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.



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.


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!!

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


A Christmas surprise!

This blog has fallen silent yet again but for a good reason. After what felt like an infinite number of mediocre plane movies and meals and too many hours to count I arrived in New York on Sunday. I’d barely been on the ground before I checked my email and got a huge surprise.

If you keep track of Roman’s blog (and can read German), you already know that he had a change of heart, decided he needs a break, and booked the first flight he could from Kuala Lumpur to the States!

I picked him up from the airport on Wednesday and it’s still feeling totally surreal and miraculous and wonderful that after all these months of travel in exotic lands, we are both HERE in my childhood home, back with my family as though we’d been here all along. 🙂

In my earlier post I wrote about being greedy and loving or wanting too many things. Now I feel like the luckiest girl ever because I get to have Christmas (my favorite holiday!) with all my favorite people! It’s not an either/or situation and it’s already feeling like the best Christmas ever! 😀 I’m feeling tremendously grateful. 🙂

Now that my brain is just about adjusted to the EST time zone and the fact that Roman is actually here, I’ll try to get going on my China posts again. And in the mean time, happy holidays to everyone from one very happy girl! 🙂

Current events snapshot: Mid-Autumn in Hong Kong

It’s the Mid-Autumn Festival today and Roman and I are lucky enough to be in Hong Kong for the celebration!

I’m by no means an expert on the holiday, but I know it’s based at least in part on moon and harvest festivals and is tied loosely to the equinox – the occurrence of the length of the day and night being equal somehow allowing the goddess of the moon to be reunited with her lover, a famous archer who lives in a palace on the sun – for this one day in the year. Romantic stuff and I love it! 🙂

The holiday is celebrated with many traditions, among them eating moon cakes, parading with lanterns and moon gazing. We didn’t have any cake or lanterns, but we did get to enjoy a splendid view of the moon above the city this evening, before heading back down to check out the festival at Victoria Park. Check out that view! (image should be clickable for a closer look)

Quick post: current events 2

After three days hopping around the Andaman Ocean, we’ve now landed at Ko Lanta, a larger island south of Krabi, in time for the holiday Songkran. As I write this in a gorgeous little dark teakwood cafe (that apparentlyused to be an opium den!), folks on the street outside are splashing each other with buckets of water to ring in the Thai new year. We plan to go out later this afternoon, when things are at their hottest, to cool off with a good splash down. 🙂 For now though, me and the laptop are staying safe and dry indoors.

The cruise on the boat was AMAZING. I’ll post about it in detail later, but suffice to say, if you have any interest in sailing around Thailand’s west coast and have some extra funds to spend (it was not cheap, but worth it if you can afford it), I can definitely recommend Phuket Boat Charter. The crew was amazing – a perfect blend of chilled out and professional, totally welcoming and easy going and fun. The food was hands down the best we’ve had so far in Thailand. The scenery was so beautiful, we practically had to pinch ourselves to be sure it was real. Fantastic!

Now that we’re back on dry land, I hope I’ll (finally!) get caught up with this blog. Will get back to back filling on Myanmar shortly; we’ll see how far I actually get before our next stop. 😉

India recap: Christmas

After the overnight in Bengalaru, we flew to Cochin where we’d arranged a two-day package that included an overnight on a houseboat – our Christmas present to ourselves, (from us and my sister – thank you Smoo!). The package was a bit pricey, but really well coordinated and it all felt incredibly indulgent. 😀

We were picked up at the airport and driven through small, tropical towns towards our first Kerala destination, Kumarakom. It was funny to see things like houses, gas stations and shops in the midst of what – to my inexperienced eye – looked rather like a jungle. It seems like the plant life in that part of Kerala definitely has the upper hand. As buildings and concrete tends to encroach upon any greenery in large cities, so the flora seemed to be crowding out all the man-made structures in the towns leading up to the Kerala backwaters.

After driving for well over an hour into the increasingly lush landscape, our car took a turn onto a narrow dirt path flanked by rice paddies on the right and the start of the backwaters on the left. We bumped along until we came to a simple but lovely hotel at the edge of the peninsula where we spent the night. Highlights that stand out in my mind:

-Enjoying the soft breeze on the roof of a boat during a “sunset cruise”. As the sun disappeared beneath the horizon, we watched as one by one, hundreds of massive fruit bats winged slowly out of the palm forest and flew out above the backwaters.

-Dinner of Karimeen (pearl fish – a typical Kerala dish) in the outdoor restaurant. Fun was when the power cut out and we were left in the pitch black, listening to all the sounds of the critters in and around the backwaters. 🙂

-Our room came with a very effective air conditioner. The exhaust for the AC went directly into the bathroom. After 5 minutes of the AC being on, the bathroom was hotter than an oven! Built in sauna! 😉

In the morning of Christmas Eve, our houseboat arrived to pick us up. It came with a three-man crew; two guys to man the ship and a cook who were all lovely. The boat was massive and I was excited by our on-board bedroom – one of the cleanest places we’ve stayed in India! 🙂

It was a bit surreal trip being on a houseboat again – I had done an overnight on one towards the end of the group trip and it had been such a highlight of that portion of my travels. It was wonderful to be able to share it with Roman as well but my mind did wander to the wonderful folks I traveled with during my first three weeks in India.

My thoughts were also very much with my family in the States. Christmas is my favorite holiday and I love celebrating it with them at home. But the past few years I’ve been in Switzerland for the holidays. Being on a boat in the tropics and knowing that they were all sharing in my nephew’s first Christmas, I felt further away than ever.

I know I am so blessed to be able to be doing this trip, to have the life that I do – I am so grateful for this. But sometimes I wonder how long it will be till I get to share Christmas with them again. Part of this big trip is about figuring out where to live next and daydreams of holidays with my family certainly factor into my speculation, but right now the journey is still feeling so new and I don’t have any sort of clarity on when I might next be passing out gifts from the under the tree at my parents’ house…

My pining aside, it was a magical Christmas Eve. The boat docked in a lagoon filled with water hyacinths and Roman and I watched the sun setting over the water and the fireflies emerge in the darkness. The peacefulness and splendor of the pristine nature were just amazing. Later in the evening we had a lovely meal on the boat, and were even visited by a group of local boys who sang us a very lively Christmas carol and passed out sweets. I have to say, the paper-mache Santa masks kind of gave me the creeps – felt a bit more like a visit from Halloween trick-or-treaters. 😉 Definitely a different Christmas! 🙂

Wildlife at the hotel in Kumarakom


Dragonfly at the water’s edge


The big blob in the middle of the shot is one of those massive fruit bats!


The picture quality is not great, but here it is cropped so you can get a better look

Christmas on the houseboat


Our houseboat pulling in! 🙂


Look at that clean, lovely bed! 🙂


Fishermen on the backwaters


Soda for sale



Docked for the night


Sunset on the backwaters


Trick or treat?


Water hyacinth detail. These plants were all over on the backwaters and I just loved them. Hundreds of the flowers were open in the morning sunshine on Christmas day. This photo was taken with the digital zoom on Roman’s camera from very far away, so the quality is not the best, but  wanted a close up – I love the pattern on them, like a little flame on the top petal.

Pics from Varanasi: Part one

Plenty to write about – Jaipur, Agra and Varanasi, not to mention Diwali in Delhi, but I am feeling lazy so it will all have to wait for now. In the mean time though, here are some pictures from our first full day in Varanasi. 🙂


Stone cow in the Nepali temple


Impressively basic but effective scaffolding


Women eating in front of the Ganges


Hello water buffalo

DSC_0759.JPG DSC_0781.JPG

Kids flying a kite from their balcony


There had been a kite competition in Varanasi earlier in the week. It’s hard to tell in this photo but there were so many kites being flown Saturday night. All the specks in the sky in this picture are kites save the largest – that was a pigeon. 🙂


We just happened to arrive in time for Dev Deepavali (more on that in a later post). Such lucky timing! All the ghats along the Ganges were filled with thousands upon thousands of earthenware lamps like these. We took a boat ride on the river to see all the ghats lit up and to watch the ceremonies from the water. Magical.


A woman selling flower lanterns – people light them and set them into the water to float down the Ganges as part of the celebration


Full moon rising over the river


People gathering at the main ghat for one of many ceremonies held along the waterside.


Lighting lanterns on one of the ghats


Oil lamps and fairy lights illuminating the waterside


Woman performing a small ceremony at the water’s edge

DSC_0872.JPG DSC_0880.JPG

It’s not a great photo, but hopefully it gives a sense of the scene. This was just at one ghat. Aside from the box of fairy lights in the upper left hand of the photo, all the little points of light in the photograph are from the small clay oil lamps. And nearly all the ghats were lit up like this. Must have been hundreds of thousands of lamps lit that night.


Another ghat lit up with lamps, with a firework rising up into the sky


Boats in front of a ghat


Cremation at the burning ghat continued even during the festivities. The bright lights at the right of the photo at the water’s edge are funeral pyres.


Fire ceremony at one of the ghats


Lamps and spectators on the stairs leading to the river


Boats on the river in front of the main ceremony

Snapshots from Delhi

It’s our last night in Delhi. Tomorrow we are off on the next leg of our adventure, heading first west to the deserts and colorful cities in Rajasthan and then east to the icons of India in Uttar Pradesh, the Taj Mahal and Varanasi.

It’s been such a gift to be able to stay with Ritu and her family all this time. Beyond being utterly spoiled by the entire household, it’s been a wonderful opportunity for us to have such a different experience of India, staying in one place for so long till we really started to get to know the neighborhood, being around for day-to-day life, eating home-cooked meals, tagging along on errands. Ritu and her family have been such gracious hosts and so generous with their time and insight-providing commentary on everything from national politics and Hindu mythology to shopping advice and our favorite recipes.

It’s been balm for my heart too to have time with Ritu. All the hours we spent chatting have been great for me, giving me perspective and insight. Ironically I’ve been giving her a lot of advice on situations she’s going through at the moment but all of it has been things applicable to my own experiences and that I would benefit from doing myself. Interesting. Let’s see if I can start taking my own advice! 😉 Either way, I’ll be leaving Delhi with a very full belly and heart.

In the mean time … Here are some little things I want to remember from this visit to Delhi.

  • The pleasantly astringent smell of marigolds at the Sai Baba temple
  • The incredibly intricate and delicate henna designs the men at the local market were creating on women’s hands for the holidays, and the distinct, slightly citrus smell of the oil rubbed on the skin before applying the henna
  • Fresh pomegranate juice at the Sai Juice Stand is sublime
  • As is sweet potato roasted at a street stand, cut up and served with lemon juice and plenty of masala and eaten with toothpicks
  • The incredible smile of the youngest son of the family who run an outdoor ironing business right outside Ritu’s house. He is such a little cutie and has the hugest, sweetest smile. The best was when we played a bit of soccer with him 🙂
  • The man lighting a lamp in a small shrine set on a wall behind his outdoor flower stand while we were buying roses for Shashi
  • The funny, puffy man sitting like some sort of barefoot, Pillsbury dough boy buddha on a table at the Bengali Sweets shop. Balding, bespectacled, round and all in white he never moved from his spot the whole time we were there but just sat there organizing a huge, and I mean huge, wad of money
  • The distinct, nasal voices (kind of like auctioneers in slow motion) in which men call out their wares and prices outside as they push their carts down the street that runs along our window or at the chaotic marketplaces
  • The delicate flavor and texture of the simple but totally delicious chapatis made in Ritu’s home, and how good they are when they are still piping hot from the griddle
  • Being able to laugh with the women working in house, despite not speaking the same language
  • Some huge, heartfelt hugs with Ritu, and the moments I realized that we were both learning the same lessons, even if they are taking different shapes in both our lives
  • Daily ‘coffee dates’ at the local Café Coffee Day with Roman
  • The half friendly, half rude manager at the Gupta Brothers’ electronics store where we spent a lot of time in the process of fixing Ritu’s laptop; especially how he hung out in his little shop in his socks, and times we’d arrive just after puja and the place would be stuffy with too much incense
  • The elegant and expressive way Shashi speaks with her hands, especially when arguing with someone over prices
  • The gentle touch of Shashi’s fingers as she gave me a blessing during Diwali

Pics from our Delhi stay

Just some recent bits and pieces from Delhi. First, a visit to the beautiful Baha’i Lotus Temple. Then, Ritu’s back and we are preparing for Diwali – getting really excited for the festivities on Friday. 🙂


Plaque on the way, with the temple in the distance


Plaque detail


Approaching the temple


I love walking barefoot at temples. 🙂


Temple detail with pigeons 🙂


One of the pools surrounding the temple


A Diwali Mela in our neighborhood


Houses in our neighborhood are getting decked out in lights for Diwali


Beautiful Diwali designs with tea lights at the Dilli Haat Market



High tech fire extinguishers?


Ceramic Diwali lamps at the market



Away for the holidays

It may have just been Halloween in the States, but in Delhi, it’s beginning to look a lot like Diwali. 🙂 We’ve been invited by my friend to stay through the holiday, so we can get an insider’s view of the Hindu festival. I’m really excited for the chance to see a bit more about Hindu traditions. It’s weird – although 80% of the country is Hindu, I feel like I haven’t had very much exposure to Hinduism since I’ve been here. We have been to a few temples, and it has been very interesting to hear my friend’s parents’ thoughts about their faith and practice, but somehow I don’t feel like I’ve really connected to or experienced much of the Hindu religion. This is as opposed to interactions I’ve had with elements of other faiths in India so far.

I found the Sikh’s Golden Temple both fascinating and moving. To be fair, I have a bit of an inkling about Sikhism already because of the American Sikhs I know. Having contact with that community woven into my yoga practice over the years has given Sikhism a special place in my heart. The Sikh community in India is different of course, but still I found/find a certain inexplicable sense of comfort from contact with that community and I appreciate what I know about the faith – the emphasis on openness; treating everyone equally, things like that. There is an energy of self-respect and fierce peacefulness that many of the practicing Sikhs at the Golden Temple projected that I found very compelling.

I also absolutely loved being in the community of Tibetan Buddhists at Mcleod Ganj. The relaxed but earnest interweaving of their profound faith into their everyday life was in my eyes a thing of beauty. From my perspective, the way they interacted with each other and their environment was open, relaxed, caring. The atmosphere was less formal than in other places we have been in India and I loved that lack of structured social interaction giving way to genuine exchanges. The energy in the Temples there was very striking to me as well – mundane fantastic. 🙂

I haven’t had any chance to interact with Muslims in India yet, still I was surprised by how moved I was at the Mughal historic and religious sites we have been to so far. I wasn’t expecting to be wowed, but the sheer elegance and beauty of the mosques, mausoleums, minarets, etc. has struck me every time. Not just the Taj Mahal, which is mind-blowingly beautiful. Humayun’s tomb, the Qutb Minar, even the buildings within the Red Fort of Delhi – walking around at all these places has always filled me with peace.

We even have had contact with the Baha’i faith, visiting the Lotus Temple in Delhi. Built in the 1980s, it doesn’t have the historical oomph of most of the other sites we’ve visited, but it is still an impressive bit of architecture and landscaping, and reading the tenets of the Baha’i faith, I really loved a lot of what they had to say: about respecting people of other faiths, the equality of the sexes, the importance of education.

In contrast, I don’t feel like I understand hardly anything about Hinduism at all yet. I know some of the stories from the Bhagavad Gita because of my yoga training, but I have yet to discover the beauty conveyed by my teachers in Zürich anywhere in India. I’ve found the temples objectively beautiful but somehow opaque – I have no insight into the how, what, why behind the rituals performed there, the stories the artwork is telling. Let’s see what the experience of Diwali brings. 🙂

So far, it’s reminding me of Christmas in the States. Although it is far from wintry, we are noticing that the nights are cooler, and coming in quicker and darker than before. Decorative lights are showing up on peoples’ homes and on storefronts. The markets are getting increasingly crowded and hectic as people are doing their last-minute shopping. According to Wikipedia, this is what it’s all about:

Diwali involves the lighting of small clay lamps (diyas) filled with oil to signify the triumph of good over evil. During Diwali celebrants wear new clothes and share sweets and snacks with family members and friends. Some Indian business communities begin the financial year on the first day of Diwali, hoping for prosperity the following year. In Hinduism, Deepavali marks the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom of Ayodhya after defeating (the demon king) Ravana, the ruler of Lanka, in the epic Ramayana.

Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you a bit more after we celebrate on Friday. 🙂 In the mean time, I’m enjoying the festive atmosphere. I’m getting into the spirit of the holidays  as well by stuffing myself like a Thanksgiving turkey. I am still totally drooling over the food at Ritu’s house (for example, lunch today was a laundry list of some of my favorite things: Paneer cooked with onion and tomato, bitter gourd, a gorgeous northern style sag dish (sag = leafy greens. This was a combination of different ones, including spinach), a simple but wonderful yellow lentil dal, fried corn roti (a special treat; they are richer than the normal whole wheat roti we have every day, which aren’t cooked in oil), and of course their divine, homemade yogurt. Heaven!), and will no doubt need to go on a strict diet when we leave here!

Since my cooking class last week, I’ve been invited into the kitchen here and have been taking instruction from the lovely women working here. Feels great to be cooking even a little bit after being without a kitchen for two months. Happy to have the smell of onions and garlic on my fingers again. 🙂

So, there is lots to enjoy this last week in Delhi. Next week we’ll be running around Rajasthan . There’s so much to see in that one state alone – India really is amazing!