Cultural fondue

I love me a good melting pot.

Visiting locations where dramatically different cultures, histories, languages or traditions have been thrown together (voluntarily or otherwise) and have stewed (sometimes at a pleasant simmer, sometimes a roiling boil) for long enough to produce something that still tastes of the original elements yet still is different, new and unique have been among my favorite experiences of the big trip.

India, with its exuberant jumble of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh temples, holy places and practitioners, with traditions of Jain, Zoroztrian, Judaism and Baha’i faiths thrown in for good measure.

Xinjiang, where historically disparate regions flowed into each other along the Silk Road. Xinjiang, today the province in China that over ten different “minority” groups call home, where you can walk down a street and see signage in four different scripts: Arabic, Chinese, Roman and Cyrillic.

Places like this are fascinating and captivating to me.

Introducing the Philippines

I didn’t know it before we decided to travel there as a respite from all the cool, grey weather we endured in China, but the Philippines has a cultural mix to rival the best of them.

Technically it’s a part of Southeast Asia, but it sure feels like unlike any place we traveled in that region.


(What looks to me like) a Chinese-style statue in front of the exterior of a Catholic church in Manila

I suppose it’s understandable when you look at the major historical and cultural influences on the archipelago: Indigenous, Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, Spanish and American (of the United States persuasion). Comidienne Lisa Lampinelli lovingly described Filipinos as a “weird mixture… the Swiss Army knife of minorities.”

It’s a pretty eclectic mix and helps to make the Philippines and the Filipinos a country and a people like no other! (this site has some really interesting perspectives from Filipinos on the topic in case you want some extra reading: http://www.interaksyon.com/whats-a-filipino; this article in particular provides an interesting overview for folks who are less familiar with the country’s history)

Arriving in Manila felt like entering a completely different world after all the months we spent in Southeast Asia and China. The countries we had visited, while welcoming, always definitely had an air of the exotic and foreign for me. After adjusting to cultures so different from my own over all those months, it was a bit of a shock how familiar the Philippines felt by comparison while feeling at the same time equally exotic.


A jeepney – the ubiquitous form of public transport in Manila. “Maldito” is definitely Spanish as far as I’m aware

Over 170 languages are spoken across the islands, but we mostly got to hear Filipino spoken. To my naïve ears, the language called to mind Spanish with its cadence and lilt. Even though I couldn’t, I felt like I SHOULD understand at least some words here and there, like I do with Spanish. This was a unique feeling after being in completely unknown linguistic waters in all the other countries we’d visited. And when Filipinos spoke English with us, the accent was just as familiar – I felt like I could be listening to a speaker from somewhere in middle America.

The Philippines is also the second largest predominantly Catholic country in the world. 90% of the population is Catholic and it was trippy to see churches (distinctly Catholic AND Filipino at the same time) and their influence in such prominence after months of visiting Buddhist and Taoist temples and the occasional mosque.

It was funny for me to see the flower garlands on the wrist of a Catholic saint – till then I’d only encountered these in Buddhist and Hindu places of worship.

And even though there was nothing I could quite put my finger on, somehow there was a good amount of America in the air (in the cities at least). I think Lonely Planet can explain it better than I:

“Describing the country is like trying to pick up a bar of soap in the bath: you may come close to grasping it, but it always seems to elude you. The Americans have something to do with it. Ruled by the United States for 45 years, the Philippines maintains a close spiritual bond with its former colonial master… The US legacy arguably looms even larger than that of Spain, the Philippine’s original colonisers who ruled the country for 350 years.”

And with all this influence from far-flung corners of the globe, the Philippines still have something intrinsically Asian about them.

We went there for the nature and the beaches. These were great, but what for me remains most vibrant in my memories of our time in Philippines is its odd-man-out-in-southeast-Asia essence and the tenacious, effervescent nature of its people.

We didn’t spend enough time – most of our interactions were just fleeting but as well, most of them involved a smile if not a laugh. I usually find it easy to fall in love with the people in a new country. It was easier than usual in the Philippines though, and I hope some day I can return and get to know this special place in greater depth.

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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.

Feeding frenzy

We’re currently on a little side trip from Santiago at the seaside city of Valparaíso, an hour or two from Chile’s capital. It’s our last night here already – and also my first with internet since we arrived and now that I’m on line I just have to share some photos.

We’re staying at a B&B outside of the city center. It’s a short walk to the metro, which runs parallel to the Bay of Valparaíso’s coastline and gets us into the city in no time. An unexpected benefit is that the metro stop is right by a fisherman’s market and the piers behind them.

Each day there, we’ve gotten to marvel over the spectacle of gulls, pelicans and sea lions hanging out and squabbling over the fish and crab scraps the fishermen toss them from time to time. It’s like our very own David Attenborough special in real life, up close and personal.

The sea lions are too massive to be believed. They are these great hulking monoliths of slick fur and flubbering flesh lumbering across the sand, flopping into worn out piles to sun themselves, baring teeth, bellowing like disgruntled wookies and charging each other over food. Everything changes once they hit the water, where they immediately transform into weightless, elegant creatures gliding effortlessly through the water.

The gulls in the photos might make it seem like the sea lions are not that big. Don’t be fooled. They are colossal. I mean both the sea lions and the sea gulls. The cacophony the birds create when bits of crab or fish are available to fight over is insane!

And the Peruvian pelicans are incredible. They waddle, pigeon-toed, around the pier with their chins tucked deferentially into their chests like they were insecure about asking for fish, but they become magnificent when they take to the air, swooping about pterodactyl-like on massive wings.

So here are some of my favorite photos, in no particular order…

Fishing boats with the pier in the back ground. If you look close, you can already see the sea lions on the beach under pier. 

Pelicans going for fish scraps

Sometimes the sea lions get pretty aggressive with each other. Made me really happy to be watching from the pier above. 

A sea lion dives for crab scraps 

Sea lion and gulls

Gull, pelicans in the background

Diving for scraps

A fisherman dumping crab scraps

And the chaos that ensues…

A tern checking out the action from above

“Back off!!!” I love the look on the one gull’s face

Jack pot!

Pelicans eyeing the action below

Pelican coming in for a landing 

Cormorant and sea lion

Coy pelican

A tern glides above as a sea lion floats below

Santiago street art – wow!

It’s been a busy week or so. The Navimag Ferry dropped us off in Puerto Montt. From there, we did a little side trip to the island of Chiloé (more on our time there in another post).

We did a bit of sight-seeing while there, but we also got down to work, sketching out the upcoming weeks of travel and then filling in the details – researching, checking out reviews, finding out about transportation, booking hotels and tours. Somehow I always manage to forget just how much work the planning part of this trip takes. The work always pays off though, and I’m really excited for the next stops on our roster… Watch this space. 🙂

In the mean time, we left Chiloé, and we’ve been in Santiago, Chile’s capital city, for a few days now.

I didn’t know what to expect from Santiago. Prior to getting here I really didn’t have any mental image or feeling about the place. People we met while traveling had told us that it didn’t have Buenos Aires’ sophistication or edge, but while it might be missing the wow factor, it is a very “livable” city.

We won’t spend nearly as much time here as we did in BA, but Santiago’s making a really good first impression on me. It’s certainly feeling quieter than BA, but it’s got its own certain magic.

For one, I didn’t expect the city to have so much incredible street art. It has a very different feel from BA’s graffiti. Buenos Aires’ street art is amazing – I don’t want to take anything away from that – but the stuff we’ve seen in Santiago feels warmer and more whimsical and it seems to be just about everywhere. I am definitely a girl with a soft spot for whimsy, and I can’t help but fall for a city that embraces art with open arms the way Santiago seems to. If I have time at some point, I’ll have to do some research to find out a bit about the street art scene here (i.e. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the things we’ve seen are actually commissioned murals, but I really have no idea).

In the mean time though, I gotta share just SOME of the graffiti/murals we’ve seen around the city. Check out the gorgeousness below! 🙂

Good bye Puerto Natales, Hello Navimag!

It’s our last night in Puerto Natales.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good

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

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

The Bad

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

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

The Ugly

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

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

So, let’s see what happens.

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

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

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

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

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. 🙂