Looking for America

Where’s she been?

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

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

Hope for the United States

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victory lap!

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

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

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

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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.

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.

Technical difficulties

We went over our to-do list over breakfast this morning. All the little things to sort out in preparation for three days on the Navimag ferry. We headed out to town to get things done, including stopping by the Navimag office to find out exactly what time the boarding was. What a surprise to be told that there wasn’t going to be any boarding. Not until Saturday anyway!

It seems there are issues with the ship we were meant to be on. It didn’t sail on it’s weekly run last week, and as they’re not even sure what the problem is, they can’t say when it’ll be fixed and ready to go again. Navimag has a second ship though – less cushy than the one we were meant to be on – and that is stepping in to do the route from Puerto Natales up through the Patagonian fjords to the port city of Puerto Montt. Only instead of departing tomorrow, it’s departing in five days.

We’ve of course experienced delays during this big trip of ours, but five days is most definitively a record. 🙂

I’m not complaining though. We decided the journey through the fjords is worth the wait, and our lovely B&B has room for us all week, so we’re happy to camp out here in little Natales for a while longer. It’s definitely not a bad place to be marooned, as far as we’re concerned. If nothing else, it’ll give me the opportunity to catch up a bit more on the blog! 🙂

So that’s all the news from our neck of the woods for now. Hope everyone else out there is having a good week – where things go to plan, or, when they don’t, the unexpected is something delightful, like it is this week for us. 🙂

The Terracotta Warriors

An astounding archeological discovery, the terracotta army outside of Xi’an is another one of China’s most popular tourist destinations, and one that we didn’t want to miss while we were in the country. On our second day in Xi’an, we hopped on a bus and headed out to the site to spend a day with the warriors of clay.

There’s plenty of information out there about the army so I won’t write much here, not being an expert on the subject. I found this clip on YouTube; it’s not amazing but it will give you a pretty good overview if you want some background info:

Killer expectations

I was really excited to see the army and I think I probably didn’t manage my expectations properly (like I was able to do for the Great Wall), because it wasn’t the best day for me.

Seeing the army for yourself IS amazing – the implications and sheer size, the craftsmanship, the glimpse into another era of life in a culture long gone – it can’t help but be impressive. But I was in the wrong headspace and had a tough time to not get distracted and annoyed by the tourism side of it.

We happened to be there when a lot of Chinese tour groups were also visiting. Despite being mindful of my surroundings and trying to stay out of the way, I found myself being constantly bumped into by people who weren’t looking where they were going.

Tour group crowds! Argh!

There was a lot of this sort of thing at displays so viewing everything we wanted to took a lot of time and patience; it was tough (for me at least) to just get immersed in the history and experience.

Tourists also had a chance to have their photo taken with replica warriors…

We decided to not get a tour guide because we wanted to view things at our own pace and in our own way. We picked up an audio guide instead. The museum signage is not the clearest and we found the audio guide provided a lot of detailed facts about specific things we looked at – this is the sort of paint used on this piece or this is how high this item is – but not a lot of context and no story, which is what we had been hoping for. I’m not sure if a human guide would have been better, but I can safely advise skipping the audio guide if you are considering it.

Get over it!

I am confident though, that with the right attitude and a bit more background information, visiting the terracotta army can be a mind-blowing experience. Even though I was annoyed for a lot of the time we were there, I’m still 100% glad that we went, and, removing my own limiting emotions from the memories of it, I have to say that it is pretty darn amazing.

From the traditional beliefs about the afterlife, to the amount of work that went into constructing an army of that size, to how darn old it is, to the fact that it was discovered at all, the whole thing is fascinating and just about miraculous. What I loved the most though was taking in the unique faces of each statue. The details of each individual figure and the specific expressions on their faces were enthralling.

So, without further ado, here are the terracotta warriors. 🙂

Here and now plus a bit of BA graffiti

Taking a break from the China catch up for some current events…

It’s our last weekend in Buenos Aires. We’re leaving the city on Friday, for our final destination in Argentina: Ushuaia. I’m really excited for our little foray into Patagonia, and in the mean time I am enjoying the heck out of what’s left of our time in Buenos Aires. We’re having a lovely weekend here with gorgeous spring-like weather and I’m soaking in as much sun and warmth as I can before we plunge into winter: the current temperature in Ushuaia is 3 degrees Celcius, 37 degrees Farenheit. The sun is rising around 10 in the morning these days and there’s a 60% chance of snow tonight. Brr! 🙂

I’m also trying to savor as much as I can in general. We still have a lot of travel ahead of us, but the truth of the matter is that the end of our big trip is starting to loom on the horizon. It’s still months off, but when you’ve been traveling for over a year and a half, a few months (or what ever it will end up being – dates are NOT set in stone) will naturally feel like a significantly smaller portion of time.

At the moment, our utterly amorphous future is a fun place for my mind to wander. Happily, some of the earlier pressures of feeling like I have to “figure it all out” have eased. I’m actually doing a decent job these days of trusting that the future will work out. As a result, daydreaming about what might be is a fun exercise only and in the mean time I’m actually enjoying and showing up for the present in the way I often desire, but seldom manage to. I’m not entirely sure what’s shifted but I’m sure the yoga helps, I imagine the finite timing of the rest of the trip is a factor as well, and I’ll put the rest down to grace. For which I am grateful.

I might write more about all three of those things later on, but in the mean time I want to share about the graffiti tour we went on in Buenos Aires yesterday.

(In fact if my photo card reader wasn’t playing up, I’d share a post-appropriate a picture here that we took of some simple but philosophical graffiti in Salta that said “Usted está aqui y ahora”. In English “You are here and now.” Good to remember. :-))

BA street art!

I’ve been a casual fan of graffiti ever since I wrote an article on it for the sadly now defunct magazine Inside Switzerland. It’s impossible not to notice the graffiti in Argentina in general and specifically in Buenos Aires. It’s a strong and significant part of the country’s art scene as well as it’s political discourse. Plenty has been written on the subject by people much more informed than me. Here are just a few articles if you want a bit more background:

http://maisonneuve.org/blog/2012/03/27/political-legacy-argentinas-graffiti/

http://www.therealargentina.com/argentinian-wine-blog/street-art-in-buenos-aires-so-much-more-than-graffiti/

http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/story?id=7697519&page=1#.T-dIJu2RSfQ

Some of the main points of note about graffiti here – it’s not illegal unless the owner of the property that’s painted on files a written complaint. Graffiti tends towards either the political or the lighthearted – it does not carry a heavy association with crime or vandalism here as it does in some other countries. Politicians actually hire people to paint their names or campaign slogans on buildings or walls. This of course isn’t real graffiti, and many artists focus a lot of their efforts on spreading political commentary of their own on the streets. But a lot of street art is truly art for art’s sake alone. Whimsical and colorful creations can be seen all over the place, and some of the pieces have actually been commissioned by neighborhoods who want to brighten their little corner of BA.

We took a tour yesterday with Graffiti Mundo, a small company that does a lot to support street artists in BA (they’ve just this week opened at a gallery in London and are currently working on a documentary and book). It was a lovely, sunny day to be exploring nooks and crannies of the city, many of them unknown to us. We finished up at the gallery run by the artists (with a handy bar attached), where we got to watch one of the members of the collective bs.as.stncl working on a new piece that is motivated by the current political/financial situation in Argentina – the same thing the protest during our first week here was about. It’s a picture of a mousetrap with US dollars as bait. I’m hoping we’ll see it up on a few walls before we leave the city. 🙂

Here are some pics, from the tour and from other days wandering around BA:

Maradona is everywhere of course. Here he is in La Boca.

La Boca

Graffiti about La Boca in La Boca

Tags in San Telmo

“No Bailarás” – “No dancing”. San Telmo

Murals in Palermo

“La ciudad es de todos” – “The city belongs to everyone”

One of my favorites. 🙂 In San Telmo

Murals in San Telmo

A mural about the forced disappearances during the military junta in the 1970s and 80s

Street art by rundontwalk

Stencil detail

Penguin! 😀

Our tour took us to see a different kind of street art. The artist Marino Santa María has transformed his street with brightly colored tile murals on his and his neighbor’s homes. The artist just happened to be hanging out when we showed up – this is him with our lovely tour guide Cecilia. Barracas.

Street art by bs.as.stncl

New interpretations of Argentinian figures: a gaucho with a double guitar, a rare photo of Che Guevara and a strung out Maradona feature in this piece. I love the detail of the gaucho’s shadow on the sidewalk below.

Elephant stencils

I love this whimsical piece, with grates transformed into boxy bicycle wheels.

A memorial to a friend. Palermo.

Mural. Palermo.

Back at Graffiti Mundo’s studio/bar

An insanely intricate bit of stencil work!

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.

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. 😉

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!

Expectations and endless green

At this point in the trip it was feeling like quite a challenge to get off of the well-beaten tourist path in Vietnam (more like the well-bulldozed, completely paved six-lane highway of tourism actually). Most destinations listed in Lonely Planet were so well established that the “experience” of them was pretty pre-packaged and ready-made by the tourism machine.

Many places we looked into that were not on the major hit list were described, by Lonely Planet and other sources we cross-referenced, in such a way that they came across as totally and completely unappealing. *

So when we stumbled across information about a “farm stay” that was too new to be in Lonely Planet but came with favorable reviews and wasn’t at a major tourist destination, we were keen to give it a go.

So, we’re not 21 anymore

The Phong Nha Farm Stay was in a small farming village in North-Central Vietnam called Cu Nam. The closest major transportation stop is the beach town of Dong Hoi. The place is owned and operated by an Aussie/Vietnamese couple and her (she’s the Vietnamese half) family.

I think we calibrated our expectations a bit too high.

We’d had such an amazing time at the home-stay in the rural village in Laos, where the family was clearly running a business taking on tourists but none-the-less welcomed us very warmly. The interactions we had with them felt genuine – down to earth and grounded in the simple kindness and straightforwardness we experienced again and again throughout Laos.

So we probably had a bit of that experience lingering in our minds as we anticipated something like a B&B with a farm-like/homey atmosphere at Phong Nha.

The place is more of a proper hotel though, a newly built two-story building with a lounge/restaurant/bar downstairs (complete with pool table) and even an in-ground pool out back. The owners were chummy enough but in an off-hand, impersonal way, and the place seemed geared towards younger backpackers, with drinking being the preferred evening activity for both guests and the Aussies working there.

Not that any of this is a bad thing, but it’s not what we expected (ah, those pesky expectations again!) and not necessarily the scene we’d go for.

Green relief

That being said, being out in pure countryside again after all the time we’d spent in busy cities and tourist spots made for a welcome and nice change. And what countryside it was!

I think I wrote in an early post that I never seem to tire of looking at rice paddies. I can safely say this remains true.

Brilliantly green fields stretched off into the distance just across the road from the hotel and whether from our balcony view or from paths walking or biking along or through the paddies, I just kept drinking in the gorgeous ocean of green stalks swaying in unison like a glowing cloth in the wind.

Low, rounded mountains framed the farmlands in shades of soft purple and blue, like something out of a painting. I’ve included some my photos below; I’ve tried to exercise restraint as most of the pictures I took ended up being simply a whole lot of green and things could get repetitive quite quickly! 🙂

Into the belly of the Earth

One day we visited the Phong Nha cave. It’s apparently a popular destination for Vietnamese tourists and can get pretty crowded and loud, but we got lucky with our timing. The cave is nearly 55 kilometers long, with the first kilometer accessible by guided boats and illuminated for tourists’ benefit by dramatic, colorful lighting.

We had braced ourselves for kitsch but actually it was really spectacular. Entering the yawning mouth of the cave the temperature quickly drops as you are enveloped in darkness. Massive, incredible, rock formations, intricately patterned by centuries upon centuries of water flow, loom to either side of the pitch-black waters being quietly parted by the boat.

I let my imagination wander and at times felt like I was being peacefully rowed to my just desserts along the silent river Styx. 🙂

I didn’t bring my camera along that day, but I don’t think any photo would be able to convey the amazing feeling of being that deep in the earth or the beauty of the natural rock sculpture anyhow – you’ll just have to use your imagination! 😉

Little things I want to remember:

–       We saw numerous churches along the riverside as we explored the area. We didn’t find out any information about this influx of Christianity in the countryside, but it was fun and funny to see the familiar shapes of spires and crosses as we poked around.

–       The arrival of western tourists to the area already seemed to be making its mark on the locals. We were greeted with enthusiasm by village kids who knew only two words in English and used them with great gusto (and repetition): “Hello money!”

–       The sound of the baby buffalos calling out to their mothers across the rice fields. So cute! 🙂

–       Stopping at a random “restaurant” for a coffee on the way to Phong Nha cave. The woman who ran the place was very sweet and her two young grand kids were adorable. I liked the random chicken in a box on the shelf that would occasionally poke its head over the edge to check out the action at my table.

–       The sight and sounds of a large, chatty flock of ducks being “herded” home across wet fields each night as the sun sunk colorfully below the mountains.

–       The gorgeous sunset moped ride to the bus station – getting to see a thin new moon rise up over the fields as we wound along the curvy roads. Beautiful! (And much more fun than the subsequent hours spent waiting at the road-side bus stop watching bus after bus pass by while ours was two hours late!)

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“Hello money!”

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Farmer lost in a sea of green

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Rice close up

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Heading home with the day’s harvest

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Sunset

(Lonely Planet descriptions of places we were considering using as pit stops included encouragement such as “Most people seem to be passing through the dismal town on their way elsewhere…” “There’s no reason to linger in Lao Bao…” “Quant Tri was once an important citadel city, but little of its old glory remains” “The sales pitch can be relentless, even intimidating. Some rowers have refused to budge until visitors purchased something.” (this for one of the more beautiful landscapes they recommended visiting) “Despite attempts to prettify the place with trees and parks, this is an industrial city through and through. There are precious few reasons to stop here…” It wasn’t all like this, but sometimes we got the feeling the authors of this particular LP didn’t actually like the country they were writing about very much!)