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.

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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.

Catching my breath post-Machu Picchu

And here we are in Nazca. We arrived last night after a long, hot bus ride from Arequipa. Machu Picchu, impressive as it is/was, is already fading into an amazing memory. The days have been busy and intense and wonderful with all sorts of stuff and this poor travel journal of mine remains neglected. We have a bit of down time in Nazca so I will make some attempt to get back into the swing of writing/posting.

First the random stuff.

Beginnings

While I was busy elsewhere, the two-year anniversary of my departure date came and went!

Insane but true; it’s over two years now since I said goodbye to Roman (for about three weeks, until he would meet me in Delhi) and the apartment that had become my home with him (most likely forever), and boarded a plane for India, kicking off this amazing adventure we’ve been on!

Last year this time, we were camped out in a lovely little studio apartment in Hong Kong and I managed to put together some video montages in celebration. I’m not nearly that organized or productive this time round, so for now I’ll just repost the videos at the bottom of this entry for anyone who might have missed them the first time, and I’ll say that I do intend to pay proper audio-visual tribute to the countries we’ve visited since then at some point. 🙂

Endings

Equally insane, we have just a bit over two weeks left in South America. We’ll be visiting Lima briefly, then hopping over to Galapagos (!!!!!) for the grand-South-American-trip-finale!!!

Which is exciting but which also means that the final chapter of our big trip is staring us in the face. Which is wonderful and weird. Post South America, we’ll be doing a road trip in the US. Route and timing yet to be figured out.

I imagine we’ll stretch our time in the US out a good amount – there are friends for me to visit and family to hang out with at home (I’ll be there in time for my Grandma & nephew’s birthday parties at the end of the month!) and lord knows there’s tons of amazing places in the States that we’d like to visit. We’ll see how long our time there ends up being.

The end of the road trip in the US will be the end of the BIG TRIP though, which means time to figure out just how exactly to rebuild a stable life in one single location. It’s going to be another adventure no doubt. I’m excited and curious to see how we manage – what the transition from nomadic life will be like, what sort of a home we manage to find/create, what I and/or Roman will do for work… Will leave the musings for now – still plenty to enjoy in South America and loads that I’m excited about for the States. 🙂

Random

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It’s also coming up on six months since we left the States to start part two of the big trip, which means that I’ve gone just about a half a year without a hair cut. I haven’t done anything spectacular with my hair during the trip – just always kept it long enough to tie back. But this must be the longest my hair’s been in ages. I think I like it. 🙂 I won’t post a picture but Roman’s last hair cut was nearly as long ago as my last hair cut and there are days when he’s starting to look like one of the Beatles circa 1964. 😉 I think I like it too! 😉

Machu Picchu

There’s so much to write about Machu Picchu. I’ll save it for another post, another day. Suffice to say: it impressed.

We spent a half day wandering around soaking it in, another day hiking Montaña Machu Picchu (Stairs. So many stairs! Every single step worth it though – the hike will be one of the highlights of the trip for me, no doubt!) and exploring the ruins some more. Here are a few panoramic shots I took of the views from the trail and summit of Montaña Machu Picchu as well as from the ruins. WordPress won’t allow me to embed the images, so you’ll have to click through the links to go to Photosynth’s site to view.

The view about half way up the mountain
You can see Machu Picchu down below in the distance in the right half of the picture

The view from just-about-the-summit
You can see the last bit of steep steps off to the left. Felt on top of the world to be there! Just amazing! 😀

A view from within the ruins

Last year’s videos:

Intro

India

Myanmar (Burma)

Thailand

Laos

Cambodia

Vietnam

Holy cow what an amazing year that was!! 😀

One last (rambling and random) post on China

I’ve been meaning to wrap up China with one final post for a while now. At the moment I’m sitting on a plane that is taking us to our final destination in Chile. The Andes are blinding in the midday sun outside my window. I’m excited for Atacama, but I’m going to take this opportunity of little distraction to finally get this post written, and will post when we arrive at San Pedro. 🙂

All about expectations

When we started our trip, China was high on Roman’s list, but not on mine. For some reason I didn’t have much emotional connection to the country. All I could picture were mammoth, concrete cities full of faceless, pushy people. I expected it would be intellectually interesting but nothing more.

We loved our time in southeast Asia, and the Buddhism-infused countries we visited and people we met were quick to melt my heart.

Everything changed when we got to Vietnam, a country that (we had read) was heavily influenced by its big neighbor to the north, China. A different religion, a different culture, different values and very different experiences for us after gentle Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. We couldn’t connect to the people or the place, and we left with a bad taste in our mouths, and with apprehension about our next destination – China. If Vietnam, influenced by Chinese culture, was like this, would China be similar? We braced ourselves prior to getting there – for people to be pushy or insensitive, for a higher crime rate than we’d experienced before Vietnam, for being unable to communicate, for massive, characterless cities.

Something I’ve been slowly realizing in my life, and definitely learning more and more during this big trip of ours, is that expectations are pretty ridiculous things. At least for me. Basically, nothing I have ever anticipated has come to pass the way I had pictured it.

When I worry about bad things possibly happening (which is more often I care to admit and definitely more often than is helpful), they consistently never happen.

(On the plus side, I can now comfort myself when my over active imagination comes up with awful scenarios – my projections are always wrong so this terrible thing I am involuntarily worrying about definitely won’t occur. Sometimes this application of logic actually kind of works. I’m viewing this as progress. ;-))

When I have a specific vision of something that I view as positive – birthday parties, life plans, a particular destination in our travels – I’m always wrong about that as well, and my specific expectations get in the way and ruin what could other wise be a lovely experience by me spending all my energy comparing reality to the wish list in my head.

I am getting better at simply banishing – or at least somewhat ignoring – the expectations I build up for myself. But back when we were leaving Vietnam for China, I was too caught up in the fear. Luckily for China, this was a case of negative expectations, and the country could only end up being better than my worst-case-scenario vision. Which is totally what happened.

I am still surprised and delighted by how much I loved China. The two big cities we visited – Beijing and Shanghai – didn’t excite me as much, but they were hardly the soulless, depressing, aggressive megapolises (megapolisi?? what’s the plural???) I had envisioned.

I was amazed at the friendliness and openness of the Chinese people we encountered. Language was not nearly as big of an issue as I expected. The country isn’t as set up for English-language tourists as southeast Asia, but it is certainly manageable to get around – at least to the places we visited. And even when people didn’t speak a word of English, they still were willing to find a way to communicate and help.

Challenges and awe

There were two things I hadn’t anticipated at all that stand out for me when I think back to our time in China.

The first is China’s astoundingly gorgeous nature. Time spent in some of those amazing landscapes was like balm to my soul. The rice terraces of Dazhai, the karst landscape of Yangshuo, the astounding Tiger Leaping Gorge, and don’t even get me started about Xinjiang (province of like a hundred million posts on this blog. :-P).

The second is the incredible variety of the “Chinese” people. The richness and diversity of its “minority” peoples is in my opinion one of the country’s greatest treasures. (I’ve mentioned before I’m not too keen on that word but it’s what is commonly used in China, in the guidebooks, basically everywhere and I’m not sure what a better term would be…)

Unfortunately, it’s a treasure that is being exploited and potentially destroyed. It’s a complex topic that I have no authority to expound on. People rightly have strong feelings about what’s happening to Tibetan, Uyghur and other cultures in China. I can’t speak to the politics and economics, as I don’t know enough. I want to careful not to paint the picture in black and white, casting China as the big, awful bad guy when I don’t know the full situation, and I can say from experience that so many of the Chinese people we met were SO lovely. Like America, there is a distinct difference between the normal people living there and the country’s official policies.

But I do know that it feels wrong and like something amazing is being lost. Whether it’s the old city area of Kashgar in Xinjiang that is literally being torn down, or the “Disneyfication” of places like Lijiang.

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Plenty of useless crap to buy in the touristy part of Yangshuo

Mass tourism for locals was something new for us in Asia. There are wealthy Indian tourists in India. But for the most part, the average Indian doesn’t have the opportunity to travel the country like we did. In southeast Asia, the vast majority of tourists are western. China is a whole different thing though.

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Have an “authentic” Tibetan experience and make sure you have the photo to prove it!

There is a middle class that is eager to go out and discover its country, and there is a huge industry that is ready to cater to and make money off of these people. Places that are of cultural and historic interest have been or are being transformed into ready-made, pre-packaged experiences that people can achieve a minimum amount of time. Tour buses, packed to the gills, shuttle from point of interest to point of interest, where the standard photos are snapped, cheap trinkets are purchased from people in traditional garb, a local specialty is consumed, and another item on the tourist to-do-list can be checked off before it’s back on the bus for the next stop.

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Sun glasses for sale along side prayer beads and sacred thangkas at the ancient Tibetan monastery outside Zhongdian

I can’t hate on people who are eager to explore their own country in a way that makes sense for them. But the plastic-feeling tourist spots we encountered do feel like simultaneous erosion and exploitation of culture and people. And I can’t help but find it tremendously tacky.

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No visit to Xi’an is complete without a photo along side authentic looking terra cotta warriors! (I actually got told off for taking this photo 🙂 )

My advice if you are traveling to China is to do your best to get beyond these places. In some cases, it’s as easy as simply walking a few blocks beyond the tourist areas, like in Yangshuo or Zhongdian. Glimpses of local, every-day life were among the most enjoyable and interesting things about our travels through China. Try to avoid places during peak tourist season. Take mass tourism with a grain of salt (at the same time as I disliked it I also marveled at it as an interesting phenomenon of current Chinese culture). And take comfort that some places seem at least to get the balance right. Pingyao, for example, is certainly about tourism but still managed to feel very genuine to me. And try to be an informed and aware visitor when possible.

So, that’s my mini-rant on mass tourism. 🙂

Random nerd stuff

I was still being ambitious and trying to read up about places’ histories when we went to China. I got through some of John Kay’s China: A History and found it accessible but I admit I had a tough time having enough context or willpower to keep track of place and people names. Ultimately, the book was simply too massive for me, at least to read while also traveling. After all, China’s history is massive.

If you are looking for an intro to Chinese history in more bite-sized packages, I can recommend Laszlo Montgomery’s “The China History Podcast”. It does exactly what it says on the box. Montgomery’s tone is delightfully sardonic (not about Chinese history; I suspect he has that attitude about life in general :-)), he seems to really know what he’s talking about and the podcasts are interesting and not overwhelming. And they’re a great way to pass time during long bus/train/plane rides.

Although I have already forgotten most of the Chinese I learned (but look! I can prove that I did learn something!!), especially that I am trying to learn Spanish at the moment, I am really glad we took classes. It wasn’t the most practical thing but it was fun to have at least a few words and some more insight into the language and culture. I would totally recommend taking a crash course, and can also strongly recommend Omeida, where we studied. The podcast “Chinese survival phrases” wasn’t bad for double checking pronunciation on those key sentences like asking for the bill, and I found this website useful when studying at Omeida as well to look up words and check pronunciation.

Southern hemisphere updates and fashion reports

Written yesterday but posted today since we had no internet till now…

It’s Saturday, which means that we’ve been here in Buenos Aires for a whole week now. It’s warmed up a couple of degrees since we arrived, or I’m getting used to the colder temperatures, but I’m still missing the sun – I think it’s showed its face for a total of about three hours since we’ve gotten here. Here’s hoping our second week in BA will be a bit brighter!

Weather aside, it’s been a slow start here in Argentina. We had done the research and figured out a route through Australia before we left the States. Our time in Oz was so busy that we hadn’t gotten around to investigating more than an apartment, Spanish school options and the ticket to Argentina before we were boarding the plane to BA. This week we’ve been total homebodies, hanging out in the apartment because of all the rain or to catch up on admin and research or to wait around for someone to show up and get the internet going or fix the washing machine.

So it hasn’t been the most fun week, but it’s been productive and I’m excited for some of its prospective yields. Our internet seems to work about 30% of the time now which is an improvement over 0% (apparently this is the norm around here), and the washing machine seems to be on track, although our handy man warned us not to leave it on when we’re not around in case it floods or sets the place on fire. Awesome.

Spanish classes start bright and early this Monday. I’ve found and started going to a yoga studio not too far from the apartment where the teachers are all American and mercifully teach in English. I’m investigating tango classes. Roman has gotten us set up with sim cards with 3G for our phone (about as reliable as the internet in our apartment). And we’ve sussed out a wish list of exciting places we want to visit here in Argentina and have even got some ideas for where to head next. So things are looking up!

The plan for the rest of the weekend, now that we’ve been so productive, is to start checking out some of the more touristy/famous spots here in BA (weather permitting). We haven’t seen all that much of the city yet, but we have started to know our way around our neighborhood, which is a nice feeling.

Where we live

We’re staying in Palermo, an upper-middle class neighborhood which is meant to be one of the nicest places in the city to live.

There are two parks not far from our flat and plenty of grocery stores, little produce shops and kiosks within walking distance. There are a couple of massive shopping centers close by too; these seem to get the most pedestrian traffic of the area. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a line for coffee so consistently long as the one at the Starbucks at Alto Palermo. We’ve discovered two streets within walking distance that are lined with some really enticing restaurants, wine, cheese & meat shops and boutiques. I’ve been happily cooking in my cute little kitchen this past week, but I’m looking forward to start trying out some of the local eateries – once I have a bit of Spanish vocab under my belt so I have half a clue what I’m ordering. The clothes shops in the area are definitely going to be a problem for me. 🙂 I need to keep reminding myself that we are on a budget!

Fall fashion and more

Obviously we haven’t been here long enough for me to know very much of anything about the porteños (what BA-ers call themselves), but I’ve still enjoyed the people watching in our neighborhood immensely.

I started getting into local fashion while we were in Asia. Clothing over there, especially for women, tends to be rather conservative by Western standards (notable exceptions – Bangkok, the Philippines and some Chinese tourists). In some of the places we traveled, I would have to think twice about bearing an elbow or kneecap as a woman. When we left Asia to come to the States, it was the middle of winter, so I spent the months there covered up too.

I actually experienced a bit of culture shock when we first arrived in Australia at the tail end of their summer. I loved how the easygoing atmosphere in Oz translated into what people wore. Women’s fashion is definitely not uniform there and it seems like most anything goes. Basically, wear what makes you happy. The one element that caught my eye was that there was a lot more skin than I was used to – after all that time in Asia and my winter in the States anyhow. Lots of low-cut dresses, shorts and t-shirts being worn even when it was cold out, and if we saw a teenage girl, chances were she’d be walking around in shorts so short that her bum was sticking out the bottom. No joke. Did my time in Asia turn me prudish, or is this too much? Or should I say too little?

What do you think? Too short?

Fashion, or at least autumn fashion, here in BA seems to be more conservative. I’m looking forward to see what it’s like in the rest of Argentina and BA, but the people in Palermo anyhow have a practical but stylish look about them. And as far as I’ve observed so far, there is definitely a bit of a uniform for the young women around here. Let me paint a picture of a typical porteña this season.

She’s got loads of long hair, which she lets tumble carelessly down her back or which she piles unceremoniously (sometimes asymmetrically) on her head. She wears little to no make up; same goes for jewelry. She favors somber colors – navy, grey, brown, olive, maroon, black, black, black, but almost always accentuates this palette with a splash of bright color – nails, shoes, a colorful top or most often a cheerful patterned scarf. She’s wearing jeans or leggings and either way her pants are definitely form fitting. Leggings are often in funky, geometric patterns. Her coat is dark and practical but not unstylish. On her feet she wears sturdy, flat-soled boots, chuck tailors or demurely colored galoshes (probably as a defense against the plentiful dog poop all over the sidewalks in BA. Not a bad idea!).

It’s a look I like – although I’m not sure my fashion sensibilities have recovered yet from China. Especially with my latest purchase. It’s cold down here, and in an effort to keep warm and to keep the aforementioned street dirt out of our apartment, we’ve been on the hunt for slippers since we arrived. I guess they’re not a popular purchase in Argentina, cause it’s taken us forever to find some. Wimp about the cold that I am, I went ahead and bought the very first – and in my defense only – pair that I could find. Now I have warm, but pretty ridiculous looking feet. So much for being a fashionista…

Possibly the most ridiculous slippers ever?

Travel is ruining me

Being on the road again after the three-month break in the States with my family has got me thinking.

If you don’t count the visit with my family as being home (which it is and it isn’t, since home for me for nearly six years prior to that had been Switzerland, and living with your parents temporarily isn’t the same as having your own home, even if you DO feel wonderfully at home with them and in your childhood house as I luckily do.), I’ve been homeless and traveling for a year and 8 ½ months; Roman’s been away from Switzerland three weeks shy of that. Kinda crazy.

It’s feeling totally normal and wonderful and great to be traveling again. Australia, I have to say, is a fantastic country to get back in the saddle with after the comforts of my parents’ house. No language barriers like in Asia and thus far the people are tremendously friendly and it’s been drop dead gorgeous. But I digress.

I’ve been catching some of the thoughts that float from time to time through my mind since we’ve been on the move again and I’m wondering if travel – this sort of travel anyhow – isn’t making me into a slightly worse person. You always hear that travel broadens your perspective of the world but I am wondering about the areas where things might be getting more narrow.

This first came to my attention in Sydney, where we met up with some friends of ours.

The couple we met worked at the same company I did in Switzerland. They quit around the same time Roman and I did to do an extended trip around the world, just like us. We traveled to different places, but some themes were the same. One was how it’s often difficult to talk about the trip with “the folks back home”. We loved being able to “talk shop” with fellow travelers, we oohed and ahhed as we compared itineraries and travel experiences in a way that we would never inflict on most people.

Another friend was an awesome guy we had met and hung out with in India over a few days in Varanasi and one super dinner in Delhi. We met for drinks and dinner and although we caught up about life in general, we also spent a lot of time collectively missing and loving India. Between the good memories, wonderful conversation and delicious wine, I felt like I was floating on clouds by the end of the evening, basking in the goodness of what was and what had been.

These get-togethers were fantastic, but they made me ponder about shared experiences and if my/our chances of sharing about some of the places we’ve been and things we have done have grown narrower as we’ve spread ourselves more widely across this big planet.

And then I realized that maybe even having thoughts like this make me into a wanker. Like, who has these kind of problems/musings??

Let me demonstrate. Here are some of the ways that this kind of travel is ruining me.

  • We’ve been in Australia for 3 ½ weeks. We just booked our flights out of the country, which means that we are currently half way through our time in Australia. Considering that we spent over three MONTHS in India, which is about half the size of Australia, 6 weeks in a country this size now seems like only a short visit. While most people in America only get 2 weeks off per year. I may be a jerk.
  • We’ve been to some absolutely amazing places. We are becoming increasingly hard to impress. (Although on the flip side there is a lot of stuff we love and are interested in so we aren’t at all jaded about any of the stuff we’ve done.) For example, while on the Ocean Road here in Australia we went for a tree top walk through a gorgeous rain forest in Otway. The woods were lovely, the trees stunning. The dinosaur exhibit was hilarious. We enjoyed it totally but there was not much “wow factor” compared to the views of the ocean we’d been treated to earlier and indeed we were a bit disappointed by the lack of fauna, since that morning we’d literally woken up under trees inhabited by super-cute-adorable-cuddly-looking koalas. Which was just as awesome as it sounds. I may be a snob.
  • If you’ve been following this blog at all you may have noticed that I. Love. Food. Well, let me be more specific. I love good food; I really love REALLY GOOD FOOD. We’ve had all sorts of REALLY GOOD FOOD all over the place. Which is awesome. And awful. Cause now I’ll find myself craving home cooked Indian food from my friends’ house in Delhi. Or that bangin’ ginger salad that the totally rad skinny little chef made on the cargo boat on the Irrawaddy River. Or mango sticky rice from my favorite place in Thailand. Or a Beerlao. Or that incredible fish dish from Cambodia. Or the best espresso I have ever had in Siem Reap of all places. Or fried up lotus root that we had at our Chinese school in Yangshuo. You get the point. And the point is, when the heck am I going to get to eat those delicious things again?? The point is also that when you get to eat such awesome stuff, your tolerance for sub-par food goes down. There is no “may” about this one, I AM a food snob.

So, is travel opening my eyes, heart and stomach to big, wonderful, exciting world? Yes! Is it turning me into a snob and possibly a jerk and/or wanker? Yes to the first and quite possibly to the second. Am I ok with this? If being ok with it means we get to keep traveling, I think I am. 😉

Just in time

It’s my last day in the Philippines today!

The past week and a half here has been both rough and wonderful. The tropical flu that I caught really knocked the stuffing out of me. I haven’t been that deliriously, miserably sick in a while.

Even now I’m still not feeling 100% but I’m so much better and thankfully well enough to travel.

I’m grateful too that I was well enough on our last full day in Dauin to finally go diving at Apo Island – the whole reason we came to Negros in the first place. It happened to be my birthday that day 😉 and so feeling well again, being able to eat and enjoy food and going for three super dives was especially wonderful and I felt especially grateful!

Really I have loved the Philippines but somehow I also feel a bit beat up here.

I fell on the boat that last day at Dauin (again – this is after nearly falling overboard back in Popototan) and really hurt my toe. It’s currently turning all sorts of black and blue but at least I can walk now with not much problem.

I’m in Cebu now and my stomach is still complaining about some really sub-par Thai food we ate two days ago. (Gross.) I’m getting a cold sore on my lip and my skin (probably responding to all the crap food I’ve been eating?) is breaking out like crazy.

On the emotional side, I’ve got a bit of the travel blues. (I may have caught that from Roman.)

I feel like if I have to search for another hotel online any time soon I may start screaming and ripping my hair out. I’m usually really good with long flights and lots of travel, but I have a huge trip coming up tomorrow morning and, having spent most of the last week bored in bed, I am actually rather dreading all those hours of airport/airplane limbo.

The good news is the reward for the two days’ worth of travel is going to be exactly what I need: Home.

I’m traveling to the States to be with my family for Christmas, and at the moment as much as I’m dreading the trip I’m SOOOO excited to see them all so soon. Christmas is my FAVORITE holiday and it’s been years since I’ve been able to spend it with them. It’ll also be my first Christmas with my nephew Martin, so this is really special for me.

And I’ll be getting plenty of things to counteract the effect of the travel blues: My own bed (my same totally comfy and comforting old twin bed from my childhood), my parents’ clean and cozy and familiar home, my mom’s amazingly good cooking and best of all, lots of time with family and friends. My heart is starting to feel better just thinking about it.

On the down side, I’ll be celebrating the holidays without Roman. He doesn’t want to break the travel momentum; I couldn’t convince him to come with me (and there’s no way he could get away with visiting MY family in the States without also visiting HIS family in Switzerland, which would get complicated…).

I had to say goodbye to him today – he’s already flown on to Malaysia – and it was awful. I know with my brain that everything’s fine; the time apart will pass quickly and I’ll be so happy with my family, but as much as my head gets it, my heart couldn’t and I spent today fighting back tears. Saying goodbye just never gets easier.

(I wonder if on some level I’m still traumatized from the time early in our relationship when I got transferred to London for my job, and we spent six months flying back and forth to visit each other. I was pretty miserable and depressed in London, and that period of time involved a lot of tearful airport goodbyes.)

Maybe it was also extra tough because this is a big goodbye in some ways. Roman will travel in Malaysia and Indonesia while I’m home. Our plans beyond that are totally unformed at the moment. I don’t know exactly where he will be when, so I don’t know where I will be meeting him. I’m pretty sure this is my goodbye to Asia as well; likely is that I’ll meet him in Australia or New Zealand next, although I don’t know when precisely that might be. It’s kind of a funny feeling to leave things so vague – “goodbye love, I’ll see you on some continent at some unknown point in the future”. And finishing Asia… Well, I don’t know what the rest of our trip will look like, but this is certainly at least a significant chunk of it done for me now. Which is interesting to say the least.

I wonder too how I’ll feel at the end of my time at home. I can’t imagine those goodbyes will be any easier than today’s… Roman often accuses me of being greedy and I will readily admit that it’s contradictory – I miss home and family even as I love traveling and exploring the world. But I’m ok with that. I’d rather feel this heartache because I love too many things, I’d rather struggle to try to fit conflicting things (life on the road, life with the people I love who are often on different continents than me), than… well, than not have that pain and struggle, I guess.

Anyhow, for now I will focus on the positive, which is that I am soon going to have the magic of Christmas with my family, just in time to sooth my travel blues. And that at some point after the holidays, Roman and I will get to meet up somewhere out there in this big, incredible world. And I will try not to think about the three flights in two days and the fact that I have to get up for the first one in a few hours… 😉

Thoughts on Chinese and communication in China

Finally, getting back to our days as students of Chinese in lovely Yangshuo… 🙂

We’d heard China was more challenging to visit than other parts of Asia due to language. After so many months wandering through Southeast Asia, we did find that it was different, but I definitely would not describe it as difficult or even challenging.

Rather, I’d put out two points that might contribute to this perception.

Tourism in Southeast Asia

The impact of the language barrier in China isn’t difficult, it’s that it’s so non-existent/easy in Southeast Asia.

Most places we visited – Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and even Laos (Myanmar less so, but even there it was no problem to get around) – are completely geared towards Western tourists.

These countries have, for the most part, well-established service industries, which often form a valuable part of the nations’ economies, and there is a lot of incentive for people to learn English. Not just people working in hotels and restaurants, but cab drivers, store vendors, immigration officers, etc. in these countries would all have good reason to know at least some English.

Tourism in China

China, however, is a different story.

I have to imagine the experience for a Westerner traveling to China must be a lot like any non-English-speaking tourist coming to visit America (at least on the language front).

And it’s not that no Chinese know or speak English. It’s that they don’t feel the need to.

In Southeast Asia, people automatically spoke English to us. They got a kick out of it when we could say a few poorly pronounced words in their own language but anything beyond those few basic words was communicated in English.

In China, we found plenty of people who could and were willing to speak English.

But we also encountered loads of folks – and this was an experience unique to China – who would ramble on to us in Chinese regardless of the confused and bemused expressions on our faces. Especially if we did try out our few phrases and vocab words – then we were in trouble! Answers to our recently memorized questions would come back 100 times faster and harder to understand than the practice conversations we’d had with Becky in class. It was fun and funny, and usually we could figure out a way to communicate at least a bit through body language.

Getting back to my point though… My theory is that China’s economy is larger and more diverse than to be reliant on foreign tourism. What’s more, it has a markedly thriving and increasing domestic tourism industry that was much more significant than in any other country we’ve visited so far on our journey. So there is less need or incentive to cater to foreign tourists to the same extent countries like Thailand or Cambodia do.

That being said, a good portion of the people we encountered DID speak English, and on that front I imagine the similarities to visiting the United States come to an end. I have to imagine the chances of tourists receiving directions, finding out the price of a souvenir or buying bus tickets in their native language – whether it be Chinese, Russian, German, etc. – in America are slim to none. The chance that their questions, posed in hesitant, accented English, will be answered in a flurry of loud, rapidly spoken English however, is more likely. 🙂

The bottom line

It was a lot easier to get around China – at least the places we visited – using English than we had anticipated. Nonetheless, I’m still really glad we learned at least some of the basics. Many people speak at least a bit of English, and in most cases you can make yourself understood with gestures if need be. Many stores and vendors have calculators at the ready, so they can point to a price and not a word need be exchanged between the two of you.

But the interactions were so much nicer for me when I could at least say “thank you” in Chinese, if not a bit more. And not everyone will have a calculator – the simple thing that I found most useful of everything we learned at Omeida was the numbers.

So my next post will be a small collection of just some of what we learned at Omeida for anyone who wants a bit of survival Chinese. 🙂

Interlude from the Philippines: Sounds of Coral Bay

** Before I begin this post, let me make it clear that I am by no means an expert on lizards! **

At this point we’ve spent a lot of time in Asia, and I’ve discovered that the place basically has two kinds of geckos.

The first is the Little Geckos.

These guys show up basically any place that’s hot enough. They have cute inquisitive little faces and range in color from what I’d describe as flesh tone to dull greyish brown. They hang out anywhere and everywhere but especially around lighting fixtures at night where they ineffectually stalk bugs and occasionally bomb unsuspecting sleepers with little pellets of poo (ok, this happened to me only once in Thailand, but I’ve been paranoid ever since!). They make their little tsk-ing noises to each other and from time to time get into minor scuffles over bug-hunting territory.

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Then there’s the Big Geckos.

These are less common and more shy – therefore harder to spot. While we have on occasion seen, and more often heard, them throughout Southeast Asia, it seems they may have it tough going there.

Apparently they are used in traditional Chinese medicine and will fetch quite a price for anyone who manages to catch them. Indeed, I saw dozens of the things while we were in Hong Kong, dead, splayed and drying in rows in the sun on the sidewalks in front of medicine shops.

Coral Bay seems to be a safe haven for the little guys. No place else we’ve been on this entire trip have we’ve heard SO many of them. They get active at night and have a wonderful and distinct call that makes it clear why they’re called geckos. We have one who’s taken to hanging out on our porch. Here’s a picture, and click on the “Gecko” link below to listen to what he and his friends sound like. 🙂 (Apologies for the sound quality – or lack thereof; this was recorded with an iPhone)

Gecko

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Paradise surrendered: lessons from the sea

It feels like ages since I’ve done a post and China is already starting to recede – a dream fading to the bright light reality of a sunny morning here in the Philippines. I’m determined to pick up though where I left off – with all we did and saw after leaving Xinjiang – but first I want to share where we are now.

We arrived in the Philippines nearly a week ago. After what felt like endless grey, cold, foggy and smoggy weather in China, we were ready for a change – and so far the Philippines has definitely been delivering!

We spent a couple of days in Manila before traveling to our current destination: a small, simple, secluded beach resort on a tiny island called Popototan, part of the Calamian Group of Islands, which clusters to the northeast of long, slender Palawan Island, the “most sparsely populated region” of the Philippines. (Lonely Planet)

The resort is simple but lovely. Power is on from 6pm to 6am every day. There’s no music, no traffic, no TV. Not much to listen to besides the gentle slap of the surf on the beach, the wind through the palms, the twitter of birds and whir of insects, the evening communications of a thriving community of geckos.

The beach is small but spotless. The real treasures lie under the water though, with plenty of reefs and wrecks providing a home to some amazing sea life. Kayaking, snorkeling, diving; it’s all possible here and the resort makes it easy to get into the water, how ever you prefer to do so, at a moment’s notice.

Basically, it’s paradise.

That is, if you happen to be an ocean person. Looking back at China I’ve been noticing how totally excited I get about mountains. The frosty landscapes of Xinjiang. The rural, Swiss-like peace of the rice terraces around Dazhai. The hike through the steep ridges of Tiger Leaping Gorge. These are the places that make my pulse quicken and my heart leap.

Beaches, I’m beginning to realize, are not my natural habitat.

Perhaps it’s down to exposure over a lifetime to apparently effective marketing which has led me to believe that upon arrival at a tropical beach, I should instantly transform into some tan, sleek, gorgeous and totally relaxed sort of island goddess.

Thanks to my dad’s mix of northern blood (Irish, English, Scottish, German), deeply tan is something I will never be. My options are limited to pasty white, bright pink or increasingly, disturbingly freckled.

Salt and wind do not agree with my hair or skin; the boat ride here for example left me feeling not unlike a greasy French fry.

Beaches don’t make me any more pretty than I already am or am not.

And, apparently, with all these expectations riding around in my head, they don’t instantly relax me either.

Oh, and I also have some small but irrationally lingering phobia of the vast unknown-ness of the ocean and the possibility of drowning or getting sucked down into it by something with sharp teeth, tentacles, or sharp teeth and tentacles. I am deeply impressed, fascinated even, by the mystery and power of the ocean, but towards the core of those feelings, there is also fear, which potentially also doesn’t help with the whole relaxation thing.

I’m working through it though. With the help of the ocean no less.

The diving we did back in Thailand was such a wonderful experience, and a chance to dive again was one of the main reasons we decided to come to the Philippines after China. We went snorkeling our first day here; we went diving yesterday. I’ve forgotten some of equipment details since our course in Thailand, but the general technique, feeling and lessons of diving are coming back quickly and they’re helping me a lot.

  • Don’t panic.
  • Remember to breathe. And make it as deep and slow and calm as you can.
  • If your mind can master your blind and frantic instinct to want to shoot desperately to the surface, then a whole miraculous and amazing world will open before your eyes.
  • And as soon as it does, you will be fully present – breathe and awareness and intention melding into one as you find yourself effortlessly floating in a wonderland – and any fear and panic that seemed so huge and important will melt away without you even noticing it.

Roman, unlike me, has always loved the ocean. His eyes are the color of a warm sea lit up by golden sunlight, and they started to sparkle as soon as we got into the tropical heat in Manila. He is also a master relaxer. (Oh, and he tans easily and looks darn good when he does.)

We’ve been talking about, among other things, my difficulty in relaxing. He’s been encouraging me to surrender – surrender more to the “what is”. Of being here on the beach, of the realities of the trip, of the fact that I can’t predict, let alone control the future (along with expectations about transforming into that incredible beach goddess comes all sorts of stuff like shouldn’t I have figured out X,Y and Z about what happens after “the big trip” by now?? (not that we even know yet when that will be…)). All I’ve got to work with is the present, so I may as well be there for it.

Letting go of expectations – becoming more present with what is here in the moment, rather than what I think should be here (or what I think I should be here) – I find I’m feeling better in my own skin (even if it doesn’t tan well) and enjoying this beach break more and more with every passing day. And I’m getting to see some pretty awesome aquatic life along the way!