We’ve now been home for almost exactly as long as we were away (which proves, beyond any doubt, that travel slows down time). I’m grateful to no longer be engaging in frequent long-distance bus travel, but it’s hard not to miss the adventures — good and bad — of our time on the road. Here are some favorites:
I have a few more things I want to post about, but in the interest of catching up to real-time, here are some final thoughts before we board our plane home tomorrow.
I am currently in a hotel room in Bangkok, about to go to bed. Tomorrow, we head back to the airport for the final leg of this trip: a three-and-a-half hour flight to Taiwan, and then 14 ½ hours more to Newark. After nearly seven months on the road, we’re coming home.
I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’m very excited to see our families and friends, that’s for sure. Part of me is tired of sleeping in hotel rooms and living out of a suitcase – not to mention eager to have more than four pairs of underwear. And I’m looking forward to being back in a culture and place that truly feels like home.
But at the same time, I can’t help but feel a little sad. This trip – our big adventure – is coming to an end. Peter starts work on January 17th. I’ve already begun thinking about new pitches and story ideas. Sure, we’ve got the challenges of finding a place to live and settling into a new city to keep things interesting, but inevitably, a sense of routine is going to return, and with it will come the responsibilities of which we’ve been so blissfully free. Dealing with diabetes supplies. Getting car insurance. Selling story ideas. Paying the rent. This trip has been such an unusual, wonderful break.
I know that many people find travel stressful – which at times, it definitely can be – but I’ve been surprised to find that it’s also had the opposite effect: for much of the trip, I’ve felt bizarrely calm. Once you accept constant movement, you remove much of its potential stress. Since it would have been impossible to plan every step of the trip ahead of time, I was forced to take it step-by-step. We started seven months ago in Iceland and, moving day-by-day, have somehow ended up in Thailand. Everything worked out. There’s no reason to think that, if I continue to trust our abilities and accept what’s uncontrollable, it won’t continue to do so.
One of the other gifts of this trip is the sense of freedom it’s given me. Thanks in part to its length, I’ve spent much of the past seven months with a greater sense of excitement and possibility than I have experienced since graduating from college. Every day brought new options and opportunities, choices of what direction we wanted our lives to take in that particular moment. Did we want to bike sixty miles on an Estonian island? How about a dumpling-making workshop in Beijing? An overnight in a yak hair tent at the base of Mt. Everest? Every day brought an adventure – whether it was good or bad. (Fourteen hour bus rides would definitely qualify as the latter.)
I think the biggest thing this trip has taught me, though, is to have faith in our decisions. It was very difficult to decide to leave our lives in California, for Peter to quit a great job and for us to abandon our beautiful apartment and community of friends. I remember sitting in a cafe on the day I knew Peter was giving notice and, unable to concentrate, starting to cry. What were we doing? Was this the right choice? What if it was all a huge mistake? (Mom and Dad, you may recall receiving a phone call that afternoon.)
I still don’t know about Philadelphia – with no friends there and no place yet to live, the jury’s still out. But this trip wasn’t just the right choice; it has been one of the best experiences of my life. What makes me sad right now is feeling that this adventure – and perhaps most importantly, this opportunity to spend uninterrupted time with the person I love the most – is coming to an end.
But, of course, that’s one of the good things about having taken this trip when we did (not to mention, uh, being married): we can do it again. Perhaps we’ll never have quite as few responsibilities as we do right now – we could have kids and a mortgage; vacation time may be scarce; I could lose the rest of the cartilage in my knees – but the world will still be there to explore. Even if we stay home, we’ll always be creating new experiences to share with one another. And most important, if I may quote Peter, is this: we did it. We took this trip. And no matter what the future brings, we’ll never lose these memories.
When I saw this graphic in the women's bathroom, I came outside to ask Peter for the camera -- and then realized he'd taken already taken a photo of it in the men's room. A perfect match!
The ruined ruins of Beng Melea.
"I cannot believe you got me to climb on this thing"
Climbing on ruins with our guide, Dara. This was his idea.
A butt-biting turtle. Some humor is timeless.
The original builders of the temples respected both Buddhism and Hinduism -- so there were Buddha carvings and hermit carvings. But a later Hindu king was like, "Screw you, Buddhists!" and had every single Buddha image either destroyed or transformed (sometimes with more skill than other times) into a hermit. Here, you can still see the image of the meditating Buddha behind the later "correction."
Sandstone turns black when you touch it. What does this say about the maturity levels of most Angkor tourists?
Here’s something I have never craved for dinner: spiders. Too bad, then, that tonight we went to dinner at a place in Phnom Penh called Romdeng — a delicious place specializing in Khmer food and staffed by former street children. (The parent organization, Friends International, seems pretty great.) We’d heard that it served a traditional Khmer treat – deep fried tarantulas – and whereas I laughed this off as the sort of food one might gawk at in a night market but never think of actually eating (such as the scorpion kebabs on offer in Beijing), Peter insisted that he was going to try them. “You know how you feel a weird need to visit traumatic sites just to absorb their history?” he asked me (I was the driving force behind our visit to Tuol Sleng). “I feel a need to eat weird food.” I was going to challenge him on this until I remembered his unfortunate choice or ordering smoked pigs’ ears in Lithuania. Oh god. I can still see the hairs.
Sure enough, when we got to the restaurant, deep fried tarantulas were on the menu – a starter, should you be wondering – and Peter ordered them. As we waited, we discussed what we thought they might look like. Both of us were imagining that they had been dipped in some kind of batter, and would be presented as a sort of tarantula fritter, so coated in tempura that their true arachnid nature would be completely camouflaged, nothing more than a stomach-turning afterthought.
We were wrong.
Our smiling waitress approached our table with a white plate, garnished with artfully carved cucumber and a small dish of dipping sauce. Arranged around the greenery were three large tarantulas, each the size of my palm. There was nothing batter-y about them. They were still clearly black; even their hairs were visible. These were just straight-up tarantulas, dipped in oil and fried.
“It looked like they were alive,” says Peter, remembering the scene. “They really looked like they could crawl away.”
He later claimed that once he took the first bite, it became easier to swallow. In the moment, Peter didn’t seem particularly reassured after he first sampled a leg. In fact, his exact words were, “This is going to be much harder than I thought.” Then he spit out a small clump of something black.
But what are you supposed to do? You’re in a restaurant staffed by former street children who probably grew up struggling to find food, and here you are with three palm-sized spiders, artfully presented – they came with a garnish, for god’s sake. What kind of asshole doesn’t finish their tarantulas?
So Peter plowed on. After working his way through a leg, he gamely bit into an abdomen, a bulbous pouch of spider innards. “That didn’t taste so good,” he said. I pointed out the dipping sauce.
As I giggled and took photographs, he started in on what we later learned was the body and the head. According to wikipedia, they have “a delicate meat inside.”
“This part really isn’t so bad,” he said, chomping on another leg and trying to get me to take a bite of what we later learned was the thorax. “It’s really not so bad.”
He was clearly becoming delusional.
“No, seriously,” he said, gesturing toward me with a half-eaten tarantula body.
I looked more closely. I’d never considered the idea that spiders might have meat inside, but this one did. It was white and flaky and looked a bit like fish. Now, I would never have ordered the tarantulas on my own. But this was probably my once-in-a-lifetime chance to try one. I decided to take a tiny bite. By tiny, I mean less than a nibble. A nibblet. Basically as little as I could possibly eat and still claim to have tried it.
And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. It tasted meaty and fried, but that’s about it. Emboldened, I broke off a tiny piece of leg and popped it in my mouth. It left behind an unchewable crunchy material, sort of like a shrimp shell, that I spat out into my napkin. I decided not to eat any more tarantula.
My favorite part of this photograph is the leg pressing into my cheek.
Peter, on the other hand, kept going. By the time they cleared his plate, only an abdomen and several orphaned legs remained. What’s more, he had begun to insist that the cooks had cleaned out the spiders’ innards and replaced them with stuffing. “See, they all have splits on their backs,” he said. “It tastes like tamarind.”
I was doubtful, and so we checked out the recipe for the tarantulas in the restaurant’s cookbook, the aptly titled “From Spiders to Water Lilies.” It begins as follows: Step 1 – Kill the spiders by pressing firmly on their backs. Step 2 – remove the fangs.”
It says nothing about tamarind fillings. Also, as we later noted, pressing firmly on their backs to kill them would likely cause the splits in their shells that Peter insisted was evidence of their being stuffed. According to Wikipedia, here is what Peter mistook for a tamarind filling: “a brown paste, consisting of organs, possibly eggs, and excrement.” A good chef , the entry continues, will fry the spiders until the legs are almost completely stiff, by which time the contents of the abdomen are not so runny.
We later asked our waitress where the restaurant got the spiders – we both were envisioning a cage full of live tarantulas in the kitchen, similar to a tank of live shrimp. But she told us the spiders arrived dead, having been gathered from a nearby province.
“How do they raise the tarantulas?” I asked. “Are they farmed? You know, like fish?”
“No,” she said. “They use a flashlight to find them. They are in trees or in holes.”
That’s right, all you Alice Waters foodies out there: our tarantulas were free range.
It is our second official night in Hanoi, and Peter and I are thrilled. It’s a surprising feeling of exuberance, considering that today officially marks five months on the road, and our most recent stop – Kathmandu – left me wanting to curl up in a ball and never leave the hotel.
Part of our happiness has to do with the vivacity of the city itself. Rivers of motorbikes flow through the streets, making getting across town a stressful, potentially suicidal activity. There’s a bit of the sense of anarchy that can be overwhelming and exhausting. But it’s outweighed by a sense of vivacity and excitement that’s infectious. There are stalls on every street corner where people sit on tiny plastic stools, chewing on sunflower seeds and sipping beer as they watch the traffic go by. Ancient trees push out of sidewalks, covered in roots that seem to be dripping down their trunks. Guys on mopeds linger everywhere, trying to convince you to let them give you a ride, and women in conical hats sell fruit from scales that dangle from poles stretched across their shoulders.
But the thing that so far has made it great – and which I feel is going to continue to be one of our favorite parts of this country – is the food. Vietnamese people care about their food. They care about it a lot. They also have fantastic raw materials – fresh fruits and vegetables, great seafood, and a cuisine that emphasizes seasonality. And, though perhaps it’s un PC to say this, they also happen to have been occupied by the French. (I don’t support colonialism, but if you were able to choose your occupier based on their food, they sure as hell beat the British.) There are baguettes here, and strong, good coffee.
Peter at our cooking class. If this is not the definition of "perfect husband," I don't know what is.
The reason for our current euphoria, however, has to do with a restaurant called Quan An Ngon. (It’s at 16 Phan Boi Chau, should you want to find it.) It was recommended to us by a Swedish woman I met on the plane and oh, please, if you come to Hanoi, you must go. The premise is street food – a sort of one-stop shop for many of the deliciacies you can find sold in hole-in-the-wall shops around town. The seating area is a large courtyard with white sheets draped over it to keep out the rain, and around the edges are numerous open-air kitchens, each specializing in a section of the menu (which is the thickness of a J. Crew catalogue) and labeled by a sign painted on a steamer basket.
We were overwhelmed by the choices, but managed to narrow it down to four things: mango salad with seafood, steamed shrimp in coconut juice, grilled squid with chili sauce, and whatever dish was our waitress’s favorite – which turned out to be Vietnamese pancakes.
It took about four minutes for the first dish to arrive, the mango salad. It was a mound of sliced green mango, crunchy and only slightly sweet, topped with cilantro, tiny red flakes of chili, shrimp and squid. Peter took one bite and actually exclaimed in happiness. (I believe his exact words were, “It’s a taste explosion!” – and he wasn’t kidding.) The combination of spiciness and sweetness, the crunch of the mango and the softness of the squid, and the overnotes of the herbs, were perfectly combined. We took a cooking class earlier today (at a school called Hidden Hanoi, which I also recommend) and our teacher had told us about how important balance – referred to as the yin and the yang and defined as a blend of salty, sour, sweet and heat – were to Vietnamese cuisine. This dish nailed it.
Spring rolls from the cooking class. Why do I think we'll gain weight here?
Next up was my favorite, the Vietnamese pancake. It was a plate of rice paper crepes, a pile of fresh lettuce, mint and basil, and some sort of crispy fried thing combined with bean sprouts and sauteed egg and shrimp. It looked great but neither of us had any idea of how to assemble it. Not to fear. Our waiter, seeing our confused looks, whipped out a pair of disposable plastic gloves from his apron and expertly rolled the ingredients together into a tight, cigar-like tube and handed it to me. Oh. My. Goodness. Crunchy, salty, sweet, and yet somehow refreshing, thanks to the herbs. I’ve had Vietnamese pancakes several times before, but never like this. What’s more, the entire plate cost $1.50.
The squid were perfectly grilled; the shrimp came draped around the edge of a whole coconut, filled with juice. For dessert, we had another recommendation of our waitress, something called che suong sa hot luu – described as “jelly, water chestnut, tapioca pearls and coconut milk.” It came in a juice glass and was an icy, milky concoction with an odd combination of green gelatinous crunchy things, strips of black sweet bean, a thick sweet yellow paste, and red balls that looked like pomegranate seeds. It looked like someone had thrown up a Christmas tree into a glass – but it turned out to also be delicious.
The ingredients for our dessert, which were mixed up in coconut milk.
We walked back to our hotel giddy and full, with fingers that smelled of sweet fish sauce and garlic and charcoal squid. Even better? Our four dishes, dessert, beer and water came to about fifteen bucks.
Note to inquiring parents: we’re actually in Cambodia right now, about to leave for Thailand. I’m just way behind in blog posts!
The first activity we did in Nepal was to spend five days at a yoga retreat set on a hill overlooking Kathmandu. It was a lovely experience that included yoga and meditation classes, good food and, best of all, a daily “therapy” session for which we got to choose between a massage, an oil treatment, or a steam bath. On our first day at the center, Peter and I both opted for the oil treatment.
It’s called shirodhara, and is an Ayurvedic therapy in which a stream of oil is slowly poured onto your forehead over your so-called third eye. The idea is that having constant light, dribbling pressure on your forehead will help your concentration and give you a point of focus on which to meditate. It’s definitely a little weird. Nonetheless, this same treatment is offered for several hundred dollars at the Hyatt and other luxury hotels, so I was grateful to get to try it for free.
But while the concept is the same, I’d imagine the setting is a bit different at the Hyatt – at my scheduled appointment time, I was led into a small, concrete-floored room next to the kitchen, with a massage table-like bed at its side. At its head sat an oil-soaked, heart-shaped pillow, above which dangled a round pot with a small hole at its bottom, suspended from the ceiling by several chains. There were no flowers or pleasant scents or new age music soundtracks gently playing in the background. Just me, the doctor in charge of the yoga center, and the table.
I took off my glasses and lay down. The doctor carefully placed two gauze pads over my eyes, released my hair from its bun, and rearranged me so that my neck up was squarely on the pillow. Then he began massaging my face, vigorously rubbing my temples and the bone around my eye with such intensity I worried there’d be a bruise.
Next came the oil itself. The doctor filled the bowl above my head and as it began to stream on my forehead, he carefully repositioned me so that it would hit the right spot. I could feel it drip down my head and into my hair, steadily drumming against my skull. Then the doctor walked out of the room.
This was the moment when I realized my mistake: it turns out that I don’t like being blindfolded and having oil dripped on my head for forty-five minutes. I couldn’t open my eyes because of the gauze, so I had no idea what time it was, how much time there was left, or why the temperature of the oil kept changing (I thought my mind must have played tricks on me but I later learned that the doctor returned to mix warm oil into the cool batch and vice versa). My senses were limited to one main thing: the feeling of a stream of oil being poured onto my face, dripping through my hair, and tinkling into a basin on the floor. I was supposed to be relaxed and meditative, but instead, I kept comparing the experience to what it would be like to have someone squat over your face and urinate on your forehead.
On and on it went, the flow of the oil, the unpleasant feeling of it dripping through my hair, the doctor occasionally coming back to refill the supply or readjust its aim, sometimes moving the bowl slightly to trace figure eights on my forehead. Instead of relaxing or mediating, I split my time between trying not to fall asleep, and becoming obsessed with how I was going to get the oil out of my hair. Please tell me it’s just flowing over my scalp and dripping right out, I said to myself. Please tell me my hair is not entirely saturated with oil.
Unfortunately, it was saturated. Root to tip, it was completely covered in oil – so much so that when the doctor returned to finish the treatment, he had to wring it out. Three showers later, it still felt greasy.
My hair, post-treatment.
But it still might have been better than the steam box. In that one, you stripped down naked and sat in a white wooden box with a hole cut out the top for your neck. The therapist then lit a propane stove in the corner to heat up herb-scented water and piped the steam into the box. It looked like I’d gotten trapped in some primitive version of a top-load washing machine.
The day after the elephant bathing, we headed to Bandipur, a small town between Chitwan and Pokara that had been recommended to us as a great place to see local Dasain festivities. Here’s what the owner of our guest house told us we had to look forward to: “A sacred sword from Khadga Devi Temple is taken out on a procession by the head priest from the temple to the town square, where a sheep is sacrificed, igniting a tug-o-war between rival villagers to get hold of the sacrificed sheep – considered as a catch of pride.” What’s more, he said, there were festivities in the streets and all-day animal sacrifices at the local temple. This is not the way I usually like to celebrate holidays, but you know how the saying goes: “When in Rome, play tug-o-war with a sheep.” Or, at least watch other people do so. We rearranged our itinerary to be in town for the main event.
But it’s not all fun and games in Bandipur. When we arrived in the town – which is a Newari village with stunning views across a valley to the Himalayas (and which has a blissfully traffic-free main street) – we were greeted by one of the most bizarre signs we’ve encountered on our travels so far – a large billboard that said “Heartly welcome to you in open defecation-free V.D.C. Bandipur.”
I’ve thought about this for a while and still have no idea what it means. I suspect, though, that we may have inadvertently stumbled upon a clue: just before reaching Bandipur, our driver stopped at a waterfall on the side of the road. It was a lovely setting, except that people appeared to use it as a dump. Scratch that. People used it to take a dump – a fact Peter and I learned when we both stepped in an enormous mound of moist human feces. We never identified its original location, but perhaps this type of open defecation was the inspiration for Bandipur’s sign.
Regardless of the motivation, Bandipur’s streets – if not our shoes — were defecation free. But that’s not to say it was clean. As previously noted, it was a day of animal sacrifices, and we saw numerous people, often small children, walking down the street holding on to the feet of freshly slaughtered, headless chickens, blood dripping onto the pavement. We traced the blood drops to the source – the temple – where the steps were bright red and sticky, with clumps of matted feathers fluttering in the breeze. In the courtyard below the entrance, a room of the temple had been turned into a temporary abattoir where an old, guru-like guy, topless, a white robe tied around his waist, was holding court as younger men (also topless and spattered head to toe in blood) killed chickens as he blessed them. I have never seen (or smelled) anything like it.
Back in town we asked a young man when the sheep tug-o-war was scheduled and were both disappointed and a bit relieved when he said that it had been cancelled. Last year, things had gotten violent, he explained – which isn’t particularly surprising, considering that it was an opportunity for inebriated young men from rival towns to show their manhood by pulling apart an animal. Instead, at the scheduled time for tug-o-war, the temple guru simply carried the sword down from the temple, accompanied by a crowd of people and a marching band of helpers banging cymbals and drums, and then carried it back up again. Villagers crowded around him tossing money in his path, which was quickly snatched up by kids.
There was supposed to be a dance performance – held on a stage directly outside our bedroom window – but just before it began, the power went out (we’ve calculated that out of 15 days in Nepal, we only experienced 2 full days of electricity). The delay lasted till just before we went to sleep, at which point the lights came surging on, a cheer erupted from the crowd (which had just waited for the hour and a half of the outage, sitting outside in the dark) and loud Bollywood music began echoing through the street, giving Bandipur the impressive title of the loudest place in Nepal in which we’d spent the night.
The view across the valley.
We were so tired that we somehow managed to fall asleep during a stand-up comedy routine. The next morning we woke up without an alarm at 5:30, and came downstairs just in time to hear the horrible sound of a water buffalo having its head cut off by either an unskilled executioner or a very blunt knife. How do I know that’s what it was? Well, first, there were only so many creatures in town large enough to make that kind of noise. And second, when we mentioned the sound to the guide who was taking us down to the bus stop, he said, “Oh yes, a water buffalo! We cut off the head! There is another. Right there!” He pointed behind us, where a water buffalo stood in an open shed overlooking the valley, several men standing around it with knives. “You want to wait?” asked our guide with a friendly smile. We politely declined.
Luckily, on our way down the hill to the bus stop, we had a Dasain experience that we actually enjoyed. From a kid’s (and therefore our) perspective, one of the best parts of the holiday is when villages around the country erect homemade bamboo swings and wooden Ferris wheels in fields and yes, on hilltops, to play on. Children gather starting around seven in the morning and stay there day long. We found this wheel on the side of the road and asked our driver if we had time to take a break. We did – and he even convinced us to give it a try.
See that guy on the right? With the ducks? They're alive.
The remainder of our stay in Nepal was a bit quieter, though much bloodier, than our first week – we were there during the Dasain festival, one of Nepal’s biggest celebrations. It involves two weeks of festivities devoted to the goddess Durga, the highlight (or lowlight) of which is the day when hundreds of thousands of animals across the country are sacrificed to the gods. I’m not exaggerating. Chickens, goats, even buffalos are slaughtered, usually by chopping off their heads. I spent a good part of our trip debating how killing another creature really counts as a “sacrifice” – it seems the only one giving anything up is the goat. But that didn’t seem to bother people. The worst sound of the trip, by far, was a buffalo being decapitated across the valley from the deck where we were eating breakfast. I’ll leave it to you to imagine that soundtrack.
How convenient that I happened to match my outfit to the blood. (That's not paint.)
Most families kill at least one animal, and it’s also common to give an animal to your preferred means of transportation. According to a woodcarving salesman we met in the city of Bhaktapur, motorbikes get a chicken, cars might get a goat, trucks a buffalo. Our guidebook claims that Nepal Airlines actually sacrifices a goat for each one of its planes. On the runway. Granted, they only have about seven planes – but still? Can you imagine something like that going on at JFK?
Given the number of head-on collisions we saw – not to mention trucks driving down the road with suspiciously head-shaped holes in their windshields, or overturned vehicles lying on valley floors, or overcrowded public buses with upwards of 20 people clinging to the luggage rack (I am not kidding – and sometimes they shared the space with a precariously perched goat) – I have some suggestions for road safety that I might propose implementing before, I don’t know, chopping off a chicken’s head and dribbling blood on your handlebars. Like, perhaps, helmets. Or seatbelts.
We saw minibuses with about twice this number of people on them.
Interestingly, no one denies that road safety is a concern – most public buses and trucks had signs painted across their front bumpers that said things like “SPEED CONTROL” and “SPEED LIMIT 40 KMPH” (and, in one distressing instance, simply “OH! GOD”). But having been on Nepal’s roads, I don’t think speeding is really the issue. The roads are too crowded and in too poor of a condition for anyone to go too quickly. And if/when trucks do adhere to a low speed, it actually makes things more dangerous – cars and motorbikes simply leapfrog past them on tortuous mountain roads, putting themselves at risk of head-on collisions. I thought it was funny that instead of wearing her seatbelt, our Tibetan guide made sure to sprinkle some barley on the dashboard as we left Lhasa, just to be safe. But in retrospect, maybe I should have been more appreciative. I’d much prefer an offering of grain to a dead rooster.
It seems that windshield decor often takes precedence over the driver's ability to see.