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.

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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.

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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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Hanoi travel notes and last thoughts on Vietnam

Just a couple of recommendations on Hanoi before I wrap up.

We stayed at the Hanoi Serenity Hotel. The rooms were good enough, the staff was very friendly and happy to help out in any way they could. The building doesn’t have an elevator, so you’ll get some extra exercise if you’re staying on one of the higher floors. What was great about the place was the location, with the old quarter opening up on the hotel’s doorstep.

We didn’t find any place amazing to eat in Hanoi although we tried recommendations from both Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor.

One epicurean pleasure was eating at Mediterraneo. It’s an Italian restaurant in the old quarter. The food is quite decent and I really liked the wine (although I am not too hard to please on this front).

What made it wonderful for me though was sitting on the restaurant’s balcony as the sun began to set. St. Joseph’s Cathedral is just at the end of the street, and if you go for an earlier dinner, you’ll be there during the mass. Sitting in the warm, golden, evening air, sipping red wine and listening to the deep peal of the church’s bells (one of my favorite sounds in the world), I could almost imagine I was back in Europe. It was amazing to watch the great number of people who were attending mass; so many that they spilled out into the courtyard in front of the church’s entrance.

I also managed to find another up-scale hotel not too far from the Serenity where I could pay to use their simple gym. Working out so helps my head space – I’m intent on doing this as often as possible.

Grains of salt

Looking back over our time in (and my posts on) Vietnam, I recognize that this was clearly the most challenging country for us (on our travels so far at least!). I’ve mentioned it before but I want to make sure I’m clear about it once more for anyone who might be considering traveling to Vietnam.

I believe that travel is a very subjective, luck (or fate?) based thing. Like life, it’s a mystery but fundamentally I do believe that we attract the experiences we need to have, even if we can’t understand or see clearly why we may need them at the time of their occurrence.

So I don’t (yet?) know why we had hard luck and a tougher time in Vietnam, but I do know that just because that was our experience of the place doesn’t mean that it should be written off. We’ve run into people who were turned off by India, the country that took our hearts by such storm that we are still, nearly a year later, entirely under her spell.

So if you’re feeling drawn to Vietnam, I totally encourage you to go check it out and see what kind of experience YOU have there. I’m sure it will be different from mine, and I’d love to hear about it. 🙂

Itinerary

Here’s the run down of where we went:

July 22 Saigon Lac Vien Hotel
July 31 Dalat Hotel Chau Au – Europa
August 2 Hoi An Hai Au Hotel
August 5 Hue Hue Holiday Hotel and Huenino
August 10 Cu Nam Phong Nha Farm Stay
August 14 Hanoi Hanoi Serenity Hotel
August 18 Halong Bay A Class Cruise
Aug 19 – 22 Hanoi Hanoi Serenity Hotel

Quick notes on Hue

I feel like I posted a ton of photos from Hue (including a bit of info about the Citadel), so I will keep this entry brief.

I think Hue may have been our favorite stop in Vietnam. A nice-sized city (the population is around 330,000 according to Lonely Planet), it had a more relaxed atmosphere than crowded and totally urban Saigon and Hanoi. At the same time, its size allowed it to absorb the tourist tide more effectively than places like Hoi An and Dalat – it didn’t feel over-taken by tourism and for me had a nice grounded and “lived in” energy to it, if that makes any sense.

We also stayed at my favorite hotel in Vietnam, the Hue Holiday Hotel. Our room felt brand new, was spotlessly clean, and the staff were super accommodating and genuinely friendly. Excellent value for money too. The hotel was down a narrow alleyway, located in the touristy area of town but with Vietnamese homes just outside the hotel entrance. I loved catching glimpses of the families’ day to day lives as we came and went.

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Our room at the Hue Holiday Hotel – complete with real flowers on the bed

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The delightfully clean bathroom!

Another big positive about Hue for me is that I took the initiative to find a posh hotel about a 10 minute walk from where we were staying that had a small gym and a big pool, so a couple of times during our stay I got a work-out in. (If I remember correctly, this was at the Imperial Hotel. Insanely posh and a bit on the expensive side for the per-gym-visit price but access to the outdoor pool made it worth it) Aside from the obvious physical benefit, working out in some form or another is so good for my head space – it’s something I’m trying to do more often while we are still on the road.

Things I want to remember include:

– How wonderfully, genuinely fun it was to fly a kite!
– How infinitely patiently Roman untangled the kite line when it got into an incredibly huge tangle. Also the very sweet teacher who came to talk to us while he worked on the mess. 🙂
– The peaceful walk through the residential area on the north side of town and the friendly cyclo driver we met there.
– The lively atmosphere at the nightly street market along the riverside.

Less fun to remember is getting food poisoning; we actually had to extend our stay by one day because I was in no shape to travel. I can’t say for certain which restaurant may have made me sick. Most of the places we ate were all right but nothing special. The one restaurant in town I can recommend is Vegetarian Restaurant Bo De. Although Roman was less impressed than I was, I really enjoyed the interesting and tasty 100% vegetarian dishes, and I can guarantee that I didn’t get sick from their food! 🙂

Detox and Ayurveda in Chiang Mai

My first stop after India was to indulgent health resort just outside the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

I am finding that one of the challenges for me with this trip is the difficulty to feel fit. The way I work, my mental state can be pretty strongly affected by how healthy I am eating and how much exercise I get. India involved a lot of time travelling – long hours sitting on trains, many meals consisting of airplane food or pre-packaged snacks, lots of inclusive hotel breakfasts of white bread toast, and far too much cooling off and refueling with stops at Cafe Coffee Day! 🙂

All this meant that I was feeling pretty flubby by the end of our time in India, so two weeks that offered both detox and yoga sounded just perfect. (I wrote more about finding the resort in an earlier post)

The Spa Resort offers all sorts of different packages with different health focuses. My stay included a four day juice and fruit fast at the beginning of the two weeks, plus daily yoga, Thai massage and time in the sauna. There were people there who were doing more ambitious programs – seven day proper fasts or intense boot camps with full day programs of exercise, but I didn’t want to shock my body after 4 months of basically doing nothing. 😉

The juice fast was in some ways easier than I thought it would be. You’re drinking different things all day long (including amazing coconut water – the best I’ve ever tasted right out of the coconut) and you get a massive platter of fruit at lunch time which was really quite filling, so I never actually felt hungry or anything. But I’ve done similar fasts before and had expectations about feeling more clear and grounded mentally.

In fact, I found I was only feeling more and more restless in my heart and mind as the days passed. The daily yoga wasn’t feeling satisfying; while my body was performing the asanas, the rest of me felt totally disconnected from the practice. A lot of the self-criticism that I’d been participating in during the time in India intensified, so I was spending a lot of energy feeling little and shy and lonely and sorry for myself. When I wasn’t doing that, my brain was busy stressing over visions of the future it was spinning out of thin air and I found myself having all sorts of worries about me and Roman.

After my fast was over, I signed up to have an Ayurvedic consultation, and this session happily ended up being a turning point. I’d always been interested in Ayurveda from the little I’d learned about it in my yoga teacher training. A lot of what it prescribes seems like common sense. Still, I didn’t expect to feel so much better so soon after taking the consultant’s advice.

I won’t go into too much detail explaining, since I’m no expert, but she identified an imbalance and suggested a list of simple things to try to help counteract this imbalance. Based on the Ayurvedic perspective, all the raw fruit I’d been eating was actually only making the imbalance worse. I started eating cooked food right away, going to the steam room instead of the dry sauna, getting oil instead of dry massages.

Walking out of my first oil massage the next day, I felt like I was really seeing where I was for the first time. I’d been able to mentally assess before that the resort was lovely, but only that day did I begin to really realize it and see its beauty. Being more grounded in the present, instead of thrashing about in a tempest up in my head, it was like a blind fold had been lifted and suddenly I could see the world around me. The dance of the butterflies on the path before me. The feel of the breeze on my skin. The glow of the flowers outside the restaurant in the afternoon sunshine.

Feeling this difference, I realize that I spent a lot more time in my head than being present while in India. There were definite moments of wonder and connection in India, but I can see that I experienced a lot of it through my head and intellect only, while not connecting emotionally. I’m trying to figure out why this might be, and I can see how I still struggle now sometimes to keep grounded and present at times. I have some theories; maybe I’ll write more about them some other time.

Getting back to the Spa Resort for now though – thanks to that grace, the rest of my time there was just blissful. I felt much more connected to what I really wanted to do (before this, I’d been making decisions based on thoughts like “well, this seems sensible” or “the guidebook says xxx”, rather than what I felt like doing) and started feeling the bliss of yoga again and having fun with some of the lovely people I met at the resort.

It was really a lovely place to be – amazing location, grounds and food – and I’m so grateful for the time I had there.

I didn’t take so many pictures while I was at the resort, but here is the view from my upstairs balcony, just to give an idea of how beautiful this place was!

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Dreams of yoga and Thailand

Roman and I used part of our Goa beach break to plan our next few moves. We’d already had it in mind that we would go to Thailand next. What we’ve decided is that I will fly there ahead of him.

I’d been thinking of finding some yoga in Thailand.

Ironic, I know, daydreaming about doing yoga in Thailand while I’m wandering around the birthplace of yoga itself…

I was open to trying some yoga courses or even going to an ashram while we were in India, but doing research while still in Switzerland, I couldn’t find anyplace that interested me. I’ve been spoiled in my practice; I’ve been lucky to have some amazing teachers over the years. And having done the teacher training course at Air Yoga a few years back, I have a decent amount of knowledge and have become a bit of a stickler for proper alignment and attention to detail in the asanas.

From what I’ve heard, this focus in a yoga practice is often more of a western phenomenon. There probably are plenty of teachers in India that instruct with an awareness of anatomy and injury prevention, but from stories I’d read and been told, it sounded like the standard yoga lesson in India involves less explanation and more just doing it. Certainly the couple of classes I took at the hotels in Kumarakom and Rishikesh confirmed this.

The teachers were sweet and earnest and clearly passionate about yoga, and I enjoyed the practices with them. However, there was very little explanation given about what we were doing and why, and not a word about alignment during any of them. I had to fight the urge to offer adjustments or suggest modified poses to some of the first time students in Rishikesh who of course couldn’t know the intention of the poses they were doing.

Finding improved alignment in poses in my own practice completely transforms my experience of the asanas. Practicing with awareness and with the breath is what makes the practice yoga, rather than just exercise. So I wasn’t going to sign up for just any yoga program simply because we were in India. I’ve kept my eyes open while we’ve been traveling though, in case anything might catch my interest, but I never did get that feeling of “Wow, I really want to do that” from any of the programs we came across during our stay here.

My body has been seriously missing the practice though. The time in India hasn’t been particularly active, and, especially during the more sedentary portions of the trip, I’ve felt my joints starting to complain while my muscles have begun dissolving into jelly.

So – some healthy living is needed. Some yoga is in order. Some yoga in Thailand.

This I have heard good things about. There’s aparently all sorts of western style schools, programs and retreats there, often with teachers from the west. Ritu mentioned one particular spa hotel that a friend of hers had just been to and highly recommended. When I read that they teach Anusara inspired yoga (my favorite style :-)), I thought this might be the place for me. When Ritu said she’d join me for a retreat there, the deal was cinched. 🙂

So, a nearly two week stay there will be my birthday and Christmas present to myself and especially to my body. As you may have noticed from my posts, I’ve been very indulgent on the food front while we’ve been in India – with good reason of course 😀 – and this place also focuses on healthy eating, with things like raw food and juice fasts available. So that should be great too.

We’ve decided that Roman will fly to Thailand to meet me at the end of my time at the spa. Yoga is not his thing at all and two weeks at a spa would just be too long for him. Beyond that, there are still parts of India he is keen to see. Although I am still loving what we are experiencing and am looking forward to all we have planned for the next week or so, I feel like I have “eaten my fill” of India – figuratively and probably literally too 😉 – and feel ready for something new.

It’s also a conscious decision that we build in parts of the trip when we do separate things. So far it’s been even easier than I expected traveling with Roman, but we still have the majority of our adventures ahead of us (Amazing!!), and it’s healthy and probably necessary to mix things up from time to time.

Although Roman pointed out this means that for the first time since the start of our relationship, we won’t be together for New Year’s. We have a pretty exciting treat in store for Christmas at least though: we’ll be celebrating the holiday together on a houseboat on the Kerala backwaters. Not a bad way to spend Christmas or to bring to a close my time in India! 🙂