Holidays on the road

The year is almost out. The last time I wrote, Christmas and my birthday and nearly the whole month of December on the road was still to come.

Now it’s a rain-drenched night in Nashville where I’m sitting and tomorrow morning we leave for our final destination of this month/year (nearly the final destination of our road trip – of our epic journey – but that’s a though for another day), where we’ll ring in the arrival of 2013 holed up in a cabin in the Virginia woods, cut off from internet and, most likely, cell phone reception, where I plan to watch movies with Roman, cook, eat, nap, read, sit by the wood stove, nap, write if I get ambitious, walk if the weather cooperates and nap some more.

And it’s not a moment too soon.

The past month has been AWESOME.

December first saw us leaving San Fran for a couple days on the pacific coastal highway. Then there were all the dear friends we got to spend time with in LA. A rollicking drive through twilit Death Valley to a surreal stint in Las Vegas. Zion National Park. Monument Valley. The Grand Canyon.

DSC_0738a rare bit of sun along the pacific highway

DSC_0837Seasons greetings from Disney on the “It’s a Small World” ride

DSC_0951Rodeo drive all blinged out and sparkly for Christmas

DSC_0381Las Vegas’ take on the holiday spirit….

DSC_0798Zion for my birthday! 😀

DSC_0295Stunning Monument Valley

DSC_0867We visited the Canyon on a snowy, blustery, cloud covered and beautiful day

DSC_0944In the canyon

Reconnecting with my most favorite friend from college in Phoenix. Meeting her husband for the first time. Less than 24 hours in Santa Fe. A long drive to Amarillo, Texas for a surprisingly snowy and bitterly cold Christmas.

DSC_0040Christmas lights and cacti in Phoenix

DSC_0421Ceramic Santas in Santa Fe

Oh, and we got to watch the Hobbit in 3-D Imax at the movie theater next to our hotel – one of two places we could find in Amarillo that were actually open for Christmas. The other being the Big Texan, home of the 72 ounce steak, where we out of necessity and an appreciation for the kitsch factor ate dinner both nights we were there.

DSC_0446

 

And finally, two long days of post-Texas driving changed the landscape dramatically and brought us to Arkansas and now Nashville.

We’ve been on the road trip for just over nine weeks now. In the month of December alone, we covered 9 states, made 11 stops, spent time with lots of people I love dearly, saw lots of new stuff. And now I am TIRED.

This afternoon I crashed. We’d gone to see Jack White’s Third Man Records. I was so excited to be there. I took bunches of pictures, chatted with the friendly lady working the counter, fed the automaton monkey band a quarter so they would play a White Stripes jam.

DSC_0600


All smiles. Then I headed out of the studio door and walked head first into a big fat wall of grumpiness.

Suddenly I was just done. At the moment, there’s not a single thing more I want to look at, hotel I want to research or book, place I want to go, history or natural wonder I want to ponder or regional specialty I want to eat. Sometimes with travel this happens. You just get full up. Any drop more would simply be too much.

I’ve been watching sit coms in a horizontal state in the hotel room all night and it seems to have helped – I’m over the grumps at this point. But I’m still SO glad it worked out (in the last minute!) to rent this cabin that – from the looks on google map – is pretty much literally in the middle of no where. There will be nothing to do but chill. I mean, the closest Starbucks is an hour and a half away! 😉

And that’s exactly what I need. A few days to digest all that the past month – two months really – has been. And a few days during which the future – 2013 and the end of the trip both – can wait.

I hope December has been good to everyone out there. Once I have space to think again, boy will I be excited to see what 2013 brings. 🙂 Happy New Year everyone!!

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Navimag: after the hype

So here we are, in beautiful, rain-driven Castro, on the mystical island of Chiloé, on the other side of our Navimag journey.

There’s loads of things I want to write about, but after the last post I think it’s fair to do a quick debrief about our time on the Ferry.

After all the hype and psyching myself up about “the good, the bad and the ugly”, I think it’s fair to say that none of the extreme scenarios won out.

Our days on the Ferry were, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag, with the balance leaning towards the good.

Was it a miserable four days filled with vomit and regrets? Most definitely not! Was it a life changing experience? The answer is also no. Am I glad I did it? Sure!

I don’t know how soon I’d do it again, but I love what I got to see along the way, and it made me hungry to visit Patagonia again – by land – for a closer look some day.

Here’s an overview of my personal ugly, bad and good from our four days on the ferry.

The Ugly

Allegedly the cabins in the normal ship are a bit nicer (The Evangelista – currently out of commission waiting for a new drive shaft apparently).

We got to see the Evangelista when we arrived at Puerto Montt

Ours were ok. Simple but fine – but for a few (important) details, like the toilet seat not being entirely attached and my ultimate pet peeve: dirty bedding. The linens were ok, but the top sheet had questionable stains of the variety my slightly paranoid mind likes to run away with. My intellect was “certain” was just mud, but my inner five-year-old inevitably christened it “the poop blanket.” So there was that in my head the whole time to deal with.

Just SOME of the offending stains…

Our cabin

More serious on the ugly list though was taking in the reality of the truckloads of cows who were outside on the cargo deck, tightly packed and standing for the entirety of our journey. (Not to mention how ever long they had been and would be in that condition during the over-land portions of their journey). The patient, half resigned/half hopeful expressions on their faces – whether real or projected – were heart breaking to me.

The Bad

My Spanish skills!

I could just about have very basic conversations (provided things remained in the present tense only!) in Argentina with what I’d learned in the two week’s of class I had there. Chilean Spanish is a whole new kettle of fish though, and I’m really struggling with it.

I was the only person on board with next to no Spanish, and most people couldn’t speak any English at all, so I ended up feeling a bit out of the loop. I am positive that being able to interact more meaningfully – beyond being able to say “hello”, “thank you” and “excuse me” basically – would have made for a more interesting experience on board. Definitely feeling motivated to take some more classes at some point and get somewhat more comfortable with Spanish!

The Good

Patagonia, Patagonia, Patagonia! Our weather was mixed too, but we had enough luck to see some pretty awesome views – and some wild life! Check out the magic:

This is the view we had on Puerto Eden. (Love the recurring theme of awesome colorful houses since we’ve gotten to Chile!)

The Ferry docks here during the summer, but as it’s winter now, boats from the village came out to meet us to pick up supplies from the ship, and this is as close as we got. I would LOVE to come back and check this place out up close some day. From Wikipedia:

Villa Puerto Edén is a Chilean hamlet and minor port located in Wellington Island, in Natales commune, Última Esperanza Province, Magallanes Region. It is considered one of Chile’s most isolated inhabited places together with Easter Island and Villa Las Estrellas. The village is known for being the home of the last Kawéshkar people. Owing to the large tidewater glaciers caused by the region’s super-high precipitation, it is only accessible by sea, on the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt in the north, or Puerto Natales in the south. There is also a monthly boat from Caleta Tortel.

The population is 176 (2002 census). Owing to the extraordinarily humid climate the village has no roads, with only pedestrian boardwalks connecting the houses and shops. A weekly transport boat takes local fish and shellfish products (the latter mainly mussels) to markets.

And last but not least, some videos. The iPhone had a tough time reading the light, so forgive some overexposure and blurry moments in the first video.

Views from the first day: waterfalls, water fowl and keep an eye open for seals.

And this. Was. Just. Magic.

Seeing this was the icing on the cake for me. Was lucky enough to have the phone in hand as it happened. I didn’t even know that seals did that. I still get shivers down my spine watching it – soooo magic and just awesome.

Good bye Puerto Natales, Hello Navimag!

It’s our last night in Puerto Natales.

Well, technically that’s not entirely true. It’s our last night at the B&B in Puerto Natales – tomorrow night we’ll be sleeping on the ship as we have to “check in” the night before it departs (feel certain there must be a specific nautical term for this occurrence but have no clue what it might be. “Sets sail”? Only the ferry doesn’t have sails to set. Hm.) early on Sunday morning.

As usual, I’m experiencing pangs about having to leave some place I’ve come to love. (It’s an interesting sensation, having a simultaneous abundance of both wanderlust and sentimentality)

We have a draft itinerary for the rest of our time in Chile and there is no place we plan to spend as much time as we’ve ended up spending here in Puerto Natales (unless more unexpected things happen – never say never 😉 ). I’ve arrived in Chile with only a vague sense about the country and I still can’t really imagine what awaits us as we travel north through this shoe string of a country. What I can say though is that Puerto Natales has given us a lovely introduction and welcome. It’s felt really natural staying here and I’ve enjoyed every moment. The city is the gateway to the Torres Del Paine national park and yes, the park IS as incredible and beautiful as everyone says and I’m not lessening it at all but it’s really this little tourist-town-on-the-off-season and the experiences we’ve had here that have charmed me entirely, and entirely unexpectedly. What a lovely thing to have gotten stranded here. 😀

Happily we have something really exciting and adventurous as our next step, which tempers the verklemptness somewhat! 🙂 And that is four nights, three days on the Navimag ferry!

This is a trip through the Patagonian fjords along Chile’s southern coastline, and from all accounts, it can be either sublime or downright hellish. I suspect the reality will fall somewhere in between – so long as the weather isn’t too uncooperative.

(Well, we will see – according to Navimag’s website we are traveling during the second rainiest, second coldest month of the year. There is probably a reason why there are only two other tourists traveling on the ship with us. In fact we’re bunking with them in a room that appears just big enough to fit two bunk beds. Please keep your fingers crossed for both decent weather and decent company!)

I don’t think I can explain it better than Lonely Planet, so please excuse this large excerpt:

The Navimag Experience: The good, the bad & the ugly

Back in the prehistoric Patagonian travel days of the 1980s and the early ‘90s, travelers had to beg and swindle just to stow away on the rusty cargo freighters that plied the waters between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. No regular passenger ferries were installed as tourism to the region increased, but the Navimag shipping company caught on and decided to dedicate a section of their boats to passenger transportation. So, these days, you can have that same experience of stowing away on a freighter – packed with 18-wheelers, drunken truck drivers and cattle – but you can make a reservation online and they will charge you hundreds of dollars for your bunk.

The Navimag is not a cruise. If you are looking for a cruise, check out Skorpios and ready your credit card. The Navimag is a quirky travel experience that comes with the good, the bad and the ugly. If you like to have different experiences and are adventurous it just might be the highlight of your trip.

The Good

The boat takes you through days of uninhabited fjords, close encounters with glaciers and views of surreal orange sunsets over the Pacific. It passes through Aisen’s maze of narrow channels, navigates the Angostura Inglesa (a passage so confined that the ship seems to graze the shoreline on both sides) and stops at the impossibly remote Puerto Eden, a small fishing port (etc. etc. – other things that we probably won’t do because of the time of the year, as I’ve been told by the guy at the Navimag office here in town…)

Beyond the stellar scenery, the trip has become a unique bonding experience for independently minded travelers. Strangers become tight friends after numerous bottles of wine, round after round of pointless card games, sympathizing about queasy stomachs (I hope we have enough Dramamine to go around!) deck-top soccer matches, late-night dance parties and plans to meet up in Torres del Paine (most travelers do the opposite direction apparently). Even though the ship’s common spaces are bare and not particularly comfortable, the crew does a yeoman’s job of trying to entertain with games, slide shows, music and a respectable selection of English-language movies.

The Bad

If the weather is poor, your views are limited and you will spend much of your time watching movies or drinking in the dining area. If the weather is worse, you can spend a day or so pitching back and forth on rough seas and fighting to hold down your lunch. If the weather is worse than that your trip can be delayed (for days) prior to departure and you can even be delayed en route if the Golfo de Penas (on the open Pacific) is too rough to cross (the guy at the office told me that too rough means waves higher than 4.5 meters. Yikes.)

In the winter the boat can have less than a dozen passengers (check!), which can be fine or can really detract from the social experience. In the heart of summer, it is often so full that people are packed on top of each other and must dine in shifts. A very crowded boat can make the cramped downstairs dorm rooms seem less bearable.

The Ugly

During the winter, when there are fewer passengers and more cargo, hundreds of head of cattle are kept on the top and middle decks in open-top trucks. They are packed together so tightly that not all animals can keep their feet on the ground and after a day or two the stench of 300 cattle can be tough on your nose – especially if you are already seasick.

However, as you should know by now, no valuable travel experience comes without a dose of hardship. If you have the time, trips on the Navimag will not only change the way that you understand Chilean Patagonia, it will also add depth to your entire trip.

So, let’s see what happens.

Earlier when we booked I was really wondering what we were getting ourselves into. I’m definitely feeling calmer now and mostly just curious to see what it will be like.

Also, it helps to remember our time on the cargo ship in Myanmar – how those three days became and remain one of THE big highlights of our trip so far. Yes, we were sleeping on a one-inch mattress, the nights were freezing cold and I didn’t shower for days, but it was just magic and I wouldn’t give up a second of it. The fjords and open ocean will be something completely different from the Irrawaddy River, and the Navimag ferry is at least 10 times cushier than our ferry in Myanmar.

So, let the adventure begin! 🙂 We’ll be offline for at least a few days, so see you again once we reach Puerto Montt!

Before I go though, here’s a quick peak at Chilean Patagonia… Tons more photos to come at some point in the future… 🙂

Winter wonderland without pictures part 2, or “Overcoming my winter sport phobia”

And for my mental record, here is the verbal account of further snowy adventures in Ushuaia.

We got back from dog sledding and snow shoeing. High from the cold, beauty and exercise, we popped happily into our favorite café in town where I foolishly downed a Bailey’s-laced coffee. This pushed my sensibilities over the edge of a mountain, so when Roman suggested we forget the insane cost and just jump at the chance of skiing/snow boarding at the end of the world (for goodness’ sake!!), I was just silly enough to enthusiastically gush: yes, absolutely! I am up for it! How could we not??

We ventured forth to make arrangements and rent equipment for the next day – our last in Ushuaia.

We staggered forth from the rental shop to our hotel. I felt increasingly sober AND klutzy with each step in the cold winter air and my mind began to wander towards all the things I had wanted to do while still in town plus my last two experiences on the pistes.

The first was as a child, where I spent an endless miserable afternoon trudging duck like up a slope with what felt like lead skis attached to my feet while developing a raging fever. Strike one against winter sport.

The second encounter was more recent. Roman is a snow boarder and had convinced me to overcome my childhood misgivings and give his favorite winter sport a go. This was after I’d already lived in Switzerland for many years without ever visiting the mountains at winter – a feat I had found very sensible and was quite proud of. I gave in to his coaxing and even started boasting around the office about how we were taking a week off at a ski resort and I was going to learn how to snow board, just watch me!

So children, let this be a lesson about hubris, because I didn’t even make it through the first day.

My instructor was a sweet lady and we were taking it slowly, learning how to stand and slide on the board on a flat bit of snow, not even on the bunny slope yet. I made one stupid move and down I went – crack! – right onto my sacrum. The wind was knocked out of me and my eyes teared up as I lay there, stunned, staring at the sky. I got up and tried to get on with the lesson but by the time Roman and I had left the slopes for the après ski beer, it was clear that something was wrong – I couldn’t stand to sit down, even for a reviving beer.

I spent the rest of my ski-vacation-week moving around our rented flat like an arthritic 100-year-old woman, lying on my stomach reading magazines and books and trying to nurse my bruised ego. The worst was showing up at work the next week, having to tell everyone the story AND stand at my desk, because it was another week or so before I could sit properly again. 😛

So, all these fond memories were swirling through my head as I tried not to drop my ski poles (still too soon for snow boarding!) or impale Roman or myself on my skis. By the time we made it to our hotel room, I was having a full-blown freak out. I did my best to contain it, but it was still there when I woke up in the morning as we boarded the bus to take us to the slopes. Boy was I a miserable cow! I buried my head in Roman’s shoulder and tried to sleep until we arrived, hoping for oblivion and that this whole thing was just a bad dream I could still wake up from.

But then we were there, having a coffee, buying our lift tickets and signing me up for an afternoon class. Roman offered to stay with and comfort me until the instructor showed up but I thought there was no point as I was inconsolable and I wanted at least one of us to have a good time. I sent him on his way and proceeded to wait till it was time for class, experiencing the definition of a bad head space:

Suddenly all the people around me looked 20 times more glamorous, sophisticated, at ease and graceful. I, by contrast, felt like I was stomping around like an elephant in a tea shop. I felt ugly and awkward and out of place, lurching around in my massive ski boots. I already had lost complete feeling in my feet and was getting colder and more miserable by the minute. I was convinced I was going to injure myself again and started fantasizing about skipping class, going back down the mountain to where my comfy Ugg boots were waiting, and drinking beer all afternoon while Roman boarded. I decided my teacher was going to be some arrogant guy who only spoke Spanish, and I started working on phrases in my head with my rudimentary vocab about how I was scared, not feeling well, currently hating my boyfriend for “convincing” me to go through with this, etc.

I’d worked myself up to a point where tears were actually welling in my eyes when this little sprite of a girl in oversized ski gear, a wild pony tale on the top of her head, a button nose and apple red cheeks came up and kissed my cheek (as Argentinians do with friends), introduced herself as Dana, my ski instructor, and immediately, effectively washed away all my fears with the strength of her warmth, ease and down-to-earth presence.

I don’t even know how she did it but clearly she is a charmed ski instructor because before I knew it, I was swishing my way down gentle hills, taking turns, laughing out loud at the rush and yes, even ENJOYING myself. Miracle worker.

She is ten years my junior, has been competing in ski competitions around the world for well more than half her young life, is from Ushuaia and LOVES the place, loves the sport, loves what she is doing. And that love and passion was so strong that I couldn’t help but focus on that instead of all those cobwebby fears I’d spun in my head.

We chatted about all sorts of things and I even got to practice some of my Spanish, and in between that, she taught me the basics of skiing. She also reminded me to stop, to breath and look around at all the beauty – the light coming through the criss-crossing patterns of black, back lit tree branches. The stunning, wide view over the mountains and valleys. The color the sky turned as the sun began to get low. This is the power of a true, passionate teacher.

So, thank you Dana, for not only helping me to overcome a fear, but transforming it into something really joyful – a beautiful memory from our last day in Argentina!

Obviously left the camera at the hotel for this day too, but here are some pics Roman took with his phone

Elated not only about having survived but about having actually skied AND enjoyed myself!

Buenos Aires bookends

Today has been our last full day in Buenos Aires.

A full day – we’ve been going since we got up and there will be an early start tomorrow morning to do the rest of the packing, hand back the keys to our temporary home and go through the process to get onto the plane that will fly us down to Ushuaia.

A full day, sometimes a challenging day, a good day.

A grey day – over cast and sometimes rainy. Which I liked.

Our first week here there was nothing but grey, and it feels fitting that we end our time in BA the way it started. Meteorological bookends to a place. I like the symmetry.

Maybe it sounds dramatic but I guess things are feeling a tad dramatic. I’ve been pretty emotional the past couple of days. It’s not unheard of for me to get all nostalgic about a place as it comes time to leave it on this trip, even as we are still there.

Will we ever see this city again? And it’s been temporarily home and now it’s time to uproot yet again and move once more into the unknown. All that sort of stuff.

But I’ve gotten better at it with time. Especially in this second half of the journey, I’ve been filled with momentum and more tuned in to gratitude and the hunger for more adventure has been sustaining and inspiring me through having to saying goodbye to a place.

But this time round the emotions are in full force. Everything feels more intense as awareness of the end to the big journey increases. As well, this little apartment in Palermo, Buenos Aires, is the longest place Roman and I have had been able to call (temporary) home since we left Zürich a year and nine months ago. And Buenos Aires and I have had to go through a process. From that pretty tough first week when I was really wondering what the heck we were doing here to now, where the city has been transformed in my eyes to a place full of rough beauty and soooo many things I would love to do, if only we had more time…

I am greedy; I always want more. But I am trying to learn how to be satisfied with what is, and so I will just enjoy the symmetry of my rainy days and focus on some details of BA that I’ve savored during my time here, with the addition of the one little rant.

BA – what I hate

Oh my God I hate the dog crap all over the place. It is everywhere and it is awful. You know when you were a kid and you played that game where you couldn’t step on a crack in the street and you’d be jumping all over the place as you walk? It’s like that here except everyone is maneuvering to NOT step on the poo. Some streets are better but some streets are worse and you cannot drop your guard. Some streets stink of it and you have to watch not to accidentally open your mouth ever cause you might just get a mouthful of poop-flavored air. I would rather walk in a cloud of Roman’s second hand cigarette smoke than breathe in poo-air, it’s that awful. Seriously, people of Buenos Aires, do not own dogs if you can’t or won’t pick up after them!!!! It’s just not right.

You see something like this in the street and you know someone’s day just got worse when they walked here….

BA – just some of what I love

Caca de perro was definitely one of the things I noticed first about BA, but thankfully, many other things joined the symphony of the city and managed to do a decent job drowning out that particular “instrument”. Once you get over the poo, or at least get adept at side stepping to avoid it, there are so many lovely details to appreciate. Here are just some of the little things I’ve collected and enjoyed while we’ve been here:

–       There are islands of good smells on the streets to counteract the poo. Small fruit and vegetable shops opening up to the sidewalk and street-side florists with stands bursting full of gorgeous blooms are all over the place and I love walking through the fresh, lovely smells and taking in the burst of bright colors while walking through BA’s streets.

–       Walking home from yoga. I take a different zig-zag to get back just about every time and I love discovering new streets, shops, views each time.

My favorite cobblestone alleyway on the way to/from yoga

–       All the PDA in the street! I love the young couples making out in public. This is still such a thrill for me since Asia is way conservative about that sort of thing and it was so tough for me to have to watch my actions with Roman while we traveled there. I love it that I can kiss, hug or hold hands with him when ever I feel like it, and that other people can – and do! – too.

–       I love the old American and European cars! There are plenty of standard modern cars all over the place but there are also all sorts of rusty gems – Fords, Citroens, Fiats – clunking along the city streets and I think they’re awesome.

–       No pictures of this but I love how the slanty light of mid morning or later afternoon filters through the arched roof of tree branches hanging over the city’s streets. Just gorgeous.

–       I love the street art!
Yes, that’s Alf

–       The awesome old-timey elevators with the accordion doors you have to pull closed before you can ascend/decent. The nifty apartment doorbells. The funky keys.

What a classy doorbell system!

Our apartment key, like some sort of mini steam punk machine gun

–       Cheap and delicious wine!

–       The way the people here sing along with the music in their headphones while walking.

–       Beautiful sunsets from our apartment window.

I’m sure there’s more to add to this list, but it’s bedtime now – tomorrow is a new adventure! Good night folks! 🙂

Homesick in BA

We land at Buenos Aires in a shroud of mist and thick, low-slung cloud cover. The streetlights are on by the time we leave the airport; night is drawing in. I struggle against the siren song of jet lag in the darkening back of the cab, trying to keep awake for my first glimpses of the city. Ragged, low buildings along the highway slowly give way to increasingly tall blocks. Eventually we are dipping off the highway, descending into the dark city herself. Roughness and beauty flash by the window in turn; I try to be intrigued but really I am just relieved when we pull up to our apartment building.

A quick exchange with our Airb’n’b host, a grocery run, and a hazy hour or two fighting the urge to nap make up enough of an evening for me. I collapse into sleep. I’m wide awake again around 3am local time. I sit in the living room, waiting for the dawn that takes an age to come. By the time the sun is up, I’m exhausted and realizing that I am feeling awfully homesick.

It doesn’t happen often, but I shouldn’t be surprised that I would feel this way sometimes. I don’t know if it’s the rainy weather, the stark contrast of Argentina (so far) to the exuberant welcome and sunshine, the pristine cities and stunning nature we experienced in Australia and New Zealand. Maybe it’s down to how much time we spent in the cozy homes of friends the past weeks back in Oz and NZ. Or how hard I fell for both these countries.

What ever it is, even though our rented flat is nice and I have nothing really to judge Buenos Aires by at this point, I find myself feeling awfully whiny, getting pissed about stupid stuff and longing for a familiar bed, familiar smells, things I can trust.

It’s ok though. Observing the weather as the plane touched down in BA, I thought to myself, no bother, we have time for good weather to come to us. We’ve rented the flat for five weeks, and we’ll be in Argentina at least that long. No rush.

There’s plenty of time for my homesickness to work itself out, and to gently, without expectation, to get to know this place. There’s no rule that I have to love a place right away, or ever if it comes to that. It doesn’t mean I have to make my initial reaction into a big deal. Mind over matter – just be patient Jenny and see what there is to see. Sometimes doing the thing just involves hanging in there. And no expectations.

We take our first exploratory walk around the neighborhood later that day. Getting out of the apartment, despite the gloomy weather, is a step in the right direction for my head space.

Lonely Planet describes BA as “somehow strangely familiar, but unlike any other city in the world.” There are elements that evoke bits and pieces of other cities to be sure.

The traffic sounds – squeaking breaks, honking horns, wailing sirens – and the ravines of one-way streets below canyons of looming buildings call to mind New York. At moments as we walk through the streets, I’ll catch glimpses of Europe – Paris or Madrid – hologram like, superimposed on the scenes in front of me. The park we pass through is full of tropical trees and smells like a zoo. (Full disclosure: it smells like animal poo). This and the trash on the street bring to mind some of the Asian metropolises we visited. The rough and tumble corrugated iron houses we passed on the way from the airport make me think of India, of Manila.

It’s a new sensation on this big trip of ours too to look the like locals. At this point I’m used to either being in an English-speaking country or sticking out like the obvious tourist. I find myself feeling a bit shy where in Australia and New Zealand I would talk to anyone (cause they would talk to us, easily, openly, effortlessly) – and hoping that Spanish classes will give me a chance to interact with more than an awkward smile. Although Roman (who already knows some Spanish) says that the people here talk SO fast.

It’s also a new experience on this trip to do such a big geographical and cultural jump so fast. We worked our way so slowly through the different shades of Asia; each new flavor providing context for our subsequent destination. And now here we are, from one day to the next, in South America for the first time ever, and my mind is kind of sort of blown.

I’m curious how all these different parts will congeal over the next weeks to form in my mind this new (for me) city in this new country on this new continent. How I will feel about it at the end of our time versus these first jet-lagged days.

Today, after another too-short night of sleep, we woke to the din of heavy rains washing through the soundscape of morning traffic. Even though the weather has only gotten gloomier, my heart is lighter today. The apartment is getting more familiar and it feels nice to have an idea of where we might try and pick up a few things we need when we go for a walk later today. Let’s see if we can’t make this little corner of the world into a home, even if it’s just temporary.

Food, funerals and fireworks

It’s really time to leave Yangshuo for our next stop in China, but before I finish up with this place I wanted to share our food and accommodation notes plus a little something extra.

Accommodation and food notes

After leaving Omeida, we decided to treat ourselves and went upscale at a hotel called the River View Hotel. It was expensive for our budget (around RMB 250 per night, or USD 40) but it was also the first nice place we stayed since arriving in mainland China.

A big, clean, comfortable bed, Western style toilets in a perfectly clean bathroom, our own private balcony. All of these made a nice change after the hotels we experienced in Xinjiang and the squat-style toilet and spartan room at Omeida. Also great was the location: the river view was nice enough but having our favorite coffee shop just a few doors down was the real treat. 🙂

MingYuan Café is listed in Lonely Planet. It’s a cute little café with eclectic decoration and probably the best espresso/espresso drinks we had in all of mainland China. …Thinking about it… Yes, THE best espresso we had on the mainland for sure. Unconventional but awesome tiramisu and cheesecake too! We practically lived at this place and it’s a super spot for studying Chinese.

Other favorites included Kelly’s which I wrote about earlier, and Pure Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant, where we ordered a whole mess of different things from the huge menu, and each and every one of them were delicious.
Traveler’s note: There are tons of restaurants in Yangshuo. We tried a fair amount of them and most of them were fairly average – catering to tourists who probably won’t stay long enough to be picky. There are probably other gems out there though that we didn’t get to!

A word of warning

Another random note to travelers – like most hot spots in China, visit Yangshuo during the national holiday week at your own peril!!

We were still in class when the holiday and its thousands upon thousands of giddy Chinese tourists descended upon the place. Suddenly the streets around Omeida were filled to the brim with wobbly tandem bikes (parents with a small child strapped precariously to a seat strapped precariously to the bike bar, couples in matching outfits, young men with flower garlands resting on their brows) heading out to the countryside, while the hawkers around the tourist center redoubled their efforts and the alleyways swelled with tour groups in matching neon hats obediently bobbing along after flags on sticks fluttering above the crowds…

Consider yourselves warned. 😉

The unconventional alarm clock

While we were students at the Omeida Academy in Yangshuo, we lived in a dorm room in the residential part of town. We were on the 2nd floor (1st floor if you’re European – one above the ground floor) of an apartment building filled with a mix of locals and students, with our window facing out on to the sidewalk and broad street below.

One morning early we nearly tumbled out of bed when we were awoken by the tremendous cacophony of hundreds upon hundreds of small but potently loud fire crackers being set up directly below our open window. Blearily peeking out, we could see a crowd gathering in front of the building below.
We asked our teacher about it at class that morning and it turned out an elderly man from the building next door had just died, and what we had witnessed was the start of his funeral ceremony.

By the time our morning class was over, more mourners plus a band had gathered. People were wearing white tissue paper over their clothes and playing cards at tables set up under a tent on the sidewalk. The band would start up every once in a while and someone took it upon themselves to light another round of fire crackers every once in a while.

It was all very interesting and we felt lucky to have a glimpse into this cultural tradition. That is, until the sun started to set and we realized that we were in for a late evening of lurchy-sounding music and fireworks that all sounded close enough to have been taking place on the edge of our bed.

The next day we found out – first hand – that traditional Chinese funerals are a multi-day affair. The noise – I mean celebrations – kicked off around 6:30 in the morning and tended to carry on until close to midnight. The final night there was a crescendo, with no fewer than three bands and one performance troupe participating, and lots of drunk, theatrical, karaoke-style singing.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful of local traditions, but we sure didn’t sleep enough that week and it was with equal parts fascination and relief when early the next morning we watched from our window as there was a last hurrah and the colorful casket was carried down the street, followed by dancing dragons, musicians, mourners and plenty of fireworks.

So, in case you ever wondered what a Chinese funeral might sound like, here are some sound bites. (I especially get a kick out of the car alarms at the end of the second one… 😉 )

Chinese funeral 1

Percussion!

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!

Travel joys: the bus from Cu Nam to Hanoi

Don’t let the title fool you; this is actually a travel gripe. 🙂

So we’d just had this magical moped ride through softly twi-lit farmlands as a new moon rose over the land. I was floating in the beauty of it all when suddenly our drivers unceremoniously dropped us at the bus “station”. Presumably they then sorted out the ticket with the guy who seemed like maybe he worked at the place. The “place” being a lot facing the street in front of what appeared to be someone’s home. And then they were gone.

Our hosts at Phong Nha had said they could fix us up with a bus ticket to our next destination, Hanoi. Had assured us that this particular bus at 8 at night was the only one that we’d be able to get to Hanoi. Had convinced us we needed to leave the home stay at 6 to be there on time.

So there we were at 6:20, the only people hanging out in these folks’ driveway, wondering how we would occupy ourselves for the next hour and a half.

Luckily, it turned out we’d have plenty of time to sort out entertainment. After about five minutes, the guy at the bus station explained to us with limited English that the bus was running late – two hours late in fact. We called the Farm Stay and had them talk to the guy and confirm this unbelievable fact. They said they’d look into things but we never heard from them again.

So, we sat on the little plastic chairs as the last of the light faded, and proceeded to watch as bus after bus, clearly marked with the end-destination of Hanoi, rushed mockingly past us. We were joined by a friendly English teacher, who pulled up a chair and shared cup after thimble-sized cup of the bitterest green tea with me. (Knowing we had an overnight bus ride with the distinct possibility of no bathroom breaks, I’d promised my bladder I wouldn’t drink anything after leaving the hotel. Ah the lengths I will go to be politely social!) Eventually his bus (to Hanoi) showed up and my taste buds could slowly start to uncoil. (And I attempted to make amends with my bladder in the family’s wet, dingy “bathroom”.)

Finally, four hours later, our bus pulled up. We scrambled across the waist high road divider with our luggage and up into the bus.

We’d done overnight buses before in Thailand and figured it would be more or less the same. Something half way between an economy and business class seat in a plane, except with a lot more neon and black light decorations, so you feel like you’re traveling through Thailand inside a rolling fish tank.

Because of this, we were a bit taken aback to discover a whole different set up on the Vietnamese night bus. Three rows of narrow metal bunks, stacked two deep, filled the crammed bus. The pathway between the bunks was so tight that my backpack kept getting stuck as I walked through to the back of the blue-lit bus.

A really nice guy switched his seat so that Roman and I could bunk close to each other. Up into the narrow “bed” we climbed and attempted to get comfortable for the night. The bus took off and the lights went out; the lucky went to sleep and the rest made do.

I was wired from all that green tea, so I plugged in my headphones and tried to enjoy the dark scenery outside, doing my best to block out the sniffling, snorting, snoring, sneezing, vomiting and – most persistent and pervasive – a steady stream of farts that were making their way at regular intervals through the aisles from somewhere in the back of the bus.

After a few hours even I was able to finally nod off; blessedly when I woke up the sun was up and we were nearing Hanoi. Eventually we arrived at the bus station – this time a real one – groggy, sweaty and eager to get to our hotel. My bladder was complaining about all that green tea but there wasn’t a bathroom in sight. Or a taxi we were willing to get into, either.

We’d been instructed by the hotel in Hanoi which cab companies were trustworthy, and how much it should cost us to get from the bus station to the hotel.

We left the bus station parking lot with our big packs, fending off sketchy drivers and scanning traffic for a legitimate cab. After a sweaty quarter-hour of failure, my bladder getting more insistent by the minute, we finally gave up and flagged the next cab we saw.

The driver agreed to use the meter; we thought maybe we’d be all right until we noticed that it was running faster than water through a sieve. In the end the price was well over double what we knew for sure it should be. Roman was an absolute hero and stood his ground with the guy for another fifteen minutes in front of the hotel (no joke, the guy would NOT back down! Finally after Roman threatened to go to the police, the driver grudgingly accepted the fair payment) while I checked us in and (bliss!) use the lobby’s bathroom. I tried to have some breakfast pho, but all I could smell (and subsequently taste) was bus farts – pho may be ruined for me for the near future.

The hotel staff were very sweet but also a bit too well-trained; they took us through the numerous tour options they could arrange for us while I was just trying to revive my brain with cup after cup of coffee. Eventually our room was ready and I gratefully flopped into the non-moving, non-smelly, silent bed. Hello Hanoi!

P1010815
Roman managed to snap a quick photo of the bus before he disembarked in Hanoi – just to give you an idea of the set up. 🙂

Current events: Xinjiang to Yangshuo

We arrived in Yangshuo late last night, physically and mentally exhausted from a very full, intense, incredible and amazing week in Xinjiang. Seven flights in seven days, countless miles driven through endless and endlessly stunning landscapes, delving into fascinating new cultures and having tons of new experiences, dealing with cold – REAL COLD – for the first time in months, dealing with some REALLY dodgy toilet situations! Phew!
I loved it but when we finally could crash into our simple dorm room here in Yangshuo at 1am after a full day of traveling, I got hit with such a strong bout of homesickness (so many airports and airplanes and I’m still not in Switzerland or America??? Still not my familiar bed? And I have to use a squat toilet for the next two weeks??) that I basically got too grumpy to function and just went straight to bed. I woke up still grumpy but I’ve been pulling myself out of it hour by hour today. Little things have been helping.
The staff at the school are sweet and friendly. Yangshuo, while touristy, does seem to be very cute and manageable; the karst landscape that literally cradles the town is just beautiful from the bit we’ve seen so far. There is hope for a decent cup of coffee somewhere in this place based on what we’ve read. Roman has been infinitely kind and patient with me despite my wearing grumpy pants. There were really expensive but really, really tasty mangosteens at a market down the street that I had for breakfast. These are all good things. 🙂
Our two-week Chinese course starts tomorrow morning. Internet access in Xinjiang was poor to non-existant, so I didn’t get to back fill those Vietnam posts as I’d hoped, but we’ve got decent internet access here and even with daily studies there will hopefully be time for catching up on this journal. So watch this space! 🙂