performs his act, it doesn’t ruin the show but gives a new perspective. The Taj Mahal is no longer just a stunning building but is situated amid the noise, dirt, and life of India. The Serengeti is not just the domain of lions, but also the realm of the guides, safari cars, and the Masai. Of all the souvenirs, photos, and memories we brought home with us, the most valuable thing we gained is this context and perspective. It makes the world a more real, complete place. It makes perfect sense, but it takes real experience for it to click. Of course people live near the temples of Angkor Wat, and on the Masai Mara. These things exist in a vacuum only in their portrayal on TV, or in that vision in your mind.

Traveling has made these places really real, no longer just an idea, but a real, in-the-flesh experience. 

Taking care of an elephant in Chiang Mai, Thailand

As important, if not more so, was the experience of being with my wife all year long. Many would not have made it, spending as much time as we did together. We’ve come to know, trust, love, and rely on one another so much more this year. We’ve joked that this year must count as at least 5 years of marriage because we’ve been so inseparable. The other night in Hawaii we were walking back from dinner, and Beth mentioned that she had no idea where our hostel was. Navigation has been my job and she just didn’t pay attention to that anymore trusting me to get us around. Just as I’ve come to rely on her for all sorts of things like remembering what time things are, or finding incredible things to do. The longest we were apart was a few hours when I went back to Dubai to get a replacement lens for the camera. Not that there haven’t been some ups and downs, just like with everything else on the trip, but the closeness, support, and knowledge of one another has grown immensely during our travels. I couldn’t have done any of this without her, and it would have been half the experience if I was alone. Plus I would have missed breakfast every single day since I would have forgotten what time it was.

Home cooked meal at Pemla's 

Meeting the people of the world has been an eye-opening and heartwarming adventure in and of itself. Those who so lovingly invited us into their homes like Pemla and Trish, to those we met only in passing, and our friends and family we met up with along the way, all have left their stamp on our travels. Having a chance to interact with people has taught us a lot about the world. Meeting a group of women in Rwanda who lived through the genocide, and playing hackey-sack with a family living in a floating village of Inle Lake in Myanmar, are memories just as precious as seeing the Taj Mahal. Having the chance to stay with Pemla and Wanchuk’s extended family made Sikkim so much more of a special place, and one of the unexpected high-points of the entire trip. 

Thinking back over all that we did this year, it’s hard to believe it all. Beth and I reminisce about things like when we had dinner at the Rock in Zanzibar, or saw the sunset in Santorini. There were tough times too. Like when I had a stomach bug in Ubud, or when Beth got Malaria in Kenya. Blended together, the challenges and amazing moments were like different spices in a stew that emphasized and strengthened the whole.

The Rock restaurant in Zanzibar

If traveling were easy would it be worth it? The difficulties make it more of an achievement, and the struggles and victories make it all the more real. 

 

Travel is experience, difficulty, accomplishment, enjoyment, and reality. What we had the chance to experience this year made the world a more real and even more fantastical place than I ever thought. The whole thing is my favorite place. Ups, downs, places, people, and most important of all, life.

Kids wave from their house in Inle Lake, Myanmar


THE BLOG CONTINUES IN 2015

Look for more posts about our adventures in Southeast Asia, as well as the rest of our photo galleries in the coming months.

The Ups and Downs of Travel

For every blog post we publish I have at least five more in my head. I’ve been writing this particular one in my head all year and I just can’t let the year end without sharing it with you. 

When Maya Angelo passed away in May, a friend posted a quote of hers on Facebook whereby she poetically described the extraordinary ups and downs in her life:

"I had a lot of clouds, but I had so many rainbows."
 

And it’s funny because only a couple weeks earlier I‘d thought about this as a way to describe the ups and downs of round-the-world, long-term travel. The tough moments are inextricably linked to the amazing ones, in the same way that rainbows are not possible without rain, and rain not possible without clouds. In other words, you have to weather some storms to see the rainbows. And when you do, it’s brilliant.

A rainbow in Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii

When we set out to do this thing, I knew it’d be tough. I figured it’d be the hardest thing I’d ever done. I expected there would times when things would just completely suck. But my attitude was, “bring it on, I’m ready.”

Well, it was even tougher than I imagined.

Before we even left the country:

One day we rented some mountain bikes to explore the caves and otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia. We were having the most amazing day and had paused to take a photo when I heard a horrible sound: “Ssssssssss…..”  My front tire went flat, and we were a very, very long way from town. We had no other choice but to walk the bike all the way back. Minutes later a freakish fierce wind and rainstorm blew in, making the experience that much more enjoyable. When we told the guy we rented the bikes from about the tire he rudely barked, “Oh, and you think that’s my fault?”

Riding bikes in Cappadocia, Turkey

One morning in the Serengeti, we were supposed to be packed and ready to go on a game drive by 6:00 and forgot to set our alarm. Someone came to our tent and woke us up. We panicked and got ready quick but I was horrified at the thought of holding up our entire group for this special day. You could feel the resentment in the air and I just wanted to crawl up into a ball somewhere and die. Then we drove out into the savanna and saw the most beautiful sunrise I’d ever seen. The sun was an orange red ball rising in the classic African landscape – it was breathtaking. Every day in Africa was like this… highs and lows, with moments that both amazed and tested us.

Sunrise in the Serengeti

In Istanbul it was pouring rain on the day we were headed to the airport to fly to Prague. We were walking the old streets of the city with our backpacks, trying to get a taxi. The taxi drivers guys are notorious for trying to rip you off, so we had to talk with three before getting one to agree on a reasonable price. As I went to open the car door and get in, I stepped in a hole in the street masked by a puddle of rainwater and fell. I sprained my ankle and immediately felt the pain, both physically and emotionally. How was I going to walk around Prague – a city I had so desperately wanted to visit for the past 20 years – like this?

A rainbow in Prague

Singapore’s most famous icon is the half-lion, half-fish Merlion, seen here under renovation

Here’s a classic one… you make your way over to see a major site and it’s closed or under renovation. Like the time we went to see the famous Merlion in Singapore.

Or you don’t even make it there. Yesterday in Hawaii, a guy in our dorm room told us he was looking so forward to visiting this spectacular waterfall. He trekked for nearly five hours through steep, muddy terrain and dense forest and never found it.

The disappointment you feel when things like this happen is amplified when you’ve traveled so far from home to see or experience this thing. So the question is…how do you deal with it?

Some say you can protect yourself from disappointment by lowering your expectations. Or you can look for what’s positive about the situation or what you learned from it and feel grateful for the experience. You can simply shrug and laugh it off. Or move immediately to solving the problem.

My feeling is – it’s ok to have great expectations and it’s ok to feel upset when these things happen; maybe even whine and complain a little bit – you’re human. 
 

But you do have to move on and get over it. You do have to accept that these things are part of the travel experience. Travel and vacation are two different things. A round-the-world trip will yield extraordinary experiences but it won’t resemble anything like a vacation.

Still, there is one thing that solves practically everything: TIME.
 

When things go wrong, or the weather turns bad, when you get sick or lost… it’s no problem when you have more time (or the flexibility to modify your plans). I was laid up for two days in Prague but all was not lost since we had planned 10 days there. The weather was windy when we originally planned our hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia but we had time to re-schedule it on a better day. In Laos we weren’t so lucky when we waited until our last day to take a boat ride on the Mekong and couldn’t because we had fallen sick the night before. 

Time not only solves things… it heals and transforms.
 

With enough time, your most frustrating moments morph into your funniest travel stories. Your scariest moments reveal strength you didn’t know you had. Your awe-inspiring moments outweigh the awful ones in your memory. And you feel gratitude. You really do.

Moments | November 30

Sharing little moments, thoughts and stories with you.

Traveling and vacationing are two different things. Since January we’ve been traveling the world, seeing fantastic sites, and experiencing so many different things, but it hasn’t always been easy. A vacation is calming and relaxing, where everything is simple. Here in the islands of Thailand, we’ve taken some time to relax and reflect back on all that has happened this year. Sitting at a bar on the beach, watching the sunset and remembering all that we’ve done has been quite a welcome “vacation from traveling.”  

Before we really relaxed, we stopped off at the high-energy all-night party island of Phi Phi. It was amazing how the entire main town on the island is dedicated to drinks and house music. You can buy literal buckets of alcohol everywhere, and every other store is either a tattoo parlor or massage place. The beach at night is lit up with fire shows set to the techno and party music from the bars. Though it was a blast drinking the night away watching the beach-side spectacle, we weren’t too disappointed to move on. 

A quick ferry ride away was the more chilled-out island of Koh Lanta. Cozy mellow bars on the beach play great mixes, and serve fantastic cocktails while the sun puts on a show each evening over the ocean. The sunsets here have been the best we’ve seen all year long.

Things were a bit rough when we arrived in Koh Lanta. Immediately we both got sick, and spent the first few days in our room. Then the rains washed out a few more days. Disappointed our week had melted away and feeling so drawn to the relaxing beach vibe, we did the only sensible thing, stay longer. We extended our visa and decided to stay an extra 10 days. It has been completely worth it.

We got a massage here on the beach

It seems fitting that the last stop on our trip is one of the first things we thought about doing. Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia has always been a fascination. After seeing so many temples and religious places throughout our trip, it only makes sense to end with the largest one in the world.

Till next time,
Jon

Moments | November 15

Sharing little moments, thoughts and stories with you.

We’re relaxing in the islands of Thailand after some illuminating moments in Chiang Mai. We timed our visit with the Yi Peng and Loy Krathong Festivals – also known as the Festival of Light. The whole city was lit up with sky lanterns, floating lanterns, hanging lanterns and fireworks. You know when you’re somewhere where you can clearly see the stars? Imagine a night sky filled with hundreds of tiny golden lights instead of stars, and that’s what the sky looked like in Chiang Mai for three nights.

Sky lanterns are like small hot air balloons…you wait until they fill with smoky hot air and then simply let go!

The krathong we placed in the river. Krathongs and sky lanterns symbolize the drifting away of bad luck and misfortune and signal a fresh start.

Mango sticky rice…I could live on this.

I have a slight, possibly serious addition to mango, so the very first thing I ate in Thailand was mango sticky rice. We learned how to make it in a cooking class at Thai Cookery School. I can’t wait to try and replicate some of these Asian dishes at home. When using a wok it’s amazing how little cooking time is involved – the hardest part is getting all your ingredients chopped and ready to go.

And we learned about something else I have a certain affection for…elephants. We met one named Thxng Phechr (pronounced “tong-pet” which means “golden diamond”) at Baanchang Elephant Park. The park is a sanctuary for rescue elephants and has a program called Elephant Day Care. So we didn’t ride the elephant or see it do circus tricks…we actually took care of it for a day while our guide taught us all about the needs, behaviors, characteristics and qualities of elephants. It’s fascinating how much they are like people. Touching the skin of our elephant (3 inches thick), feeding and bathing him – was one of the coolest experiences of my life. 

Taking our elephant out for a walk through the forest. If he stopped for too long or tried to eat something it shouldn’t we learned what commands to say to keep him going.

On another day we got up close and personal with people in Chiang Mai, learning about street life portraiture on a photo tour with Alan. We met monks and market ladies, seamstresses and silversmiths, and then there were these adorable school children. After allowing us to take some photos of them they started gathering little flowers and presenting them to us – so sweet! They had fun putting some flowers in my hair and snapping some photos of us too.

These flowers seemed to transform me into Jack Nicholson.

One of the girls, me, and Alan.

Educational activities continued with a two-day meditation retreat. I was curious to learn more about this ancient practice and its place within Buddhism. We focused on “mindful meditation” and learned how to do this sitting, standing, walking and lying down. It’s pretty simple really, but the point is not to zone out. The point is to be aware of your thoughts – to be mindful of them. Whatever activity you might do to exercise your body, this is an exercise for your mind.

For me the most magical moment was the sitting meditation we did outside at 5:30 am while the sun was rising. It was so peaceful hearing the sounds of nature around us and I relaxed into the thought that I could sit still without any expectation to do anything…this was exactly where I was supposed to be.

At the meditation retreat - everyone wears all white. 

Part of the program allows for a “monk chat” – an opportunity to ask a monk questions about their daily life, meditation techniques, Buddhism, etc. So I asked about something that has puzzled and troubled me in temples I’ve visited in Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia. Why are some temples and inner sanctuaries off-limits for women? What are the roots and reasons for this tradition? And do these physical restrictions limit women’s ability to access the divine?

I was really disappointed with the answer I got which boiled down to “because I'm a man I don’t concern myself with these things” and “that’s just the way it is.” Researching it further, it seems the practice stems from a monk’s vow of celibacy. Women aren’t allowed to touch monks, and even our close proximity in special areas is considered a threat. Women are not allowed to visit some temples at all when menstruating. I found this simultaneously hilarious and infuriating. It’s based on the belief that during this time women are impure. (Sigh.) It seems the path to enlightenment needs some illuminating.

Till next time,
Beth

Moments | November 2

Sharing little moments, thoughts and stories with you.

After racing around for much of the first half of the year, we have taken to traveling more slowly for the second half. Our recent trip from Bagan to Mandalay however was the slowest travel yet. It was a 13 ½ hour boat ride along the muddy Irrawaddy River, which gave us plenty of time to watch the pastoral life along the banks flow past. This is much more interesting than walking through another generic airport, and we didn’t even have to go though security to get on board.

Life on the Irrawaddy River.

Arriving at the “pier” in the dark at 5 am, we were grateful for the help getting our bags on board the boat. Especially since the “pier” was two wooden planks that reached from the muddy river bank to the deck of the boat. We were also amused that even though there was seating for at least 80 people, there were only 7 travelers including us on the entire trip. Things started to drag a bit after 10 hours or so, but it was still much more comfortable and interesting to take the slow boat than another flight.

The boarding boards.

Speaking of comfort, of all the hostels we stayed in this year there have only been two we abandoned. The first was in Penang because of bed bugs. The second was recently in Bagan. We arrived and even though we had confirmed our reservation twice ahead of time they didn’t have a room for us. They had to ask someone to move. By the time our room was ready there had been a torrential rainstorm and the power had gone out. This meant the A/C in our room wasn’t working but at least they had a generator and a fan in the room to make it just barely tolerable. When the room started to fill up with bugs and mosquitos, we realized there were giant holes in the room’s small windows. At least the fan was keeping some of the mosquitos at bay, that is until the generator went out leaving us to swelter in our tiny little room with the mosquitoes. 

It was quite a different experience a week later arriving at the Bangkok Marriott. We managed to get five nights in luxury with electricity, air conditioning and a fantastic bath tub with hotel points and gift cards we’d received from our family for Christmas. When it came time to do laundry, we dropped it off at a local laundry service a block away where they washed everything for what the Marriott would have charged to wash a t-shirt and a half. For meals, we checked out the local street food.

Some of the money we saved we had to spend at the hospital because I took too many photos in Inle Lake. It’s an incredibly photogenic part of Myanmar and between the two of us we took more than 3 photos per minute over two days spent on the lake. Many of those are from putting the camera on the highest drive mode where it will take photos quickly when you press the shutter. This is great when you are zooming around in a boat trying to take a picture of someone in another boat that is also zooming around. A lot of the photos are basically duplicates, but there where enough to give myself eyestrain. Since my eyelid was pulsing, I touched my eye a lot, which caused me to get pink eye. 

So when we landed in Chiang Mai a few days ago, we went to an eye hospital to figure out what was happening. We found the hospital was dark, very dark. The nurse, who was decked out in the classic white nurses uniform complete with little hat informed us that the hospital was closed because the power was out. The same place that performed LASIK eye surgery with lasers was closed because they didn’t have electricity. It just reminded us how lucky, and how easy everything is in the US, what with the working power grid, and top-notch health care.

Till next time,
Jon

Moments | October 20

Sharing little moments, thoughts and stories with you.

Posing for a photo with a monk in Myanmar.

When you catch on to the fact that a young monk is trying to covertly snap a photo of you with his cell phone, hey – that’s pretty cool. So you give him a “thumbs up” and a cheesy smile. This causes a moment of confusion followed by a laugh followed by gathering up the family for a proper photo. I loved this moment, as I did so many times in India, because it’s a reminder that we’re all so much the same the world over. In moments like these you see right through the differences in religion, culture, gender, and so on, and you wish the whole world would see it too and be at peace.

Myanmar is shaping up to be a real highlight of the entire year. The crumbling architecture in the city of Yangon, the floating villages in Inle Lake and the otherworldly, temple-filled landscape in Bagan gave us the feeling we’d stepped back in time, but the people really put it over the top. They are the friendliest people we’ve encountered anywhere in the world. 

A nice woman in the market at Inle Lake handing me a sample of a flan-like desert.

Nmgsoe, our boatman, his wife, and some children from the village.

One day we were out on the lake, the boatman we hired for the day took us to his village. There we met his extended family and neighbors. The men were working on making a few wooden boats. His wife gave us green tea, fried fish and crackers. (The fish by the way is just given to you whole, with no silverware. Ha. It was salty and delicious!) The boatman showed us his cat, which he had trained to jump through a “hoop” formed by stretching out his arms. They marveled at our iPhone (a fancier version of their own cell phones) and asked how much it cost. Where conversation was limited, given the limited amount of English the boatman knew, smiles sufficed. Then one of the men picked up a small wicker ball, pointed to it and asked “you play?” I nodded and figured we were about to play soccer, but they formed a circle and used it like a hackeysack! I couldn’t believe it. Something I spent hours doing in college, at many a Phish show. And yes – I still had some skills – I think they were impressed :)  The experience that day is one of the moments we’ll treasure the most. 

In the market I saw a man selling these little logs and I wondered if it was for the thanaka cream so I made a circling motion with my hand to my cheek and asked him “for face?” To which he invited me to sit down so he could give me a demonstration. 

{video: Making Thanaka Face Cream in Myanmar}

As you can see, some water is applied to a small stone slab and the tree bark rubbed on it. (And ladies, this does not come in a tube! I’ve seen women doing this in the bathroom.) The man then applied it to my face. He was so sweet, he wouldn’t even take a tip. After a few minutes it dried, became darker, and had a cooling effect on the skin. A welcome feeling in the intense heat and humidity here. It also acts as sunscreen. A girl in the market giggled at me. Yes, the cream looks pretty on Asian skin and looks clown-like and sad on a pale foreigner like me. Ha, oh well. 

In other news… watching the news outside the U.S. has been interesting. Like the other day watching coverage of the Hong Kong protests. The coverage turns to “so how is America weighing in on this? What is Obama saying? What will the U.S. do?” Just amazing. Travel makes the world both smaller and bigger, and as I watch this I’m thinking about all of the countries in the world, and how far away America is, and what does America have to do with it? Yes, I understand we are a powerful force and democracy in the world but sometimes it seems so weird and so wrong that we make every other country’s business our business. What do you think?

Till next time,
Beth

Moments | October 13

New series! Each week, we’ll share little moments, thoughts and stories with you.

It has been a struggle this year to find good coffee, and not just in the tea-dominated places that you would expect it. So It was a relief to find a coffee shop in Yangon, Myanmar that served great Singapore-style coffee. Despite all the troubles, there have been a few wonderful coffee moments on the trip. In Dubai, there was some fantastically dark and sweet Arabic/Turkish Coffee. In Malaysia, there was a special coffee roasted with butter and sugar giving it an interesting taste. In Indonesia, there was the Copi Luwak coffee, made from beans that had been eaten by a civet (weasel-like animal). Though the best is still the incredibly delicious cup of coffee from the Africa House in Zanzibar. A perfect, freshly roasted cup with just enough coffee grounds to add flavor, but not make it gritty. It had that rich, dark coffee flavor, and hands down was the best cup of coffee I’ve had all trip. 

Every time that I land in a different place, I expect to find a few oddities after arriving. One of the first that I found in Yangon was that although people drive on the right side of the road at least half of the cars have the driver on the right-hand side as well.  I’ve heard that it’s due to a lot of cheap imports from left-hand drive countries, but it’s still amazing to see. The car sounds are a bit different too, with beeping turn signals, and I even heard a truck that played It's a Small World when reversing. The best was the car that instead of a normal unlock beep, said "Hello", but in Burmese.

001-DSC06260.jpg

Another odd thing in Myanmar was that we had to get handwritten flight tickets. Normally, we can book, pay, check-in and download airline tickets online, but in Myanmar, that wasn’t the case. The entire process was antiquated, from booking via email, to having to pay U.S. Dollars in person. They even had to look up our reservation in an Excel spreadsheet, then told us the flights were canceled. After finding us other flights, they finally hand-wrote our tickets. 

Change is coming fast here, so it probably won’t be the case for very long. Myanmar is one of the only places in the world we’ve been to that doesn’t have a KFC, Subway, Starbucks, or the other major fast food chains. At least that is until 2015.

We’ve rarely had the chance to watch TV while traveling. However having some downtime in Inle Lake, it pours rain almost every evening, we got a chance to see some of the local shows, which seem pretty familiar. I’ve seen ads so far for Myanmar’s Got Talent, Are You Smarter Than a Burmese 5th Grader?, some sort of Pictionary, and Myanmar Family Feud. At least that’s what I think they were named, the names were all in the really crazy curly local script.

Sign on a voltage transformer.

The only thing I can make out on this sign is the phone number.

Till next time,
Jon

Moments | October 6

New series! Each week, we’ll share little moments, thoughts and stories with you.

Just got back to our room in our hostel (after climbing 68 stairs to get there). It’s a tiny square room with no windows and a bed, but it has AC and that’s all that matters. 

Men in Yangon, Myanmar.

We’re 24 hours into Myanmar (Burma) and it’s a fascinating place. Walking around the busy streets of Yangon today we saw the women with thanaka cream on their faces, the men wearing longyis, seriously antique-looking trishaws and decaying buildings. There are very few Westerners here and I’ve already had a few interesting interactions with the locals. A young couple smiled and waved to us (I guess it’s just the novelty of seeing some tourists?) …a man walked up to me and tested out a few English phrases (good evening, how are you, how old are you) and then held out his hand for a handshake before abruptly walking away…and a group of four young boys thought it’d be funny to throw some firecrackers at my feet (grrrrr). Don’t worry I’m fine – they were just little poppers. 

At this point, it’s nice to know we can make it on our own in a “harder” place like this, without being on a group tour. The pros of independent travel outweigh the cons. Just the freedom to be able to wander around and check out whatever little corners of the city we want, for as long as we want – we are completely in control.

Women in Yangon, Myanmar.

We're rich! This is what $200 USD looks like in Myanmar money.

Just before our plane landed in Myanmar the stewardess announced, “if you have traveled to Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, or Sierra Leone within the last three months you must report to the quarantine officer upon arrival.” We’ve been seeing signs around airports about Ebola and we’ve seen the news back home that the government is strongly considering ramping up screening for Ebola at major airports in the United States but not considering a travel ban. It’s so awful and frightening what’s happening.

On a happier note, the entire Indonesian football (under-19) team was on the flight with us and was greeted as celebrities on arrival. Fans were waving flags, cheering and taking photos. The team is playing in the Asian Football Confederation Championship tournament, hosted by Myanmar this year.

Excited football fans at the airport.

Cookin with a charcoal stove, the Laos way.

Our time in Laos ended on both a high and low note, consistent with the ups and downs of travel we’ve experienced all along the way. The low note – we had planned for various reasons to do a boat trip on the Mekong on our last day, only we both fell sick the night before. Root had a cold, and I got sick (again!) from some street food. The high note – an amazing cooking class where we got to prepare five different local dishes. We’ve been so fortunate to taste different foods around the world and yet at the same time I’m looking forward to just being able to cook my own meals at home again. Hopefully by the time we’re back I’ll have picked up some new skills and inspiration!

Till next time,
Beth