Klutziness on the high seas and a resort review

So, now Roman is in Switzerland and I am in the States. Here in Connecticut, it’s the coldest week we’ve had all winter. We’re talking optimistic highs of 20 degrees Fahrenheit, with lows much lower than that. The skies are clear and the sun is out with full force – everything outdoors is beautiful: frozen, brittle and glittery in the glare of the bright light. I’m happy to observe it from indoors and to let my mind wander back to the warmer climes we enjoyed in the Philippines.

Coral Bay: a retreat from the world

My last post on our time in the Philippines was about its capital city, Manila. We had a great few days there but our main objective in the Philippines was to get some beach time in, do some diving and r-e-l-a-x after our jam-packed time in China.

So our next destination after Manila was chosen very specifically with those goals in mind. We were heading to Coral Bay Dive & Beach Resort, an intimate, rustic resort on a wee island in the midst of an archipelago surrounded by beautiful blue ocean.

Back when we were actually there, I did a quick illustrated post on how to get there: Getting to Coral Bay

Screen Shot 2013-01-23 at 9.01.34 PMThis place is in the middle of nowhere; the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I was a cast away on a deserted isle. Popototan Island, where Coral Bay is located, is inhabited only by the resort staff and by one seclusion-loving European in a private home. Most of the islands in the area are uninhabited.

Here’s the link to the map – you can click and zoom out to see just how small this island is!

Being so far from anything, the resort is by necessity – and by choice – a bit rustic.

DSC_0115Accommodation is in the form of simple bamboo huts furnished with the basics – a bed with mosquito netting, bedside tables and lamps, a basic bathroom, a balcony with a hammock. There is a generator that supplies electricity from 6 at night to 6 in the morning. Water for showers is not heated. Hearty, home cooked food is available, buffet style, at prescribed times in the open-air restaurant. WiFi is available in the resort’s office only: the goal of this place is to provide its guests with a chance to unplug and appreciate the spectacular surrounding nature.

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Aside from spending all day in a hammock by the water, Coral Bay offers activities: snorkeling, kayaking, island hopping and diving. The snorkeling is one of the place’s best features. Grab the gear from the dive center, hop off the pier, swim a few yards and you’ll be floating above the resort’s private and pristine reef, where thousands of beautiful creatures make their home. Roman and I did this nearly every day we weren’t diving. Floating peacefully just above the fish, clams, anemones and corals all doing their thing – it’s just magic!

Not a great shot, but this is one of the resident lion fish hanging out by t he dock

Not a great shot, but this is one of the resident lion fish hanging out by t he dock

For my personal preference, the cottages could have been a bit better furnished – the bed and seating weren’t as comfortable as would have liked. And the food was a bit on the stodgy side for my taste – very carb and meat heavy and a somewhat limited selection. But this was the case for us everywhere in the Philippines. This country is NOT known for healthy eats… On the balance though, the minor discomforts were well worth the chance to spend time surrounded by so much beauty!

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Moments I want to remember

It’s been a walk down memory lane going through my photos from our stay at Coral Bay. Since these things fade over time I want to make sure I get them down in writing now. 🙂

– We arrived from Manila at Coron, the only town on the big island “closest” to Popototan. We had time to kill before our boat for Coral Bay was leaving, so we got to wander the town, have a snack at a cute little restaurant, and check out the local marketplace. Always one of my favorite things to do. Coron was teeny tiny, sweet and welcoming in the warm sunshine. I wouldn’t mind going back some day to get to know it better! 🙂 Here are some of my favorite photos from our short visit there.

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– One of our first nights at the resort, Roman and I went to the dock to look at an inky black sky strewn with a thousand stars. Suddenly, the hotel’s generator broke down, and everything was cast into total darkness except the glimmering stars above. Looking at the water below, we noticed that there were little lights flitting about – fish with phosphorescence no doubt! We ran our hands through the water below the dock and little specks of glowing lights trailed behind our fingers. Nature lighting up the heavens above and the waters below!

Coral Bay's mangroves at night

Coral Bay’s mangroves at night

P1050721– We were on the island for Thanksgiving. One of my friends emailed and suggested we share photos of our turkey-day grub with each other. So me, my friend in Atlanta and my friend in Poland were together in spirit. And that day, the buffet had roast chicken and potato on the menu – probably as close as I would have come to Turkey and mashed potatoes anywhere in the Philippines anyway. 🙂

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– I loved the silence on the island. No traffic, no TV, no machinery, meant lots of space for the sounds of nature. Every night, once the sun had set, there was a slow-paced concert put on by the local geckos which was just awesome. Check out what it sounds like in this post: Interlude from the Philippines: Sounds of Coral Bay

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No pictures of this memory, thank God!

We did a bunch of dives while we were at Coral Bay. It was my first time ever wreck diving. Things seemed pretty relaxed in the Philippines; I’m not sure we were technically allowed to do wreck dives with our open-water certification. The dives could have possibly been a bit more professional, but we still had a great time and it was a good experience.

Batfish lingering around a wreck

Batfish lingering around a wreck

I had some challenges with the diving (I did a post about it when we were there: Paradise surrendered: lessons from the sea) but once I got past those it was a great time – aside from my klutziness, one more my less admirable characteristics that comes to the fore from time to time.

Somehow on the day in question I had equal parts luck and klutziness going with me which was definitely a good thing or else I may have gotten swept out to sea!

During the first dive of the day I managed to somehow dislodge one of my flippers. The thing disappeared and no amount of searching the area around the wreck was able to produce any trace of it. So I spent the dive swimming lopsided and wondering what sort of insane fee we would have to pay for losing the hotel’s gear. Happily though, the flipper had floated to the surface just next to our boat and one of the crew had rescued it. Win number one!

The bigger fail/win came on the trip back to the resort.

We were on a small boat. It was simple but I assumed it was pretty sturdy. After a day of diving, we were relaxing, watching the horizon as the sky changed colors in advance of the sunset. I borrowed Roman’s camera to take a few snaps. I walked to the prow of the boat for a better view. Trying to get the optimal angle, I leaned against a beam – not realizing that the piece of bamboo was being held in place only by the canvas roof bracing it against the bottom of the boat.

Was the shot worth it? Awesome storm clouds over an island

Was the shot worth it? Awesome storm clouds over an island

I guess I leaned too hard, because the next thing I knew, I was toppling over. My feet flew above my head, my torso plunged over the side towards the water speeding below, and my hands grasped! In some sort of divine instinct, they found their marks, and I managed to grab hold of Roman’s tumbling camera in one hand and a bit of thin rope that – thank God – was securely attached to the ship in the other. The camera and my head stopped thanks to my hold on that rope about five inches above the water and the crew ran forward and hoisted me back onto the boat.

My sarong had dipped into the salty brine, I had a rope burn on my left hand (I still have a slight scar from it today, over a year later) and my dignity might as well have been flung overboard too. The sarong that I’d been wrapped in flew over my head as I fell I have an awful mental image of my pale, flabby body in a bright green bikini flopping around for all the crew to see – poor guys!! But I escaped an unplanned dip in the ocean, or worse, and I even managed to save Roman’s camera. So I guess that’s a fair trade off for being embarrassed to the point of utter mortification!

My China videos

Now that I’m going to be staying in one place for a bit, it’s time to get back to the blog back-fill. I’ll get to the Philippines soon, but I’ve had these China videos kicking around for a bit now so I thought I might as well post them. I did two because for me Xinjiang was SO different from the rest of China that it felt like another country altogether. And it’s just one of my most favorite places. 🙂

Hope you enjoy! 🙂

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China

Full circle

I don’t have anything insightful to write. Only I want to make sure I mark the date.

Today is January 17th. Actually, by the time I post this, it’ll technically be the 18th, which is Roman’s last day in the US. His last day of our epic journey.

After ten weeks and two days driving a rather lopsided oval through the United States of America, we’re back where we started – that is, my childhood home, staying at my parents’ house in Connecticut.

US Road Trip

We’ve been here for coming up on two weeks now. When hit the road to head west back in the Fall, we were still fresh from our Southern Hemisphere adventures. Australia, New Zealand. Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Galapagos. What an awesome hemisphere!!

And exactly a year ago today, we were here in Connecticut as well, still reeling, trying to get our heads and hearts around the jam-packed 15 months of travel through fabulous Asia.

Two years ago today, we were in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we were trying – there as well – to get our heads and hearts around all we’d just experienced in our three months in India – the spectacular first stop of our grand odyssey.

Tomorrow, I’m driving Roman to the airport, where he’ll head to his first (my second) home – Switzerland – for the first time in 850 days. That’s well over two years since he left Zurich, since he’s seen his family and friends, since we’ve covered all this ground and since we’ve made a third home of the world in general. Why be a citizen of just one country when this whole planet has so much to offer?

That being said, I’ll follow him to Switzerland in a month or two and am lucky and grateful that we have a chance to try and make that particular corner of Earth home again.

Although at the moment, I can’t even imagine what that’s going to look like or feel like.

Mostly, I’m focusing on helping Roman pack and tomorrow’s coming goodbye and wondering what it’s going to be like for him to take those first steps in the Zurich airport, to see his mom and step-dad waiting for him, to smell that distinct, familiar and oh-so-comforting Swiss air as they drive away from the airport.

But when I stop and think about our huge road trip, about where we were a year ago, and two years ago, about all that we’ve seen and done, I do get rather bowled over by it all. Hopefully I’ll be able to be a bit more articulate about it all at some point once I’ve been able to digest it a bit better.

For now though, I think it’s bedtime. There’s one more flight yet before the Journey’s over.

This is us on the balcony of our old apartment in Switzerland, the day I flew to India. Roman joined me there a few weeks later.

This is us on the balcony of our old apartment in Switzerland, the day I flew to India. Roman joined me there a few weeks later.

At a pooja in India

At a pooja in India

Zip lining in Thailand

Zip lining in Thailand

Exploring ancient ruins in Myanmar

Exploring ancient ruins in Myanmar

Bringing alms to a temple in Laos

Bringing alms to a temple in Laos

Cambodian tuk tuk!

Cambodian tuk tuk!

Trying to cheer up after my phone got stolen in Vietnam

Trying to cheer up after my phone got stolen in Vietnam

Learning how to manage an unruly camel in China

Learning how to manage an unruly camel in China

Wreck diving in the Philippines

Wreck diving in the Philippines

Carnival fun in Melbourne, Australia

Carnival fun in Melbourne, Australia

Silliness on an Argentine bus

Silliness on an Argentine bus

Chilean desert!

Chilean desert!

At the amazing Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia

At the amazing Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia

We wore ourselves out hiking around Machu Picchu, Peru

We wore ourselves out hiking around Machu Picchu, Peru

Galapagos!

Galapagos!

Horsing around on a misty day in the Grand Canyon, USA

Horsing around on a misty day in the Grand Canyon, USA

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!!

Memories of Manila

(written back in Big Sur but I’ve only had the chance to post now…)

Since I’ve got the luxury of free time today, I’ll do some catch-up blogging. Where I’ve left off: we were just leaving Taipei for some beach time in the Philippines. It’s over a year ago now that we were at this point in our trip (First of all, MIND BLOWN. Second of all, ack, I have soooo much catching up to do!).

As I’d mentioned in my last post on the topic, we’d decided to stop in the Philippines for a bit of easy down time after two jam-packed months of shuttling all over expansive, intriguing China.

The easiest way to gain access to this archipelago was via its capital city, Manila. We’d heard other travelers’ advice and opinions about the place, which were pretty much, get out as fast as you can and the place is a cesspool (actually, more colorful language than “cesspool” was used in this case, but I’m trying to keep this blog rated PG).

Our guidebook didn’t disagree with this perception, but did a decent job tempering city’s negative aspects:

This is the sort of city you leave, fellow travellers tell us, immediately after arranging your ferry ticket out. To a degree, Manila’s earned its rough-around-the-edges reputation. After all, this incredibly huge metropolis is home to well over 11 million souls, with scores of hungry transplants from the provinces arriving each day. In other words, this is exactly the sort of place in which there’s bound to be a good bit of chaos…

For a city that’s not known as a major tourist draw, Manila sure has a lot to see. Because of its hugeness and its traffic, you’ll likely never see it all. As you explore, you’ll get an appreciation for a city that has been at the pinnacle of Asia – and almost at the nadir as well. And you’ll get a feel for the soup of cultural influences that combine to make Manila the free-wheeling metropolis it is today. Much of what’s best to see isn’t always at a traditional sight , but rather can be found in the life of the varied neighborhoods.

…If you’re a traveller who likes to get a feel for the pulse of a place just before the rest of the world storm in, it’s quite likely that Manila may just be the sort of town you’ve been looking for.

(Lonely Planet Philippines)

We are not such savvy travellers that I would claim we managed to read Manila’s pulse, but we did decide to spend a couple days exploring the city before heading to the country’s idyllic beaches. Even though we were happy to have a break from exploring culture and history after all that we’d taken in in China, I’m still SO glad that we gave Manila a chance.

Yes, it’s rough. Yes, it’s loud. Yes, it’s grungy. Yes, I saw more human feces on the streets of the city than I saw on the whole rest of the trip (heartbreakingly, it seemed there were more homeless in Manila than in any other than in any other metropolis we’ve visited on the trip).

But there was a lot more to Manila than its roughness. May of the sights we visited were beautiful and fascinating and nowhere else in the Philippines were we more readily able to tap into the sense of this complex country’s history and culture.

First impressions

Exiting the airport, my first impression was that we were someplace VERY different from the rest of Asia.

The air was warm and muggy but with a different feel to it than the tropical countries we’d visited in Southeast Asia. Our cab driver spoke English easily as we navigated through the traffic of, to my American eyes, well-known makes of cars and trucks to our hotel. Somehow everything felt nearly familiar to me, even as we entered our Spanish colonial style hotel. If I relaxed my senses, I could just about convince myself that our short flight from Taipei had landed us somewhere in the Caribbean, Mexico or Florida somewhere. This was a surreal feeling to have, knowing full well that we were still in Asia and not at all that far away from countries that had felt very exotic and foreign to me during our months of exploration.

The strange sensation of familiarity – and how at odds this put Manila to all the other places we’d visited in Asia – made me eager to see more of the city. All things considered, we managed to get around a decent amount in our limited time there.

Bits and pieces of Manila

We stayed in historic Intramuros, the walled neighborhood in Manila that was once the strong point of the Spanish colonists, where today one can still feel the echo of the conquistadors’ presence in the style of architecture; in fact “many of the buildings still have Spanish-tile street names” (LP Philippines).

We wandered a bit, exploring aspects of Manila as diverse as its rough but interesting Muslim quarter to it’s massive, overly air-conditioned and pristine western-style shopping malls. I hope the photos below can help give a sense of the diversity found within the city…

Photo impressions of Manila

DSC_0955The church of Saint Augustin in Intramurous
The oldest stone church in the Philippines. Completed in 1607, the structure has survived quite its fair share of disaster – from earthquakes to invasions by the British and the Japanes and the Spanish-American war in 1898.

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Beautiful massive doors and Spanish architecture in Intramuros.

DSC_0958Manila graffiti

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The Manila Cathedral

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Fire truck

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At Fort Santiago. Aside from its general historic significance, the fort holds a significant place in the Filipino psyche as it was where Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero, was imprisoned prior to his execution by firing squad at the age of 35. A quick overview from Wikipedia:

He was a proponent of achieving Philippine self-government peacefully through institutional reform rather than through violent revolution, and would only support “violent means” as a last resort. Rizal believed that the only justification for national liberation and self-government is the restoration of the dignity of the people, saying “Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?” The general consensus among Rizal scholars is that his execution by the Spanish government ignited the Philippine Revolution.

For more on Rizal, please click here. 

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Filipinos walking Rizal’s steps towards where he was executed

DSC_0986DSC_0991Manila

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Pedicab driver taking a nap between jobs

DSC_1000I loved the Jeepneys!

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Reading the paper as a bus rolls by

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Outdoor market 

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Walking to the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene. The bridge we’d just crossed was clearly a place to sleep for a lot of homeless people, with many corners having obviously been turned into outdoor bathrooms. Not the most pleasant walk…

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Selling flower garlands outside the Basilica

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Devotion at the Black Nazarene

DSC_0044In Manila’s Muslim quarter

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Homeless; possibly trash pickers since the child was in a dumpster

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Manila

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A homeless man surveys golfers inside the Club Intramuros golf course

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Indoor skating rink at one of Manila’s insanely huge, western-style malls

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Getting ready for Christmas

Yay for rain!

It’s been weeks since my last haiku; it may as well be months and months for how busy we’ve been and how far away Wyoming is feeling.

Circumstance has gifted me with a quiet day today. We are in Big Sur, California. It’s our one full day here and it is positively sodden outside. It’s been pouring since well before I woke up, and the rain continues now into the afternoon, dripping down through the branches of the redwoods all around us and pattering on the rooftop while the puddles outside grow increasingly broad and deep.

Raindrops on Redwood leaves (needles?)

Raindrops on Redwood leaves (needles?)

It might seem like a shame – I’d been really excited to see the beautiful coastline that the area is so famous for. Not to mention that it appears the wet weather has been following us around since we arrived in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. But actually I’m just as pleased to have a “day off” from typical travel.

We’re staying at a little cabin at the Big Sur Campground. Everything is rustic wood and light and warm inside, making it a delightful place to hole up in against the gloomy weather. The place even comes with a “wood stove” with a gas-powered fire, which has been glowing warmly in the corner pretty much since we arrived last night.

Wood stove = heaven

Wood stove = heaven

There’s no wi-fi (I’ll post this when ever we return to connectivity), no cell signal, and aside from the other cabins in the campground, the only things in sight are redwoods, ferns and a swollen, rushing stream. I’m loving it and wishing we were staying in this peaceful retreat for a week, rather than a day.

Our cabin amid some young Redwoods

Our cabin amid some young Redwoods

But (aside from everything in Big Sur being crazy expensive) we’ve recently discovered that we won’t be able to extend the rental period for our leased car – something that we’d been assured was not only possible but easy when we picked up the car back in Connecticut. So our travel plans have now been reduced by two weeks and it’s important that we keep moving if we’re going to make it back to return the car on time.

So I’ll enjoy this time in Big Sur for what it is – a day of comfort and quiet indoors – and maybe we’ll get to come back some day for the beaches and the hiking and the views and all that other good stuff. After all the moving and activity of the past three weeks, being more or less forced to do be quiet and do nothing is exactly the blessing that I need. 🙂

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Rain and redwoods – recorded this morning; the sound of rain pattering on our roof and the metal tank outside our cabin. 🙂

Poetic madness: The House on the Rock

I first heard about the House on the Rock in Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods.

Not that I would ever need prompting to want to road trip – anywhere but especially in the US – but Gaiman’s book taps into and is a wonderful reminder of one aspect of what I’m looking for out here on the road – unexpected magic, myth and beauty in my home country.

The novel’s image of the meeting of old, forgotten gods in the carousel room stuck with me, and I felt like I hit the road-trip-jackpot when I was flipping through a road trip book to get ideas for our route to Wisconsin, and I happened to notice that the House was more or less along the way to our destination.

The House on the Rock sort of defies explanation. The place itself offers a video biography of the House’s creator, but never really manages to delve into the why. Here’s their website if you want to learn more, but this is one of those places that you have to just see to believe, and even then, the why will probably remain elusive.

The world’s largest carousel is only one part of the entire experience of the place. But of everything we saw, it was for me the most overwhelmingly jaw-dropping. It is insane. It is beautiful. It is haunting. It is awesome in the old-school definition of the word.

I will borrow from Neil Gaiman’s book/blog – why bother when such an amazing writer has already described the place. 😉 Photos are from the carousel as well as other parts of the House.

The largest carousel in the world – barely fit my camera lens!

From American Gods, Chapter Five:

Calliope music played: a Strauss waltz, stirring and occasionally discordant. The wall as they entered was hung with antique carousel horses, hundreds of them, some in need of a lick of paint, others in need of a good dusting; above them hung dozens of winged angels constructed rather obviously from female store-window mannequins; some of them bared their sexless breasts; some had lost their wigs and stared baldly and blindly down from the darkness.

The photos are not the best – it was tricky capturing moving objects in a dimly lit room…

And then there was the carousel.

A sign proclaimed it was the largest in the world, said how much it weighed, how many thousand lightbulbs were to be found in the chandeliers that hung from it in gothic profusion, and forbade anyone from climbing on it or from riding on the animals.

And such animals! Shadow stared, impressed in spite of himself, at the hundreds of full-sized creatures who circled on the platform of the carousel. Real creatures, imaginary creatures, and transformations of the two: each creature was different – he saw mermaid and merman, centaur and unicorn, elephants (one huge, one tiny), bulldog, frog and phoenix, zebra, tiger, manticore and basilisk, swans pulling a carriage, a white ox, a fox, twin walruses, even a sea serpent, all of them brightly coloured and more than real: each rode the platform as the waltz came to an end and a new waltz began. The carousel did not even slow down.

“What’s it for?” asked Shadow. “I mean, okay, world’s biggest, hundreds of animals, thousands of lightbulbs, and it goes around all the time, and no-one ever rides it.”

“It’s not there to be ridden, not by people,” said Wednesday. “It’s there to be admired. It’s there to be.”

* * *

No photo can do the carousel justice. No video either – and this one is extra grainy (had to make it small, or else I’d be uploading for another month with our current internet), but this might give a bit more of a feel:

Another room in the House. Steam-punk paradise…

Among other themes, the House has a vast collection of circus miniatures…

Would love to know the story behind this antique woman’s prosthetic leg/pistol holder!

There’s also a doll carousel. Spot the skeleton… 🙂


If you are ever in Southwestern Wisconsin and have a couple hours to spare, visit the House on the Rock. I can’t say if you’ll love it or hate it, but you’ll definitely NEVER see anything like it!

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.

Quick current events post

Roman and I arrived in Chicago last night. Our weekend in Pittsburgh was perfect – full of comfort, good food, exploration and discovery, and best of all, reconnecting with an dear high school friend of mine who I hadn’t spent time with in years.

I truly feel so blessed and lucky to have this amazing chance to visit loved ones all over the US. I love living abroad; I love all the travel. (At this point, it’s coming up on eight years since I left home. How and when did that happen??)

But nothing can replace good friends and family. The fact is that I do suffer being so far away from those people that matter so much to me. I can handle it no problem and even enjoy myself, but THIS aspect of this portion of the trip – time with long lost friends – makes my heart happy and my soul sing!

For anyone concerned, we had a soggy first bit of the ride west, but we mostly managed to stay ahead of Sandy, and so far Chicago is windy but fine, as my family back in Connecticut are also fine. Another thing to be grateful about. 🙂

Roman and I are making today an admin and catch up sort of day. We have post-Chicago to organize and Evanston, a northern suburb where we’re staying, to explore. We’ll get started on Chicago proper tomorrow. And I’ve got blog-catch-up to get to!

So, without further ado, I’ll be picking up with our last stop in Asia – the Philippines. I actually wrote this next post while we were still in South America, but haven’t had a chance to post until now…

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.