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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Heartbreak and hope in Battambang

Apologies in advance – this is not a very neat or resolved post!

Cambodia was at times challenging for me. Laos was such a gentle welcome back to travel and life on the road in Asia after my trip home; the peaceful energy and kind people we encountered put me so at ease.

The atmosphere of Cambodia was intense by comparison. Roman and I both found it took more energy to process the experiences we had there and I definitely needed a while to find my emotional footing with the country. Once I did though, I found myself feeling more open and moved than I have yet on the trip (being really, truly present and emotionally connected has been one of the big challenges of this big trip), and for this, I’m grateful.

Battambang was the place my heart started to open to Cambodia. It had started to crack back in Kratie, opening to the dozens of smiles, waves and other greetings I received on my village walk, to the laughter and energy of the kids I met along the road. I’m not sure what let me be more present and open in Battambang, but the day we spent doing the bike tour my heart just felt so light, so present, so open.

It was easy to relax with Sum and Dollar – energetic, enthusiastic and genuine, they were easy to talk to and good company. Maybe the beauty of the places we visited just helped to take down my intellectual defences. Maybe the work I’ve been doing on myself, with Roman and on my own, to be kinder to myself, to worry less, to savor the “now” more is starting to pay off. Whatever the grace that allowed it, the day touring around Battambang was just magic and delight.

The biggest highlight for me was meeting a young girl at Wat Ek Phnom, a quiet, beautiful, ancient temple that Sum and Dollar took us to. They stayed at the entrance while Roman and I went to go explore.

Naid (not sure how her name is really spelled) started shadowing us, and eventually enticed me into the ruins where she enthusiastically pointed out fat geckos crouching suspiciously in cracks. She must have been about ten or so, skinny as a rail and full of life. She flitted around the massive stones of the falling-apart temple, chirping in musical, broken English like a sparrow, pointing out Gods and histories carved into the ancient rocks.

Roman and I have had a many discussion about the children we’ve encountered on our travels. The stance we’ve adopted is to never give begging kids money – we don’t want to support, encourage or condone the situations where adults (parents or otherwise) will choose to put kids on the street to sell cheap souvenirs or simply beg (something we saw frequently especially at Angkor). Holding to this position has meant keeping closed in many instances – looking away or dismissing the little hands and faces that have implored us to buy a bracelet or simply hand over a dollar.

(Tough sometimes yes but not always when you see the kids going from “crying” to laughing and horsing around the second they know they’re not going to get any money from you. Tougher is seeing the kids who aren’t begging, like the scrappy, barefooted children I saw digging through garbage for scraps outside the night market in Battambang.)

We weren’t sure if our lovely tour was coming free of charge, but I couldn’t help myself. I just fell in love with this precocious, precious little girl. When we were ready to leave, she did ask for money. We brought her back to the front with us to explain the situation to Dollar and ask his opinion. He agreed with us completely about not giving money to kids at the tourist spots and on the streets. He questioned Naid and for him it was clear that her story was true.

With Dollar’s translation, we were able to ask her questions about her life. The oldest of three siblings, her parents couldn’t afford to look after her and had sent her to stay with a relative and attend school in Battambang. She studied during the day but came to the temple every afternoon to show guests around and try to earn a bit of money for school and food (it’s a given that students have to bribe teachers on a regular basis in order to attend school in Cambodia). At the end we gave her double the very modest sum she had asked for and we left to our next destination.

She’s stayed with me though. That day I wanted to cry every time I thought of her, brave, bright and beautiful little soul. What will become of her? Who will look out for her if even her parents don’t have the resources to do so? I said prayer after prayer for her: “Please let her path through this life be safe. Please don’t let any of those awful things one reads about happen to her – rape, violence, prostitution. Please let her be protected. Please let her fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher.”

I shared some of my thoughts with Roman and he pointed out that I was looking at things from a very Western point of view – who was I to make any assumptions or value judgements about her life (something akin to the parable about the man trying to help the butterfly by cutting it out of its cocoon).

On an intellectual level I am sure he is right. On an emotional level though all I know is that something in me recognized and loves this little girl who I will probably never meet ever again, and for me that’s real and precious and part of the experience I have been seeking on this trip. I can’t make any more sense of it than that, but I’m so glad that I met her, and I’ll keep carrying those hopes and wishes for her around in my heart.

Photos from Wat Ek Phnom and our time with Naid

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The wat before the ruins

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Afternoon sun on the outer wall

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Naid invites me to come explore

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Temple carvings

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Lovely Naid

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Pointing out some Sanskrit carvings

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Buddhist flags at the doorway

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Moon rise

Unfinished thoughts on India

While we were in Phnom Penh, we ate a meal that brought tears to my eyes.

I admit I am a bit of a foodie and really good eats can honestly make my day, but this was something different. This was the taste of a whole country – and my myriad of experiences there – in my mouth: India.

We’d eaten “Indian” food other places since we left India at the beginning of the year, but the meals we’d had were sad shadows of the glorious food we enjoyed so much as we traveled through that country. The flavors we experienced there were a significant and visceral part of our travel experience in the country that began this whole big adventure we are on.

So suddenly tasting the “real thing” again brought me right back. It was a reaction that I was not expecting and I was frankly shocked at its strength. The meal was a delight but I mostly ate in a stunned silence, flashing back to many scenes and vivid emotions with each bite of tikka or spoonful of raita.

The first destination of our world trip and the place we’ve stayed the longest and seen the most (so far), India is a bit like an impressionable teenager’s first love. For better or worse, the next few locations inevitably get held up against India for comparison. Is it as intense as India? As dynamic/ demanding/ dramatic/ dirty?

While it’s natural that our first stop in Asia was bound to make a deep impression, and our tendency to hold everything the standard of India is lessening as we take in more and more sights, sounds, tastes and experiences in other countries, the fact remains that the country has got a special place in my heart (and my stomach apparently feels the same way!), and I suspect that on our travels we will encounter no place quite like India.

The why and how of these strong feelings are hard for me to articulate. I know that as much as I tried not to, I had huge expectations at the outset of our big trip – for the trip in general and specifically for India. My assumptions and expectations have given way to actual experiences and the (ongoing) process of letting go of what is in my head to simply being more present where I am has often been uncomfortable. A lot of my lessons on this topic were in India, where I thought I would be floating through the country like a perfect, serene yogini, filled up with the beauty of the place but in reality was often bogged down by self-criticism and doubt, frustrated by emotions I didn’t want to look at and challenged by things like societal restrictions on women and how to feel about the massive class divides that dictate so much of people’s lives there.

The amazing opportunity we had to spend so much time in my friend Ritu’s home in New Delhi was a big part of this. I am incredibly grateful to her and to the women in her household who welcomed me and Roman like family. Our time with them still gives me a lot to think about.

On women in India

We were with Ritu and her family while they were going through some significant difficulties. That whole situation is not my story to tell – suffice to say there were legal issues and family dynamics particular to the Indian culture and judicial system at play.

My friend Ritu is smart, independent, and extremely well-educated. She is better off than most Indian women. Seeing what she and the women in her family had to go through in their situation – all the dead ends they ran into and the near-brushes with violence they thankfully managed to avoid as they had to play within a system of appearance versus reality (the external ‘noble’ tradition supporting behind-closed-doors abuse of power, the spheres of women’s movement and influence being limited to the men they can trust to act for them) sometimes made me despair for the state of the majority of Indians who are poor, unconnected, uneducated.

At the same time, I was in constant awe of the strength, grace and burning nobility of women we saw in India – from Ritu’s infinitely elegant mother to the gorgeous spunky, outspoken girls I danced with at the Pakistani border to the rural women doing backbreaking farm work in gorgeous, bright saris.

I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I am struck by the instinct towards fierce but graceful survival in some of the women I have witnessed here.

Circumstances that would have left me defeated ten times over are approached with an attitude that combines strength, patience, faith, integrity and above all, dignity. No matter what the burden, their backs remain straight, their shoulders poised, heads held high. Seriously, I believe the women in India, with time, could achieve anything. 🙂

On service in India

One thing that was really tough for me upon arriving at Ritu’s was the fact that her household had servants. This is totally normal in India; cheap household help is the norm in all of Asia in fact. But this was my first time encountering it in my life and I had no idea how to act or how to feel about it.

The fact is that in the beginning it made me incredibly uncomfortable and it felt wrong to have a young woman who was probably 30 pounds lighter than me lugging my massive pack about or waiting for me and Roman to go to bed so she could go to sleep on the floor of the living room where we were hanging out.

Because of this I am even more grateful for all the time we had at Ritu’s. The relationship between employer and employee in India is far more complex than I could imagine, and I’m glad I had the chance to see some of the nuances for myself.

Ritu’s mom employed three women. Two live-in and one part-time. As I got over my discomfort and got to know them better, I was able to see the shades of grey in the situation and understand the deep interdependency. For me the initial instinct was that “rich” people with servants = bad bourgeois (it took me a year to get over my internal angst and finally hire a cleaner back in Switzerland which made my life SO much better (even now though I feel the need to explain that I was working crazy hours which is why I couldn’t keep up with the cleaning myself!) 🙂 ) and I should feel bad for the women she hired.

But I was able to discover the deep love the women had for each other. When Ritu’s mom got into a dispute with a neighbor, all three girls were at her side in an instant, shouting insults and defending their mistress with all the fire in their big hearts. When the family situation got really tough, the girls were in the kitchen, crying in sympathy, or rubbing Ritu’s mom’s shoulders in support.

On the flip side, Ritu’s mother was more than just an employer. She taught the women to manage and save their money. If they were ill, she managed and paid for their medical care. Most of all though, her employment helped to get them out of desperate situations. Sheela left her abusive husband and was raising her children as a single mother. Pushpa escaped an arranged marriage to a man with psychological problems who had tried to kill her. Reeshma came from an impoverished rural family; with no education her job allowed her to send necessary money back home. How could I still pity these amazing women for working as servants in a household knowing what the job meant for them?

It makes me rethink the confusing feelings I had about other Indians working in service as we traveled. The countless hotel employees we saw sleeping at night in the lobbies or restaurants we sat in during the day. The rickshaw drivers’ whose homes were their vehicles. It seems like such a tough existence to me, but what was their alternative, what were they coming from?

We met one tuk tuk driver who said something that stuck with me. “The customer is God.” This is in contrast to what you hear a lot in the west where “The customer is king.” In India, it’s the customer who determine’s the fate of the guide, the driver, the porter. Our decision to employ them determines if they will earn any money that day, if they will have enough to eat that day or can care for their family. The employer is God.

But the employee can choose how they feel about and treat their “God”. I loved how many of the transactions in India were on the terms of the people in “service” – the number of tuk tuk drivers who refused to take us or the waiters whose attention we failed to get. That tuk tuk driver might have viewed customers as gods, but gods can be ignored, railed against, called on only when needed… It’s certainly not a simple, one-way relationship.

Unfinished thoughts

So, it’s a bit late now, but I don’t really know what the point of this somewhat rambling post is, other than to make it clear that India is still on my mind. I am loving our experiences in Southeast Asia, and there is lots that we have seen here that has made an equally deep impression in my heart, but I also love that India lingers and keeps me company as we move forward in our travels. I love the thrill my heart feels when I hear the pulse of the tabla or the breathy strum of a sitar. I love the jumble of emotions that well up if I look back at my photos from our time there. I love the associations that dance through my head when I’m some really good palak paneer or parantha. And I love the hope that I can go back to that country again some day.

PS – The restaurant in PhnomPenh that started all this was Mount Everest. I’m happy to report that we’ve found another Indian place that’s nearly as good in Siem Reap called Curry Walla. Also, I’ll post some photos of the lovely women working at Ritu’s home in my next entry.

Surprise! My sneaky trip home

My eyes are bloodshot. I feel dried out. I’m confused about what day of the week it is. My handle on the time is not much better. I’m putting up with a ridiculously long line to get to the coffee I so desperately need.

It’s not what it sounds like: I am not hung over. 🙂 What I am is majorly jet lagged.

I got to my Bangkok hotel some time during the early hours of this day after another long-haul flight, my second in three weeks. If you’re guessing that these mystery flights have something to do with my lack of posts, you’re right. My hands have been too full to be able type – I’ve been home to Connecticut on a surprise trip for my father’s 60th birthday and between the party, catching up with friends, lots of time with family, getting really sick and, most and best of all, finally meeting my amazing nephew Martin, I haven’t been on the computer too much.

Birthday treat

I was home for nearly three weeks. Only my mom, sister and brother-in-law were in the know prior to big day. We were determined to keep things tightly under wraps, and it was so worth it. The expression on my father’s face when I surprised him at his birthday party (he can correct me if I’m wrong, but I interpreted it as total shock, big happiness and maybe a pinch of momentary terror when I burst upon the scene) was priceless – one I’ll never forget. Also the massive, heart-warming hug I got from my grandmother when she first discovered I was home.

Becoming an aunt

Meeting my nephew for the first time was intense too. For some reason I was incredibly nervous! Would I pass muster with this new (and rather critical! 😉 ) member of our family? What if we didn’t connect? Would I figure out how to be an aunty?

Some of these fears were stemming from difficulties I’ve been having during our travels with being present, staying emotionally connected, feeling disconnected from myself and others. All of this melted away effortlessly as I got to know Martin.

After the initial period of just being in awe of the little person my sister and James managed to make (incredible in and of itself), spending time discovering the elements of both of them and of other family members in his features and expressions (also fascinating) and getting familiar with his current routine and habits, I started to get to know him and promptly fell in love.

At 7 months of age it’s of course still too early to have any idea what sort of a person he is going to be, but I do already know that there is a wisdom and intelligence in his eyes that is undeniable. I know that he makes me laugh in a whole new way, and that managing to get him to laugh is one of the best feelings. I know that he is nothing like I could ever have anticipated when my sister told me she was expecting a baby – he is so much more and so much more interesting than all of my imaginings of what Alli and James’ child could be. I know that holding him and feeling his little heart beating within my arms makes my heart expand and fill up. I know that I love him completely, just the way he is, and always will.

Feeding the heart

My heart also got filled up with time and talks with some of my favorite people (from the States and Switzerland – lucky me!). I’ve written about my need for community. I think I do pretty well and actually really enjoy my own company (big caveat: when I’m not being too hard on myself, which has been known to happen from time to time 😉 ), but boy do I just love my friends and family and it was so totally nurturing, wonderful, comforting and satisfying to have time with them.

Zürich on my mind

Suffice to say, I am SO glad that I went home and had time with friends and family.

Leaving was tougher than ever. On top of the heart wrenching that goes along with saying goodbye to my family, I’m so used to doing the trip from New York back to my dear Zürich. Going to JFK without the comfort and excitement of going back “home” to Roman, to our cozy Zürich apartment brought up some mixed feelings and I found myself filled with longing for Europe, savoring every scrap of the Spanish, German, French and Russian conversations that my ears caught in the airport.

I have a feeling the Swiss “homesickness” was also exacerbated by the fact I am traveling alone. Roman didn’t join me in the States (we figured, correctly, that I might get a bit preoccupied with family and that it made more sense for me to come alone) and it’ll be a few days until we meet up in Laos, where he is right now. Having him by my side on the plane is always such a big comfort (regardless of where we’re coming from or going to – all this travel and still I always hate to leave a place (until I get to the next destination of course. 😉 ).

Now what?

All of this might make it sound like I’m losing steam on the travel front. I don’t want to be hasty in either direction thinking about our next steps. Right now I’m full of my experiences at home and I know I won’t miss my people any less as time passes. But I do still feel really excited about the other countries we want to see, and having some time for reflection back home has made me all the more appreciative for the absolutely incredible places and experiences we’ve had thus far on the trip and enthusiastic for more. Certainly there’s a lot of food for thought floating around in my head and heart, at any rate.

On the plus side, it’s easy coming back to Bangkok. It’s a city I really like and one I’m pretty familiar with by now. It’s fun to be here once more after having had a bit of time in Manhattan. After everything we’d seen in India and Myanmar, Bangkok felt like a world away from the rest of Asia. With Starbucks, McDonalds, 7-11s and Boots pharmacies on every other block and all sorts of other modern, urban conveniences, it seemed like a slice of the west in Thailand. Now coming from the States, I still find it urban, modern and international but I can better savor the things about it that are distinctly non-western; how it smells different from any western city to the fantastic humidity that hits me when I step outside the hotel to the barefoot street vendors camped out underneath the BTS stations to the occasional Leelawadee tree that stakes its claim between all the concrete. I am missing Western plumbing a bit though!

So the short-term plan is to book a flight and hotel for Laos for this weekend, enjoy a bit more of Bangkok and hopefully get over my jet lag and catch up on sleep and maybe this blog (for starters, there’s a ton to write about Thailand). As for the long-term plan, well, I suppose that’s on the to-do list too. 🙂

Along the way – a travel journal. Or, I don’t know what I’m doing.

Welcome to my online travel journal. Today is the first of September and I’m just days away from embarking on the biggest travel adventure of my life (so far).

An alternate name for this blog was “I don’t know what I’m doing”. By way of introduction: I grew up in America. Over five years ago I moved to Switzerland for a job and ended up staying for love. I’ve been living with my boyfriend for over four years now. We have a fantastic life in Zürich – good jobs, a lovely apartment, wonderful friends. We have been very happy together, and I’ve been very happy with my life here in Switzerland.

But starting last year, something began to feel like it was missing. Where before I had delighted in the smallest details of my life overseas, I found that the sparkle had gone out of even the nicest experiences. Somehow, I had gotten trapped in a never-ending cycle of ‘shoulds’ and obligations. My time no longer felt like my own and I felt increasingly that my true self existed more and more on the outskirts of my own life.

I’m still not entirely sure how this happened. I had a very demanding job that took a lot of time and energy. There are certain aspects of Swiss life that can be a bit rigid (Sunday means stores are closed and doing laundry is forbidden, for example. And making plans with friends and family, you usually have to get into their calendar at least a couple of weeks in advance, if not longer.). I also have a tendency to over-commit myself in a need to make others happy. All of these things probably contributed, but even when feeling stressed, I could still see the good in my life – I just no longer felt it. Maybe it was simply time for a change. All I know is that one day in December I was on my yoga mat in class and this voice inside me said loud and clear and totally undeniably: something’s got to give. The seed was planted and my heart started to move towards change. Easter weekend, my boyfriend and I were sitting at the station cafe by our apartment when we decided.

Traveling the world is something we’ve talked about doing since we met, something we’d thought about individually even before we met, but for various reasons, we hadn’t been able to make it happen – until now. We’ve chucked our corporate jobs, given up our apartment and are saying our goodbyes to the people we love. Friday I’ll be taking a one-way flight to India (boyfriend will meet me there three weeks later). The first three to four weeks of the trip are planned. After that we’ll just make it up as we go – destination, activities, duration all up to how we feel and where the journey leads us.

As I can’t say why my life as it was wasn’t working anymore, I also don’t know what I hope to do or find out there in the big world. Like I said, I don’t know what I’m doing.

I don’t know how long or how far we will travel. I don’t know how I will react to the lands and cultures I have never experienced before. I don’t know how we’ll spend our time. I don’t know how I’ll handle being essentially homeless. I don’t know how the travel will affect our relationship and if we’ll come out the other end stronger as a couple or ready to go our separate ways. I don’t know where we’ll land when it’s over, where we will live or how we will earn a living. But, I do have hopes for how it will feel (honest, open, relaxed, joyful), and I know that every step taken since December has let me feel more like myself, more honest, more open, more relaxed, more joyful. And even though I don’t know what I’m doing now, I do know I’ll figure it out along the way.