Tags: Around the World, Family Travel, World Travel
|From BonVoyage for JFA|
We hit the road on Saturday, August 18th, 2007 for an 11-month adventure with visits to at least 22 countries on four continents.
The Preparations Page describes all we had to do to leave our “regular lives” for 11 months. The Travel Classroom page is geared towards children and includes information about each country we visited in “kid-speak” along with kid-friendly slideshows. Teachers – this is great for the classroom and great for parents to share some geography with their kids.
The blog details our visits. Link to a specific country using the links on the right or go view the entries chronologically with the most recent entries listed below.
We look forward to sharing with you our experiences, our surprises, our special moments, our disappointments and our favorite adventures.
Peter, Laura, Oliver & Henry
Tags: Around the World
June 24 – July 9
Japan was a land of extremes. It was extremely clean, extremely modern, extremely confusing, extremely expensive, and extremely…well…Japanese. Our first task was to attempt to navigate the rails to reach our hostel in Ikebukuro which is a borough outside Tokyo. A hostel was all we could afford at $45 per person compared to $5 in Vietnam. How did we pick Ikebukuro? Well, it had a nice hostel listed in Lonely Planet and it was supposedly a less touristy suburb of Tokyo and we wanted to experience the real Japan.
Well, now we are lugging more and more stuff again because we are worried to send home a package since one of ours got lost and we also don’t want to spend the money. On top of acquiring a new suitcase filled to the brim with purchases, we had purchased a set of irresistible baskets in Vietnam of which the largest was almost as big as one of our backpacks! It was the sort that the Vietnamese carry on their back to bring rice in from the fields. We actually bought it from a teenage girl who was selling corn that she carried in it. We hope she didn’t have any leftovers that day! The design of the weaving was beautiful and smaller baskets fit nicely inside. It was light but bulky. We would have bought a bigger one but we needed it to fit in the overhead compartment of the airplane. We figured we only had one more country to go so we could manage a little bit more “stuff” as long as it cleared customs in the US since some countries are particular about plant products which, in fact, a basket is. However, we successfully made it to Japan without a problem but didn’t want to lug all of this stuff with us so we left our suitcase with long-term storage in the airport which at $5 per day cost about the same as if we had mailed it home but, it was worth the convenience. Japan’s Narita airport has lots of convenient services – phone rental (our phone did not work because they are on a futuristic technology), baggage forwarding, sleeping compartments for long layovers, 500 trains to any destination and it is all very clean and gleaming.
We are amazed by the sheer magnitude of the train system. The billboards depicting the inextricable knots of intertwined lines were shocking especially knowing that we HAD to figure it out because we had already purchased our 2 week Japan Rail pass while in Vietnam. Its steep price was supposedly going to save us lots of money. There are signs pointing in every direction color coded with more colors than a Crayola box. So far, we see very little written in English so we do what any brave traveller would do…we ask for directions. We proceed to track 14 after flashing our passes and ride the train to Ikebukuro and we are impressed with the newness and the built-in televisions and announcements in English yet no one seems to appreciate all of that except us as we are the only ones without our noses focused on our cell phones that seem to stream out some tantalizing data that keeps all of the locals hunkered down and typing away. Our Lonely Planet guide gives us some landmarks to watch for in order to exit the maze of the underground system and back into the commercial-filled daylight. We easily find our hostel which, again, is spic and span and has a double bed and two bunks which excites the boys whose shoes go flying off so they can quickly claim the top bunk before the other and set up their forts. The place was wired for internet and it was free! We are able to upload a ton of photos that we were unable to do in Vietnam. Internet access in Japan is as much a part of the infrastructure as paint – it was a given wherever you went. So, since our phone was now defunct, we were still able to stay connected.
We went in search of food. Now the fun begins. We have one child who only eats chicken fingers and pizza and another child who is constantly starving. English is really elusive when it comes to food and the guidebook claims that most of the restaurant selections are on a floor or two in the local department stores. Sure enough, we make our way to the 15th floor of the local department store and there you walk the winding corridors around a myriad of restaurants. Unfortunately, all were expensive or had only indeterminable foodstuffs shown as realistic plastic display cases in the window – no pizza or chicken fingers. We end in, once again, the bowels of the underground train system and while making our way to the famous Shinjuku area (famous for its lustrous red-light district and neon lights), we come across a Beck’s coffee shop where the boys scarf down cinnamon bagels covered in cream cheese and grape jelly. For the rest of our journey in Japan, the boys were always in search of a Beck’s store for more of those bagels. We were able to indulge 2 more times. We wander the streets of Shinjuku and the next day, downtown Tokyo, and are disenchanted with the commercialism. We are unable to find anything but stores. Downtown Tokyo had 3 Tiffany & Co. stores within two cityblocks! Even the Sony flagship store was not as technologically exciting as we expected. The language barrier was strongest here in Japan and everyday situations were difficult to navigate. When we sprinted towards a New York city-based Dean & Deluca gourmet shop that we had frequented so many times while in NYC as though it was an oasis on a barren desert, we knew cosmopolitan Japan was not for us. So, we ditched the city and headed for the mountains – Mt. Fuji to be exact.
We stayed in another fantastic hostel. We had never stayed in hostels before on our whole trip as it seemed too much of a gamble with its stereotypical party atmosphere and close quarters. But in Japan, hostels are in a different league. Cleanliness and respect for people around you is a way of life in Japan and this was nicely displayed in our humble abodes. In Mt. Fuji, our hostel was Japanese style which meant that our room was simply bare with an intricately woven grass mat floor. There was no furniture save for a central coffee table with short legs keeping it low to the ground and a t.v. The light permeated the room through the rice paper that lined the typical Japanese sliding doors with their pattern of rectangular shapes. The closet revealed our futon mattresses that we laid on the floor as if our room was a big tent and we were camping. The boys were so excited. The communal showers and baths were cleaner than ours at home (which isn’t saying much) – I should say cleaner than that in a hospital but with pretty yellow colors and flowers in each stall. This is where we encountered the famous multi-functional…toilets. We still believe that you require a special license to operate these contraptions whose purpose in life is to get all your parts clean as a whistle while affording you comfort and privacy at the same time. First of all, as you sit on the toilet, there is a set of push-button controls on the side with interesting illustrations to help you guess what surprise you were in store for when you pressed it. One button was for ladies only while another indicated a cleaning cycle much like you would expect in a car wash. There was another set of buttons that make various flushing sounds to mask any other embarrassing sounds one might make complete with volume control! Then there was another set of buttons that we couldn’t figure out but we expect it was technology advanced enough to fit you with a new pair of underpants and give you a little pat on the butt as you exited the stall. The boys showed up in the room a bit sprayed and soaked a few times after a foray into the restrooms.
While many backpackers visit Mt. Fuji in order to scale the mountain at sunrise, we were happy to have a chance to view it from afar but for the time we were there, we couldn’t even figure out where it was due to the thick cloud cover. You could not see the base or the top and it was supposedly right behind our hostel. Instead, we ventured to a local museum of decorated kimonos. Now you would think, how will two boys fare in a museum of decorated kimonos but sure enough, they always rose to the occasion. We watched a film in English about how this man painstakingly tied and dyed kimonos using a unique technique so that each one becomes a work of art depicting a part of nature and when all of the kimonos are hung in succession, it creates a continuous mural displaying each season of the year. We were all in awe and so was the Smithsonian as his was the only collection by a living artist ever displayed in Washington D.C. Strangely, in a country that is seemingly one-tenth the size of the U.S. but with nearly half of the U.S. population, we were the only ones visiting this incredible collection. We managed to find pizza for lunch and visited an herb festival as the lavender was in full bloom. Now how often do you think of lavender fields when thinking of Japan but it was a lovely scene on the lake with lavender fields, mysterious clouds, floating pagodas and the sound of new age music being played on advanced synthesizers that permeated the surroundings. Now we felt more at ease and began to see the appreciation that Japan has for the natural world and how it plays such an important part in their health and life balance. We were then graced with a 5 minute break in the clouds where the summit of Mt. Fuji peeked through as our reward for not judging Japan on our first impressions of a very material world.
We loved being in some of the restaurants where the waitress lays down all of your plates and silverware and walks away and doesn’t return. After hemming and hawing and trying to figure out what we had done to offend her, we discovered a little button next to the salt and pepper shakers that pages her when you are ready to order. Now isn’t that smart. We also appreciated that there is no tipping. Good service is simply part of the culture as is not littering. What was fascinating about not littering was that not only was there no litter, there were no public trash barrels! People simply take their garbage home with them. How nice it was to see streetscapes with no unsightly trash barrels. We still don’t know what came first – no trash barrels or no littering! We also noticed that no one locks their bikes. Now, there were more bikes in Japan than automobiles and there was never any traffic or horns beeping (that would be disrespectful) and everyone either rode their bikes or took the lovely mass transit. Suddenly, we were feeling quite embarrassed to be from the American culture – what are we doing wrong at home?
We easily navigated our way across 4 different train lines together with the hordes of uniformed teens heading home from school while tap-tap-tapping on their phone/ipod/camera/video devices. We simply flashed our passes and headed for the cars designed for unreserved seating. You could get from one place to another with a train coming on every track every 6 to 12 minutes if not sooner. We headed to Kyoto next on the famous bullet train (180 miles per hour) and spent 4 glorious days traversing the city in search of elusive geisha girls, pagodas, traditional Japanese homes and tranquil gardens. The boys loved tracking the geisha girls who were usually readying to emerge from their secret dwellings in the early evening in order to rendezvous with their clients at an unmarked location. Being that there are purportedly only 1000 authentic geisha girls left in all of Japan, we were staked out for several street corners giving hand signals to one another if there was a sighting. Just like paparazzi stalking celebrities, we would make a beeline toward the geisha and her defensive female chaperone who had probably just spent the better part of the day doing the geisha’s hair, makeup and wrapping of layers of fabric. Well, most of the pictures were blurred or just of their backs as they expertly appeared and disappeared with swiftness despite clonking around on 5 inch high Japanese sandals. After all of the excitement died down and the sun started to set, we went in search of food. We enjoyed teriyaki chicken, miso soup, vegetable tempura, fresh shrimp and pizza (of course). The piece de resistance though was in Kobe where we dined on the infamous Kobe beef which was prepared for us by our own personal chef. Kobe beef is succulent, soft and tender because of the massaging and pampering that each animal receives before its doomed day. We are still astonished that beef can taste exponentially better than what we were used to although we are still assessing whether it is worth the exorbitant price. It was a once in a lifetime dinner treat. (The boys quietly did word searches and puzzles while we dined as they have not yet warranted such a lavish treat – I think we fed them PBJ right before we got to the restaurant).
The great treats of our Japan adventure were Nara and Takayama. Nara is like walking into a movie set. We visited one temple area that was surrounded by 3000 stone lanterns impressive enough that we would seriously consider returning for a festival just to see them all lit. It was completely tranquil and zen-like and this is where we encountered the infamous people-friendly deer that roam all of Nara. They are lovely spotted deer just like relatives of Bambi but they keep their spots through adulthood. We are used to deer being so skittish around humans that you rarely see them up close let alone pet them! Yet we were surrounded and sometimes stalked by these gorgeous creatures in search of a biscuit that are intermittently sold at little unmanned kiosks where you leave your $1.50 in a cup (honor system, of course). When you raise the biscuit way above their heads, these humble creatures seem to nod and bow their heads in thanks. Perhaps they are urging the biscuit closer or perhaps it is simply an involuntary response to having something lurking over their head but be that as it may, it was fascinating to be around these animals. There were thousands of them decorating the grasslands and forests around temples, pagodas and garden landscapes. We visited the largest wooden structure in the world which is a temple housing a 450 ton Buddha. What the boys were more impressed with was climbing through a marked column with a hole in its base. If you could fit through the hole, you would be blessed with good luck. At another location, if you could successfully walk from one rock to another one with your eyes closed and without straying, you would have good luck in love. The boys tried it all and in a place that reveres luck, we had a lot of unusual customs to try our luck with! Takayama is a hillside village at the foot of the dramatic Japanese Alps. We stayed at the Rickshaw Inn which was another Japanese styled place and we ventured out into the village and surrounding area for 4 days. It was heaven. We saw gigantic woodland homes that put Swiss Chalets to shame. They were architectural feats and could last the brutal winters in warmth and comfort. 100 people could easily sleep in one. We made paper from mulberry bark, we tasted soba noodle soup which is famous from the alpine waters that it is made with and walked the country markets where we sampled beef kabobs, native cherries and other fruits.
As our 2 week rail pass expired before our 17 day adventure did, we needed to rush back to Tokyo to leverage our pass. It was a tragedy to leave this beautiful village full of secret lanes, idyllic scenes, puppet shows and museums. We waved goodbye to the 1200 year old ginko tree on our way to the train station and also stopped at a french bakery for some provisions for our all day ride. We wanted to take the long way back to Tokyo in order to traverse the Alps and make sure we got our money’s worth out of the rail pass! We spent our last days at the Toyota showroom which was fun for all as we learned about hybrid energy and let the boys indulge in the free “racecar driving” machines. We discovered a lively part of Ikebukuro that made us want to stay longer in Japan but, alas, it was time to end our adventure. We were comforted by the fact that we were heading to see family in California so that we didn’t have to say that our adventure was ending, it was only that the international portion of the adventure was ending and that the domestic portion was about to begin, especially knowing that a visit to Legoland was part of the upcoming itinerary with their cousins. We were also gaining a day as we tried to sleep as we passed over the International Date Line allowing us to prolong our adventure just one more precious day.
The boys waved good-bye to Japan from our 4:00 pm flight with yet another thread woven into their growing canvas upon which they will reflect their thoughts about the world as they age. Mom stifled some tears as leaving this country was a poignant part of the journey as we depart all that was once so different and misunderstood but were now leaving it as one would leave a new friend – excited to have made a new acquaintance and eager to visit them again and learn more about them the next time. We may never go back to those same places but when we are home we will more readily select a book from the rack about a place that we have been or when we see a news article we will surely read it rather than just the headline or when we pass a store selling global wares, rather than pass by with little interest in items we knew nothing about, we will now stop in and seek to reconnect with our new and everlasting friend – the world – whose cultures now warm our hearts rather than simply provide pictures in a magazine from a place so far away. We now feel a closeness and belonging and empathy that will be a permanent gift – an unexpected gift. One cannot prepare you for this feeling as you embark on any adventure – it must be experienced, like having children or volunteering your time to help others. This adventure will yield many more unexpected gifts as we revisit our lives and we hope to share those gifts with our friends and family and those who have accompanied us via this blog. Stay tuned and we thank everyone who has supported us in our quest to see the world.
The Jalbert Family
(click photo to launch slideshow)
Vietnam June 1 – June 23
As travelers, we never delved into public transportation outside of subways in major cities. Buses were too complicated and geared towards the locals. Yet, in southeast Asia, buses are king. It was so easy to find a bus going from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Saigon, Vietnam. The nice bus takes you through the border crossing, manages your passports, and takes you right into the city center, cheaply. They run all of the time. Not only that, our hotel booked the tickets and the bus company delivered the tickets to our hotel and a van picks you up at the hotel to bring you to the station (except that they forgot to pick us up so our hotel manager whisked us to the station in his car)! All of this for about $12.00 per ticket for a 3-4 hour ride. It was so delightful to find that wherever we landed, there were plenty of people available to get us where we needed to go.
We arranged for a hotel in Saigon (we use Skype for all of our calls at a cost of a few pennies whenever we have a good internet connection in the room). In Saigon a decent hotel room costs about $40.00 which was a steal for us. We later learned that we overpaid for nice lodging which can be had elsewhere in town for half that. Peter really liked Vietnam.
Our plan was to take the train up the coast from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north but no pressure. We didn’t want to rush around and see a lot. We were tired and wanted to relax. We poked around Saigon and rode in cyclos (bike-powered carriages) and shopped and ate. We stayed until we could get a seat on the coastal train to Nha Trang which is a beach town. This time we only paid $20 for a nice room and lingered on the beach all day for two days. Everyone had motorcycles and after awhile we really appreciated motorcycles which we regard more as a renegade vehicle at home rather than a practical one. Motorcycles can easily go around you when you are crossing the street, they use less fuel, they are quiet (no Harleys here), old ladies drive them, and you can carry anything from panes of glass to sacks of rice and even livestock on the back! Plus, there are so few cars that there is little chance of getting hit by a car while on a motorcycle. Except they also make nimble getaway vehicles as we unfortunately witnessed after one drove up on the sidewalk and failed at an attempt to whisk our camera out of our hands. Luckily the strap was wound around Laura’s wrist.
After Nha Trang came lovely Hoi An but the trip caused us to appreciate buses even more as the trains were less than desirable as were the little 6-legged critters occasionally showing up in our cabin. As usual, the kids slept fine as we laid awake watching out for uninvited wildlife. Arriving in Hoi An made it worth it, though, as it was one of the few towns in the country that remained unscathed from the ravages of war. Which, by the way, was difficult to not feel guilty about as we travelled around. We squirmed a bit each time we were asked which country we were from especially after seeing men with amputated limbs or strange growths protruding from their body from agent orange poisoning. But simultaneously we hoped that people would greet us happily and with hope for a new relationship with Americans, and they always did. In Hoi An we explored the fishing culture by boat to view the hundreds of fishing nets dotting the landscape as if it were a giant outdoor sculpture. We watched boat building, wood working, tailoring and dined on spring rolls and rice with chicken. The town had the charm of a European city surrounded by the culture of living off of the land and the sea. The boys proudly donned their new Vietnamese straw hats and explored the temples and the handicrafts centers (and the pool). They made fast friends with the young girl who sold Chinese paper lanterns in a small wooden shack. The hundreds of multi-colored lanterns lit up the shack like a Christmas tree and we went out of our way to visit her each night (and bought a lot of lanterns!) She was so happy the day we met her as she had just bought a new bike and celebrated by bringing us some cool sugar cane juice to quench our thirst. And $84.00 for a new bike was a king’s ransom considering each handmade lantern sold for only $1.00 or $2.00.
We boarded a sleeper bus (literally rows of beds, small beds) and headed to the northern parts of Vietnam. All along the way people were tending to the rice fields. Rice was either being planted, harvested, cut, thrashed, bundled, carried, dried or eaten. The Vietnam life was ruled by rice. Never had we seen such a intertwined relationship with food and it was a lovely relationship that meant hard work yet the interactions were so beautiful and photogenic. Conical hats peeking out above seas of green rhythmically and tenderly gathering each stalk by hand.
We landed almost haphazardly in Ninh Binh while attempting to switch bus lines and ended up staying in this part of the country for five days. The landscape was out of a movie and the world was quiet and dreamy. We hired motorcycles to take us to the countryside and Laura snapped photos from the back of the bike while the boys were in their glory. We took a misty boat ride through pristine grottos and through idyllic villages where rice was being harvested and children were biking home from school. We arranged for a private tour with a fantastic guide, Hien, and a driver who took us into the western hill towns to visit hill tribes whose culture is well preserved. We stayed in the homes of the local families and ate with them and slept on mats on the shiny bamboo floors just as they did. We learned to communicate with sign-language and used our guidebook and the boys communicated with toys and other games. One of the towns we stayed in just got electricity 6 months earlier! Their houses were simply one big room with no shelves and no inner walls and no material belongings. Mats were taken out for beds along with mosquito nets and curtains for privacy. We would awaken to the sounds of roosters, cows, and waddling ducks being taken out for their walk. Work outdoors started very early to beat the heat. We stayed in three separate homes amongst the White Thai and the Hmong people. Our guides cooked our food, carried our bags and took us to places where tourists do not roam. We bought lovely crafts and sampled the local cuisine although we steered clear of the snake infused whiskey and winced at the sight of all of the live animals in cages awaiting their fate in the kitchen of the restaurants we ate in. It was an unexpected diversion that was one of the highlights.
When we returned to Ninh Binh, we discovered that a family that we met on the bus several days earlier had passed through our hotel on their way to Halong Bay which was our next destination. They are from New Zealand and have a son Nicholas. We made our way to Halong Bay via bus and ferry (treacherous ride – think CNN news headlines of sinking ferries in far-off places) but we landed safely despite the bout of seasickness that hit three of us. We searched for a hotel and while doing so ran into our New Zealand friends. They helped us secure a room for $12.00 per night (6th floor up, no elevator) and, along with them, we were able to fulfill our wish to charter a private boat for 2 days/1 night around UNESCO World Heritage listed Halong Bay. The boys were so excited to be with their new friend for two days and there was lots of swimming and feasting on fresh seafood made by our crew of three Vietnamese sailors who didn’t speak a word of English but knew how to whip up a gourmet feast on a two burner hot plate! We sailed among limestone rocky sculptures in which the scene changed dramatically with every turn. We had two days of sunny weather and a cool night to sleep under the stars. It was a dramatic end to a fantastic adventure in Vietnam.
The boys enjoyed each part of the adventure in much the same way they would enjoy an adventure at home. They would never think, “I cannot believe I am in Vietnam!”, they think, “Wow, they rent out floating tubes at the beach here!” They still want to skim rocks whenever we pass a lake or pond and splash through puddles in the rain. They want to look at toys in the windows and want to head back to the hotel earlier than we do so they can sit and play with their Legos. They still ask mind-bending questions such as, “How come our shadows don’t have color?” and “How long would it take to hit the ground if someone fell off the top of the Empire State Building?” and “Do frogs in America speak the same frog language as frogs in Thailand?” But in between their normal interests, they know there was a war between America and Vietnam and that there are landmines in the bush. They know that the old lady rowing our boat to the restaurant works harder than old ladies at home. They know that the children at our homestays didn’t own a single toy and not because they are poor but because there is work to be done. But this hasn’t changed them…yet. They still want to buy cool gizmos that they see in a store and they still talk fresh and complain when it is time to do schoolwork. We do not have any expectations as to how this adventure will or won’t impact them. Oliver still wants to be a park ranger and the boys are quite sensitized to the plight of many species of animals and to the longevity of our forests. They watched The Inconvenient Truth with us and seem to understand our role in minimizing the impact of global warming on our planet. They do not hesitate to turn off an unused light and do not litter and want to help. They are very enthusiastic to travel by cyclo, rickshaw or motorcycle (although we don’t think their intentions are altruistic in these cases). Only the future will tell.
(Once again, it is difficult to pare down photos for a slideshow. Click here for the “Highlights Only” slideshow otherwise click the photo below for the “Total Adventure” slideshow)
Cambodia May 27 – June 2
Cambodia was a surprise. We didn’t know what to expect and, from what we had read, our expectations were very low for this seemingly very uninviting country. Despite this, we maintained our plans to visit because we could not bypass the opportunity to see the world-famous Temples of Angkor while we were in this part of the world.
Our adventure began in Thailand where we disembarked from an overnight train from northern Thailand (no sleep) and jumped in a taxi and circled the city of Bangkok for a two hour scavenger hunt in search of the DHL office where our new Keen shoes were waiting. We successfully tracked them down (Thank you Keen!) and just made it back to the bus terminal in time for a 3 hour bus ride to the Thai-Cambodia border on a nice bus called the Mekong Express. The bus was run like an airline with “stewardess” service and on-board video (violent Asian gangster movies) and friendly commentary at significant sights. We ate the usual for these long bus and train journeys – whatever they were selling at the station. So, we had a well-rounded meal of Pringles, peanuts and Juicy Fruit gum for breakfast and snacks. At least it was more nutritious than the box of Scooter-Pies we had on the train!
We arrived at the border and managed to cram ourselves and our bags into a tuk-tuk who proceeded to take us to the Cambodian “Consulate” for our visas. The books warn you about make-shift offices and overcharging but what do you do when you have two kids, a bunch of bags and no one speaks English! You pay whatever they want, get your visas and go. While the boys raced their cars across the polished floors, we filled out the paperwork and in a few minutes we had our visas. We paid $120 instead of the “official” $60. This was the first indication of an “uninviting” Cambodia. Our defenses were up. Next, the tuk-tuk driver dropped us at the literal border where you must walk across. The handle on our pull-luggage broke so we were pulling it with a lovely rope. Our bags were starting to bulge as we became gun-shy to mail any packages after one of ours became lost enroute to America. The sun was beating down and we were running on fumes in terms of sleep. A couple of Cambodian fellows latched on to us promising a comfortable ride to Siem Reap from the border. We also read about the taxi and bus scams that abound at the border. We dragged our bags while playing the cat and mouse game with these guys. They promised an air-conditioned taxi for $60 to Siem Reap which is about 3 hours away (cheap by American standards but expensive in Cambodian). It was about 3:00pm. We wanted to pay $30. We filled out more paperwork while keeping an eye on the bags, the boys, the taxi guys and trying to read the guidebook at the same time to make sense of this chaotic border crossing. Dust was kicking up from the unpaved road, ox-drawn carts heavy with melons, bricks or textiles passed by to get to the cheap border market. It was getting late. We pretended to reject the taxi guys but, in reality, we didn’t know what alternatives we had. We boarded a “free shuttle” to the central bus and taxi station. We had no idea if this “free shuttle” was really going to take us anywhere legitimate. Lo and behold, the shuttle dropped us at the “only” taxi stand in town run by our taxi leeches. (uninviting) We offered $30 and settled on $45. Our driver didn`t speak a speck of English and he sported very long fingernails and looked about 15. (uninviting) The car was roomy at least and did, in fact, have air-con. Turns out that Siem Reap is not 3 hours away because of distance, it is 3 hours away because of the condition of the road. In other words, barely existent. For the next 3 hours, we felt as though we were in a video game as we swerved and ricocheted along the pot-holed dirt path. We dodged bicycles, ox-carts, motorcycles, oncoming crazy buses, trucks carrying road-building supplies, dogs, chickens, cows and children. Cambodia appears to be lightyears behind India in terms of development and is certainly not geared towards tourists. (uninviting) We wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. The driver made a few stops to make a few “transactions” with friends, brothers, fathers and any other English word he knew. It got dark very quickly which made traversing the road that much more…exciting. Blue fluorescent lights on rough sticks line the road. These lights are in front of every shack, house and then venture out into the uninhabited fields on either side of the road. Each light has a large white bag beneath it. We ascertained that it is a trap for catching some sort of insect. This would be considered clever and an earth-friendly alternative to pesticides had it not been for the small fact that they are not for killing insects but for trapping them to eat them. Crickets. (uninviting).
We arrived in Siem Reap unscathed and were transferred to a couple of tuk-tuks who take us to our guesthouse. We could not believe we made it. The guesthouse was full of friendly faces who scurried around us to serve us in the manner we`d become accustomed to here in Asia. So Cambodia is not only filled with blood-sucking opportunists as we had encountered so far. We crossed our fingers because we booked the guesthouse for the next night but had now arrived one day early because of our success in seamlessly making all of our connections (train-taxi-bus-tuk-tuk-taxi-tuk-tuk) over the past 24 hours (Why didn’t we pay to fly? Because we wouldn’t have this interesting story to tell!). The guesthouse was able to accommodate us (phew!) and our room was absolutely delightful as it is a converted mansion and has elegant details in the plasterwork and has lovely moulding but is also painted a cheery shade of plum to make us feel settled and happy. The place is run by an Australian couple and serves some western-style food and English is well-spoken. We were so relieved.
The first thing we noticed was that the guesthouse runs several down-to-earth tours of the surrounding area that take you into the lives of the local people. This was exactly what we had been looking for but, up until now, had not been able to find. Tours are usually of sights, temples, pagodas, museums, but never to the villages. We jettisoned our plans to only spend one day in Cambodia to tour Angkor Wat and instead extended our stay to 5.
We signed up for three tours: Day 1 – “A Day in the Life” tour of a Cambodian Village. We were very excited. We took a mini bus with our guide to a village that is financially supported by our guesthouse. We arrived and were to meet the village tribe leader but he was not feeling well and was asleep in a hammock. We had learned about how important it is for the village to have a well and a water filter installed for a mere $45 USD to support many families. We proceeded to a home where a teenage girl was busy making leaf shingles for her house’s roof. The leaf roof only lasts 3 years and it was time for a new one. We were there to help. We slipped off our shoes and sat on her bamboo floor as she and the guide showed us how to wrap the palm leaves around the bamboo and then sew the leaves to one another with a strip of bamboo with its end sharpened to become a natural needle. The boys were so happy to be participating in a traditional activity and were successful at it. We took a break from our shingle-making and headed down to the school for some English lessons. Turns out school was not in session on that day due to some administrative technicality but when the village children saw us coming down the dirt path, they jumped on their bikes with siblings dangling on the back and assumed front row seats in the ramshackle outdoor classroom and offered a synchronized, high-pitched “Hello” when we entered. We proceeded to teach this small group of children (ages 5-12) the ABC’s and the days of the week. We passed out some pens and treats and after our short lesson, these small children climbed back up on their adult-sized bicycles and headed home for lunch (maybe crickets were on the menu). We went back to the house to participate in preparing a typical meal and the boys helped our guide pick lemongrass and morning glory from the yard and together with some fermented fish, salt, spices and some other unknowns (no crickets), we made some soup. Luckily, the guide also brought some ham and cheese sandwiches and watermelon! After lunch we visited the local monastery where a group of children (some orphans taken care of by the monks) gathered to observe us. The monastery was decorated with paintings of the life of Buddha. The boys liked how the Buddha had long ears indicating longevity.
Day 2: We had a fascinating trip to a floating village so called because the local people set up their houseboats and shacks on the lake and make a living harvesting fish. Their situation is difficult and conditions are harsh. It is fascinating to see how schools, hospitals and even basketball courts float on the river. Unfortunately, children are often urged to “perform” tricks in order to earn some tips from gawking tourists such as ourselves. We grimaced at the floating crocodile farms in existence for the sole purpose of making bags, pocketbooks and shoes. This is a country struggling to earn a few buck as the countries surrounding it are well ahead economically. It was hard to pass judgement if they are not as eco-friendly as we would like them to be.
Day 3: We finally got to tour Angkor Wat. It is beautiful and has survived many invasions of this vulnerable country. The ancient carvings depict intricate details of battles between heaven and hell and tales of mythical creatures and gods. The boys found this very interesting (and learned what hell was) and were fascinated by people being decapitated and tortured for their misdeeds on earth (this may come in handy in the future). However, we were more impressed with the other-worldly Ta Prohm Temple that is in the midst of being consumed by the rainforest surrounding it. This was what we had come all of this way to see and it was hard to comprehend that so many years of uncompensated toil was now left to be destroyed, yet it was fascinating to watch it happen. It was scorching hot and we were happy to get back to our guesthouse as Henry searched for yet another newly made friend that he met the day before. These friends were usually 20-something girls who would give him unwavering attention like that of a babysitter and would be intrigued by his stories and his company. He proceeded to make dinner arrangements and we all went to dinner together at the Dead Fish Restaurant (a former fish processing warehouse rather than a description of the meals).
The next day we boarded a bus for the 5 hour trip to Phnom Penh where we would figure out how to navigate our way across the border to Vietnam. The bus was another airplane-like situation and we watched out the window mile after mile after mile the monotonous lives of people struggling to grow some crops and live a simple life from a small plot of land, a couple of goats and a bicycle yet having to avoid the surrounding tracts of land still peppered with landmines. It is hard to know where to begin to try to help a country like Cambodia get up on its feet. We were glad to have experienced the few different faces of Cambodia.
April 29 – May 26
After wrapping up a week in New Delhi taking care of administrative items such as securing our visa to Vietnam, contemplating whether to visit China, filling up on western fare, and booking hotels, we leave for Thailand. By a stroke of luck (and an error on their end), we are able to negotiate with American Airlines and secure a direct flight from New Delhi to Bangkok without having to take the long train trip south to Mumbai which we frankly didn’t have the energy to take on. We arrive in Bangkok ahead of schedule and snag a great hotel in the middle of the city.
Bangkok is very exciting and everyone is friendly and the men and women are exceptionally beautiful. Bangkok has modern stores, fashion, theaters, food, handicraft – everything! We couldn’t get enough. However, our first business was to book a train to south Thailand to head for the famous beaches. Despite low season, we still had to wait a few days before we could go so we enjoyed the city. We easily navigated the “Skytrain” which is a modern train that takes you high above the roads easily around town. We took the government ferries up the river to visit the 19th century stunning Grand Palace glistening with golden tiles, fierce warriors and religious temples. We watched our shoes very carefully. We visited the famous “Weekend Market” that stretched for miles yet we were melting in the heat but couldn’t resist scarfing up some colorful (and cheap) souvenirs. We heard that the movie theaters were like Carnegie Hall so we headed for the mall and saw a family movie. The theater was top-notch and popcorn was $1.00!
Thailand’s popular drink is fruit shakes! The boys slurped up banana, watermelon, orange and lemon shakes nearly 3 times a day. The overnight train to Koh Samui was fun. We slept in comfortable bunks, caught a bus the next morning towards the coast, took a ferry 2 hours to the island and then a taxi to the quiet north side where we stayed in a lovely bungalow owned by a French couple and which served great food! The area was dotted with authentic Thai fishing village homes turned into simple yet delicious restaurants and shops far away from the busy side of the island. We planned on staying 4 days but heard that the west coast was suffering from an early monsoon so we stayed put for 9 days just relaxing. We enjoyed massages right on the beach for pennies and the boys happily swam and built sandcastles. It was a vacation from our vacation. Everything was easy – we rented a jeep for the day and they simply hand you the key, ask you to put gas in it and say, “See you later!” We explored different beaches and tried to steer away from the rapid commercialism that is out of control on this once secret hideaway.
We reluctantly peeled ourselves away from Koh Samui and caught the overnight train back to Bangkok and then took a minibus 2 hours to Kanchanaburi with the sole intention of visiting the Tiger Temple. We headed straight there and got closeup and personal with a group of 15 or so tigers who are being taken care of by a group of monks. Monks are known for taking care of orphaned people and animals and one day someone left an orphaned tiger at the temple and since then more and more tigers have arrived. You would never be able to interact with tigers like this in America but we were able to here and under the monks’ watchful eye (and some sleepy tigers), we felt safe. We also visited Erawan Falls – gorgeous aquamarine waterfalls that fall from tier to tier each with its own swimming hole. We arrived very early in the morning and had the jungle to ourselves. We went on an elephant ride later in the day which included an elephant “bath”. This involved riding the elephants right into the fast-moving river where we learned that elephants can completely submerge themselves while artfully leaving its passengers above water (barely). We don’t think you would be able to ride elephants while they are completely submerged in a river or touch and walk with tigers anywhere in America! We are fortunate to have had the experience although we know there is a reason you can’t do these things at home. It was scary, yet exhilarating. On our way back to Bangkok, we visited a rare floating market – literally a market where the wares are sold by boat. The boat driver takes you up the meandering canals and pulls up beside different boats whose owners are selling souvenirs, melons, coffee, lunch, hats or coconuts. The market was initially created for all of the villagers who live along the canal and had no other way of transport except boat and the tradition continues (although today its filled with more souvenirs than daily necessities). We also got to see local arts and crafts and the boys got to help make brown sugar candies from coconut palm sugar.
We caught a bus back to Bangkok and hopped on an overnight train to the capital of the north, Chiang Mai. More Thai culture than international Bangkok, we got to relax in a nice hotel with pool and buffet for short money while we visited the Sunday night market (everything happens at night since it is so hot during the day) and the Chiang Mai Zoo to see the pandas that we forfeited with our abandoned China trip. We also made our way to the World of Insects Museum (boy stuff). It was quite cool. We visited a silk making shop – we never had any idea how silk was actually made as we watched the silk cocoons unravel and merge with other strands to form a single strong thread. We visited a monkey school (so called because they train monkeys to harvest coconuts but must also raise money to feed them) and we visited an elephant conservation center. In Thailand, it is all about the elephants – they are are built into the architecture and stitched into the fabric everywhere in Thailand.
We arranged a private van and driver (Mr. Wat) and set our sights on going further northwest into the jungle to visit the hill tribes – centuries-old hill tribes that have preserved their unique and colorful culture by settling far away from the modern world. However, they are not so far away that they don’t understand how to earn money from tourism. There are plenty of handicrafts to be had and we were excited to support these villages in any way we could. Several of the tribes are refugees from Myanmar (Burma). The Karen people have settled close to the border and we took a long-tail boat down a river which was the only way to access the village without a long trek (too hot). It was amazing to interact with these villagers when we had only seen them in picture books before and actually didn’t know that they still existed. Along the way Mr. Wat showed us much of the countryside that is famous for its extensive caves, waterfalls and rich soil as we embarked on a long trip into the hills zigzagging along the way as we had in India (and vowed we would never do again) but we couldn’t help but be drawn to the most authentic parts of Thailand.
Thailand was very friendly, very accessible and had it all – animals, beaches, culture, shopping and fantastic food. It truly was a land of smiles as its motto promises.
(click photo for slideshow)
April 7 – April 27
We had travelled for 10 days in India and after looking at the map we realized we only covered a very small portion of the country. We spent a few days in Delhi recuperating and a couple of nights at Pizza Hut while deciding where to venture next. Without a doubt, it would include our driver, Rajeev, and our nice air conditioned truck. Since our plans to Nepal and Tibet had been dashed, we decided to head north in an attempt to get as close as we could to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas and we read that Uttaranchal had some pretty scenery so, we headed north.
The state of Uttaranchal is mostly agricultural and the photo opportunities of life as it always has been were plentiful. Our first stop was Corbett Tiger Reserve. Rajeev had been there just the week before and had seen 10 tigers. He used his connections to successfully get us lodging deep in the middle of the park so we wouldn’t have to travel over an hour in and out of the park each day. We went on safari in the evening and in the morning and saw elephants, deer, birds, pointy-nosed alligators and jackals – but not one tiger. We heard a tiger roar, we saw tiger footprints but didn’t see one. But the boys got to stand up in the jeep while it was moving so that made up for the disappointment. They thought they were getting away with murder in the lawless Indian jungle! We decided that not seeing the tiger was a lesson for us because if we do not do anything to save the endangered tiger, no one will get to see them anymore and now we know what that would feel like (it appeased them at the time).
Next we headed into the hills to Nanital which is the vacation spot for Indians and includes all the typical relaxing activities one would partake if they were in, say, New Hampshire…boatride on the lake, shopping, playing in the arcades and horseback riding. We stayed in a hauntingly empty, old mountain villa in an oversized, chilly (higher altitude) room that Rajeev had arranged because it had plenty of grass for the boys to run around on (and they did). We saw old women carrying 50 lbs of firewood on their back down the mountain road and we saw maimed children begging for food (the boys “sponsored” one of them for the day) while we tried to enjoy the niceties yet really couldn’t as we observed how difficult it was for others. We learned to not notice the condition of the sheets nor whether the toilet was western or squat. We watched as women rolled dried cow dung into bricks to make fuel for the fire and watched as men labored to bicycle dozens of kilometers with heavy supplies piled high on the back. We learned to accept that litter is the last thing on the minds of India and that Indian people are the hardest working people we had ever seen. The food is incredibly fresh and oranges are known as sweet lemons and young men walk hand-in-hand because they are friends. We learned to pronounce our w’s as v’s and v’s as w’s (Oliver was known as Oliwer) and we learned to take pictures from a fast moving vehicle. We learned to appreciate vegetables in this vegan land and look forward to mattresses without lumps. And most importantly, children were regarded as gifts from the gods and treated accordingly.
We continued on the dizzying road northwards for hours and hours, we took time to contemplate life and the difficult questions such as, “Do snails dream?” and “Who invented infinity?”. At our next stop in Kausani we were rewarded during the dawn hours to a front row seat at our guesthouse of the Himalayas laid out before us 180 degrees across our view. Even the boys were impressed and gladly rose for the occasion. Our guesthouse clung to the mountainside surrounded by rice paddies and 15 member families living in one room amongst the rubble and debris of the harsh mountain lifestyle. Once again, for the boys, the grandeur of the Himalayas was eclipsed by the presence of two black labrador puppies. We are always reminded while travelling with our children that the world is full of things, great and small, foreign and familiar. While we tried to converse the boys simply befriended the neighborhood kids by creating a zoo from small plastic animals and cages made from a donated box of wooden toothpicks from our friendly waiter. They could not converse. This was a big deal for the local children who were seen playing with corn husks for entertainment earlier in the day. We took photos and everyone was anxious to see their image on the camera. We were promptly invited to the family “compound” to meet the elders. We climbed down the muddy, rocky “path” down to their string of rooms. The mother offered us tea and everyone was delighted to have us. The boys were excited to meet the brand spanking new calf and the grandfather of the clan who, with disabled legs, hasn’t walked since he was 30 was excited to have company.
We also went for a 6 mile trek through the hills with a local guide and passed through some remote hill towns with local villagers doing laundry in the river, scything the rice, plowing the fields and bringing supplies home by donkey or on their own backs. Children were tending the herds while groups of girls were taking refuge from the sun under a tree. It was a fantastic walk. We saw a lot of weddings on our adventure. April and May are the popular months for weddings. It was still phenomenal to us that the marriages are arranged and we saw many a somber bride having to leave the security of her family to start a new life with her new acquaintance, her husband. However, there were weddings in almost every town with adorned cars, horses and rented spaces with colorful gateways and streamers. The winding roads in the mountains were too much for our fragile stomachs so we changed our itinerary to head towards the lowlands sooner than originally planned and rested in spiritual Rishikesh and Haridwar. Here we observed the rituals upon the sacred Ganges (Ganga) river and witnessed the unfortunate throngs of people who migrate here for unconditional support from the spiritual sects. It was here that the boys studied those without limbs or eyes or food and tried to make sense of their situation. They rarely said a word but just witnessed and assessed. However, we did cancel our intended trip to Varanasi, the capital of spiritualism and poverty, because we felt that we had witnessed our share and didn’t need to have it intensified exponentially. The boys were quite eager to experience the goodness of the Ganges River and its healing powers and we were all drawn to its blue color and supposed purity. The boys were intrigued by the stories of how the river originates from the head of the god Shiva.
We were saddened by the unfortunate experience of having our shoes stolen. It is customary to leave your shoes outside places of worship and while 99% of the time they were tended by paid attendants, this one time we left our shoes unattended in an ashram. An ashram is a sanctuary for spiritual people who engage in daily rituals such as meditation, prayer and simple ways of living focused on the higher beings. Without hesitation we left our shoes while we went to sign up for a yoga class. 7 minutes later, we returned to only 2 pair of shoes belonging to the boys. The shock was overwhelming as the shoes were more valuable as a sentimental piece of our adventure rather than practical. They were the only possession that was with us every “step” of the way. Our only solice was that the boys still had theirs. We walked back almost a mile barefoot along the intimidating streetscape (you can only imagine). For some strange reason, we never had to walk around anything unsightly and it seemed as though the path had been made clear for us. Perhaps it was a lesson to “walk in someone else’s shoes” (or lack thereof as is the case in India) and take a second look at what is most important to oneself. This experience coupled with Peter’s new bout with “Delhi belly” and Oliver coming down with a 12 hour fever left us with mixed feelings. Perhaps our sins of the past were being detected by the conglomeration of spirits or we were just having a bit of bad luck. Either way we bottled some water from the Ganges for future keeping and mailed it home with all of our other treasures for remembrance of a poignant visit.
Rajeev would play classic Indian cd’s and the boys had their favorite songs that usually originate from religious chants but now are played to a catchy beat and sung about Krishna and others. They fell deeply in love with every place we would visit and would soak up the music, the dance, the vibe, the smells and the sounds. They would grow impatient as we sat for an hour or two participating in some ritual but would yell with excitement at a later date when they recognized a song or clothing or a statue that was part of the scene. It was the same as how they felt with all of the attention they got from Indian people – the petting, patting, pinching, ooohs and aaaahs, “Where are you from?”, “What is your name?”, “How old are you?”, “Are you twins?” They grew tired of it and complained on the side but, in the end, they know that the world loved them and wanted to know them and wanted to be with them and was excited because of them. Their experience, without exception, has always been them positive. They also had a positive effect on others and some people who at first glance were indifferent, bored or tired became excited, happy and eager to engage them in a conversation. Travelling with children has yielded a much more friendly, warm and true experience for us and our children.
(click photo for slideshow)
March 22 – April 6
We arrived in India from Hong Kong at a pleasant 2:30am. The boys easily bounced out of their cozy airplane seats and were as chipper as usual even at that ungodly hour. They were always very excited to see the next destination. We collected our bags and, as promised by our guesthouse, a taxi was waiting for us amid the rubble that we had to negotiate to reach it. The driver swiftly paid the young man who was guarding his seemingly illegally parked car and off we went. The Prem Sagar guesthouse was listed in our guidebook and we booked it via email as we felt lucky to find a place in the center of the city with four beds, hot water and A/C for a decent price in expensive New Delhi. The taxi let us out onto the everpresent rubble in front of a doorway whose fluorescently-lit bulb attempted to shed light on the dark alcove with scattered piles of garbage nearby and a lying dog or two which we were unable to discern whether they were alive or not. The smell of well-fermented centuries-old dust permeated the air. We are not sure what it is that arms you with the courage to arrive in a place that is so unlike anything that you had imagined it would be and still push forward around the dogs, over the manure, looking over your shoulder and then continue up the stairs hoping that there is a friendly face at some sort of desk up there. Perhaps it is hope or optimism, perhaps it is “We’ve been lucky so far…let’s go for it” or “We wanted an adventure – we asked for it” but whatever it was, we continued up the stairs with the boys not even blinking an eye at the surroundings (they were probably thinking of all of the things they could build with all of this stuff) and indeed, there was a friendly face behind a reception desk. We went right to our room and as Laura inspected the corners, and Peter looked for the right adapter to charge our batteries, the boys were ready for playtime. Every new hotel room was full of new and exciting contraptions to experiment with. After some coercing, and some prayers that India was going to be more exciting than this, we went to sleep until late the next day.
We had our bottled water with us – the boys knew the routine by now as we had trained them on the places where they should never use the tap water for brushing teeth. There was no distinction between the shower and the rest of the bathroom so the shower water would run all over the bathroom floor and slowly make its way to a drain somewhere in the corner. This made for slippery conditions but kept the floor clean! There was room service! We ordered 4 hot chocolates, bowls of corn flakes with cold milk and toast with butter. Little did we know that this would be our breakfast for the next 40 days. All dressed and ready to explore, the receptionist warned us not to go outside – it was dangerous.
We were in danger of getting colored. It was Holi. A religious day where everyone had free reign to protect you from evil by sprinkling, spraying or dousing you with brightly colored powder and it`s considered impolite to say no. After a few questions about the permanent nature of this coloring agent, we stayed in until mid-afternoon when it was supposedly safer. This gave the reception desk ample opportunity to try to sell us a car and driver deal to explore Delhi and outer regions such as Rajasthan. After converting rupees to dollars, it was too much for our wallet and we still were wondering how we were going to explore the country with no car and high temperatures and be able to break through India’s foreboding exterior. We ventured out. For a country with a billion people in it, there was no one on the streets because of the holiday. It was like we were walking onto the set of a disaster film where no one was left but us and the rubble from all of the explosions and the sun beating down on us as a few vultures soared overhead waiting for their feast. OK, there were no vultures. We declined an invitation to get “colored” and we made our way to a recommended taxi service where we may be able to hire a car and driver at a reasonable price. The office was closed. But suddenly, a non-descript man loitering outside chatting with the only other person in sight bounced up and gleefully lured us inside and assumed the position at the desk. The office was the size of a walk-in closet adorned with Hindi religious relics. The boys played with their Lego while we scrutinized this man and his suggested itinerary and his fair price. What kind of car? How big? Who is the driver? Does he speak English? Where will we stay? What is the quality of the hotels? He rustled through a few brochures and made a couple of calls and tried to assure us that we would be happy. It seemed like he was pretending to work there. Nothing seemed right.
But in India, nothing is going to be like other places, no familiar gestures or signs of trustworthiness. It was third world – business was conducted differently. They supposedly had a big fleet of cars, many drivers and years of experience and a recommendation from our guidebook. With not much to lose and plenty of time on our hands since we had canceled our adventures to Tibet and Nepal due to political turmoil, we agreed on a price. Just then the owner came in and splashed some holy water on pictures and sacred statues of Shiva and Vishnu in honor of Holi Day. There was a small gaggle of drivers outside and it was when we emerged from the office, that we met Rajeev. He immediately struck a conversation with the boys and he had a big SUV. We decided to upgrade to an SUV rather than a cramped car and because of that, Rajeev was our assigned driver since he was the driver of that vehicle. Rajeev made all of the difference from that point on. We could have been stuck with a driver who didn’t take pride in his job and who didn’t understand a foreigner’s perspective and who mumbled the minimum number of English phases as necessary. Instead, Rajeev was enthralled with the boys (he lacked children of his own), was eager to teach and our facsination with his country spurred him on to show us as much as he could off the beaten track. What was perceived as horrible became interesting, what was perceived as strange became familiar and what was inaccessible became close enough to experience.
We ate at a recommended restaurant nearby and with the English translated menu, we picked some safe options like tandoori chicken and chicken tikka and unleavened buttered bread. The next day Rajeev picked us up and we were now known as “Sir” and “Madam” and he took us to all of the major sights in Delhi. We went to temples, memorials to past kings and leaders and mega-tombs designed by those interred within but the most interesting sights were those outside the van window. Every few feet was another poignant picture of a life so different than ours. Some depicted poverty, some depicted back breaking labor, some depicted smiles, some depicted the hard way to get things done while others depicted simplicity that first world countries have traded for complicated, abstract lives. No matter what the scene, it was always made more magical by the sarees. The women’s sarees were bright, flowing and covered with a tens or hundreds of sequins. Every woman looked like a princess despite how mundane her circumstances were.
After our day in Delhi, we found the truck to be too hot. The air conditioner was weak and with the intense heat, we wondered how we were going to make it for 12 days. When Rajeev lifted the boys out of their seats, he noticed that their shirts were wet with sweat. Being that he would do anything for these boys, he announced that he was going to have the air conditioner repaired before we set out for our trip the next day. We asked how he was going to do it at night but he assured us that in India, anything is possible. Sure enough, he picked us up the next morning and there on the ceiling in the center of the truck was a brand new air conditioning unit that could reach the rear back seat where the boys sat and that we could control ourselves. Turned out that he stayed up all night to get it done.
We spent 12 days touring around the state of Rajasthan. We visited Agra-Jaipur-Pushkar-Udaipur- Ranakpur-Jaisalmer-Bikaner-Mandawar. Rajasthan was famous for its magnificent forts and palaces and the colorful sarees worn by the women. The Taj Mahal was very beautiful and larger than life. The palaces had intricate marblework that was created to make screens to hide the royal women from public view and was unlike anything we had seen before. By the end of our visit, the boys were quite adept in recognizing and naming the ubiquitous gods – Shiva, Ganesh, Krishna and the monkey-faced god whose name we only knew as monkey-faced god.
We had been gawked at in other countries and locals would not hesitate to approach us but in India, the fascination with us with exponentially greater. Indians would unabashedly stare at us with no expression nor words but as soon as we took the first step and looked them straight in the eyes, smiled and boldly said, “Namaste” (Hello), a whole group would be transformed from wary and quizzical to practically a bunch of giggling, shy toddlers. Even grown men. Once the ice was broken it was not unusual for them to form a ring around us and just look and be part of the sudden excitement that we created. Everyday we would feel either like martians or like royalty. They didn’t want anything from us, just wanted to be with us and talk to us but they didn’t know how to approach us. In this country, most people did not speak English so we often just looked and used body language or sometimes relied on a lone English-speaking person or Rajeev to translate. It was very cool. We posed for more pictures for other people’s cameras than for our own. We felt like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and their fascinating children (OK, use your imagination).
Cows – they were everywhere. It was actually amazing how quickly we acclimated to their presence and even their unsightly dung that was splattered all over the walkways. You simply went around it. Somehow it seemed to get cleaned up the next day. Cows were in middle of the road, they were in the alcoves between shops, and they were in the markets. They were like people. In India cows are very sacred because they provide people with so much to live on.
We got used to the perilous driving, sort of. Meaning, we allowed ourselves to be driven and were on the “wrong” side of the road as much as the “right” and drove closer to cars, trucks, cows, dogs, buses, camels, mules, people and rickshaws than we would ever dream of doing ourselves but we watched constantly trying to assess whether we were in danger which was difficult because, according to American standards, we were in danger of an accident 90% of the time but when in Rome…
We decided that we could not apply American standards of living here if we were going to try to explore India and have a positive experience. Rajeev had a sense of anticipation on the road that we never acquired at home – he knew what the other drivers were going to do and how much time he had before we hit head on. He knew which way a cow was going to walk as he nearly skinned its nose with his front bumper before he swerved to the right and the cow sauntered to the left. It was like a roller-coaster, you had to trust that the wheels were going to stay hitched to the track despite the mind-boggling curves. As a parent, we felt that our children were only in harms way if tried to fight what was normal in India. Even walking the narrow lanes to go to shops was risky as there were no sidewalks so you had to look down to avoid the cow dung, look straight to avoid the cows and look behind you to see if a vehicle was coming towards you. The boys never left our side and knew what to watch out for.
We had a few celebrations while we were in India. The Easter Bunny visited us the second day we were there and brought chocolates, jelly beans and Lego and left them at the end of Oliver and Henry’s beds during the night. Jelly bean filled eggs were hidden around our small room. The next day we arrived at the Taj Mahal to celebrate Henry’s 7th birthday. Henry picked out his own chocolate cake at a nice bakery (surprised to find chocolate in India). We decorated it with chocolate-filled eggs from our Easter stash and paper drink umbrellas that Henry picked out. We had carried our wax “7” candle all the way from Greece where a bakery had given it to us at Oliver’s birthday. We always carried paper so that we could make cards and we picked up balloons along the way. Rajeev surprised Henry with a game and a matchbox car set despite only knowing us for a day. We celebrated Peter’s birthday while we were in Udaipur. We had dinner on the lake overlooking the palaces and listened to traditional Indian music. Rajeev covertly obtained a cake and we surprised Peter with it.
Unfortunately, Rajeev did something to his back and was practically a cripple a few days into our trip. He had to contort his body in order to even walk. He consulted with the locals who recommended a “back man” who could possibly help. We drove down a narrow dirt road and from inside a tiny nondescript “office” with a buffalo and a calf outside, Rajeev emerged 5 minutes later. This doctor would accept only what his patients could afford to pay him, usually the equivalent of 25 or 50 cents, and fixed Rajeev`s back 50% of the way at that moment and by the next day, he was 95% cured. If we hadn`t seen this with our own eyes, we wouldn’t have believed it. Rajeev introduced us to all sorts of natural concoctions that would make you feel better, naturally. Anise seeds after a meal to help digestion, rice and lentils for an upset stomach, cold yogurt lassi drinks for diarrhea and most of all, Cadbury chocolate bars once a day so the boys would feel their best!
Despite all of this good advice, we ran straight to a Pizza Hut as soon as we returned to Delhi but in the meantime booked another leg of the trip with Rajeev for 11 days in the mountains so we could get closer to the Himalayas and the hill tribes of pastoral India.
(We found India to be so full of poignant photos that it became a difficult task to pare down. Click picture below for full slideshow (179) or here for only highlights (77).)
March 18 – March 21
Our three days in Hong Kong were short and sweet. It was so impressive. The airport was so modern and gleaming and organized had every offering you could want. Bright color-coded taxis were neatly queued up and we were whisked across this other-worldly landscape to our hotel that we booked online while in New Zealand.
Seemingly brand new highways wound their way around lush, misty hills with a smattering of beautifully crafted bridges strewn across the interconnected bays like Christmas lights. Everything was so neat and perfect and colorful it was as we had been miniaturized and were driving on a brand new children’s road set. All of the dramatic hills were full of trees and untouched by development while paradoxically soaring mega-apartment complexes were carefully inserted into the scene without disrupting the beauty of the surrounding landscape. There were tens of thousands of apartments – stunning apartment buildings. The whole place was an engineering marvel as giant buildings were stacked higher, higher and higher.
The boys were concerned about the language. They felt that the language would be more foreign than anywhere else they had been. They thought that we would not be able to communicate with anyone. That has never been the case and certainly wasn’t in Hong Kong. It is incredible how prolific the english language is even among the older generation. We are so lucky that we speak English! After a rest in our hotel (oh yes, we forgot how nice a hotel was compared to motels), we ventured out. We had our Lonely Planet guidebook in hand and, as usual, tried to read it as fast as we could before arriving in the next destination. We went to Hong Kong because it was the only way we could get from New Zealand to India and it seemed like a great place for a long weekend. We made our way to the main part of the city by jumping on a city bus and stopped in to see the bird market. This was a market just like any other market except that they sold beautiful, tiny singing birds in carved wooden cages. Hong Kong loves its birds. Next was a visit to the flower market where all of the orchids and bonsai trees where being primped and trimmed.
The bustling streets were very exciting as they were full of signs and stores with everything imaginable for sale including cosmetics, freshly killed ducks, electronics, prickly fruit, pokemon-style toys, shark-fin soup and, as always, Coca-Cola. We made our way to the jade market and bought trinkets. We bought fresh fruit from the outdoor market and had a picnic in the main park next to the aviary containing fantastic large birds. After walking for miles, we finally made our way to the waterfront where all of the action was. Skyscrapers lined the bay and despite their blatant commercialism, it was an incredible sight. Each building was iced in neon piping with colors racing up and down each horizontal and vertical beam and changing colors as they moved. There was something very artistic about Samsung, Panasonic and Sanyo in this venue believe it or not.
We dined on noodles and dim-sum. The boys ate blueberries and sliced bananas and peanut butter sandwiches when the chinese food required too much bravery. We ventured to the highest point in the city by taking a bus, then a ferry, then a double-decker street car, then the longest escalator in the world and then a funicular. We saw most of Hong Kong along the way. It was a great day. We watched the skyline light up for its nightly light and laser show where the already spectacular buildings light up in sync with music.
The next day, we surprised the boys with a trip to Disneyland Hong Kong. It was great fun and we went on all of our favorite rides several times. We headed to the airport straight from Disneyland for late night flight to India.
(click pic for slideshow)
February 22 – March 17
We began the second half of our New Zealand adventure by heading towards the highest mountain in New Zealand, Mount Cook, standing at 12,316 feet. It was a bright sunny day and being that we were staying in the center of the island (New Zealand’s Outback), a little lift in elevation was a welcoming idea. The glacial lakes we passed along the way were thick with powder silt and the bluest color imaginable. We easily reached the mountain pass and we hiked along the popular Hooker Valley Trail over swing bridges and rocky pathways until we reached the base of the mountain and its massive glacier which produced the river that we had followed. We told stories, practiced spelling, boulder-hopped, held hands tightly along cliffs and dipped our toes in the frigid glacial water. We were very lucky to see Mt. Cook’s peak and glistening face on such a glorious day. This hike was one of the highlights of our trip to New Zealand. It was absolutely perfect. The famous New Zealander, Sir Edmund Hillary, had a mountaineering institute nearby and we viewed the photos and the poignant statue of the man who had recently passed on. The boys still think that we are going to climb Mt. Everest when we get to Asia.
Our next stop was idyllic Wanaka – small town, great cafes, beach on a blue lake, surrounded by mountains and forests and the great outdoors and no traffic. Alas, the place was booked and the helpful gentleman scratched his head trying to think of where we could go and remembered that a nearby campground had a few permanent tents that were new and roomy. We went across town where there was even less traffic, more lake and bigger mountains and found the tents to be better than we could have imagined. They were brand new, had three rooms with all the fixins and had comfy beds with mattresses. It was like a hotel outside! We all loved it and the boys were thrilled. They started right away gathering sticks to make forts and a table centerpiece out of pinecones. They took all of the dishes and played restaurant for hours. It was simple surprises like this that we were always thankful for. We wished we could have the stamina and where-with-all to camp more often on our journey but we never really had the opportunity to research renting camping equipment, etc. We stretched one night into four and made friends with the family in the tent next door and shared some stories and went on a couple of hikes together. The nights were so starry and crisp and the mornings so refreshing.
We headed towards the wild west coast and stopped seemingly every few kilometers to duck into yet another inviting rainforest with yet another waterfall and blue-green stream washing over boulders surrounded by ancient ferns greener than green. Besides rainforests, there were rocky and remote beaches to visit some sea lions basking in the sun and further along was the shadowy faces of the mountains that zipper their way down the coast with frosty glaciers to visit. Beach, Rainforest, Glacier and Meadows – it was all there for the taking in a day.
Surrounded by all of this gorgeous scenery we were inspired to skydive. This was the place to do it so we weighed the pros and cons for hours and hours and even contemplated whether we should leave the boys with the skydive crew and go together (could be catastrophic) or go one at a time (not as fun or romantic). Finally after confirming their safety record, we signed up to jump together the next morning. It is amazing how many scenarios you must analyze and conjure up before embarking on a skydiving escapade. What if…what if one of us…what if both of us…should we, shouldn’t we…kind of takes the fun out of it. Well, the fun was taken out for us when we woke up the next day to overcast skies and winds that did not make for a scenic nor safe flight. But, it was a good “What if” exercise. Probably best to do it when you are 20 or 80 and not in between.
We visited natural thermal springs in Hanmer Springs which was not only therapeutic but the fast waterslides made for great family fun (yes, we had to drag Peter away). We visited a vineyard owned by a friend of ours from Marblehead and his brother in NZ. The children learned all about the winemaking process while the parents carefully tasted as much as they could to discern the fragrances unique to Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
Along the way, we practiced our math and independence by letting the boys buy groceries on their own and ensure they got the right change. They loved it and would argue over whose turn it was to make the next purchase. We listened to the soundtrack of Dr. Dolittle a hundred times until they learned all of the words by heart. They still want to know if a Push-Me Pull-You really exists. Dr. Dolittle was a good choice for them as he was a great animal advocate and an inspiration to the boys as they journey around the world seeing all of these creatures in their natural habitat and truly appreciating their existence and importance. We are now reading the book which we purchased in one of the dozens of bookstores around the world that we lounge around in for hours. It is one of the boys most favorite things to do especially when they find some books that they recognize from their home collection.
We drove through mountain passes as we criss-crossed New Zealand from the middle, to the west, to the east, back to the west, back to the east and then back west to Abel Tasman National Park. We rented a cottage overlooking green mountains as far as the eye could see and took a speedboat to a trail deep inside the park and hiked the fantastic coastal trail for 6 or 7 hours back. It was another perfect place to hike and one of New Zealand’s 9 official Great Walks.
This was all on the fabulous South Island where we spent about 5 weeks and then we spent 1 week on the North Island. We explored the volcanic and thermal history of the north island and the boys were forever impacted by New Zealand’s Pompeii where we explored an outdoor museum where actual homes remain covered by volcanic soil and poignant remnants remain of those who perished. Smoking cauldrons of land and hot mud pools abound on the north island and volcanoes were no longer a mythical occurrence only seen in books and movies. The children had a deeper appreciation of Mother Nature’s abilities than before as did we.
We ended our trip with a coveted visit to a Kiwi sanctuary where we saw the comical birds scamper around their nocturnal house. They are so rare and are endangered by the import of weasel-like creatures in the last century that it was exhilarating to see them. It is very strange to see a bird with no wings! We ended our stay on St. Patrick’s day and the boys spent hours decorating the sliding glass doors of the hotel with shamrocks, pots of gold and rainbows (which they can now proudly recite the colors of in order). With a quick jaunt around Auckland, we felt we had been on familiar and comfortable lands long enough to drum up our courage to venture into cultures and environments very different from what we were used to.
February 9 – February 21
We arrived in New Zealand after a relatively short flight and after thorough scrutiny by airport officials looking for foreign matter that may affect New Zealand’s pristine and unique habitat. We pass and then have to agonize over renting a used vehicle as all of the big name brands with new cars were fully booked. Always worried about getting stranded with the kids, we get the used vehicle (1985) and figure that there are worse things then getting stranded somewhere in New Zealand. Our vehicle turned out to be reliable and cheap but paled in comparison with the ubiquitous flowery, hippie-era campervans so popular in this part of the world.
We drove into town and looked for a place to stay. There are hundreds in Queenstown but, alas, it seems to be the high season and also Japan’s tourist season. We finally found a nice motel and were so excited by the look and feel of Queenstown, we wanted to stay for a week. But, the hotel could only give us a room for 3 days so we had to move on but in our short stay we took in the formidable and craggy Remarkables mountain range, crystal blue lakes, watched extreme sports taking place in the air, on the water, from bridges, mountains and any other inhospitable location to increase the fear factor. The boys skimmed stones, sniffed out playgrounds and asked to participate in all of these extremely expensive extreme sports. In the end, we did not partake in any as the journey alone was the thrill of a lifetime and didn’t need any extreme punctuations (nor did we want to limp home early with a broken limb).
We tried desperately to capture New Zealand’s beauty and largesse in pictures but it was always a frustrating task. It was here that Laura was ready to sink some money into an upgrade but realized that seeing it is more important than capturing it. We were relieved to see a common motto on many t-shirts “Same Shirt – Different Day” as it depicted the culture here – relaxed, lots to see and no need to spend your precious time doing laundry. We were beginning to grow weary of the laundry and began to extend its wearing-power over a few days (Don’t study the photos too closely!). Luckily, the fabrics and colors we chose for our clothes made us always feel neat and clean even after a few days.
The boys seemed to struck by the beauty of New Zealand in their own subtle ways. Perhaps they looked at a scene a bit longer than usual or marveled at a dragonfly or remarked on the number of sheep in a meadow or were inspired to play hide-and-seek in a grove of inviting, fat trees. They did not hesitate to strip down and jump in the cool, sparkling water of a pristine lake and shrieked with excitement at the face of a baby calf or lamb. They would ask if they could take a picture of a sublime, snowy mountain peak or pick a small bouquet of wildflowers as a gift. Slowly but surely, nature’s bounty would have an effect on them and their compassion towards it would grow with each passing day as they voiced wanting to protect and preserve it when they grow up and be either a park ranger or cowboy (close enough).
New Zealand’s diversity was unparalleled in the proximity of seemingly unrelated rainforest, snowcapped mountain, ocean and dusty trail – all existing side-by-side. One can experience 4 different climates in one afternoon. We visited fjords in the far outreaches of the south island’s western wilderness and we explored a remote water-filled, pitch-black cave in a tiny boat that the driver steered with a pre-fastened pull rope so we could see the bioluminescent glow-worms displaying their blue constellations overhead. It was truly a gift of nature that these otherwise repulsive larvae could unknowingly create such beauty. We explored thick, green rainforests looking for young, not yet unfurled ferns – the symbol of birth and growth and the national symbol of New Zealand.
We drove along the most southern route of the South Island – the most south we had been on our journey around the world. The wind was furious and exhilarating. We found refuge in the tiny hamlet of Owaka. I knew we were in the country when I asked the waitress if they had kid’s milk and she shook her head and said, “No, only cow milk”. The environment was not good for humans and therefore, great for maintaining a safe environment for wildlife. As usual, we sought out wildlife and became up close and personal (relatively speaking ie: not a zoo) with sea lions, the world’s rarest penguins – the yellow-eyed penguin, and the world’s smallest penguin – the blue penguin. The boys played traffic cop while guarding the tiny blue penguins nightly arrival to their home conveniently located across a fairly busy side road. Our exciting encounter was with the Royal Albatross – a very large bird who nests on steep, windy cliffs which it must leverage for takeoff to support its heavy weight. We stood vigil alongside the cliff waiting to see these magnificent birds leave their nest in search of fish. Most of these animals are endangered thus reinforcing for all of us, the criticality of their protection.
(click photo for link to slideshow)