Cultural fondue

I love me a good melting pot.

Visiting locations where dramatically different cultures, histories, languages or traditions have been thrown together (voluntarily or otherwise) and have stewed (sometimes at a pleasant simmer, sometimes a roiling boil) for long enough to produce something that still tastes of the original elements yet still is different, new and unique have been among my favorite experiences of the big trip.

India, with its exuberant jumble of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh temples, holy places and practitioners, with traditions of Jain, Zoroztrian, Judaism and Baha’i faiths thrown in for good measure.

Xinjiang, where historically disparate regions flowed into each other along the Silk Road. Xinjiang, today the province in China that over ten different “minority” groups call home, where you can walk down a street and see signage in four different scripts: Arabic, Chinese, Roman and Cyrillic.

Places like this are fascinating and captivating to me.

Introducing the Philippines

I didn’t know it before we decided to travel there as a respite from all the cool, grey weather we endured in China, but the Philippines has a cultural mix to rival the best of them.

Technically it’s a part of Southeast Asia, but it sure feels like unlike any place we traveled in that region.


(What looks to me like) a Chinese-style statue in front of the exterior of a Catholic church in Manila

I suppose it’s understandable when you look at the major historical and cultural influences on the archipelago: Indigenous, Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, Spanish and American (of the United States persuasion). Comidienne Lisa Lampinelli lovingly described Filipinos as a “weird mixture… the Swiss Army knife of minorities.”

It’s a pretty eclectic mix and helps to make the Philippines and the Filipinos a country and a people like no other! (this site has some really interesting perspectives from Filipinos on the topic in case you want some extra reading: http://www.interaksyon.com/whats-a-filipino; this article in particular provides an interesting overview for folks who are less familiar with the country’s history)

Arriving in Manila felt like entering a completely different world after all the months we spent in Southeast Asia and China. The countries we had visited, while welcoming, always definitely had an air of the exotic and foreign for me. After adjusting to cultures so different from my own over all those months, it was a bit of a shock how familiar the Philippines felt by comparison while feeling at the same time equally exotic.


A jeepney – the ubiquitous form of public transport in Manila. “Maldito” is definitely Spanish as far as I’m aware

Over 170 languages are spoken across the islands, but we mostly got to hear Filipino spoken. To my naïve ears, the language called to mind Spanish with its cadence and lilt. Even though I couldn’t, I felt like I SHOULD understand at least some words here and there, like I do with Spanish. This was a unique feeling after being in completely unknown linguistic waters in all the other countries we’d visited. And when Filipinos spoke English with us, the accent was just as familiar – I felt like I could be listening to a speaker from somewhere in middle America.

The Philippines is also the second largest predominantly Catholic country in the world. 90% of the population is Catholic and it was trippy to see churches (distinctly Catholic AND Filipino at the same time) and their influence in such prominence after months of visiting Buddhist and Taoist temples and the occasional mosque.

It was funny for me to see the flower garlands on the wrist of a Catholic saint – till then I’d only encountered these in Buddhist and Hindu places of worship.

And even though there was nothing I could quite put my finger on, somehow there was a good amount of America in the air (in the cities at least). I think Lonely Planet can explain it better than I:

“Describing the country is like trying to pick up a bar of soap in the bath: you may come close to grasping it, but it always seems to elude you. The Americans have something to do with it. Ruled by the United States for 45 years, the Philippines maintains a close spiritual bond with its former colonial master… The US legacy arguably looms even larger than that of Spain, the Philippine’s original colonisers who ruled the country for 350 years.”

And with all this influence from far-flung corners of the globe, the Philippines still have something intrinsically Asian about them.

We went there for the nature and the beaches. These were great, but what for me remains most vibrant in my memories of our time in Philippines is its odd-man-out-in-southeast-Asia essence and the tenacious, effervescent nature of its people.

We didn’t spend enough time – most of our interactions were just fleeting but as well, most of them involved a smile if not a laugh. I usually find it easy to fall in love with the people in a new country. It was easier than usual in the Philippines though, and I hope some day I can return and get to know this special place in greater depth.

Quick current events post

Roman and I arrived in Chicago last night. Our weekend in Pittsburgh was perfect – full of comfort, good food, exploration and discovery, and best of all, reconnecting with an dear high school friend of mine who I hadn’t spent time with in years.

I truly feel so blessed and lucky to have this amazing chance to visit loved ones all over the US. I love living abroad; I love all the travel. (At this point, it’s coming up on eight years since I left home. How and when did that happen??)

But nothing can replace good friends and family. The fact is that I do suffer being so far away from those people that matter so much to me. I can handle it no problem and even enjoy myself, but THIS aspect of this portion of the trip – time with long lost friends – makes my heart happy and my soul sing!

For anyone concerned, we had a soggy first bit of the ride west, but we mostly managed to stay ahead of Sandy, and so far Chicago is windy but fine, as my family back in Connecticut are also fine. Another thing to be grateful about. 🙂

Roman and I are making today an admin and catch up sort of day. We have post-Chicago to organize and Evanston, a northern suburb where we’re staying, to explore. We’ll get started on Chicago proper tomorrow. And I’ve got blog-catch-up to get to!

So, without further ado, I’ll be picking up with our last stop in Asia – the Philippines. I actually wrote this next post while we were still in South America, but haven’t had a chance to post until now…

Looking for America

Where’s she been?

Time has passed – nearly a month since my last post. As always happens, I get easily, wonderfully distracted when I’m in my hometown. There’s never enough time with friends and family and, knowing that, I greedily try to fit in as much as I can every visit, which means that most other things fall to the wayside. Like the blog. So what was meant to be loads of posts catching up on the last 10 months of travel has ended up as simply silence and now Roman and I are on the go again!

So this is an unofficial announcement to say that I will keep endeavoring (begin again to endeavor?) to catch up on past travel even as we are plunging into our final chapter of the big trip: the US road trip. Expect the usual mish-mash of what ever I feel like writing about. 😉

Hope for the United States

 

Prior to this final chapter of our big trip, we’ve spent months and months and months exploring countries and continents I’ve never been to before. Asia, Australia, South America. Cultures and places I had assumptions, dreams, ideas about, but places I really didn’t know. Places that amazed, confounded, surprised and enchanted me.

Not a single country we visited ever matched the picture I had for it in my head. Places I was nervous about, that seemed so foreign and intimidating from the place I was sitting before arriving – my assumptions on the outside – never ever lived up to any of my projected fears or disappointments. I loved the transformation a location would undergo – from unknown fantasy to something real and much more complex and amazing than I could have ever expected.

Traveling mostly in developing countries has changed my perception and projection about my home country, the US, as well. (For example after traveling in South America, I’m allergic to calling it “America”, since of course that could refer to South, Middle or North, and none of those places are the country of the United States.)

Seeing the States more and more from a global perspective, I have to say, I have developed a huge chip on my shoulder about the place. Returning here after all this travel, I feel like I’ve fallen out of love with my own country.

US history was always one of my favorite topics in school. I have a romantic view of our genesis story, the founding fathers amaze me to this day and I can get teary-eyed-patriotic thinking about the declaration of independence and the bill of rights.

But, after being welcomed with open arms in so many places, I hate how unwelcoming, bordering on hostile, we are to foreign visitors (at least at JFK airport! It is the pits!). I despair over our arrogant stance on the world stage. Watching the debates on TV as the presidential election cycle reaches its apex makes me heartsick.

I was really apprehensive when we traveled to China. Based on its rep on the world street, I thought I wouldn’t like it very much and I braced myself for disappointment. It ended up being one of my favorite countries.

I’m a slow learner sometimes but I have been through this enough with the travel now to dare to hope that this road trip might heal my broken heart. A country’s current politics and foreign policies is NOT its people. It’s not its landscapes, its cities, or its history. It’s not its essence or its soul.

I arrived in China nervous because of everything I’d read about the country in the news; I left having fell completely for its incredible nature, it’s unique people and its rich culture. If China can transform completely for me in two months, I think I stand a chance of rediscovering plenty to love about the US again too. Here’s hoping anyway! 😉

Victory lap!

There’s more to this leg of the trip too. Roman and I will be driving a big loop through this country, from the east to the west coast and back again. There’s plenty of “big stuff” we want to see – famous cities and some of the typical tourist sites.

But for me I’ll also be reconnecting with some of my dearest friends in the US, some of whom I’ve not seen for years and years.

So after all we’ve seen and done out there in the world, this last bit of travel is really feeling like the icing on the cake for me. Such a big treat. Driving at our own pace, in a culture I’ve grown up with but in a country I’ve been longing to explore for ages, and on top of that, I’ll get to spend time with people I adore. Am feeling tremendously grateful at the moment.

Just a moment

(Back on the mainland! Will get back to the Asia catch up in my next post, but first, this…)

It’s my last night in the Southern Hemisphere. We’ve just left the Galapagos Islands, where, if we’d faced north and the wind cooperated, we could have spit and just about hit the equator.

Tomorrow morning, pretty much six months to the day we flew from Los Angeles to Sydney, arriving for the first time ever on the under side of the world, I’ll be boarding a plane that will fly me north, north, north, well above the equator, for the final leg of this grand travel adventure.

Aside from how I feel about this flight escorting me to the final chapter of travel, I’m a bit verklempt about leaving this magical hemisphere that’s been gracious enough to share some of its riches with us this half year. Experiencing winter in (what for me is normally) summer, seeing old friends, making new ones, encountering amazing animals up close and personal, learning a bit of Spanish, getting into a deeper groove of traveling with Roman and finding so much to share, to delight in, to laugh over together…

There’s so much to write about, to record before the memories start to slip from my consciousness, but for now I just want to remember this moment of gratitude for the Southern Hemisphere.

¡Gracias y besos!

A wobbly view of the Southern Cross above a store roof in Peru. I’ll miss the southern hemisphere constellations!

Picking up where I left off in Asia…

It feels like a million posts since my last “back track” post, when I finished up on our time in China. I’m well overdue to get back to the back fill, so I’ll pick up where I left off.

After the cooler weather and myriad of activities in China we were ready to slow down some place tropical. But before heading on an island getaway, we had a social call to make. 🙂

Taiwan pit stop

We boarded our plane in Shanghai for the relatively short flight to Taipei. For once we weren’t heading to a new destination as tourists. The inspiration for adding Taiwan to our itinerary was purely my desire to visit a school friend of mine who’s been living there for nearly as long as I’d been in Switzerland.

I hadn’t seen Dylan in YEARS and it was wonderful and exciting to meet up with him again after such a long time, not to mention to meet his wife and his cute little daughter! It was also nice to take some time off from being tourists – being hosted by a friend and resident and giving the camera a break (I hardly took any pictures! No, seriously!!). We didn’t even buy the guidebook for this country – another first on our big trip.

Given the nature of our quick visit to Taipei, I don’t feel qualified to pass along travel advice on Taiwan. But from the few days we had to get a taste of the island country’s capital city, I can say I’d be happy to go back and see more!

The city felt much more vibrant/less sterile to me than Beijing and Shanghai. It was crowded, chaotic, colorful and alive – somehow more what I would have expected from a big Asian metropolis than what my experiences in the Chinese mega-cities offered up – but there were also wonderful pockets of peace to be found at temples and parks.

Web connections

Researching a bit about the place online did introduce me to own of my favorite blogs – My Neon Sign Lullaby.

Eileen is an American who is a Taiwan enthusiast. Her husband is from there and in fact they just moved there from the States recently. Her blog is whimsical and wonderful and a nice way to get a glimpse of life in Taiwan through an expat’s eyes.

She was also kind enough to point me in the direction of the few sights we did visit. On her recommendation, we got to enjoy the dizzying heights of Taipei 101 (at 1,667 ft/508 meters it was the world’s tallest building until it got replaced by Dubai’s insane Burj Khalifa in 2010. Was still impressive going to the top of 101 none the less!!), happen upon a soulful and soothing ceremony going on at the Longshan temple (a quick sound clip here: temple chanting ), and soaked in the peace and lovely vibes at the impressive Chiang Kai-shek Memorial.

 

What’s more, she creates original artwork also inspired by life in Taiwan (bubble tea is a recurrent theme :-)) and life in general that I personally think are just gorgeous. I’ve already ordered a bunch of cards – they’re waiting patiently for me at my sister’s in the States. Looking forward to seeing them in person soon!!! 😀 You can see lots more of her creations at her online shop here on Zazzle.com.