And just like that, we’re back in the states! Today we journey to Holden Village, a Christian center in the heart of Washington’s pristine wilderness. We will spend the next month living, volunteering, worshiping, reflecting, and growing in this intentional Christian community. We’re hopeful our time there will serve as a meaningful transition back into the “real world” in Minneapolis as we wrap our minds around all that we’ve experienced this past year.
Stay tuned – We’ll return to share about our time in Holden and post about our top experiences. Thank you all so much for your prayers and support. They’ve meant the world to us.
M & K
Last stop… Indonesia! With over 18,000 islands, it is the biggest archipelago in the world. We had the pleasure of visiting four islands. You could easily spend a lifetime exploring and soaking up the sun and differing cultures of every island.
We started in Ubud. In the book Eat, Pray, Love, the main character seeks a healer near this small town, which is surrounded by stunning views of volcanoes
and picturesque rice fields.
One morning we took off at 3:30 am to climb a volcano (Mt. Batur) to get a sunrise view of a larger volcano (Mt. Agung). Unfortunately, our view was obstructed by clouds and fog. Story of our lives when it comes to mountains!
While Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country, the island of Bali is Hindu. This means there were more temples to visit!
The Balinese are very devote. Their faith was most apparent in the tiny offerings woven from leaves. The offerings may contain flowers, rice, coffee, cigarettes, food, etc. and are usually accompanied with burning incense sticks and sprinkled with holy water. They are set out every day. We spotted them everywhere from outside our bungalow, to sidewalks, and to menu stands. At first we were concerned about stepping on them but then realized this is no big deal. Monkeys eagerly gobbled up the offerings and sometimes even patiently waited in the spots they knew the offerings would be placed. We even saw offerings get swept away into the ocean, day, after day, after day. It was a very interesting ritual to observe.
One Balinese man explained to us that his island (right off of Bali) was saved from the tsunami that hit Japan because his island has five Hindu temples. He said it very matter-of-factly. No sarcasm. No righteousness. Just faith.
While in Ubud, we stayed across the road from the Monkey Forest. We could not get enough of these playful creatures! The baby monkeys had old men faces (it reminded us of Benjamin Button, who was born looking like an old man) and were not shy at all. While in the forest we saw a few friendly monkeys jump on people! Every once in awhile this resulted in a harmless bite that required a trip to the clinic.
Sometimes the monkeys came out of the forest and into the urban jungle. It was entertaining to watch them navigate the numerous cables.
One of our guest house hosts had an adorable puppy; Matt is slowly warming up to dogs! Woohoo!
We took a speedboat out to a small island called Gili Air. It takes half an hour to walk across the island, which has no vehicles. Instead, you can get a ride from a horse and buggy, which is also used to move shipments (of food) around the island once they’ve arrived by boats.
Gili Air has beautiful views of Lombak, another island just east of Bali. While on this island we attempted some yoga. The instructor had some unique beliefs and started the session by encouraging us to draw our energy from Venus, which had recently traversed across the sun. Interesting…
Then we were off to Nusa Lembongan, an island southeast of Bali. While there we observed seaweed farming! This seaweed ends up in cosmetics and ice cream?! Still not sure about that one… Hundreds of farmers were daily harvesting the seaweed, especially when the tide went out. It looked like back-breaking work.
The mounds of seaweed were everywhere! We were told that the price for seaweed is dropping and that farmers currently make 30 cents/kilo. We couldn’t imagine how much work it takes to sustain a family on those prices.
Here is the seaweed up close. It reeked and attracted millions of small flies. For me, it was yet another reason to not wear make-up. 😛
Oh, but we will miss being surprised by what people haul around on their motorcycles! Like all of the hot SE Asia countries that we’ve visited, motor bikes have been more numerous than vehicles. The “organized” chaos still results in many accidents. Every year, a couple of tourists are air-lifted from Bali to Singapore because of motor-bike accidents. One Ubud clinic sees a motor bike accident victim at least every hour. In every corner of the island, we saw people (both locals and tourists) with scabs, bandages, and slings. We refrained from riding motor bikes.
Nusa Lembongan has stunning cliffs with dramatic wave impacts. In ten years we imagine this place will be swarming with resorts and condos. Everywhere in Bali, development is booming.
We ended most days with a beautiful sunset.
We could not have asked for a better place to end our adventure.
“I know he’s not really gone, she said, but the world still feels smaller to me today.” – StoryPeople
A few weeks ago, my Grandpa Kimmerle cast off his earthly body that could no longer eat, talk, dance, or sing, and I have no doubt that the angels’ music is even sweeter with his heavenly arrival. A faithful follower of our travels and the #1 recipient of my postcards sent home, I can’t bring myself to delete his address. Having reached the homestretch with our final international destination here in Indonesia, I can’t believe there is no Grandpa to write home to.
Grandpa had a passion for travel, music, and eating tasty food. I have many favorite Grandpa memories: asphyxiating in a fit of giggles whenever Grandma reprimanded him for the occasional cuss word; our regular post-church pancake lunch followed by Pinochle; listening to him sing “You Are My Sunshine”, “Oh, Susanna”, and “Edelweiss” as he played the guitar, piano, or accordion…
But it was his faith and passion for humanity that impacts me the most. Grandpa taught me that Love is reaching out to society’s underprivileged. Incredibly progressive for his age, through his gentle spirit I witnessed Love for humanity that extended beyond friends and family, Love unmarred by bigotry and narrow-mindedness.
Through him I witnessed what it looks like to open one’s heart to neighbors both near and far. Grandpa warmly opened his home to his grandchildren’s friends as we used his house as a home base between school activities. Through supporting a Native American reservation, volunteering at a Latino school while snow birding in Texas, sharing his passion for music at nursing homes, and befriending a local man whom others chose to avoid, Grandpa demonstrated Love unconcerned about race, background, social acceptance, abilities, and political or sexual preferences.
Grandpa showed me Love that does not acknowledge, tolerate, or establish boundaries. His life, his legacy, a gift, the greatest of lessons… an inspiration to Love… boldly and generously.
The capsule hotel we stayed at used to be for men only, which means they currently do not have showers for women. Instead, women are encouraged to check out the public bath, a sento, down the street. Having frequented several public baths, Matt assured me that there would be soap and shampoo. So I took off, not quite sure of what to expect and more than a bit terrified about having to shimmy down to the birthday suit to enjoy the hot baths with all the other women.
Japan is not really a tourist-friendly country (it’s hard to come by any English) and unfortunately, the woman behind the counter spoke no English and I speak no Japanese. Even though Matt tried to walk me through all that I must do beforehand, I still managed to make a few blunders at my hot bath experience.
I didn’t take my shoes off soon enough. The Japanese are fastidious about their shoe-wearing. There are outdoor shoes, shoes to be worn around the house, and different shoes to be worn in the bathroom. Heaven forbid you wear the wrong shoes in the wrong area (they supply the indoor shoes). At the capsule hotel I was scolded for walking around in my socks; you must wear shoes! Generally you remove your shoes at the entrance of a capsule hotel or sento, especially if there is a step up. I was new in town and missed the memo. A light scolding ensued.
Upon entering the baths, I made a beeline for the washing area, a wall lined with mirrors, little stools for sitting, buckets to fill with water, and shower heads about three feet high. Before entering the hot baths you must be clean! I searched around for the soap and excitedly zoned in on a bucket full of some particularly nice soaps and shampoos. Thinking nothing of it, I began to pick through my options. A moment later, an old Japanese woman sporting her birthday suite was at my side. Another light scolding ensued as she clearly communicated that that was her soap and her wash station! Woops!
Humiliated for having pilfered through her soap, I was even more dejected to discover that there was in fact no public soap. I looked longingly at the hot baths, wondering what the old women would do if I entered without being sparkly clean first. Not wanting to find out, I chalked up my time there as an awkward learning experience and vowed to henceforth always be armed with soap.
A week later, we traveled to Beppu, which is famous for its hot sulfur springs – think Yellowstone National Park. We checked out a mud onsen, which some famous Japanese author compared to entering hell. There were several different baths filled with different types of mud. I was expecting some grimy mud pit that smelled like rotten eggs. On the contrary, the mud was viscous and flowy and the smell – while lingering – was not as repulsive as I’d thought. This happened to be a mixed onsen, which meant men and women shared the same area; however, there was a wooden bar that separated the two sides of the pit. The women had their own private and gradual entrance to the mud bath so they were already neck high in the muddy waters before arriving at the “mixed” area.
Unfortunately, men are not afforded this same level of privacy and they just enter the mixed area without their own entrance (women workers frequently clean urinals while men are using them and when walking past the men’s bathroom at a park, the entrance is usually completely open). While the men walked around with small towels to maintain some form of privacy, they were quite carefree and very haphazard with the use of these towels.
It’s amazing to ponder how natural it is for this culture (and a few of the European ones we traveled through) to be nude in the presence of the opposite sex in the public hot bath setting. There is nothing sexual about it. Yes, I was certainly uncomfortable, but I admired the fact that being nude didn’t have to be shameful, exotic, or sensual. I didn’t have to worry about creepers, because this wasn’t India or the USA.
With forty nights of pricey Japan looming before us, I wondered how in the world we wouldn’t break the bank on lodging on this island nation. Not only is lodging expensive, the bum deal is that you don’t get much for what you pay for (peace and quiet). We ended up with a healthy mixture of camping (in urban parks, the mountains and at expressway service areas), couchsurfing, and a few nights at both a capsule hotel and an internet cafe.
We spent our first night in Osaka camping under blossoming sakura trees in an urban park near Matt’s old apartment. There were two homeless individuals bunked up there for the night with makeshift box homes. Walking around Osaka, I was surprised to see a few homeless men sleeping in the middle of the day in more permanent looking box homes set up near busy shopping districts. As far as we know, urban camping in Japan is not illegal. However, it’s highly suggested that you don’t stay in the same park for more than two nights in a row. So far we haven’t been hassled by anyone, even when we’ve camped at service areas like the one below. Part of the trick is setting up later at night and packing up early in the morning – lest you think we’re leading the luxurious life of sleeping in every day!
Staying in both the capsule hotel and internet cafe was a definite Japanese experience. The capsule is just big enough to crawl into. Some are equipped with tv’s and most have a consul so you can listen to music, adjust the lighting in your space, and set an alarm clock. The door pulls down and just like that you’re as snug as a bug in a rug. Matt was too tall for his but I was quite cozy and besides the occasional rustle of plastic as girls came and went throughout all hours of the weekend night – ugh, shopping bags – I was thankful for the dry and warm place to sleep. Capsule hotels are popular with businessmen and it was so strange to watch them come and go with their suits, ties, and briefcases.
Like other countries, Japan has internet cafes. Unlike other countries, Japan has internet cafes that you can spend the night in. So crazy! Like the capsule hotel, you were given your own small space. Instead of capsules, this was set up in cubes and if you stood up, you could look down upon the person next to you. Each cube contained a computer, tv, and beanbag. You were provided with a fleece blanket to stretch out on the cube’s floor as well as endless coffee and soft drinks. We went with the 12-hour package, which meant that when we checked in at 6pm – there were only two cubes left – we had to get out by 6 am the following morning. What an interesting concept! A cool experience, but I could have done without the belching men who’d had too many soft drinks.
We had the unique privilege of heading out of the urban Japan jungle and into the mountains to stay with a young, organic farming couple who happen to be couchsurfers. We sought them out because we wanted to learn about their organic ways and get our hands dirty on their farm. As soon as we arrived, they made us as comfortable as possible. The couple is hoping to open up their farm as a bed and breakfast some day; needless to say, this was not your typical couchsurfing experience. They were the kindest, most generous folks and we were the most pampered we’d ever been in our entire lives. Staying at their place, we became privy to a more traditional and rural Japanese way of life.
Here is their guestroom…
Underneath the comfortable down blankets, we slept on Japanese futons, unique because they are tri-folds. Most Japanese sleep on these futons, even older people. However, in houses the trend is changing and more and more people are sleeping in beds. The floor is covered with tatami mats (made from straw). Each mat is 6×3 feet and a typical room size is 4.5×8 tatamis. Everything is measured by tatamis. When shopping for furniture for their house, they do not measure by meters, they measure by tatamis.
Another common feature of Japanese rooms are sliding doors. They’re everywhere and can instantly make a room smaller or larger, depending on your needs. Every door in the above photo was a sliding door. The outer doors opened up into a hallway that ran the length of the house. The upper part of the outside sliding doors was paper, which made for a chillier room.
A far from flattering breakfast shot, I included this photo because of the awesome table. The house has no central heating. While the couple has space heaters, the most common way of staying warm is by snuggling up to this table. Underneath the table is a pit that holds hot coals. The pit is covered with slats so that you can safely tuck your legs in under the thick blanket that runs around the table and traps the heat inside. While quite marvelous, I would never be able to quell my fears of starting a house fire.
They cooked us the most delicious traditional Japanese meals (including this surprisingly tasty egg pudding – not sweet) and we drank so much green tea! Tea was served immediately upon our arrival, with every meal, and during an afternoon break. Hot water was served just before bed.
While Matt spent time fixing their computer, I attempted to help them on their farm. I’m not sure if they were just being kind or if they were afraid I would mess something up, because I had to push really hard to help out! They kept saying “Relax, relax.” I am not very good at being served, especially when I don’t get to do anything in return, so I made a point of chasing them to their fields whenever they tried to sneak out of the house.
They have a few small fields and we spent our time transplanting vegetables, building dirt mounds, and planting rice (not in the fields, just in trays). Miya made sure I was properly dressed for the work: a floppy hat to protect myself from the sun (Japanese women take great care of their skin; rarely have I seen them without a hat or an umbrella), a mask to protect myself from the dust (the mask is a common sight because the Japanese also wear them when they are ill so as not to get others sick… SO conscientious!), and a smoking device worn around the waist to protect myself from the mosquitoes!
Akhiro was kind enough to take us fishing later that night. It’s a good think we weren’t fishing for dinner because he was the only one who had any luck.
The best part of the day was sharing conversations over meals. They explained that they farm half of the year and then head north during the winter to help with tsunami relief efforts and to assist Akhiro’s father on his strawberry farm. We discovered that the average age of a Japanese farmer is in the sixties! As Japan’s population continues to dwindle and farming continues to be an unpopular way of life, one can only wonder what this culture will do in the not so far future.
I’d heard tales of the outrageous vending machines in Japan. Walking around cities and even the tiniest of villages, you are never that far from a machine, innocently tempting you with all of its sugary goodness. Having passed so many machines, you’d think we would have built up our defenses to this constant enticement; unfortunately, some days we are just not strong enough and inevitably give in.
By far and away, drink vending machines reign supreme as they are the most numerous. Unique to Japan is the fact that these hybrid machines dispense hot drinks as well…. in cans. That’s right. Feeling chilly? Why not warm your hands and soul via a cocoa from the vending machine? It’s springtime now, so both hot and cold drinks are available. Once summer arrives, only cold drinks will be available. So sensible.
Feeling hungry? Why settle for a candy bar when you could have a vending machine meal? Maybe a hotdog? French Fries? Or a burger?
Don’t forget dessert! YUM, ice cream!
Apparently there are even vending machines for ties!! We have yet to spot one of these, but I have my eyes peeled. As one couchsurfer shared, it would be a nightmare to spill curry on your tie during lunch and then not have another tie to change into. The tie vending machine saves the day so the corporate worker will never have to appear before his co-workers with a devastating curry stain. The Japanese think of everything!
Matt claims that in Tokyo there is one vending machine for every two people…
One of our first rides was from a van packed full of five individuals over seventy and the driver was a young man. They were returning from a religious event and somehow squeezed together to fit us in as well. The back seat contained three little old women who were an absolute giggling hoot as they tried to figure out whose seat belt belonged to whom. Two of them were excited to take a picture with us. Since then, most of our drivers ask to take a photo with us!
As a small token of our appreciation we gave them a magnet from Vietnam. Then they purchased six hamburgers for us! We always got the better end of the deal.
We were amazed by the wide spectrum of individuals who picked us up. From the elevator mechanic who’d spent a month traveling from the East to West Coast in the US, to the quirky woman obsessed with the color yellow,
from the the gracious potter on her way to a dance lesson, to the married businessman who had a girlfriend in Thailand, from the flirtatious couple covered in tattoos, to the spontaneous couple that joined us for a Tall Ships Festival,
from the joyful old surfer man strung out on too many drugs, to the cheerful group of recent college graduates on their annual road trip,
from the middle-aged couple on the verge of becoming fist time grandparents, to the trusting family who let the hitch-hiker sit next to their cute baby who loved to pull pony-tails… hitch-hiking provided an unexpected way to really get to know the kindhearted people of Japan as they shared their car, their time, and their stories with us.
I never would have guessed it, but I am SO thankful we gave hitch-hiking a try.
Sorry it’s taken so long to share about our time in Japan! Matt worked here teaching English for two years, so he was particularly excited to return and for me to discover the wonders of this unique culture.
After traveling through cheap SE Asia, the high cost of living in Japan came as a bit of a shocker. What? No tout to whisk us away to an inexpensive guest house? What do you mean we can’t bargain for the price of a room? It costs HOW much to take the bus two hours? Therefore, we’ve tackled an alternative, money-saving lifestyle that I only agreed to because we’re in Japan, perhaps THE safest country in the world… hitch-hiking and urban camping.
Before Japan we had hitch-hiked in Canada, France, and Israel. We still have not tried it in the US (what a scary country!) but we may have to now. A thorough Wikitravel article (wikitravel has proven to be much better than Lonely Planet) assured us that hitch-hiking in Japan – while quite rare – would be a walk in the park, especially for foreigners. Matt picked up quite a bit of Japanese while living here and can read some Kangi. We armed ourselves with these signs (recommended by the wikitravel contributor).
Matt’s says, “I speak Japanese” and while you can’t see it, it also has a cute little emoticon, because the Japanese LOVE their emoticons. Apparently mine says,“Next service area, pretty please with a cherry on top” because the Japanese also really appreciate polite language.
Miraculously, usually within ten minutes of holding up these signs, someone approaches us and we hit gold. After consulting the map and deciding where to take us, we pack ourselves into the inevitably small compact car and Matt puts his best foot forward as he successfully carries on long conversations in Japanese. Except for one time when I got to converse in Spanish with the Japanese driver, I usually just get to sit and smiley dumbly as I contemplate how wonderful the driver is for picking us up.
We hit gold not just in the form of a free ride (just to put this in perspective – so far we’ve saved at least $600 by hitch-hiking instead of taking trains and buses). We’ve taken at least 15 rides so far and we have been showered with gifts: Starbucks coffee, candy, ice cream, traditional delicacies (ewww red bean sauce that deceivingly looks like chocolate!), hamburgers, and even an expensive restaurant lunch. The gift giving… Does. Not. Stop. And try as you might – and we do! – you cannot turn them down, because that would be offensive.
We have been blown away by the genuine hospitality, generosity, and trustfulness of the Japanese. We never saw any other hitch-hikers and the article we read stated that most of the people who would offer us rides would never have given a ride to a hitch-hiker before. These folks have been God-sends to us and we are forever indebted to their kindness. We can only aspire to incorporate this beautiful attitude into our own lives as we pass on the gifts that have been so freely given to us.
You might have already noticed by now a difference in appearance between earlier photos of myself and any of the more recent photos. If you haven’t, then you’re either not following our photos or you’ve been mistaking me for someone else. We’ll clear that up in a minute.
I didn’t want to do it, really. I’d be fine letting the ratty nest grow down to my boots. With enough work, it might have even looked good. But for the life of me, I couldn’t control it! Every few days I’d find a new dreadlock forming off the back or side. My hair was more hippy than me. I wasn’t quite ready to head into Japan looking like Jack Sparrow, especially if we’d be trying to hitch-hike. So it had to come off!
The last time I entered a barber shop was in Rome last September. I got as far as sitting in the chair before changing my mind. This time it had to happen, but I hadn’t spotted a barber in Vietnam yet. A few salons and saloons. But no spinning candy-cane-striped poles here. Unless, could it be, perhaps the man with the umbrella and plastics chairs standing over there on the side of the street? Why yes, of course that’s it. He even has the mirror and shaving cream.
The cost, including shave, was US$4, plus tip.
Vietnam proved to be a picturesque country that was best enjoyed from the train, which hugged the coast line and passed through vibrant rice fields and beautiful rolling hills.
One afternoon we took a three-hour trip in the 3rd class coach, which had wooden benches for seats. Most of the travelers on this particular train were traveling all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi – a 30-hour plus journey. The benches were suitable for a few hours of sitting, but we could not imagine having to spend over a day on those seats. Most families brought along a reed mat that they placed on the floor beneath the benches and slept on. A woman in her late sixties curled up beneath me. Every once in a while we spotted a hammock and wondered how in the world they had set it up on the train. This short journey (for us) was the most intimate travel experience we’d had in Vietnam and we left with a new appreciation for the elderly’s toughness and youthful spirits.
It was time for another overnight of travel and we were excited to discover the fanciest sleeper car we’d ever had the pleasure of riding on! In India, each “room” had eight sleeper bunks without a privacy curtain, making it pretty cozy and exceptionally loud. You traveled with your own blanket, or in our case, sleeping bag. The “chai man” would start his rounds as early as 4:30 am, while many of us were still sound asleep. You would be awakened by this horrendous “Chai, Chai, Chai” call, going up and down the aisle, about every 15 minutes.
In Thailand there were no rooms, the train was just lined on both sides with upper and lower bunks. There were curtains, pillows and bedsheets, no vendors, and the noise level was more manageable.
In Vietnam, our sleeper train was an actual room with a door, with two sets of bunk beds. There was air conditioning and light switches! The other two bunks never filled up so we had the whole place to ourselves.
I could get used to this.
Vietnam is a long country and we’ve spent a lot of time traveling from Ho Chi Minh City in the South to Hanoi in the North. After a few shorter bus trips (around five hours each) we signed up for another night bus adventure. Immediately this one felt and looked a lot safer than the night bus we took in India.
As you can see from the picture, it’s quite a crazy set-up. We were on the second level and were thankful for seat belts. At least I was. Matt’s had been cut off; clearly someone had been annoyed by the invasive contraption. Seat belts haven’t been popular in the developing countries we’ve visited. While more comfortable than the night bus in India (I actually fell asleep for awhile and didn’t spend half of my time airborne), nothing could drown on the constant honking from both our bus driver and every one else on the road.
Honking. The incessant honking and crazy driving started in Egypt. We had a short break from it in Israel, but it started up again in India and has not stopped. As you can see from the picture above (taken from our bus – somehow we got through this five-lane mess at highway speeds) there are plenty of good reasons to honk. Riding around Vietnam (and just trying to walk across a street!) can be downright terrifying. Somehow drivers make sense of this chaos, weaving around one another and miraculously avoiding accidents. It’s a dance we can’t wrap our minds around.
The other day I tried counting how many times our bus honked (it went back and forth between the simple blast and the ever annoying fade away “echo” honk). Forty-five minutes and 80 honks later I gave up. So unless you’re equipped with ear plugs (most useful travel accessory, EVER), you probably won’t catch much shut eye. Every time I was awakened by honking I found I was automatically saying a prayer that we weren’t driving into a head-on collision.
But there was no need to worry. After coughing through the night, the next morning Matt discovered that Buddha had been watching over our perilous night journey. Tucked away in the front of the bus was a shrine of the female Buddha, complete with burning incense!
Thinking our luck on the road will inevitably run out, we’ll stick with the train for our longer journeys.
While watching locals play volleyball, do push-ups, and attend aerobics in a park, we were confronted by some university students who wanted to practice their English. The next thing we knew, a dozen young adults were sitting around us, anxious to converse and improve their skills. Having just walked out of the War Museum, we were astonished at their welcoming spirits and their earnest desire to learn about US culture. It was a humbling and enjoyable experience.
We talked about all sorts of things; they were most interested in marriage customs, birthday parties, global warming, how many kids we were going to have, and how they could afford to travel to the US or Europe. They couldn’t understand the concept of nursing homes and explained that when their parents were elderly, it was their duty to care for them, just as their parents had provided for them. They also wanted to know the meaning of “boob job”.
When they asked us if there was anything we wanted to know about Vietnam I said that I wanted to know about Communism because it was the first Communist country I’d been to. For whatever reason, they physically squirmed, shared glances with each other, and replied that they really didn’t know what to share about Communism and that I should find someone who studied it in school. Interesting…
In the War Museum there was a gallery dedicated to the victims of dioxide, aka Agent Orange. We hadn’t known that the horrendous effects of this chemical (used to defoliate the jungle to hamper the movement of the Viet Cong guerrillas) are STILL being passed down genetically. There were dozens of pictures of children who had been born with unthinkable deformities late into the 90’s when the exhibit was made. Here is one Agent Orange victim.
Back home, the government has begun to compensate US soldiers and their families because they, too, were exposed to Agent Orange. A letter from a Vietnamese dioxide victim to President Obama put forth a compelling argument justifying compensation. The plea pointed out that since the US had recently taken responsibility for the damage Agent Orange has done to its own people, it could no longer ignore the people of Vietnam who have also fallen victim. The US is taking steps to clean up the contamination.
Our time in this museum was an agonizing reminder of our duty (especially as citizens of a democratic society) to be vigilant in holding our government and military officials accountable; so that those who make decisions that ultimately destroy lives – on BOTH sides – do not speed down the path of destruction without just cause.
“War is over… if you want it.” – John Lennon and Yoko Ono
On our second day in Vietnam, we were passing through a Ho Chi Minh City museum when we ran into an Iowan couple. Not just any Iowan couple, I actually recognized these folks! We crossed paths with the Casavants, whose daughters we’d counseled with at Camp EWALU. Unbelievable! They graciously took us out for lunch and we had an enjoyable time communing with them as we talked about camp and travel. Small world moments like these are a wonderful reminder of how God watches over us. More so than any other connections, it’s been our ties to Camp EWALU that have provided us with the most life-enriching experiences on this journey. Thanks again, dear old friend, for continuing to have a hand in our lives!
As our bus approached the border between Cambodia and Thailand, the countryside got trashier. Cambodia was a much poorer country than Thailand and the people were more desperate as they attempted to sell things.
Matt was here five years ago and was amazed by how much the country had advanced. Last time he passed through the border crossing he was with one other tourist and the border guards were smoking and playing cards. They bargained over the price of the more expensive “fast” or the cheaper “slow” visa, which they claimed would take four hours to process. Matt told them he’d sit down and wait for four hours. They closed their window but after a few minutes opened it again and said “No slow visa, only fast.” So Matt was forced to fork out the extra “fee” (bribe money) to get his visa and be on his merry way. Wanting to avoid this corruption, we purchased our visas online this time.
In the end there was no need for this. When we arrived, Matt was shocked at the hordes of tourists lined up at the visa processing windows. Everything seemed to go smoothly for everyone and there was no sign of corruption. Not only that, but the road we took to Siem Reap was paved. What took us three hours to complete had previously taken Matt eight hours on the bumpiest ride of his life. In the past five years, Cambodia has paved it’s most traveled roads, making it much more tourist friendly.
Driving through Cambodia, there were moments where we could have been in Iowa. The land was incredibly flat, with fields stretching as far as the eye could see. But then a random bunch of banana trees would pop up, bringing us back to reality.
The main draw to Cambodia is Angkor Wat, an impressive temple complex built in the 12th century. The king built it to serve as the state temple and the capital city. Originally Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, but since then has changed allegiance to Buddha. The temples are way spread out, so the typical mode of transport is to hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day. The driver takes you to the various temples and waits (for what could be hours!) for you to return. While certainly relaxing for the drivers, who took advantage of the down time to just sleep away the day, it looked like the most boring job ever.
We spent two days exploring the amazing temples. On day two we watched the sunrise over Angkor Wat.
Then we headed to the Bayon ruins, known for their bas-reliefs (sculptures on the walls), and stone faces (of some Hindu deity that looks strikingly like the king who had the temples built). So cool!
While each temple had it’s own unique style and atmosphere, our favorite was Ta Prohm, which was actually featured in the movie Tomb Raider. Massive trees wrapped their ever-extending roots around Ta Prohm as the jungle tried desperately to reclaim the space taken over by the temple. Absolutely amazing. I’ve never had so much fun exploring ancient ruins.
Angkor Wat quickly swept me off my feet and leapfrogged its way to the #1 top site I’ve experienced this year (for those who are curious – it’s still behind Machu Picchu!) . Matt rates it a close #2 behind Petra.
Sorry for the HUGE hiatus in posts! Southeast Asia has been keeping us busy. Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles” and it was easy to see why. The Thai people we encountered were hospitable, kind, and quick to please. It’s no wonder we saw so many middle-aged Caucasian men wandering the streets accompanied by a Thai woman (we never saw a Caucasian female with a Thai man). Many Westerners retire to Thailand, where it’s not uncommon for expatriates to marry Thai women and remain in the country.
Thailand’s picture perfect beaches provided a phenomenal place to soak up the sun, take frightening scooter rides on gravel roads, spoil ourselves with candy-like pineapple, and get fat on cheap banana smoothies. This probably sounds ridiculous, but for the first time in nine months, it truly felt like we were on vacation!
When we got tired of paradise we stopped by the heathen side of the island to check out the crazy Full Moon Party in Ko Pha Ngan. This all-night beach party attracts 20,000 – 30,000 people every full moon. The beach was alive with neon paint, buckets of alcohol, thumping R&B and electronic music, and fire skipping ropes. We hung around just long enough to take in the scene and enjoy the fire dancers, who were quite impressive!
Then we went inland to explore some amazing caves. There were no lights and no handrails. We would have been lost without our flashlights, which also revealed the hundreds of bats hanging out not too far from our heads. Had this cave been in the US, it would have been a popular tourist destination flooded with people. We were thankful it was off the beaten track and felt like Tom Sawyer, uninhibited with our exploring.
There were also plenty of peaceful shrines.
Then it was time to trade beautiful nature for the craziness of Bangkok!
And crazy it was. Zipping along the skytrain, gazing out at the endless skyscrapers, heading to the hospital again (this time for ex-rays to prove we don’t have TB so we can get Working Holiday Visas in New Zealand) and standing in a mall where each floor represented a different city from around the world, it was hard to believe that we were technically in a developing country. Thailand is considered a newly industrialized country; we’re guessing it won’t be long before its economy advances to the developed stage.
Thailand was a bit of a dream and difficult to leave. We’ve developed a habit of saying, “Next time…” Sometimes you can never get enough.
We first heard the Iron and Wine song “Walking Far From Home” before we left the US. Now that we’re abroad and walking far from home, the powerful imagery resonates with us even more deeply. We love how it captures both the simple details of every day life as well as the deeper trials we experience in the circle of life. While we are always interested in how our walk will differ from country to country, the walk portrayed in this song transcends location and speaks of the shared struggles, celebrations, and basic needs of humankind… anywhere and everywhere. (The song might take awhile to load.)
I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small
I saw rainclouds, little babies
And a bridge that had tumbled to the ground
I saw sinners making music
I’ve dreamt of that sound, dreamt of that sound
I was walking far from home
But I carried your letters all the while
I saw lovers in a window
Whisper, “Want me like time, want me like time”
I saw sickness, blooming fruit trees
I saw blood and a bit of it was mine
I saw children in a river
But their lips were still dry, lips were still dry
I was walking far from home
And I found your face mingled in the crowd
Saw a boatful of believers sail off
Talking too loud, talking too loud
I saw sunlight on the water
Saw a bird fall like a hammer from the sky
Saw an old woman on the speed train
She was closing her eyes, closing her eyes
I saw flowers on the hillside
And a millionaire pissing on the lawn
Saw a prisoner take a pistol
And say, “Join me in song, join me in song”
Saw a car crash in the country
Where the prayers run like weeds along the road
I saw strangers stealing kisses
Giving only their clothes, only their clothes
Saw a white dog chase its tail
And a pair of hearts carved into a stone
I saw kindness and an angel
Crying, “Take me back home, take me back home”
Saw a highway, saw an ocean
I saw widows in the temple to the Lord
Naked dancers in the city
How they spoke for us all, spoke for us all
Saw loaded linen tables
And a motherless colt, then it was gone
I saw hungry brothers waiting
With a radio on, radio on
I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a wet road form a circle
And it came like a call, came like a call, from the Lord
We spent a few days obtaining our passports to go under the sea! I have never felt so out of my element before. Before we even cracked open our books or sat down with our instructor, we watched a video about all of the scary things that can go wrong while scuba diving. We learned about the fish and coral elements that could hurt us, found out we could get disastrously sick if we ascended to the surface too quickly (historically referred to as “the bends”), and that we could possibly experience nitrogen narcosis if we were deeper than 100 feet in the water (we’ve heard this is like being high on drugs; those that have experienced it usually don’t remember what happened while they were too deep). Romanticized dreams of life under the sea immediately turned into nightmares as I wondered how I’d ever been attracted to such a dangerous activity?
The next afternoon, after learning how to set up our dive equipment, our instructor took us to a nice, sandy, shallow area where we got acquainted with our new mer-people bodies. We went over some important sign language since we’d be without voices underwater; I paid close attention to the “I have a problem sign”, realizing it was the one I’d undoubtedly use the most. Then we sank about six feet under the water where we rested on our knees on the ocean floor and practiced some essential skills, like: how to clear your mask when it becomes filled with water, how to find your regulator (the tube connected to the air tank that you breathe through) if it should get knocked out of your mouth, and what to do if you or your diving buddy run out of oxygen.
While our instructor reassured us that we would most likely never be in such a situation (he’d gone on over 1,200 dives and never had a shortage of oxygen) it was good to know what to do in case of an emergency. This new information was exhilarating, overwhelming, and yes, terrifying. It didn’t help that while practicing these skills some Sargeant Majors – pesky, little, colorful fish – were darting all around us, innocently nipping away at our flesh. They were particularly attracted by a mole on my leg and bit it right off! They wasted no time trying to clean up the bloody mess that ensued. If this was how the creatures at six feet under behaved, what would the scary ones 18 meters below do?!
After becoming sufficient enough at our new skills, we went on our first dive. My goal: don’t drown. Seemed reasonable enough. We descended slowly, using the anchor rope to make our way down. My heart beat faster and faster as the surface got farther and farther away and I tried to focus on clearing out my ears as the pressure continually built up. Once we’d arrived at the bottom we had a simple task before us: follow our instructor. Matt proved to be amazing at this; he was like an excited little fish in his exploring, turning this way and that and looking quite at home as a merman.
I, on the under hand, could not, for the life of me, obtain any sort of buoyancy. It was not just “sink or swim” for me. It was sink, or swim, or float. I was an absolute yo-yo on that first dive. One moment I’d be bouncing off the ocean floor, praying I wasn’t destroying anything too important, and the next, I’d be on my way to the surface. My erratic movements left me totally confused and distraught; it was all I could do to make any horizontal progress in my vain efforts to keep up. One frightening moment I was alone in a foggy world. I could not see Matt or the instructor. I vaguely remembered something about how when you’re under the sea, everything is magnified, so when you turn your head 180 degrees, it actually looks and feels like you’ve turned a full circle (which can leave one very disoriented!). Sea urchins quickly became the bane of my existence as I imagined myself landing on them and their sharp spikes piercing my skin. One thought became clear: I was a menace to life under the sea and if the coral could have raised its voice, I would never have received a passport to its world.
Later on that night, Matt giddily went on and on about all of the wonders he’d spotted under the sea. “Did you see the blow fish?! What about those things that popped back into their homes when you’d get too close?!” I had been so sidetracked by trying to figure out what the heck I was doing that I didn’t even have the wherewithal to enjoy the beauty around me. Most dejected, I wondered if I would be the first person my instructor would have to fail.
Somehow, miraculously, the next day everything clicked for me. With the first day jitters out of the way, I had better control over my breathing and joyfully said goodbye to my yo-yo ways. Blown away by life under the sea, I could not get enough of the unbelievable colors, the business and intricacies of the underwater world, the way a huge school of fish moved together as one, the amazing symbiotic relationships, and so much more. Never again will I look out over the ocean without wondering what wonders lie beneath. My days wishing I was a bird are over. Now I just want to be Nemo.
We headed up to Pai, a small town in northern Thailand near the Myanmar border, to gain some strength and recover from our bout with food poisoning. A week there passed far too quickly as we soaked up the laid back and relaxed ambiance of the little town. Our time in Pai, in a nutshell (or not):
At $3.30 per night, this bungalow made for a simple and cozy abode – just what we needed. At first we wondered about the bed sheets nailed to the ceiling until we heard the squeaky noises of our bat roommates, clearly protesting our intrusion of their home. We figured the sheets kept us safe enough from the guano… Temperatures reached the high nineties during the day and dropped to the fifties at night. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a drastic change within a few hours.
Every morning we ventured across this haphazard bridge made from bamboo to get into town. We were’t the only travelers who cautiously crossed, wondering which footfall would be our last as we plummeted through to the brown river below. But then we saw someone cross with a motorbike and knew we’d be ok.
We spent two days learning Thai massage from a local woman. Thai massage is not one of those relaxing massages. Rather, it is a deep massage that involves stretching. One of the more complicated moves we learned required the person giving the massage to plant her foot into the client’s upper thigh (while both lie on the ground) and pull back on the client’s straightened leg with all the force she could muster. I came home exhausted with new aches and pains, never realizing or appreciating just how much strength and effort goes into a good massage.
The first day Matt and I practiced our new skills on one another so I was surprised when we showed up for day number two to find two elderly women sitting in the massage hut. I began to break into a cold sweat as I eyed the woman I’d be practicing massage on. She was a little woman with deep-set wrinkles; I guessed she had to be in her early seventies but it is so hard to guess age amongst other cultures. Needless to say, I was terrified that I would break her. Not that you can do any serious damage in Thai massage, but who knows what could happen with this amateur? Oh, but she turned out to be a delight to practice on, giggling and maintaining a forgiving spirit throughout the day as I attempted the various Thai massage positions. We “passed” the class and are offically “certified” (with a certificate to prove it!) to do Thai massage. Watch out!
Pai sits in a valley surrounded by beautiful, tall, and rolling hills (or small mountains) that reminded me of the Appalachians. Matt was excited to obtain some wheels, so a scooter helped us revel in the lovely countryside. Although the weather was very hazy so we could hardly see the hills! We will have to return some day to enjoy them in all their glory.
Of course we came across a temple…
and a picturesque waterfall.
On the side of the road was a sign advertising a stop at a farm where a farmer had discovered a huge crack that first ripped open his land in 1998. It was about 115 x 15 feet and appeared to be growing worse every year. Because the man can no longer farm this part of his land, his entrepreneurial spirit decided to make it a tourist stop.
We pulled in and were immediately whisked away to a table where the kind farmer brought out bowl after bowl of delicious tasting fruit – bananas, passion fruit, and mangoes as well as nuts, fruit juice and wine! The appetizing food came directly from his garden. There was a donation box nearby reminding us that the farmer can no longer farm a big chunk of his land.
As night fell, the main street in Pai turned into the Minnesota State Fair as street vendors came out in hordes, selling delicious food that nourished the homesick belly. My favorite was banana pancakes with a chocolate drizzle, served in a banana leaf boat from the environmentally conscientious pancake lady who did not care for plastic bags.
Our time in Pai got us back to 100% and super anxious to explore more of Thailand!
We only had a few days left. I though we might actually flee India without paying for our sins of eating street-vendor food and ice cubes. The Lonely Planet guide book gives travelers two weeks before they meet their intestinal doom, but we had already made it six. In fact our winged chariot to freedom was only a taxi ride away when the fever started. I could almost taste Thailand before the chills and sweats kicked in. Oh, how I wished that hotel toilet could have been anywhere other than India. Maybe with a view and some nice magazines. But alas, for two days I paid in full for every one of those tasty food stands from Bombay to Calcutta.
There was a reprieve long enough to get me on the airplane, off the airplane and into another bed, this time in Bangkok, Thailand. But whatever I had picked up in India didn’t stop at immigration or customs. And that’s why I eventually ended up in the good care of Bangkok Christian Hospital.
All I needed to say was, “we were in India,” which concluded the examination. He knew exactly what I had picket up: everything. He told me the Thai people don’t even go to India for fear of their hygiene and water. The best solution, in his opinion, was to shoot first and ask questions later, and I had to agree (and then run to the bathroom). The shotgun approach included anti-worm, anti-bacteria and anti-cyst drugs, and a bunch of others to control the nasty side effects of the earlier drugs. With any luck, I’ll leave India behind soon.
Edit: Turns out Kate also brought along her own bit of India. Just took a few days longer to show up. Back to the doctor we went.
To spice things up a bit, and because I’m having more and more urges to just program something, I’ve taken the time to get the Map working. It may or may not take a long time to load, depending on your connection. But certainly try it, and let us know what you think!
If you’ve ever seen the TV series “The Big Bang Theory”, you’re familiar with Raj, an Indian man who is so shy around women he is incapable of speaking in their presence. Now that we’re in India, I get it. Men here act like 14-year-old boys around foreign women. Sometimes it’s endearing, sometimes it’s creepy, but usually it’s just downright annoying.
Wherever we go, it’s “Yes, sir?” this and “Yes, sir?” that. Men will shake hands with Matt, talk to him for awhile, and ask him what my name is and if we’re married. I will be standing right next to him and never once will they glance my direction! One time we ordered some food and when the server had a question about how I wanted my plate prepared, he asked Matt. I understand that to a certain extent this is a part of Indian culture and that the men are just being respectful by not paying me any attention in Matt’s presence. As annoying as this is, it’s better than getting bad attention.
Once again, we are back in a land where people love snapping pictures with foreigners. Matt started to charge people money and some people would actually pay while others just walked away feeling confused and awkward. One time a family arranged their children around us and snapped a photo without even asking permission first. Another time I thought a man wanted me to take a picture of him and the woman he was with. But then he handed the camera to her, and she looked less than pleased as he made it apparent that he wanted me to stand with him in front of a fountain. Oh, heck no!
And everywhere we go – when men haven’t gotten buddy/buddy with Matt – they stare and stare and stare at me and fellow female travelers. I have NEVER been stared at so much. They do not understand just how awkward and uncomfortable this makes us feel. If I made eye contact with them they would continue to stare. When I fell asleep completely burrowed in my sleeping bag on night trains Matt reported that they watched me while I was passed out. I could not help but be creeped out and completely thankful that I was traveling through India with a man.
I wouldn’t be surprised if their lack of social skills with the opposite gender is due to the lack of opportunities to interact with women outside of their family. First off, marriages continue to be arranged and usually the couple does not date beforehand. Secondly, wherever we go, I have my eyes peeled for women. Countless times I have been the only woman present in local restaurants, in a metro car, and in a train compartment. There have even been streets where I am the only woman amongst hundreds of men. It is a rare occasion to spot a woman working at a restaurant or selling merchandise. Feminist that I am, it didn’t take long for this to grate at my nerves and I’ve asked a few men where the women are. At home, duh!
We’ve visited lots of forts in India and learned how women were “protected” from the lustful eyes of men back in the day. Kings had a harem consisting of their wives and hundreds of concubines. These women weren’t really ever allowed to leave the fort and were shut-up inside where they could gaze down at what happened outside the fort through some screen that was devised so that no one could see in but that they could see out. Talk about a caged bird.
And when women make it outside the home these days, they are segregated. I was shocked to see that in India, which is a democracy, there are gender segregated lines for buying train tickets and a few metro cars that are only for women. And they are full. It appears that more often than not, women choose to ride in the segregated car than be packed in like sardines with men. These cars were created to protect women from the stares and groping hands of men. I couldn’t blame them! Had I not been with Matt I would have jumped right in with these women! But as the women continue to self-segregate themselves from men, we couldn’t help but wonder if “protecting” women only exacerbates the problem. How will Indian men ever learn how to get their hormones under control and develop less creepy social skills if women continue to be such a forbidden fruit?
I’m so thankful for how far the US has come and grateful that women have so much equality back home.
Leaving Rajasthan, we took two night trains to cut across India to Varanasi, where we finally saw the Ganges River! Holy to both Hindus and Buddhists, Varanasi is the oldest continuously inhabited city in India. Many faiths make pilgrimages to this city. Hindus believe that washing in the Ganges pays for their sins and that Varanasi is a fortunate place to die because the water liberates a person’s soul from the cycle of reincarnation. The city is considered so auspicious that those on death’s doorstep actually come to Varanasi to spend their final days in hospices, some of which are just a stone’s throw away from the cremation grounds.
There are almost 100 ghats (steps and platforms leading down to the river) that are used both for bathing and as cremation sites. We spent some time walking along the river and witnessed a few cremations (which are constantly occurring day and night). At first the dead were carried down the steps to the river. They were usually wrapped up in cloth and then placed on a carefully constructed wood pyre that was lit from an eternal flame that came from Lord Shiva, Varanasi’s patron god. Family member and friends, and whoever else was walking along the river at the time, watch as the dead burned away.
Matt found it quite natural for individuals to return to dust at the end of their lives. I agreed, but found it a bit unnerving to breathe in the human ash filled air and have these ashes swirling around my face and landing in my hair. While we failed to find out much about the caste system in India, we did learn that the Dome caste has tended to cremations for centuries. (This story from a Dome man was insightful and contained an intimate photo series – hard to come by because photography at the burning ghats is taboo – if you’re interested in learning more: http://www.samuelallison.com/pages/word/boatmanofthedead.html)
It is wedding season right now in the Rajasthan region of India. The first night we stumbled upon the pre-wedding celebration we thought we were so lucky to witness it! But we soon realized there would be weddings every night!
They start with a lively marching band parading through the streets. Behind the band, family and friends circled up in male/female groups and danced the evening away. The women looked beautiful with their colorful saris. Each parade varied a little bit with its own unique flavor. Sometimes it was outlined by huge electric chandeliers that parade members carried on tall poles. In some parades the men threw flowers and flicked holy water on the family while women danced wildly (it seriously looked like they were having convulsions) with potted plants on their heads! Every once in a while important party members rode in the front in a carriage and once we spotted the groom on the back of a colorfully decorated horse. The parade continued to a venue where friends and family continued to party until the late morning hours.
What a joyful way to celebrate! Wealthier weddings seem to end with fireworks and one night we watched three firework displays at the same time. Too bad we weren’t around longer; perhaps we could have made a friend and gotten invited to one!
Arranged marriages are still the norm in India, with only the more cosmopolitan places, like Mumbai, becoming more accepting of people choosing their own partner. Unfortunately, child marriages are also still fairly common. We read that Hindus used to marry off their daughters at a very young age to prevent them from being raped by invading forces.
Traveling around Indian cities, it’s as if both the farm and the zoo have been unleashed. We have seen such a crazy range of animals wandering down the streets. Camels and donkeys pull heavy carts of bricks, logs, and produce. Brightly painted elephants slowly make their way down the road with tourists awkwardly riding on their backs. Oxen muscle their way through narrow alleys, stopping rickshaws and re-routing motorbikes. Huge pigs nose through the trash while their piglets try to nurse. Monkeys scale apartment walls and bypass crossing streets by flying through the air, making a jungle gym out of the hundreds of hanging wires and cables. And everywhere we go, cows mosey along, stopping traffic, and serving as an entertaining nuisance.
While cows are not necessarily considered sacred, nor do they lead spoiled lives, Hindus regard them as the source of food and symbol of life. So they may not be killed or eaten. But they do get to rule the streets. Our first encounter with this phenomenon was in Mumbai where we witnessed people paying money to feed a cow while on the other side of the street a woman begged. In Jaipur we saw a huge cow curled up in the median of a busy street, unperturbed by traffic honking wildly on both sides. In Delhi we spotted one standing in front of a little street shop, eying the treats and lined up as if she was just another paying customer. In Pushkar a begging woman gave some of her orange to a cow! One morning we saw a cow stick her head into a bucket of tomatoes on the back of a produce cart and cheerfully munch away until the cart man came back and sent her on her way. Within ten minutes another one with big horns had the audacity to make way for my bowl of fresh fruit before I “tisked, tisked” him and gave it the cold shoulder.
The cows are not skittish and will lie down anywhere and there’s really not much people can do to get them out of the way. Some people will prod them with sticks to get them to move and others try to lure them with grass or other edibles. In the end, there is a lot of waiting for cows. They munch on trash and seem to eat everything, including Styrofoam and cardboard. With all of these cows walking around, Matt’s been salivating, yearning to eat some meat. Yeah right! In many of the cities there is no meat to be found; restaurants have a strict vegetarian option only. Maybe in Thailand…
We’re fairly certain the lyrics to the song “Down by the Bay” were inspired by time spent in India. We have some new verses:
Did you ever see a goat wearing a coat?
Did you ever see a cow eating pilau?
Did you ever see guys selling cow pies?
India is crazy! We arrived in Mumbai at six am and were immediately shocked by how alive the city was so early in the morning. There were people everywhere! Yes, the poverty is intense and the trash and nastiness is repulsive. But thankfully our experience has been more than that! The people are friendly and curious. Quick recap:
Mumbai – Beautiful Bristish buildings and hundreds of men playing cricket! We walked through Dharvia, one of the world’s largest slums, with a non-profit organization. Dharvia, which is featured in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, is home to over a million people and the turnover of business here is $650 million/year! Unfortunately, there were no Bollywood movies in English.
Goa – We took a scary 13-hour night bus which we hope to NEVER do again in India. It was so frightening with twisting mountainous roads. I bounced around all night and wished I was buckled into my bed. But the beautiful beaches were worth it. Goa was super popular with Russians and their naked children running all over the place.
Kerala – Then off on a 13-hour night train down to Kerala where we took a canoe tour through canals raised above the land, which was full of rice paddies. It felt like Venice, just through the countryside. Some people had the coolest looking houseboats ever. We also took in some Kerali marital arts.
Delhi – We found ourselves in the seedy part of town, which is home to many budget guesthouses. There are cows and monkeys everywhere! Delhi has a fantastic metro system (which is projected to be larger than London’s in ten years) that whisked away to several cool museums and beautiful tombs. After visiting the Gandhi Museum (will never cease to be inspired by that man) we canceled our plans to stick around for the Republic Day Parade, which we heard was a big military pageantry. We were in a Gandhi spirit and figured he wouldn’t have supported the military so we didn’t need to either.
Agra – Who knew the Taj Mahal was actually a tomb?! Not these kids. We were shocked to discover deteriorated buildings constructed right up to the wall outside of the Taj Mahal. We wandered some streets and got lost in some neighborhood that we’re pretty sure rarely sees tourists. We felt like the Pied Piper, surrounded by children who accompanied us to their home to their proud parents who wanted to shake hands.
“When you go home, tell them we’re not terrorists.” – Palestinian man to our friend Alma
I’m sure you’re all sick of hearing about Israel and Palestine, but of all the places we’ve visited, this one has gotten under my skin the most. What does it mean when…
– Michelle Bachman says that if she becomes president, the US Embassy will move to Jerusalem?
– Newt Gringich says the Palestinians are an invented people?
– An art museum in Oakland, California cancels a show featuring artwork by Palestinian children?
– At $3 billion/year, Israel is usually the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid? (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33222.pdf)
It means the US is clearly pro-Israel and in our support of Israel, we have been very anti-Palestinian.
– Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem signifies that the US supports the military occupation of Palestine. Why? Because East Jerusalem belongs to Palestine, even though Israel is annexing the area, and Palestinians who don’t live in Jerusalem need hard-to-get permits just to visit.
– By laying claims that an entire group of people are invented, teach terrorism in school, and have a strong desire to destroy Jews, Newt’s fear mongering dehumanizes Palestinians and paves a dangerous path for the US to follow suite. Throughout history, when we’ve painted black and white pictures of extraordinarily complex situations, unthinkable atrocities have occurred at the hand of dehumanization. It’s terrifying to think that a popular US presidential candidate could so easily follow in these footsteps.
– The art museum canceled the show after being confronted by US Pro-Israel groups that protested the display of Palestinian children’s artwork, saying it promoted an anti-Israel political agenda. What don’t they want us to see?! In this case, it was artwork depicting Palestinian children’s responses to Israel’s December 2008-2009 military assault in the Gaza Strip. This assault killed 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children. When we shut down opportunities to hear the other side of the story, and even go so far as to SILENCE that story, we diminish our ability to seek the truth.
– Throughout the economic crisis back home, the US people have again and again been forced to cut social services and tighten their own belts as the government slims down the budget. However, $3 billion in aid (mainly military) continues to flow (unchallenged and free from cuts) to Israel every year. The US is so intertwined with Israel, and if we’re going to continue to fund her political agenda with our tax dollars, we have to ask ourselves, who are we hurting? What’s really going on here?
But we don’t have to choose one people over another. We can be pro-humanity. Throughout history Jews have time and again faced persecution. But in the name of atoning for those injustices, only more have been created. Why must Palestine pay the price?
“The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own population into the territories it occupies.” – Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention – protecting civilians during war
Enough time has passed that most agree that forcefully driving Native Americans off their land and onto reservations was a horrific crime. On top of that, imagine that the US government started building “neighborhoods” within the reservations where non-Native Americans would live. Now imagine the government controlled the water and electricity on the reservation and that the new “neighborhoods” had an endless supply to these resources but the Native Americans experienced shortages. Or that the government built roads through the reservation that only those living in the “neighborhoods” could use? How would the Native Americans respond to the injustice? Can you blame them for responding?
Because that’s the reality in Palestine where there are currently 120 ILLEGAL Israeli settlements within the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Many Palestinians have been driven off their land and into what is now referred to as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. If the wall was built to protect Israelis from Palestinians, then why is Israel building illegal Israeli settlements on the other side of the wall, within Palestine? How can Israelis possibly be safe when these settlements are popping up all over the place, in the very midst of Palestinian neighborhoods? It begs the question, is the wall REALLY about security?
Whatever the case, most of the international community has labeled the situation in Palestine as “occupation” and claims that Article 49 applies to Israel. Because Israel is a party to the Geneva Conventions, it must adhere to its responsibilities. After visiting Palestine and watching Israeli bulldozers make way for even more settlements, it was pretty clear that Israel regards itself as above international law. We wonder just how long they’ll get away with it.
“I have been to the Ocupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid. I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school or college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the Apartheid government.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
While visiting the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, I was struck by a book entitled, To Bear Witness. Every day we hear about Israel’s side of the story, one where Palestinians throw rocks and set off bombs. But today we bear witness to the other side of the story, a story of military occupation, a story that some even call apartheid.
Walking around Bethlehem, one of the first things we noticed was the massive concrete wall, complete with watch towers and Israeli guards. At eight meters, the wall along Bethlehem is TWICE as tall as the Berlin Wall. It’s projected to be four times as long. Like the Berlin Wall, one side (Israeli) is grey and bleak while the other (Palestinian) is full of murals and objections. Language reflects what side of the argument people are on. Palestinians and pro-Palestinians refer to the wall as the “Apartheid Wall” or “Berlin Wall”. Those on Israel’s side call it a “Separation Fence”.
Israel’s controversial “Security Wall” is slowly imprisoning West Bank cities like Bethlehem. Israel claims the wall is a temporary structure to physically separate the West Bank from Israel and that it counteracts suicide attacks on the Israeli people. However, 90% percent of the wall has been built on Palestinian land, not on the Green Line, the internationally recognized border that existed between Israel and the West Bank. The wall cuts off Palestinian communities and families from one another, separates farmers from their land, and isolates people from their workplaces, schools, and health care facilities. In route to the hospital, an alarming number of pregnant mothers give birth at the wall’s checkpoints because the security process takes too long, they are denied thoroughfare, or the 24-hour checkpoint is not open. Amnesty International maintains that the construction of the wall within Palistinian territory breaks international law and violates human rights.
One morning we walked through the checkpoint (to exit Bethlehem and enter Israel to catch the bus to Jerusalem). We walked single file up what I can only describe as a very long cattle chute and passed through a turnstile (mechanical gate with horizontal bars so only one person may pass through at a time) before going through the security ex-ray and having our passports checked for a second time. This process can be lengthy and we heard the line is particularly long in the early morning, when people can spend several hours waiting to pass through security on their way to work.
One day we visited the West Bank city of Hebron and accompanied a Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) on their rounds. This team, which consisted of a middle-aged woman and two women over the age of 70 (all from the US), serves as a neutral party as it observes checkpoints in Hebron to keep tabs on Israeli soldiers so they don’t detain a Palestinian for “too long”. The young Israeli soldiers (18-20 years) only check passports and paperwork at these checkpoints, but they will hold Palestinians for longer than necessary and sometimes intimidate, humiliate, and harass them… simply because they can. “Too long” has been defined as twenty minutes, at which point the CPT calls another organization which arrives at the checkpoint and steps in to mediate any conflict that is taking place.
Did the world not celebrate when the Berlin Wall fell?! So why is it now turning a blind eye to the one in Palestine?
“Let’s hope that one day, just like the Berlin Wall, the wall’s most famous images will be available, in chunk-form only, on eBay.” – Lonely Planet
“Christmas is not about walls that divide, security that intimidates, and policies that humiliate, but about living in an attitude which sees the image of God in the other.”
– Pastor Fred Strickert, Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
We were blessed to spend Christmas with Alma, an EWALU camp friend who is currently serving the ELCA in the Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program in Israel/Palestine. She was a bangerang host and we were spoiled rotten by her hospitality and generosity! Enjoying her company in Bethlehem made it easier to be away from home for the holidays.
We kicked off the holiday spirit one week before Christmas with a tree lighting service in Beit Sahur, a Palestinian Christian community right outside of Bethlehem. There were many scout marching bands (equipped with bagpipes!) and the Palestinian Prime Minister came to speak. We weren’t paying too much attention to what he was saying (all in Arabic) but definitely took notice when he said something about Newt Gingrich and several people laughingly glanced our way. Probably something referring to Newt’s declaration that Palestinians are an invented people. Thanks, Newt, for making us feel like fools.
On Christmas Eve we went to Manger Square outside of the Church of the Nativity and enjoyed some more marching bands, as well as several concerts. Before arriving in Bethlehem, I had a starry eyed and idyllic image of what Christmas would be like there. I was unprepared for the political overtones calling for peace that were interwoven throughout the celebration. Political activists milled around the square, spreading information about freeing Palestine from Israeli occupation. A piece of wall in the shape of a Christmas tree was adorned with barb wire and fake hand grenades.
That night we attended a Lutheran Church service in Bethlehem. It was a unique experience to come together with an international community and to sing Christmas carols in English, German, and Arabic! The evocative sermon focused on refugees throughout the world. The story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as refugees is a powerful image that the 130 Palestinian Christian refugees that attend the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem identify with closely. (We heard these individuals left Israel during rising conflict, locked their doors behind them and planned on returning when the violence calmed down. However, while they still have the keys to their homes they are no longer allowed to return and are now considered refugees.) The sermon focused on the hospitality of the people of Bethlehem who had taken Jesus’s refugee family in and called for us to continue to open our doors and hearts to “the other”.
The pastor pointed out that the Christmas story could not have taken place in the same way today because Bethlehem is under Israeli occupation. The daily reality for both Christian and Arab Palestinians living near Bethlehem involves “walls that divide, security that intimidates, and policies that humiliate”. There is a huge wall through the town and to leave it (and enter Israel) you must pass through what can be an intense security process. The call to live “in an attitude which sees the image of God in the other” was tough to swallow in that environment, especially after witnessing some of the oppression Palestinians face.
Christmas Day we were welcomed to the Jerusalem Lutheran Pastor’s home for a potluck meal amongst a spontaneous group of 30 people; all Christmas pilgrims who just wanted to gather with others to celebrate Christ’s birth. In the end, it was quite the memorable Christmas. We are eternally thankful for the bottomless depth of love, hospitality, generosity, and community that we experienced from both old friends and new acquaintances alike. We have learned so much about what it means to open your home to others and hope we can return the favor, or at least pay it forward, in the future.
Several people in Israel asked why we traveled there. We simply replied that we were curious. One of the driving forces for me was the need to see whether God’s “Chosen People” were any different from the ultra-Orthodox community of Hasidic Jews living in Postville, Iowa. I was hopeful because the u-O community in Postville gave me a negative first impression. I wanted to give them another chance.
A town of just over 2,200 people, Postville was known for Agriprocessors, the largest Kosher meat packing plant in the US. The plant, managed by an u-O Jew, has an ugly story. Agriprocessors was repeatedly charged with illegal practices, involving: violations of environmental, food safety, and child labor laws; animal abuse; and the recruitment of undocumented immigrants to be paid illegal wages to work in hazardous work conditions that often violated human rights. It did not shed a positive light on the u- O Jewish community. The plant was all over the news in May 2008 when ICE (U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement) conducted its largest immigration raid in history, arresting around 400 undocumented workers. These workers (mainly Guatemalans and Mexicans) were either deported or detained. This traumatizing event threw the Postville Community into a state of emergency.
Through Camp EWALU, a teaching practicum, and my senior research project, I have spent some time in Postville. I’m interested and invested in this unique small town, and continue to wonder how the diverse community will ever overcome the tension and heartache. My bitterness toward the u-O community in Postville came to a head when I attended the one-year anniversary of the ICE raid. At that point, there were still several Guatemalan men who were being detained to take part in trials. There were also several Guatemalan women being treated as criminals, forced to wear the electronic ankle bracelet that served as a GPS tracker to make sure they didn’t escape. At the memorial service, a Jewish rabbi stood before the hundreds of gathered souls and apologized for the atrocities that had occurred under a Jewish man’s watch. The problem was…. when I looked around the room, there was not a SINGLE u-O Jew present (You can spot one by what they wear) and this detail spoke volumes to me.
I will be frank: I was judgmental and felt the u-O Jews had let a critical moment to show some compassion slip away. I believed their lack of presence demonstrated that they were not sorry for what had happened and that they were clearly not interested in standing in solidarity with those whose lives had been ripped apart. That somehow, as God’s “Chosen Ones”, they were superior beings who were above the law and that they viewed immigrants as dispensable workers who could be exploited for their benefit.
So to Jerusalem we went in hopes of finding a different reality. Turns out the u-O are not very popular in the Holy Land either. While traveling around Israel, people would ask us what we thought of Jerusalem (where most u-O live). They expressed their negative views of the u-O, explaining how they didn’t care for their conservative ways, especially their oppressive treatment towards women, including calling for stricter gender segregation. One Jewish man in Tel Aviv even said that he HATED Jerusalem. Other points of contention are that the u-O Jews are not required to serve in the military like the rest of Israelis and that the government provides them with welfare subsidies so the men can study the Torah instead of work (the u-O average eight children/ family; perhaps welfare is the government’s way of guaranteeing the Jewish population grows and doesn’t get outnumbered – by Arabs, cough, cough – in the future).
While we were there, the Israel president was calling for Israelis to rally against u-O extremism. The BBC posted stories about u-O violence aimed at secular Jews near Jerusalem. We were appalled to hear that u-O men have made it a habit to line up outside of a secular Jewish school to harass and throw rubbish at school children and their parents as they walk home from school – because the children do not dress conservatively enough (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16335603 ). As this community continues to grow at an alarming rate, we were left wondering what it means for Israel’s future. How long will the u-O get to maintain these privileges before there’s a greater outcry? This country already operates as if the world is out to get them; what will happen if tension within drives them apart? Perhaps they need to build another wall…
Traveling through the Holy Land has been an interesting experience. I anticipated it would be fairly moving to visit the places that were important in Christ’s life and ministry. However, I had no idea that many churches were actually built over and around these holy sites.
On one hand, we’ve discovered certain churches to be over-glamorous and it’s been difficult to summon a spiritual connection. For example, both The Church of the Nativity (Bethlehem) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which was built over the place where Christ was crucified in Jerusalem) are shiny and – in our opinion – gaudy, with lots of hanging lamps (the style of the times). For us, they reflected nothing of the humbleness in which Christ entered and left this world. Not to mention, we were both shocked and entertained to discover that rival priests (Greek Orthodox and Armenian) regularly fight over ownership of these two particular churches. While not great footage, this BBC clip provides a glimpse of the craziness that ensued most recently at the Church of the Nativity: A broom brawl, within feet of the cave where Christ was allegedly born. What are we, five?!
But our pilgrimage was thankfully not in vain. It was much easier to stand on the shores of the beautiful Sea of Galilee and imagine Christ walking on the water, calming the storm, and teaching about the beatitudes. There is something about the untouched genuineness of nature that incites a more intimate connection to the divine, certainly more so than any human made church ever could (especially when “men of God” are fighting with broomsticks!).
While standing in Shepherd’s Field I was filled with Christmas carols and it was truly meaningful to gaze out across the hills (developed as they now are) and wonder what it must have been like for the shepherds to see the blinding light of the heavenly hosts in the sky.
It’s wonderful to have gained a personal visual of these places and reading about Christ’s life in the Bible won’t be as vague and far off as it once was now that we’ve seen this land with our own eyes.
“We envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation and respect. The appreciation of diversity spreads tolerance and creates a global community.” – CouchSurfing International
One unique (and money saving) way to travel the world is through CouchSurfing. CouchSurfing involves a social networking site that connects travelers with hosts. I know it sounds sketchy, but we think it’s brilliant. Membership is free and members have an online profile sharing things about themselves and explaining the living space situation they have to offer. Members share references about the people they’ve hosted or stayed with and a verification process guarantees that a person’s listed address is indeed their home.
We decided to take up CouchSurfing again while traveling through Israel and had the pleasure of having three very unique experiences. Never wanting to paint too broad of a brushstroke for a culture, I share the following stories as individual examples and not THE representation of an entire people.
Our first host was a Californian man who moved to Israel because he was tired of people not understanding his religion, Judaism, back home. From the moment we arrived at his flat, he spent the next seven hours educating us about Jewish history. We could not get a word in edgewise; not even to ask a question. I kid you not! A believer in Zionism, the national movement for Jews to return to the homeland, our host went into great detail explaining the psyche of the Jewish people. This is what he shared/claimed:
– The Holocaust still plays a tremendous role in Jews’ identity and it will always be a part of who they are.
– Israeli Jews will do anything in the name of security because they fear being annihilated by their neighbors. Security issues trump any discussion within the government.
– Israeli Jews feel like they’re always under attack. Fear about neighbors attacking them is based on both real and imagined/unjustified reasons.
– Many homes and apartment complexes have bomb shelters because the people want to be prepared for an attack at any moment.
– Before we rented a car he told us to be careful because Jews drive like “they’ve been touched by God.”
The second host was a welcoming Jewish family who seemed to be very progressive. Their daughter, who was visiting for the weekend, had no qualms about breastfeeding in front of us without anything to cover up. The father expressed concerns that Israel was becoming Fascist. We cooked a meal together and they shared the first night of Hanukkuh with us. We listened as they sang songs (in Hebrew) and we were given the honor of lighting the first candle on the Menorah.
Our third host lived on a kibbutz, an Israeli commune that was traditionally based on agriculture. The young man had been born and raised on the kibbutz and served as its bar manager while he wrapped up his college degree. He explained that it was just too expensive to live anywhere else and the kibbutz provided a cheaper living option. This particular kibbutz overlooked the Sea of Galilee, had around 300 people, and was complete with a dining hall and row after row of small homes that all looked the same. Until the eighties, young children did not live with their parents. Instead, they were grouped together by age and lived with a supervisor in their own house. After school they would spend about four hours a day with their families before returning to the house to sleep. What a different life! We were shocked to discover that this educated man had absolutely no idea that Israel had built settlements within the West Bank (Palestinian territories). More about that later…
We highly recommend CouchSurfing because it allows you to spend time with people (be that a cup of coffee, a shared meal, a walk through the town, or a few nights at their abode) and learn about a culture from one of a kind perspectives.
This is the story of how a taxi driver attempted to kick Matt out of Jordan…
The morning we left Sinai, we had to exit Egypt, enter and exit Israel, and enter Jordan to continue our journey to Petra. All said in done, it took about 1 ½ hours. From the northern tip of the Red Sea (at the Gulf of Aqaba), you can see these three countries, as well as Saudi Arabia, in one panoramic view. Pretty crazy. Everything went smoothly until the moment we stepped out of the customs gate and into Jordan. We were instantly confronted by a belligerent man in charge of the only taxi service that operated from the border crossing. He was charging an exorbitant price that we refused to pay.
We had planned to walk a few miles to the closest town but he informed us that it was military land and that “it was not allowed to walk” the 500 meters that would bring you to the main road. At first we were suspicious of this claim but later realized the taxi man clearly had connections with the military personnel when he summoned them when three men attempted to walk out of the parking lot and were immediately escorted back.
Next, the problematic man barked at us that “it was not allowed to share taxis” as we started to talk to two South Korean men who were sharing our uneasiness at the situation in which we’d found ourselves. At this point it felt like extortion and Matt likened the man to the mafia (whenever we told people in Egypt that we were from Chicago they’d always say, “Mafia?” with a huge grin on their faces – they loved it). Apparently this man did not feel the same way about the mafia because he got angry and denied the accusation.
Then the S. Korean men (who were in their late sixties) pulled out their cell phone and called their hotel to explain the situation. The hotel agreed to come and pick them up, at which point Mafia Man said that this was “not allowed” and that they would be forced to turn around. He further threatened to close their hotel and to take the driving license of anyone who came to pick them up. Who did this man think he was?!?!
At this point, Matt said, “You REALLY are the mafia!” The S. Korean men quietly chuckled and the mafia man FLIPPED out. “This is the kingdom of Jordan, under the honorable King Abdullah. WE HAVE NO MAFIA!!! If you don’t like it, go back to Israel!” The S. Korean men immediately quieted down and begged the man to forgive Matt. Mafia Man then marched back to customs where he told on Matt, “The American man is causing problems!” His complaints must have fallen upon apathetic ears because when he returned it was only to intimidate other travelers who had just arrived.
When the S. Koreans’ hotel driver arrived, Mafia Man immediately confronted him about arriving on his turf. For a moment it looked like the two might actually come to blows. It was confusing that not even hotels (who regularly offer to pick up their guests) were familiar with the rules, which were heavily enforced. Once again, Mafia Man had some power because the driver was taken away and ordered to produce certain papers.
We remained sitting on the curb of the parking lot, going over our options. In the end, we were left with two: we could turn around and head back into Israel, or pay the outrageous price to the Mafia Man. Had Petra not been such an alluring destination, perhaps we would have turned around right then and there in order to avoid funding the malicious man’s company. In the end, we surrendered and took his company’s cab into town.
Talk about a frightening and intimidating welcome to Jordan! We couldn’t believe it. It’s unfortunate that this negative and power-thirsty man is the first Jordanian many will meet when passing through that border crossing. Instead of kindly explaining the lack of transport options, he treated travelers as if they were little children that he could just boss around and bully.
We felt so powerless in our situation and want future travelers to avoid falling into such an ugly trap. The S. Korean men filed a complaint with the tourist board and Matt has done his best to share the word online, advising travelers to bypass the border crossing by arriving via ferry instead. In the end, visiting Petra was totally worth the border crossing ordeal. Not to mention, we will always remember the outrageously ridiculous taxi man who tried to kick Matt out of the country. For the record, we only ran into kindhearted Jordanians after that.
“It is still so new & all we see is the empty space, but that is not how it is in the landscape of the heart. There, there is no empty space & she still laughs & grapples with ideas & plans & nods wisely with each of us in turn. We are proud to have known her. We are proud to have called her [Grandma].” ~ StoryPeople
While crossing the Sinai Peninsula, we stopped at St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the mountain where God gave Moses the ten commandments. The burning bush, the rock which produced water for Moses, and the well where Moses met Zipporah, his future wife, are all conveniently located at the monastery. It was surreal to gaze upon these things and wonder if the bush and rock truly were touched by the divine.
Mt. Sinai, also known as Mt. Horeb, and Mt. Musa (Moses), is a very popular place to watch the sun rise and set. Sunrise tends to be more popular, with thousands of people making the few hour hike in the middle of the night in order to arrive just in time to praise God as they watch the sun rise over the Promised Land. We were lazy – not to mention, the nights were super chilly – so we opted for the sunset.
The desolate yet beautiful landscape, with its barren peaks and valleys, was unlike anything we’d laid eyes on before. I couldn’t imagine people wandering this bleak wilderness for 40 years! It was surreal to follow in Moses’s footsteps, to think of him having climbed the very same mountain, the mountain where God revealed himself and handed over his law. As we looked out over the Promised Land and later descended the mountain under the magic of a lunar eclipse, my thoughts were with my Grandma Berry, who had passed on to the heavenly Promised Land two days before.
When I said goodbye to Grandma this past spring before we left, she was weary and had just enough energy to open her eyes and take me in. “Pretty girl,” she told me, and went back to sleep. For a Grandma always full of kind words, it was only too fitting that the last words she would share with me were complimentary and full of love.
Grandma was a little bit of a thing, full of spirit, love, and contentment. When she would share stories about her life, especially about being a mother, over and over again she would exclaim, “I’d do it all over again.” I pray that when my homegoing day arrives, I will share in Grandma’s deep satisfaction and joy in a life well lived.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – Bilbo Baggins, Lord of the Rings
Months ago, I proposed that we avoid Cairo during elections – just in case there were more violent demonstrations. We originally heard Egypt would hold elections during September; then they were pushed back to November, right when we planned on being there. Our last week in Tanzania, we followed the news and read UK, Australia, and US embassy alerts. Dozens of people were killed in demonstrations in Tahrir Square just days before we planned on arriving and the embassies suggested that travelers examine their need for visiting and to stay away from Tahrir Square. After much consideration and research, but decided to head to Egypt anyway.
We didn’t know what to expect and I guess you could say we had our guard up from the moment we landed. Cairo was a crazy, chaotic city! The streets were swamped with political advertisements and there was an energy in the air as people lined up to head to the polls. Every day, stepping outside to the smoggy streets filled with honking cars inevitably led to an unknown adventure. Here are a few of our encounters along the road:
Tahrir Square: The main metro exists in the square, so in the end, we walked through it. When we were there, demonstrations were peaceful. Some have been camping there for the past month. In a sense, it felt like a state fair, with families milling around with their small children and vendors selling cotton candy. I never would have guessed it had been the scene of bloodshed just a week earlier. There were small blockades as there have been some attempts to monitor who enters the square, and for what reasons.
Duty Free: One night we crossed paths with a young man who wanted to know our opinion about the elections (Not uncommon – another evening a man invited us to tea to discuss politics). Then he invited us to his sister’s wedding reception that night. And oh, would you guys mind going to the duty free shop and buying some alcohol for the reception? Whenever someone wanted to chat it up, that usually meant there were some ulterior motives at play.
Tea with the Police: Another evening we were taking pictures at dusk along a busy road. Earlier we had passed a group of kids that were chucking rocks at each other underneath an overpass. There were several spectators watching so we hoped they were playing some game… About ten minutes after we passed there were gunshots. Drivers slowed down on the street to inform us that it was not safe for us. Then an off-duty police officer offered to give us a ride. Uncertain of what to do, we risked getting in his car and were surprised when he continued to drive toward where the gunshots had been fired. A SWAT team had arrived and was handling the situation. The police officer then invited us to the police club along the Nile River, where he treated us to tea and invited us to come to his house for dinner sometime. He even accompanied us to the metro later and saw that we were heading in the right direction. What an incredible, out-of-the-way kindness.
The Christian Church: We went to a small evening service at an English speaking church. The pastor was from Minneapolis and explained how Christians had been targeted immediately following the revolution last January. The building itself was fired upon and the military informed the church it was coming to raid it. So the church packed up all of its valuables and even buried the cross from the alter in the church lawn (it was too heavy to transport anywhere).
Islam: This was our first experience traveling in an Islamic country. We were introduced to the call to prayer, which is broadcast through megaphones five times a day from every single mosque. Women dress conservatively here; most wear a burka, which covers their entire body. It’s most unfortunate that these coverings remind me of dementors from Harry Potter. Some women even wear gloves and have a covering over their eyes!
Bug Eyed Men: On two different occasions, while Matt was taking harmless tourist photos (one of a yam stand where we’d just bought yams and another of a McDonald’s delivery bike) an elderly man aggressively approached him and demanded to know why he was taking a photo (a different man in each case). Was he media?! Both times, the men’s eyes got huge and they took on an intimidating stance. The second time another gentleman actually intervened, explained to the irate man (who had stepped in front of Matt’s camera at that point) that we were only tourists and that we could take pictures of anything we wanted. Confused about the man’s hostility, we asked our hostel manager what she thought of his reaction. She explained that right now, people are concerned and protective about how Egypt is being portrayed by the media.
Overall, the people were very kind, welcoming, and hospitable. They wanted us to have an enjoyable time in their country and always wanted to know where we were from. Obama is not very popular in Egypt (more than Bush was, but less than Clinton) so sometimes we’d say we lived “South of Canada.” Not a lie, but of course that was always interpreted as Canada. Countless times, we were stopped and young people wanted to take pictures with us. Every day, numerous men (but never women) would say “Welcome to Egypt!” as they passed us on the streets. You had to wonder if people have always been this verbally welcoming or if it reflected a pride and ownership in their “new” country. In the end, we were thankful we didn’t avoid Egypt. As the political unrest continues, we hope the best for this country.
“I remember when the whales had wings, she said. Whatever happened? I said. It got to be too noisy with all the airplanes & other stuff, so they flew into the ocean & never came back. Some days, she added, I think about going too.” – StoryPeople
Matt and I never knew how many siblings and friends we had until we arrived in Tanzania! Walking through the market: “My friend, my friend, I give you good price! Local price, not tourist price.” Walking on the beach: “My sister, you want jewelry?” There was no escaping it. Friends and brothers who found us on the streets would also inevitably ask what our names were and where we were from. Harmless enough, right? But as an introverted person, there were days when the interaction was just too much, too overwhelming and exhausting, and I just wanted to disappear.
Wikipedia defines a tout as “any person who solicits business or employment in a persistent and annoying manner”. Tourist areas in Tanzania were full of touts who introduced us to a new intensity of persistent and annoying. From the moment you arrive in a city and step off the bus, they swarm around you, offering their services. The bus driver pulls your luggage out from beneath the bus and throws it on his buddy’s dolly. “No thank you. I’ll take that,” you say as you grab your bag before they can charge you for moving your luggage. “Taxi?!” Men yell in your face. “You have hotel?!”
We tried ignoring one persistent man: “How are you my friends? Silence. “What, you don’t talk to Tanzanians?” Guilt sets in. “You want safari?”Just what we expected! UGH. Leave us alone!
In Cairo, Egypt, it has been no better. Yesterday we went to the pyramids….
The moment we stepped off the metro I noticed a man sitting in the station who zeroed in on us. Sure enough, he raced to catch up with us, explaining that he knew what bus we should take and that he needed to take it too. How interesting, you seemed to be lounging quite comfortably a moment ago. Why do you all of a sudden have someplace to go? He said he was a high school teacher in a school next to the pyramids. “Oh,” I asked. “Is today a holiday?” There must be some reason why he wasn’t teaching in the middle of the day. The man got very pushy and irritated when we explained that we would be taking a taxi. “Why?” he wondered. “Taxis are not safe!” Goodbye sir, thanks for the help.
Safely in the taxi, or so we thought, we took off for the pyramids. As we got closer, touts began to run alongside the taxi. Our driver would slow down and they would stick their heads in the window to convince us to ride a camel or a horse with their company. “Keep driving!” we yelled. And then he crossed the line. One of his tout friends got in the car with us. What the heck?! Matt thanked the new passenger and explained that he would be paying for the rest of the taxi fee to the pyramids. Enraged by this, the passenger got out and we finally made it to the pyramids. Of course, we weren’t at peace there, either. While trying to revel in the magnificent ancient wonders of the world, we were continuously approached by men and their camels and horses, annoyingly trying to convince us to ride their animals. I don’t suppose it helped that tourism has been very slow in light of the recent violence in Cairo so there were fewer people for the men to pester.
Matt is an extrovert and is thriving with all of our new friends and siblings. I am thankful for his patience and kindness with these souls, who, as annoying as they are, are just trying to make a living. As for me, some days I am ready to join those whales in the ocean!
“All human beings, whatever their cultural or historical background, suffer when they are intimidated, imprisoned or tortured . . . We must, therefore, insist on a global consensus, not only on the need to respect human rights worldwide, but also on the definition of these rights . . . for it is the inherent nature of all human beings to yearn for freedom, equality and dignity, and they have an equal right to achieve that.” -The Dalai Lama
Foreign aid is a hot-topic issue in Tanzanian right now, specifically in connection with the UK’s push for homosexual rights in Africa. A few Tanzanians even asked for our opinions. Today it is illegal to be homosexual in most African countries, punishable by life in prison. Even death. The word on the street is that the UK will pull all aid money unless gay marriage is legalized. In reality, Britain only wants to curb the state-sponsored violence and persecution towards homosexuals. When questioned in the issue, Tanzania’s government representative said, “we don’t talk about such taboo subjects.”
Africa has been under various colonial rule for most of the last two centuries. The people are excited for their new independence. So understandably, anything seen as western coercion, especially before election time, ignites the anti-imperialism fire. They’re fighting for their morals, for financial independence, and simply against western influence. Is it OK for countries like England to demand discussion from countries who depend on their handouts? If imperialism was an attempt to impose a “better” way of living onto a people through a physical presence, then foreign aid with strings attached would be the modern-day equivalent. Should either of these methods be used? Do they work? Maybe. Female circumcision was made illegal in 1998.
From the day we arrive on the planet, and blinking, step into the sun.
There’s more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.
There’s far too much to take in here, more to find than can ever be found.
But the sun rolling high, through the sapphire sky, keeps great and small on the endless round.
Call me a nerd, but as soon as we entered the Serengeti and were suddenly surrounded by mysterious beasts that we’ve only encountered in zoos and seen on the movies, my head was suddenly flooded with lyrics from the movie The Lion King. I’m sure that happens to everyone…
East Africa is full of amazing wonders. Unfortunately, if we partook in every one of them, we would break the bank and come home much sooner than planned. The main attractions that beckoned to us were gorilla trekking in Rwanda, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain (which can only be done with guides and porters), and going on safari in one of the numerous national parks. In the end, we voted for the safari, hands down.
We rode around the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater in a land cruiser. Matt usually had his head sticking out the top, his eagle eyes intensely scouring the land for Simba. I’d always envisioned a safari as bumping around the bush and making a beeline for wherever the animals were. On the contrary, all of the land cruisers from the countless safari tours stayed on the roads, which seemed well maintained.
The animal kingdom was amazing. I never dreamed we would see so many animals, and it wasn’t even migration time! The land was speckled with thousands of wildebeests and hundreds of zebras. Unperturbed by our presence, both a cheetah and lion walked within feet of the vehicle. Things we never learned from the zoo:
– What is that zebra doing in the middle of the wildebeest pack? What? You mean they all share the same space? Sounds silly but after seeing animals locked up in separate fields in zoos, it’s a bit astonishing to see them all grazing together.
– Elephants go head to head in tusk matches. It reminded me of sumo wrestlers.
– Giraffes are super awkward when they run; their long legs and neck create an illusion of slow motion that is hilarious to watch.
– Hippos look like harmless stepping stones in the water hole until their jaws bend to 180 degrees to produce a wicked and life threatening yawn.
– Elephants always have the right of way in the water hole. Even the massive hippos will get out of their way. They will complain, but they move.
– Cheetahs hunt in pairs. In the second grade I became obsessed with speedy creatures and have since then dreamed of watching a cheetah run in the wild. We watched one try to take down a buck by itself – the second cheetah was lazy and late on the scene – but the buck was too big and got away. I was horrified to find myself cheering for the cheetah. It didn’t get up to speed and I was most disappointed.
I always dreamed a safari would be a once in a lifetime experience. It was so cool that we’re already dreaming of going back. Besides, Mufasa, the great haired lion in The Lion King, alluded us. We must return to see the king. It’s the first experience we’ve had that I truly wish EVERYONE could partake in. Why? Because it’s unlike anything else. I think everyone, no matter what age, education, class, or background, would be filled with a childlike joy and wonder.
It’s the circle of life and it moves us all. Through despair and hope. Through faith and love.
‘Till we find our place on the path unwinding. In the circle, the circle of life.
While Kate was working hard in the Bukoba kindergarten classes, I had more opportunity for down time in the computer classes. While it turns out the Kagera region has relatively steady electric supplies compared to the rest of Tanzania, it was inevitable that the power would fail during classes. Sometimes for the entire class, but usually less.
What to do, what to do… If I were the Tanzania teacher, I’d be prepared to do some write and copy on the blackboard—I’m guessing Kate talked about this archaic “teaching” method. Instead, I remember seeing some bullet points in the syllabus. We do some Q & A.
What are the differences between Man and Machine?
Machine can do a task much faster than man.
Man can do many different tasks.
Machine never gets tired.
What are three types of Calculator?
What are disadvantages of Computer?
Computer needs many resources.
Computer wastes time.
Computer ruins eyesight.
The final question was for the fourth-grade class. One boy still had his hand up, “Ok, what’s one more disadvantage of computers?” The boy, “Computer causes moral degradation.” I worked very hard not to laugh,“Excellent work class.”
I skipped the questions about DOS and Windows 3.1, neither of which are still used in Tanzania, yet remain on the standardized tests. The students are chalk full with computer terminology, some I didn’t even know, but there’s no meaning to the words. They’d seen a floppy disk before, and they knew the word “floppy disk”, but they couldn’t tell me when I held one in my hand. “Double-click” and “drag” were new to them, but they already knew about the Arithmetic Logic Unit.
We received a few mosquito bites while in Bukoba. At first Matt and I were super vigilant about wearing bug spray and always sleeping underneath the mosquito net to avoid getting malaria. When we would hear that ominous buzzing, life would be put on hold as we desperately searched for the enemy in hopes of destroying it. But as time wore on, we became more confident in our anti-malaria pills and less anxious about getting bit.
One night I was lazy and didn’t pull down the net, and sure enough, received an unfriendly bite. By what, I don’t know. But this harmless bite quietly grew to a dime-sized circle and developed some pressure underneath the skin. We were hoping to leave on safari soon, and the last thing I needed was for it to grow out of control while we were in the middle of the Serengeti.
So we walked around Mwanza (a town on the other side of Lake Victoria) until we found a hospital. For $3 I became a new patient and they set up my file, complete with my weight, height, and blood pressure information. I was impressed with the facilities; they were clean and everything seemed to be sterile enough. After 1 ½ hours of waiting, I was called into the doctor’s office for a ten minute consultation ($.60). Although she couldn’t tell me what my bite was from, she prescribed an anti-histamine injection, some anti-histamine pills, and two bottles of cream ($3). I picked up the medicine as well as the various tools needed for the injection (all individually wrapped in plastic) at the pharmacy across the hall before walking to the nurse’s room.
Before injecting me in the back of my hand (which seemed strange to me), the young woman smiled as she asked, “I inject you good, you give me soda?” Her request caught me off guard and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and seriously considered whether or not I should buy her a soda! (For the record, I did not.).
All in all, the trip to the doctor cost me $6.60. Totally worth it for the medicine and the peace of mind. What was outrageously cheap for me would have been super expensive for many Tanzanians if they didn’t have national insurance. Oh, and the bite is slowly disappearing. Nothing to worry about; it was worth the unique experience.
There are a few moments in Bukoba we would have loved to capture but couldn’t bring ourselves to whip out our cameras to document the action. We felt a bit disrespectful taking pictures of people; and believe me, there were some people who DID NOT want their photo taken. I tend to be the same way; I don’t like to be photographed like some animal at the zoo. So no pictures, but you can use your imagination…
– You could find President Obama’s face, or even a picture of his entire family, on so many products! We saw his image on everything from strawberry candy boxes, reusable grocery bags, pencils, buses, and even boxers! The people here are proud that he has ties to Africa.
– Men oftentimes held hands with other men. At first it caught me off guard (we live in a society that clearly defines that kind of interaction to mean only one thing – they must be gay! – and homosexuality is far from being embraced in this conservative country) but then it was quite wonderful to see two grown men unashamedly sharing their comradeship in this fashion.
– Physical labor in this country is present all around you. From cutting grass with small scythes, to pounding rocks into smaller pieces, to bending over to sweep with very short brooms, to washing clothes by hand, to transporting heavy items up steep hills on bicycles, etc. the lifestyle here made us feel lazy. After spending two afternoons washing our laundry by hand we have a new appreciation for the washing machine.
– Personal space is different here. The nursery teachers were seemingly always curious about my hygiene and how I dressed. (This is slightly hilarious, because I rarely spend much time getting ready in the morning.) Every morning some teacher would come up to me and more or less inspect me and pick at me. They wanted to know what soap I used, felt my skin and told me it was very smooth (which was confusing, it was no smoother than theirs!), pointed out my moles, smoothed out the bumps in my hair, and one time, even stuck a finger in my ear to pull out earwax! I couldn’t believe it!
– After buying rice from the market, you would meticulously go through it to pull out any small rocks. The real professionals have a special rinsing method that separates the heavier rock pieces from the lighter rice. There was nothing enjoyable about eating a soft rice meal and unexpectedly biting down unto a pebble.
– Most windows (in homes, schools, hotels, and shops) had heavy duty bars over them to discourage breaking in and vandalism. I felt safe from intruders but wondered about my exit plan options in case of fire.
When the students first arrive they spend half an hour standing in three lines in the courtyard. It feels like the military as they practice standing at ease and at attention. Children polish their black shoes, straighten their green school uniforms, and present their fingernails for inspection. Afterward, they sing songs (I have never seen boys shamelessly shake their hips like the boys in Bukoba can) and finish by singing the Tanzanian National Anthem.
Sometimes I feel as if I’ve entered a time machine and that I’m sitting in a little red schoolhouse in the Midwest. The teaching methods just seem so archaic compared to what I’ve grown up with. Almost every day during English, the “baby class” (five-year-olds) goes through the alphabet for at least 20 minutes. One at a time, a student comes up to the board and announces each letter of the alphabet and waits for the class to shout each letter back. During science, the students practice parts of the body for 20-40 minutes. Once again, a student will come up, touch a part of her body, say it, and wait for the class to shout it back. And then another student. And another. The repetition. Does. Not. Stop. While students are sitting quietly at their tables, teachers will spend precious time drawing immaculate pictures of fruits and vegetables on the chalkboard to review vocabulary. Their use of time surprises me.
Teachers are obsessed with precision and neatness. They spend a lot of time tediously using rulers when creating the work pages and homework in the students’ work books. This transfers to the children, who spend so much time trying to be perfect. If they make a mistake, they need an eraser. And there is only one eraser in the classroom. So much time is wasted hunting down and waiting for an eraser.
When they finish their workbook activity they have nothing to do and are supposed to sit until everyone is done! Like kids anywhere who are left to entertain themselves, they get bored and start picking on each other. I spend so much time peeling them off off each other, unwrapping their legs from around one another, and prying them from head locks. It’s so hard to fault them because they always have the cutest grins on their faces!
You may ask, “Kate, why don’t you ask them to stop? Why don’t they listen or behave for you?” Good questions. Unfortunately, respect for authority is the result of hitting with rulers and yelling. I refuse to do either, so kids don’t take me too seriously. It’s very disheartening to watch children get forcefully whacked with a ruler (anywhere on their body, sometimes even on the head) and I’m amazed thinking that the generation before me (and probably the current generation in certain pockets of the US) used/received this disciplinary action. Other forms of punishment include kneeling for long periods of time or standing with your arms out, parallel to the ground.
Needless to say, it has been interesting to observe the teaching practices in this school. It’s made me thankful for my education back home and made me wish I had more to share with teachers here.
The school is English medium, which means everything is taught in English. Yet Swahili is Tanzania’s official language. English is both the teachers’ and students’ second, if not third language. On one hand I think it’s great that kids are exposed to English (or any foreign language for that matter) at such a young age. On the other hand, the teachers are very limited in English themselves (I have sat in on lessons; sometimes they make big mistakes and are unsure about what they’re talking about) and I can’t help but wonder if they’re not doing the kids a huge disservice by not teaching other subjects in their native language. I can not imagine sitting in school and learning about something like photosynthesis in a foreign language. I think I would have received a very watered down version.
On my first day at school, I made the mistake of teaching a song about Kangaroos and now whenever some kids (and even teachers!) see me they burst out with, “Jump like a Kangaroo!” I am now the Kangaroo Girl. Excellent.
The head of the school (an Indian Tanzanian) described how he is tired of how his teachers teach; they write the lesson on the chalkboard and students copy it into their workbooks. Or they recite things, over, and over, and over again. I’ve been told these methods are prevalent throughout Bukoba and that they go back to the British colonization period! He wants the children to discover more through playing (seems like common sense to us), and has bought them several materials that just sit in a locked cupboard. Unfortunately, the keeper of the keys is this grouchy woman that always has a sour expression on her face! Frightening! At first I was always afraid to confront her to ask her to open up the cupboard. Now I have learned a few Swahili words and she occasionally will crack a smile for me (even though she still puts off this vibe that I am greatly inconveniencing her). But man can she bark at those kids!
I was instructed to just step in at any time and lead something! Ok… I had several reservations about this at first because I wasn’t sure how the teachers would receive me (another outsider who’s come to show us up sort of thing) and I didn’t want to step on their toes. My goal has transformed into introducing the teachers to the materials in the cupboard and demonstrating that they are perfectly capable of doing any activity I’ve led (like playing with play dough and watercolors).
I thought fun activities were why people go into teaching young kids! I think these teachers just lack motivation and don’t feel the need to try something new. Their excuse can’t be lack of resources, because they have plenty of new things just waiting to be used. Clearly I am no expert, but I can understand how easy it is to get in a rut. I just don’t understand how the teachers aren’t bored out of their minds. I’ve been told teaching is not a sought after profession in Tanzania and that Bukoba used to have several teachers from Uganda, where teaching is more respected. Honestly, with a lack of fun learning opportunities, I can’t blame kids for not dreaming of being teachers when they grow up.
I have become a bit judgmental and wary of short-term volunteers. Personally, I have participated in a number of short-term volunteer projects, and in hindsight, have always felt a bit unsettled about my experience. For example, why did I fly to Guatemala for a 10-day spring break in which I painted desks and helped dig the foundation for a new school? It sounded great at the time, but the cost of my flight could have been used to pay locals to do the manual labor. On the other hand, I had a wonderful time and learned a lot about Guatemala, Guatemalans, and the trials and celebrations in their lives.
My experiences shaped me and gave me new perspectives I would never have received from reading books and watching the news (the ability to listen, see, touch, taste, and smell in first person is irreplaceable). Choosing to travel for a year and a half presented a huge moral dilemma that took me years to work out. In the end, I realized traveling and volunteering were invaluable (otherwise I guess we could have just written out a big check, given it to a charity, and never left home). However, I have learned to be more critical about the manner in which I travel and volunteer. My main concern is that we, as “outsiders,” should not come into a community and have the audacity to “fix” things the way we see fit.
We planned on staying in Bukoba for a month. So what should we do with our time? When a German volunteer arranged for us to volunteer at a school, we thought, “We are here, why not?”. Matt committed to teaching a computer class for a month and I have been assigned to work with the five and six-year-olds. Once again, we are “outsiders”, and this time, I am really struggling with wanting to “fix” things in the classroom…
The sun rises over Lake Victoria, casting beautiful rays of light on the fertile land. Small footpaths snake through countless banana trees, which arise from the rich red earth. Avocados drop like bombs from the sky as chattering monkeys chase each other back and forth; swinging through trees at lightening speed before landing with a terrific crash on the house’s tin roof. Colorful and strange looking birds make melodious music or hilarious squawks as they call to one another. Thunder reverberates across the land, shaking windows and threatening an inevitable torrential downpour. The hills are busy with men laboriously pounding rocks into smaller pieces and tediously cutting grass with small blades. Heavy loads of produce and materials burden bikes as men push their way up the hill or carefully navigate their way down. A man blows on a pipe, attempting to attract people to the fish he is hoping to sell from the basket perched confidently on his head.
In the fields, women wearing bright dresses or skirts bend in an excruciatingly straight manner to tend to their crops, sometimes with babies strapped to their backs. They bend again to sweep loose dirt from dirt walkways. Motorcycles and vehicles announce their presence on the road with constant honking before speeding by within inches of pedestrians. Goats tied down by ropes munch on the lush grass and the occasional cow bellows, making herself known. The day closes with the honk of the ferry, blasting its last minute call before cruising across Lake Victoria. Bright stars pierce the sky and the peaceful buzz from a million insects fills the night.
It is fortunate we don’t have to earn a living off my blog posts. It’d be akin to living on a diet of four-leaf clovers. Not to say that I’m without thoughts to share, it’s just forgetfulness and some laziness. Either I forget what I had wanted to talk about, or if not that, I convince myself I’d be better off writing it tomorrow, which eventually leads to back to the first issue; not entirely different from the problems I had with my school assignments. O.K. teacher, I’ll try to do better next time.
“Are those volcanoes?” “Na, they’re pyramids.”
We’ve landed in Africa. Twice actually: first a landing in Cairo, which treated us to a spectacular view, and then at our destination in Entebbe, Uganda at 3:00 AM. But that still wasn’t our final destination. To reach that, we had six bus hours and a border crossing to go.
Immigration at the airport was painful. The wait was short and the staff were courteous. But that hardly made up for the fingerprinting, photographing, and $50 single-entry visa fee, considering we’d be out of the country by afternoon (where we got stuck with another visa fee, $100 each). All in all, we had paid $300 in visa fees within the first 12 hours after landing.
I’m guessing that we’ll spend somewhere between $700 and $1000 in visa fees to visit some of the financially-poorest countries in the world. That’s roughly 5 months of hotel costs for two people in these countries. An equivalent visa in Japan should then run $7,500! But there’s another way of looking at it.
A Tanzania visa costs a US citizen, $100—about 0.2% of our annual income.
A US visa costs a Tanzanian $100—about 7.1% of their yearly income.
Getting the bus from Kampala to Bukoba could have been worse. Ninety percent of the hassle was finding which out of the dozens of bus companies would take us to Bukoba. No websites or phone numbers for any of them. Each company has a different location scattered throughout Kampala. And Google maps lies. So for future reference, you take the Gateway Bus Company (pronounced Gate Way Bus) located at Arua Park (ask around). It leaves every day at 11 am and costs 20,000 shillings.
Other highlights from the ride included the aisle being packed with giant goods bags, the back windows being packed with giant goods bags which fell forward after every bump, the grilled mystery-meat sticks sold through the open windows, the 100 or so gigantic speed bumps, and the equator crossing—no speed bump there.
After we had taken off and were beyond the city buildings and shacks, we were thrilled by the simple beauty of the landscape. The countryside looks like a kid’s finger painting. The lake and sky are bright blue, the banana trees are bright green, and the clay roads and buildings are bright red. It felt like we were driving across a giant Settlers of Catan game board. And if that were the case, then Tanzania would start the game off great, building roads with its wood and clay, but fail miserably when it was time to upgrade to cities and buy improvement cards. Doh!
Shortly after finally arriving at the Bukoba bus stop, our gracious hosts and friends, Aaron and Allison, drove over to meet us. They lightened our hearts and backs and gave us a ride up the hill to their house overlooking Lake Victoria. Photos to come later.
We had been hoping for a more intimate experience that involved living with a family and having meals with them. What we got was a full blown operation complete with a class system. First, there were the villa dwellers. We never saw them, but they lived at the end of the Cypress Tree lined driveway and had security cameras everywhere. The villa residents’ son, the owner of the operation, lived elsewhere. Then there were several full time staff, four of whom we worked with. Finally, there were the wwoofers, who are a dime a dozen and come and go throughout the seasons. During our short stay of two weeks, there were four other wwoofers (three of whom were 19 – I applaud their adventurous spirits at such a young age!). This fun bunch of people hailed from California, Ohio, Sweden, and Ireland and we had an enjoyable time living with them in our commune-like setting.
While wwoofers do not get paid for their work, the farmers are expected to feed and house them. This can take on a variety of different forms. In our case, we lived down the road from the villa, above the vineyard’s shop that was used for wine taste-testing. We had bunk beds and an entire kitchen to ourselves. Our groceries were paid for and we would come home with some of the best pasta and mozzarella in the world. Not to mention, we were always hooked up with leftover bottles of wine from wine taste-testing, so we were never thirsty. Needless to say, we dined like queens and kings.
Realizing we had arrived at the farm at the tail end of the grape harvest and about a month before the olive harvest, we were unsure about what work we’d be up to. Our timing couldn’t have been more terrific, as we experienced several aspects of the wine making process, instead of being stuck doing the same chore day after day. Daily activities included anything from cutting grapes from the vines, hanging grapes to dry, wrestling with the invasive American Vines and cutting down thorny bushes in the vineyard, rotating wine, transferring wine from vats to barrels, cleaning and applying labels to wine bottles, and finally, loading the wine into boxes to be shipped to far-off places. I was amazed at the lack of micromanaging; after we’d been given instructions, we were more or less left to fend for ourselves.
Around eight in the morning we’d gather downstairs to receive our morning assignment. Start times were never punctual, however, and sometimes it would take a good forty minutes before the staff was ready for us. Obstacles always came up – doors were regularly locked, the labeling machine never seemed to work, the truck needed to transport the grapes would refuse to start, a tube would burst open and start spitting sticky wine everywhere, etc. I don’t know how many times I thought about how inefficient the operation ran and how we could be doing so much more for the farm. I guess you could say we were experiencing a piece of the more laid-back Italian work style. We’d work all morning, break for lunch at twelve and spend the next few hours cooking and resting before gathering again at two in the afternoon and working until about five. Some days we would finish early and have an entire afternoon to ourselves. To be honest, we appreciated the slower work pace.
Wwoofing was a unique and enjoyable experience that we would highly recommend. We learned a lot during our short stay and wished we could have spent months hopping from farm to farm and learning more about Italian agriculture and culture.
While planning for traveling, someone suggested we look into Wwoof (WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Wwoof is a network of national organizations that help place volunteers on organic farms. There are currently 99 countries with Wwoof hosts (I recently heard Hawaii has lots of farms!) and for a $30 membership fee, I became a member of Wwoof Italia. Membership made me official (just in case a farmer actually asked) and gave me access to an overwhelming list of hundreds of farmers in Italy who were looking for help. Each farmer provided a description of the farm and explained what would be expected from wwoofers. The various farms included anything from working with animals, fruit trees, olives, vineyards, honey, cheese, herbs, etc. We thought this would be an insightful and meaningful way to experience some Italian culture; and besides, who doesn’t romanticize about life on a Tuscan vineyard?
Wwoofing is not a lucrative business; rather, you work in exchange for room, board, and the opportunity to learn. When contacting the farmers, we always asked what kind of work we would be doing, how many hours a day we would be working, and what the room and board situation looked like. We wanted to make sure that the farmer we worked for would not take advantage of the free labor, but rather, stay true to the spirit of wwoofing, which involves an exchange of knowledge. After contacting dozens of farmers, we finally settled on a vineyard located in the heart of Tuscany.
We took the train from Pisa and stepped off at the San Miniato station, where the vineyard owner had planned on picking us up. After an hour of waiting, we determined that we’d been forgotten. Lucky for us, Matt has a GPS implanted in his brain and was able to navigate us through town and the countryside to the farm. We walked up the driveway and came upon a big red building. Our ears perked up upon hearing English coming from the second floor and we walked upstairs to discover three wwoofers cleaning up after lunch. “Hi, we’re the new wwoofers!” we excitedly introduced ourselves. “Oh,” they replied, “We didn’t know we were getting more wwoofers!” This seemed to be the story with the full time staff as well. After weeks of communicating with the vineyard owner, no one knew we were coming! Miscommunication, we quickly discovered, was a common (if not expected) theme on the farm.
Nonetheless, our fellow wwoofers were very kindhearted and took us under their wing as they gave us a tour of the farm. We set down our packs and got to work.
Upon finishing our road trip, we soaked up several of London’s free museums and then returned to Italy, where we met up with my brother, Ty. Ty left to study in China the day after Matt and I got married, so I hadn’t seen him in over a year! It was wonderful to reunite and kind of surreal to be traveling as siblings without our parents around.
Pompeii is a city with a crazy story! This city was demolished in AD 79 following the two-day volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii was buried under 4-6 meters of ash and wasn’t rediscovered until 1749!!! Its excavation continues today and walking around the ruins you gain an interesting perspective for what life must have been like at the peak of the Roman Empire. During preservation processes a technique was developed to preserve human remains. The decomposed bodies contained cavities which were injected with plaster to help recreate the construction of the people. The plaster forms are particularly spooky because they capture the expression of terror that the victims were clearly experiencing during the final moment of life as they were desperately trying to escape the ash.
Naples was so different from all of the other Italian cities we’ve visited. It was super dirty and we observed a rather “cool” attitude amongst the people. We felt like we were inconveniencing them whenever we were purchasing anything, like food at the supermarket or train tickets. Service was just very relaxed (as in, I’ve got all day to get around to helping you out) and overall unfriendly. We concluded that perhaps the people didn’t take a lot of pride in their jobs. On a more positive note, Napoli is known as the birthplace of pizza and it lived up to its reputation. We even ate some Margarita Pizza at the pizzeria featured in the movie Eat, Pray, Love.
We checked out the Amalfi Coast via an incredibly beautiful and curvacious bus ride along the Mediterranean. I spent the first half with my head against the seat in front of me as I tried to keep motion sickness from getting the best of me. Then I took some motion sickness medicine and more or less passed out for the second half of the drive! Thankfully Matt and Ty took some lovely pictures and filled me in on what I missed. How pathetic!
Rome was overwhelming, in a good way. Everywhere you looked there were Roman ruins and they are still excavating and finding more! You could walk down any street and run into something historical and impressive. Matt and I had just finished reading Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown, so it was even more exciting to walk around the city and make connections with the book. I felt we could have gone on exploring Rome forever!
Unfortunately, it was the one place we’ve been where we REALLY kept a tight hold on our belongings. We spent a lot of time on the subway and buses and on two different occasions people had stuff stolen from them. The main trick appeared to be grabbing bags sitting on the floor right as the door closed and sprinting away while the victim was left frantically pounding on the train or bus window. It was really unfortunate.
During our final night in Rome we dined next to a young couple from Chicago. The man had actually been sent to Delhi, Iowa, on business and said he had eaten somewhere that was well known for its chicken. Low and behold it was the Manchester Pizza Ranch where Ty used to work! Too funny! We concluded that he actually ate there after Ty was finished working there. We laughed and laughed and laughed. What a hilarious connection!
Ty was an entertaining travel companion and our time with him was just too short. We parted ways and he took off for London for another year of studying while Matt and I headed to Pisa, Italy, in search of a vineyard.
During our road trip we stopped at Warwick Castle. Originally a fortress castle, Warwick was later converted to a country home in the 17th century. The state rooms are currently set up with wax figures depicting a house party in which an important earl was visiting. It sounds super corny, but it was highly entertaining! There was an audio track running in each room so as you toured the castle you listened to these important duchesses discussing their innermost secrets about their crushes, affairs, and illegitimate children with the maids who were helping them get ready. It was astonishing to realize their conversations outlined scandals that actually took place.
Last winter Matt and I became mesmerized by Downton Abbey, a mini-series that follows the lives of an aristocratic family and explores the relationship between those who serve and those who are served (fantastic- you should really check it out!). This relationship was further defined by a plaque of rules hanging up in Warwick Castle. Here were a few of our favorite Servant Rules:
1. When spoken to, stand still, keep your hands quiet, and always look at the person speaking.
2. Never let your voice be heard by the ladies and gentleman of the household. If they have spoken directly to you with a question or statement which requires a response, speak as little as possible.
3. Items that have been dropped, such as spectacles or handkerchiefs, and other small items, should be returned to their owners on a salver.
4. Never offer your opinion to your employer.
5. Always “give room”: that is, if you encounter one of your betters in the house or on the stairs, you are to make yourself as invisible as possible, turning yourself toward the wall and adverting your eyes.
6. Except in reply to a salutation offered, never say “good morning” or “good night” to your employer.
7. If you are required to walk with a lady or gentleman in order to carry packages, or any other reason, always keep 3 paces back.
So many principles of behavior to keep in mind! I can’t imagine what it must have been like to constantly be submitting to superiors. What a loss of dignity.
Realizing there was so much more of the UK that we wanted to explore – and that traveling by bus and train is very limiting – we decided to rent a car. Crazy, I know. Matt successfully drove a manual on the left side of the road! He did a phenomenal job driving and never once led us down the road going the wrong way. Riding in the passenger seat, I got motion sick as we entered crazy roundabouts and my brain tried to wrap itself around what was going on. Needless to say, I was happy to be the navigator and never drove.
Renting a car in the best way to experience a country! There are some places that trains and buses just cannot make it to. No longer constricted by train schedules and routes, we drove wherever our hearts desired. It was so liberating. Campgrounds were abundant throughout the UK and we were always able to find a place to sleep, no matter how late we pulled in. Here is a smorgasbord of our thoughts and observations:
– Scotland’s highland cows are hairy and hilarious looking.
– Despite staring intently at Loch Ness, the monster never emerged. Boo!
– Scots were apparently horrified when the unveiling of a Sir William Wallace (the Scottish knight who was one of the main leaders during the Wars of Scottish Independence) statue looked strikingly like Mel Gibson, the actor who portrayed Wallace in the movie Braveheart. A big fan of the movie, I was disappointed to hear that it contains several historical inaccuracies. Just to name a few – there is little evidence to prove that the notorious “primae noctis” (law of the first night) decree (which is a catalyst event early on in the movie) was a right that even existed during the Middle Ages and was certainly never used by King Edward; William Wallace never met Princess Isabella, which means she never gave birth to his son; Scots during this time period did not wear kilts). Hmmm…
– With its lush and craggy cliffs, the Isle of Skye in western Scotland may be the most beautiful place we’ve been to in Europe.
– It’s easy to see why so many poets have been inspired while walking through the beautiful Lake District in northern England.
– A Midsummer’s Night Dream is much more enjoyable when viewed from your five euros standing room ticket in the Royal Shakespeare Theater.
It was so wonderful to finally meet Malcolm after all of the stories Matt has shared about him! He was a fantastic tour guide and Edinburgh was an unexpected delight to visit. Of all the European cities we’ve been to, this is easily the one we’ve felt the most at home at and we could even imagine ourselves living there one day (despite the rain and cold!).
Edinburgh contains an “Old Town” and “New Town”, both of which have been listed as World UNESCO Heritage Sites. The Old Town is particularly cool because it’s maintained its medieval feel due to the narrowness of the streets and buildings. The Old Town lacked space so it is compact and contains some of the first high rises (10-11 stories) ever to be built (from the 16th century). Walking along the narrow streets, we developed an idea for what it must have been like to live in medieval times when citizens threw rubbish and feces out their windows.
I’ve always romanticized about what it was like to live during medieval times. I’d never taken the time to think about what it must have been like to go for a stroll down the street. Imagine, you’re walking down a narrow cobblestone street that’s already littered with a half foot of rubbish when someone calls down from a second story window. You look up, and before you have the chance to shout out, excrement is tumbling down upon you. Absolutely disgusting. It seems inevitable that I would have been drenched numerous times. Perhaps I never would have left my home without a rain jacket of sorts.
Here were some more of our favorite Edinburgh adventures:
– Eating Fish and Chips! I loved them! So unhealthy, but so good! Chippies (places that sold fish and chips) were everywhere! I don’t understand how Scots aren’t suffering from the worst acne ever with the amount of greasy food that’s available. Interestingly enough, Scotland is known as “the sick man of Europe.” According to health reports Scots smoke more, drink more, and have poorer diets compared to the rest of the UK.
– Taking a Vault Tour – The vaults are a series of chambers that were created by the arches of the South Bridge. They were used for various things including housing taverns and serving as a storage space for illegal materials and even dead bodies! Medical students wished to experiment on dead bodies and “bodysnatching” became a good way to make money. These bodysnatchers dug up the bodies from the graveyard, stored them in the vault and then transported them to the medical school. You can only imagine all of the crazy ghost stories that are still alive!
– Enjoying the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world’s largest performing arts festival. The festival attracts people from everywhere and the streets were alive with performances, theater, and comedy. We caught a free show by some amateurs.
– Passing by the Elephant House, the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling first started writing the Harry Potter series.
– Stumbling upon the 2011 World Press Photo Exhibition at the Edinburgh Parliament. You can view some of the exhibition’s evocative photos here: http://www.worldpressphoto.org.
Upon arriving in Europe, Matt and I discovered that Americans only have 90 days to spend in what is known as the Schengen area (a group of 25 European countries that have come together to basically form one state when it comes to international travel). Initially we thought if we stepped outside the Schengen area and returned that the 90-day limit would start all over again. Wrong! Unfortunately, when you leave, the limit is only put on hold. News to us!
This wouldn’t have been too big of a problem but we were hoping to work on a Tuscany farm during the grape harvest. If we spent 90 days in a row in the Schengen area we would have to leave before harvest season began. It’s unclear exactly what penalty we would face if we overstayed the 90-day limit. Perhaps emigration wouldn’t even notice or maybe we’d have to pay a steep fine. Unwilling to risk any potential conflict in the off chance that we may one day want to become European citizens, we decided to leave the Schengen area for awhile.
Lucky for us, the United Kingdom is outside of the Schengen area! Luckier still, Malcolm (Matt’s old roommate while living in Japan) just happened to be back in his hometown – Edinburgh, Scotland. So after frying ourselves to a proper crisp on the Mediterranean, we exchanged our sunscreen for long johns (at least in my case!) and headed for Scotland – home of the bagpipe, fish and chips, Sean Connery, the Loch Ness Monster, and William Wallace.
Cinque Terre is an area in Italy along the Mediterranean made up of five hillside villages right along the coast. You can easily walk between these picturesque towns and enjoy the view of the sea, terraced vineyards, and fruit trees. While beautiful it is VERY touristy, more so than I’d imagined.
But it was so wonderful to finally soak up some sun. This has been the coldest summer Matt and I have ever experienced so we were more than happy to jump into the deep blue sea. Matt managed to lead us directly to a hidden alcove where I stepped foot onto a nude beach. O_o Oh my.
Nudity is not as sexualized in Europe like it is back home. As soon as we arrived in Norway we discovered that nudity is a big part of advertising (we saw so many street ads that found a way to include naked women) and common to see on tv. Some families take trips together to nude beaches. Being nude is a natural part of life; it’s not taboo, and it’s not all about sex. A friend pointed out to me that Europeans are more open about nudity and feel comfortable exposing their children to it at a young age so it’s not like some mysterious, rebellious “forbidden fruit”. She said that Europe is more likely to censor violent ads while the US is more likely to censor nudity. Interesting.
Having grown up in the US, swimming and sun bathing in the nude in public was an eye shocking experience that my country’s puritan roots were not ready for me to partake in. It’s not a requirement to be nude on nude beaches, you just look like a real oddball (perhaps even a creeper?!) if you’re the only one with her swimming suit still on. I’m not clear on the “rules” but I think women could be topless on every beach we were at. One time there were two topless women enjoying the beach in the midst of thousands of other swimsuit clad folks. Women would sunbathe topless next to their young sons.
That’s just the way it is and everyone was carefree as can be!
The Tour de Mont Blanc took a big toll on us and afterward we dreamed of nursing our aches and pains along the Mediterranean. The only thing standing in our way was getting back over Mont Blanc. Poor planning, eh? Mont Blanc has a huge tunnel through it – a tunnel that costs motorists $50 per trip to drive through. Ay, caramba! You can only imagine the cost of the bus we would have to take. So instead of paying the exorbitant price to go a few miles through the tunnel, Matt suggested we hitchhike through. To be frank, I wasn’t overly excited about this option. But alas, I reminded myself that these adventures are necessary when traveling on a tighter budget.
I have only hitchhiked once in my life and I felt fairly safe doing it. Granted, I was with Matt, in Banff, a Canadian National Park. We were picked up fairly quickly by a couple from Florida; the gentleman had a drawl like Bill Clinton.
Fairly confident we would have no troubles getting picked up (Chamonix, after all, had been swarming with kindhearted adventure seeking souls… who apparently don’t drive cars), I was dejected when after 45 minutes we were still standing on the side of the road. Oh the pain of rejection!
We were getting desperate. Was my smile not big enough? Matt started waving a small bill out in front of him. Who pays for hitchhiking? He contemplated hiding in the bushes; maybe drivers would be more likely to pick up a girl then a couple. It’s not like I could blame people though. I mean really, who wants to pick up two strangers – probably somewhat stinky – with huge backpacks?
The countdown was on. Four more minutes and we would have to leave our roadside post to catch the bus. Perhaps I was a little bit secretly relieved? But wait a second! Is that sleek black car slowing down?! Aha!
And that is how we came to be in the back seat car of two very professional looking Italian businessman. Who knew business men were so thoughtful? Throughout our short drive through the incredibly long tunnel, a few Italian stereotypes were fulfilled. One man explained how, like many Italians, he had lived at home until he was 27. (Many Europeans we’ve encountered usually live at home while in college – mainly to save money on rent.) Why so long? His momma’s great cooking, of course! Not to mention, why should a young man have to live on his own and wash his dirty socks when his family’s maid could do it for him? I kid you not. He laughingly admitted to this, explaining that this is just the way Italian men are. I can’t wait to meet some Italian women and hear their side of the story.
Kate and I have done a fair share of hiking in the past few years, or at least we thought so. We had spent seven days in Banff, Canada, six days in Glacier, Montana, and a couple of trips to the BWCA. So when we read our guide-book’s “moderate eight days on top of Europe” Haute Route hike we were optimistic. But further research showed we’d be hiking across snow fields, climbing 50-food vertical ladders, and using rescue lines to cross glacier crevasses. I guess Europeans have a different definition of “moderate.” So we found an altogether different route called the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB).
Mont Blanc is the highest point in Europe at a not-so-whopping 4,800 meters. (Alaska: 6,194m, Andes: 6,962m, Himalayas: 8,848m, Kilimanjaro: 5,895 m) And to lessen it’s majesty some more, a cable car takes anyone and everyone to 3,800 meters, leaving the last 1,000 an easy stroll, so I hear. None the less, it’s a beautiful winter wonderland up there all year round, which made a great centerpiece for our hike. We stashed our less-useful gear at a Couchsurfer’s place (thanks Katie!) in Les Houches and took off the next morning. The hike took eight days, 100 miles, between 1,000 and 2,600 meters elevation, and crossed into France, Italy and Switzerland!
A few interesting points: Day one we saw no fewer than 200 other hikers. Cows grazed just about everywhere, making music with their bells. We did end up using ladders, but only on the last day. Instant meals with cornstarch should never be added to hot water (didn’t we learn this one already?).
The route is so popular that at least two dozen “refuges” have been set up to provide meals and lodging along the way. We did enjoy a couple of bowls of hot chocolate at Refuge des Mottets, but didn’t enjoy the $50 per-person dorm beds. Instead we either found a campground, or more often just joined the cows, although we later heard that Italian police enforce the free-camping fine regularly. Funny story: as we entered the Swiss part of the trek we found the local campground offering a “TMB hiker special” for only $40 per tent. The nerve! We got a much better deal between some trees further down the trail.
Even though we passed through a tiny town almost every day, and most of the refuges had electricity and service roads, the trek felt pretty isolated from the outside world. I mean, that’s partly why we do these sorts of things. So imaging my frustration as we finally summit one of the high passes, after laboring for hours up switchbacks and scree, ready to feast on the reward of a morning’s ***RING*** ***RING*** “Yeah? I’m like checking out this mountain thing. You wanna hang out tonight or something? We should totally see a movie.” I don’t actually know what she was saying, but she was passing us, still talking on her phone, and I felt completely deflated. At the top there were a couple more people talking, and just as many texting; one man must have been running his brokerage from 2,000 meters. I hear they just gave the OK for AT&T to install cell phone coverage for parts of the BWCA. Hmmm…I guess I agree that the emergency options are good, but neighbors watching YouTube changes the mood for all of us. Portaging Knife Lake will be different when passing someone carrying a canoe and a mobile. Facebook status update: “Being in the wilderness is awesome right now!”
How was the hike? Absolutely wonderful. So wonderful that we needed a couple of days rest in Chamonix before hitchhiking our way into Italy, which was an experience in itself.
While in Thun, Switzerland, we had the pleasure of meeting my Uncle Myron’s relatives. He and my Aunt Betty hosted their Swiss relative, Isabelle, this summer, so we dropped in on Isabelle’s family. Our adventure began when we got off the train and navigated our way up country roads to their address, which translated to “by the school house”. What a fantastic address! Swiss homes are idyllic; they’re usually brown with painted shutters and have the most beautiful flower boxes below their windows. The Meier family’s home was no exception. It was an eighth generation farm that had remained in the family. Can you imagine?! We spent an enjoyable evening with the family and were treated to the most delicious food we’ve had in a long time. (We’ve been served curry pasta and rice salads on two occasions now; I think I’ve found a new addiction!)
Side note – Switzerland is such a small country, yet there is so much diversity! French, German, and Italian are all spoken here. The Meier family speaks Swiss-German. Apparently those that speak Swiss-German can understand German, but those that only speak German cannot understand Swiss-German. Sneaky! I can’t imagine traveling to a different corner of Iowa and not being able to communicate with people!
While visiting we got to tour their farm. I will be the first to admit that I don’t know much about farm life, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t thoroughly interested and taken with some of their calves. The family had 30 head of cattle, which I gathered was a pretty typical size for a Swiss dairy farm. Of course, some of the cows wore bells! It was so musical to listen to, although I wondered if the cows were ever annoyed by their own movement. They also have pigs, which I am not so keen on; but the piglets were certainly cute. We learned that the Swiss maintain some strict laws to protect farm animals. For example, farmers may not cut off pig’s tails nor brand cattle. They also cannot feed cattle silage. Aspiring farmers go to school and apprentice with a farmer for three years. I really appreciated the intimacy of their operation. Each cow had a name and its milk output was carefully recorded and tracked in the computer. When we return to the states I will be interested in visiting a larger dairy operation to see how things are done differently.
We were so thankful for the Meier family’s hospitality, generosity, and the opportunity to spend some time in rural Switzerland.
Can you imagine traveling to Washington DC on the Fourth of July and having no idea that it’s the US’s birthday? Talk about ignorance! Well… Matt and I arrived in Bern, the Swiss capital, on August 1st, which just so happens to be the Switzerland National Day. Ignorance, indeed! Note to self, know the country’s birthday before you arrive in its capital city.
We didn’t do a single touristy thing in Bern and it was FABULOUS. Instead, we celebrated the national holiday alongside the locals. The sun was brilliant and when we happened upon a free swimming pool we found some grassy space amongst the hundreds of sunbathers and made ourselves at home. While looking for a restroom I stumbled into the courtyard reserved exclusively for females. Hello middle-aged nude women! Holy cats! There were so many of them! Soaking up the sun in their birthday suits. I’m just lucky I didn’t walk into the male courtyard!
There was a super cold glacial river that rushed past our campground. We watched as locals would launch themselves off of a bridge and float crazy fast downstream until they got out, walked back, and did it again. BRRR! Matt and I told each other we would have joined these courageous souls if we didn’t have to watch our bags (yeah, right!).
That night we discovered that the peaceful Swiss are not so peaceful when it comes to their fireworks! The campground was popping with fireworks going off everywhere! You had to vigilantly watch where you stepped so you didn’t receive any surprises up your shorts! I felt as if we were dodging noise-makers everywhere, especially when walking underneath bridges!
In the US, we plaster the American flag everywhere, especially on the Fourth of July. I kept my eyes peeled but I rarely saw the Swiss flag. Not on clothes or cupcakes or earrings. Does that mean they’re less patriotic than us? Or maybe they don’t feel the need to flaunt it. How do you measure patriotism?
*Warning – This post is for Sound of Music nerds only.
While in Austria we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop by Salzburg, famous for the movie The Sound of Music and for being the birthplace of Mozart. Of course, I was super excited to visit all of The Sound of Music haunts. Unwilling to fork out the outrageous tour price, we attempted to find spots made famous from the movie on our own. I admit, we were not too successful.
I walked around the outskirts of Maria’s abbey, only to discover that I couldn’t visit the cemetery where the von Trapp family hid from the Nazis. We bought tickets to go inside the building where the family performed in front of the Salzburg community. Unfortunately, as soon as the tour was about to start the tour guide got word that the hall was needed immediately as a rehearsal space. We DID find a fountain the children ran around while learning to sing, the arch covered in vines that they biked through, as well as the glass gazebo where Liesl sings “16 Going on 17” (only you can’t go inside the gazebo and it’s not even located where it was filmed!) Had my sister Ali been here I know we would have reenacted many scenes. Unfortunately, Matt was not as game.
We even took a cable car ride up the mountain where the opening and closing scenes were filmed (opening scene – Maria sings her heart out in the mountains; closing scene – the von Trapps hike through the mountains having just escaped the Nazis). I was hoping to belt out some tunes under the mountain sunshine. But on the way up a cloud suddenly engulfed the cable car and we couldn’t see anything. Apparently the von Trapps averted the Nazis by disappearing into the clouds as they crossed the Alps.
In other news, we went camping! It rained every night, but our tent is getting used to it. We visited this incredible garden famous for its “trick fountains”. What a thrill! Every July-August Salzburg hosts this huge music festival. We didn’t pay to see any operas, but last year’s festival was available every day, for free, on a large screen set up in the town square. This delightful town really was alive with music around every corner.
Praha was a beautiful city and a fun place to lose yourself on winding cobblestone streets. We were shocked by how commercialized it was. There was shopping everywhere! We took another free walking tour and discovered that the famous astronomical clock in the old town square had been voted the most disappointing tourist attraction in Europe. In order to make this tourist destination more exciting, a trumpet player now appears at the top of the clock tower (once it has finished) and plays a tune and waves a banner to let the crowd know that all is well.
One night we happened upon a concert stage floating on the Vltava River with the famous Charles Bridge and Prague Castle behind it. Tour boats, paddle boats, and even a swan boat rowed right up to the stage to get front row seats. Two men equipped with cigarette boxes in their mouths and booze held high over their heads even attempted to swim out to the stage. It wasn’t long before the police patrolling the river cut them off and sent them back to the shore. What an entertaining sight to watch intoxicated individuals rocking out to the music and dancing on their swaying boats! Those stuck on land crowded coveted views from bridges. We were lucky enough to find empty spots on a grassy peninsula and enjoyed the music, complete with another fantastic fireworks display. We’re still not sure who the band was but their style sounded a lot like Gogol Bordello’s “Start Wearing Purple”.
Of all things, we learned a lot about graffiti artists and their motifs around Berlin. Back home graffiti usually puts me on edge because it generally consists of derogatory language and/or involves gangs marking their territory. But in Berlin (and several other cities we’ve seen so far) it is a true art form that can be expressive and beautiful. Here were some of the craziest graffiti stories:
– One artist spends six hours a day painting the #6 everywhere. Pretty crazy stuff.
– Another guy wrote messages to his ex-girlfriend Linda begging her to take him back. Other artists and the public got really involved with this plea and also painted on walls asking Linda to give the poor guy a second chance. Years later the artist confessed that he had fabricated the entire story as an experiment to see how people would respond.
– Another artist paints pictures of a little girl killing her cat in the most bizarre ways (like using a toaster). This is a spoof on a beloved comic strip.
– Of course there were political messages as well – global warming, anti-borders, etc.
European cities have been incredibly bike friendly. It puts Minneapolis to shame. We rented bikes and experienced Berlin on a more intimate level. What a city! So rich in history and more modern than I’d imagined. Here are some things we came across:
– In Germany (and every other country we’ve visited so far) it’s legal to drink on the streets and even the trains. But the number of people drinking really struck me in Berlin. At night it seemed as if EVERYONE was drinking something. Unfortunately, this meant there was a lot of glass all over the streets.
– We took a free walking tour of the city and stood over the bunker where Hitler committed suicide. Today the bunker has been flooded and the land above it is an overgrown parking lot. This unkempt environment is intentional; the government wanted to destroy areas where Hitler followers could visit and pay homage to him.
– I discovered that the Berlin Wall actually enclosed an area within the city – instead of dividing it in half – and that West Berlin existed inside of it, a small pocket of democracy in the middle of communism (hmmm… let’s just say my high school history classes were a bit lacking). While walking along the Berlin Wall we were startled when a concert’s fireworks unexpectedly went off over us. And we thought we weren’t going to see fireworks this July.
– The museum Checkpoint Charlie, while overpriced, provided interesting information about the creative ways people developed to sneak into West Berlin. People escaped using anything from grocery carts, suitcases, Volkswagen Beatles, surfboards, tunnels, airplanes, ziplines, and concert speakers.
Munich was a lot of fun. I really liked it. The weather was FANTASTIC. Walking around the city, it was dumbfounding to think that Munich had been the hub of the Nazi regime. Here were some highlights:
– Enjoying the Hofbrauhaus and other beer gardens. Even though neither one of us are big fans of beer, the ambiance is very laid back and relaxing.
– Stumbling upon a funeral for Mr. von Habsburg, the last heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
– Watching surfers traverse a standing wave (created by a water pumping mechanism) on an artificial stream. Who needs California?
– Visiting the White Rose Memorial. When I think of WWII, it never crosses my mind that some Germans actually resisted Hitler. The White Rose consisted of a University of Munich professor and students who led an anonymous leaflet campaign calling individuals to oppose Hitler. The six main members in this group were eventually arrested and executed by decapitation.
– Walking through the beautiful English Gardens and seeing Monopteros, a hilltop temple where some great friends of ours got engaged.
– Experiencing Neuschwanstein Castle in person. SOOO Disney!
– Watching Harry Potter (in English) before it came out in the states!
Time for some catch-up. Four days ago we said goodbye to Dad and Barb after spending a week and a half driving from north to south Germany in a rented Mercedes. You would think while staying in nice hostels, B&B’s, and with even nicer relatives and friends we’d have ample time to keep in touch. Not so much! Here are some of the highlights that kept us so busy:
Visiting one of my sixteen great-great-great-grandfathers’ hometown, and staying with some of his great-great-grandkids.
Drifting down the Rhine past castle after castle. If you could ever get sick of castles, it’d be here.
Flying down the autobahn (freeway) at a whopping 140 MPH and still being passed.
Popping the tire on the rental.
Rocking Munich with Barb’s friend Lisa and husband Yasser. Thanks so much for being such gracious hosts!
If you’d want to hear more, you’d have to ask, because there’s just too much to put down right now. It was wonderful to be with family again, but it was also hard to say goodbyes. I though we had taken care of those back in June. As such, I finally felt like we had begun our journey as Dad and Barb drove off to the airport with us and our backpacks left in a dusty parking lot. Off we go; when will we meet again?
Amsterdam was a crazy place. There were so many train, bus, motorcycle and bicycle crossings, I’m still amazed that I never got ran over! The craziest part was no doubt the Red Light District. Just a little disclaimer before continuing… I would have been just fine steering clear of this notorious section of the city; but of course, Matt just HAD to experience it. I was not comfortable with him walking alone through there with his crazy camera equipment so I went as his bodyguard. HA! Not to mention, even Rick Steves (a middle-aged travel guru) had featured the Red Light District on his Amsterdam episode. If he’d been there, I could certainly go.
Boy was it was out there. Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam so there were sex shops and brothels galore. At night, behind huge windows, scantily clad women seduced those walking by on the streets. What little clothing they did have on glowed beneath black lights. Red florescent lights outlined the windows so the whole street was illuminated. We never saw anyone actually go up to a window to negotiate with a woman. Yup, it was incredibly awkward to walk past these women displaying themselves like pieces of meat. It was also interesting to observe people of all ages from children to the elderly walking down the streets.
Needless to say, we didn’t spend much time here. Matt got his picture of the illuminated canals and streets and we went on our way.
“One day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we’ll be people again and not just Jews! We can never be just Dutch, or just English, or whatever, we will always be Jews as well. But then, we’ll want to be.” ~ Anne Frank, April 9, 1944
Throughout high school one of my favorite extracurricular activities was speech. I always chose pieces from World War II – poetry from children living in the Terezin concentration camp, prose from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and acting from Anne Frank’s diary. So when Matt and I arrived in Amsterdam to meet up with his parents, I made it a priority to visit the Anne Frank House.
First, I had to reacquaint myself with Anne Frank’s story. Her family originally lived in Germany but moved to Amsterdam around 1933 when Hitler took over and the anti-Jewish regime took power. In 1940 the Germans occupied the Netherlands and two years later the Frank family went into hiding in the back part of Otto Frank’s company building (the Secret Annex). While the office personal provided food and supplies to those in hiding (Anne’s family – her sister and her parents, the van Pels family – Hermann, Auguste, and Peter, and Fritz Pfeffer), the warehouse workers never knew anyone was living in the building. In 1944, after spending two years in hiding, an anonymous phone call betrayed the Frank family to the German police. No one would ever know who gave them away. The people in hiding were first transported to Camp Westerbork in the Netherlands before being sent to the Auschwitz extermination camp. Anne’s father, Otto, was the only one in the group who survived.
Otto wished for the Secret Annex to remain unfurnished because the Nazis had stripped it of its furniture. Even though the rooms are empty, you gain an idea of what they would have looked like from small models that show where furniture would have been. It was humbling to walk through the Secret Annex, to stand in the very room Anne often wrote in, and to look upon the red plaid diary that contains her original work. I was reminded of what an incredibly positive individual she was. The most moving part was listening to an interview with Otto Frank. He explained that upon reading his daughter’s diary, he discovered a depth of character that he didn’t know Anne possessed. Amazed by her thoughts, resolution, and dreams, he concluded that most parents never really know what’s going on in their children’s minds and hearts.
Finally, I was struck by this quote:
“One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.”
~ Primo Levi, writer and Auschwitz survivor, 1986
I agree it’s good that humankind is incapable of taking in such suffering, that we cannot wrap our minds around the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust. But I fear for those “whose faces have remained in the shadows.” What of their stories? What if we don’t hear them and their persecution and suffering continues? Even worse, what if we refuse to give them a voice, or refuse to listen or even acknowledge their pain? There are far too many current Anne Frank stories unraveling in our own neighborhoods. Are we listening?
While camping in Stavanger we met some Norwegian students who seemed to be pretty intrigued with we Americans (they had all sorts of questions). They knew quite a bit about the US and talked with us about everything, including: politics, the economy, the war on terrorism, volunteering in foreign countries, and drinking. They recognized the privilege and opportunities they have living in such a wealthy nation and mentioned that they feel as is they’ve won the lottery having been born in Norway.
The young men mentioned that the only US TV shows that they watch are Judge Judy and COPS. They wanted to know if all Americans are like Texans, which they explained as red-neck hicks who will shoot at anything. AYE! How appalling that people actually think that!
Some other questions they had for us:
– Did we like country music? They laughed at Toby Keith and his song about killing terrorists.
– Why does the US think it has to be the world’s police? Apparently Norway has not invaded another country since the time of the Vikings. Wow.
– Why are Americans so scared of socialism? Did we think we would end up like Norway? Would that be bad?
– Why does so much money go into political campaigns?
– Did we think that homosexuality was a sin? The one gentleman thinks the Bible has been twisted to condemn gays.
I was impressed with the boys’ depth of character and intellect. If you’re reading this, thank you for the conversation!
We finished our Norway tour in Stavanger, a coastal town. Some highlights included:
– A world championship sand volleyball tournament! How random and exciting! We got to watch two time US Olympic champions Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh defeat a Czech-Republic team.
– An attempt to attend a Lutheran mass. The sanctuary was roped off half way up the aisle to keep tourists back. The pastor mentioned that English speakers were welcome to partake in the service but that tourists were to stop any “tourist activities”. We assumed that once mass started we would be allowed up front to sit with the locals. However, the guard at the rope would not let us through. Matt finally asked the man for a worship pamphlet, or help finding the correct hymn, but was just turned away. What a strange experience to be welcomed to worship only to be spectators.
– Museums where we learned all about the local maritime history, Norway’s role in the oil industry, moose, and sardines.
– A day trip to Preikestolen, a strange rock formation that juts out over the Lysefjord. Preikestolen, also known as Pulpit Rock, has no guard rails along the side, like it would in the US. You could walk right up to the edge, have a seat, and hang your legs over the side. Norwegians claim that no accidental deaths have occurred here, but that was difficult to believe with the endless stream of people that come through. The sun came out (Hallelujah!) and we basked as we took in the view of the beautiful Lysefjord. See the photos!
When we arrived at the trailhead we stared unbelievably at the steep cable-car that went forty-five degrees up the mountainside and seemed to disappear into the clouds. Unfortunately, today the funicular is only used by locals and no longer takes hikers. Lonely Planet recommended 8-10 hours round trip for this particular hike. We discovered the estimate doesn’t apply to backpackers with 18 months of gear on their backs. Nor does it account for the overflowing streams that must be crossed.
After the first hour and a half huffing and puffing up the trail, I thought for sure I had developed buns of steel (if only it were that easy!). The trail was conveniently marked with rocks spray painted with the letter “T” to let us know we were going in the right direction. At some point the path joined with a little waterfall and we were thankful for waterproof shoes. After the intense vertical climb we crossed through a marshy valley which I dubbed “The Valley of Desolation” due to the miserable weather. There were about 30 small homes up here. Summer homes? We had no idea why anyone would ever want to settle here; the land was spotted with huge boulders and it was windy and cold. Matt waved to a local man who just stared right back. I couldn’t imagine living in these conditions and being anything but depressed.
Continuing we came to another valley absolutely covered with streams. This is when things got difficult. We had been hiking for four hours now and the scenery was nothing to brag about. It was downright ugly. After successfully traversing several streams (I refused to get my feet and socks wet) we came to one that was just TOO big. Keep in mind, all of these streams quickly tumble 3,000 feet to the sea below, and this one had the strongest current of them all. Matt was ambitious and tried to find different paths to cross via rocks poking out of the water. He even tried to build his own rock bridges. Nothing worked. It didn’t help that a few summers ago I smashed my face on a rock while carefully crossing a rocky stream. I’m afraid this memory is still too fresh and traumatizing because I refused to cross anything that looked skeptical. I was not scared of getting wet, but I was terrified of head injuries. Sometimes it’s hard to determine when you are just psyching yourself out and when you really are being logical.
Things looked hopeless. For the first time in my backpacking endeavors, I was on the verge of giving up. I was not at a physical breaking point, but I was emotionally spent and sure that I had developed some gray hairs while imagining worse case scenarios. I went back and forth in my head. No spectacular view of a fjord was worth all of this worrying. But then again, we had paid too much money to travel here and hiked too hard over miserable terrain to give up now. So frustrated I was at the point of tears, I beseeched God for an answer to this dilemma.
A few moments later, a couple came down the path towards us on the other side of the stream. The man kept pointing at the river, explaining that he had created a path and that we should cross it. Within minutes, he and his partner had confidently hopped their way across the river. I couldn’t believe it; Matt and I had just spent an hour going up and down the stream, looking for a way across! The couple was from Poland and the man was very kind as he explained what was coming up on the trail and the best way to navigate the land. Realizing the Polish couple only had small day packs on, we decided to set up camp right there on the stream and ditch our huge bags. There was just no way we could make the jump with that much weight.
That proved to be the answer to our problem. I thanked God for the timeliness of my answered prayer and was amazed at how just the sight of another individual experiencing success at what we were attempting was enough to inspire us and keep us going. Matt and I joked about how crossing those dang streams was like doing the cooperative course at camp. The course is a series of activities designed to build teamwork and trust. That is just what we were up to as we problem-solved our way through the dicey waters.
We would not run into another soul that day as we finished our hike to Trolltunga. The sun finally broke through the clouds as we approached the rock formation and triumphantly made our way out on to the Troll’s Tongue.
Ever since we added Norway to our itinerary I have been dreaming about sunning myself on a rock overlooking a fjord. I thought that soaking up the sun’s rays while gazing upon the majestic beauty of the fjords would be the epitome of the Norway experience. Unfortunately, it has been SUPER rainy. In fact, it has rained at least once every single day that we’ve been here. Apparently June is supposed to be the dry month, too… yikes!
After looking at several different brochures about different locations overlooking beautiful fjords, I decided upon a destination known as Trolltunga, troll’s tongue. This particular rock formation is shaped like a tongue and pokes out horizontally from the rock face, which makes hanging your feet over it an adrenaline rushing experience. Matt was on board with this plan so we traveled to the hometown of the hike, where we crossed paths with an intriguing gentleman named Warren. After introductions the seventy-year-old (whose poofy hair made him look like Einstein) skipped the small talk and asked Matt what he wanted to do with his life. It’s not every day a complete stranger asks you that question. Matt told him he was hoping to figure that out on our journey. We felt we were in the presence of a wise and special individual.
Even though Warren grew up along the fjord, his father was from the United States, and Warren chose to be a US citizen as well. He had gone to college in the US and was familiar with Waterloo, IA and spoke of a church off Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis (right where Matt and I lived this past year). It is a strange thing to travel overseas and randomly run into someone who knows where you’re from.
Warren was anxious to give us a tour of the town; however, it was getting late and we needed to get started on our hike. It would be at least another two hours before we even reached the trailhead. Warren recommended the local route and he sounded a lot like an oracle as he gave us directions, “past the cool air rising from the rocks,” and “there will be rock slides and rivers to cross before you arrive,” and my favorite, “you will need a rope at some point.” He explained how there was a secret hiding place up in the woods that had been used by the locals when Nazis came looking for them. Warren would have just been a baby at this time.
The hike to the trailhead was very pretty even though it crossed over several rock slides that had demolished the terrain. As we walked it was hard to imagine that those peaceful woods had a tumultuous history, having once served as a hiding place for Norwegians from the Nazis.
It’s time to play a little catch-up. We left Oslo so long ago, passed through Flam and Bergen, and continued onwards again. Flam was insanely beautiful. It sits on a small finger off of the far end of Songen Fjord. There was a bit of a hitch getting there, but it all worked out in the end.
We were shuffled off of the train due to a tunnel fire down the line, and onto some buses which took us the rest of the way, almost. The plan was to take the train to Myrdal, save some money by skipping the world-steepest train ride down the mountain valley, and instead hike to Flam. Now that we had been dropped off right in Flam, we had missed out on the valley all-together. I talked with the rail operator until we got a free ride up the valley, and then we hiked right back down again.
The hike gave us time to take in scenery that went by so quickly on the train. All of the snow and glacier ice I saw from the plane comes down as waterfalls here. Lots and lots of waterfalls. It was almost too much, but they kept getting bigger and higher. I’m embarrassed at how my waterfall pictures I’ve had to edit out. Tired and spent from looking at too many waterfalls, we set up tent in a goat pasture for the night.
Did Kate talk about Norway’s camping laws? In case she didn’t, there’s a word in Norwegian that translates to “all man’s land.” The law states that even through land may be owned, it still can’t be taken away from the rest of Norway. Unless there’s a good reason for keeping people off, such as raising crops or fencing in livestock, a stranger is within the law to walk upon and even setup camp on your property. And that’s how we’ve come to save so much on lodging here in Norway.
A couple nights of camping was enough. Flam is indeed beautiful, but there is more to see. We hopped on an over-priced tourist boat that cruised down the Alusund Fjord and then back up the Narrow Fjord, but you won’t see any gorgeous fjord photos because that was when the rain began, and it hasn’t missed a day sense.
After arriving in Oslo, we headed for Vigeland Park, a beautiful statue park that had been recommended to us by several people. I was fortunate enough to meet up with Leah, an old camp friend who fell in love with a Norwegian, married him, and has sense settled outside of Oslo. Leah was a fantastic tour guide; she walked us around Oslo and treated us to a delicious Norwegian meal – Salmon, potatoes, salad, and cooked carrots. Yum! She also filled us in on some Norwegian tidbits:
– No tipping at restaurants. (Don’t expect much for service, either)
– Norwegians do not go out to eat much, at least not as often as Unitedstatesians do.
– Sometimes you have to pay for public bathrooms. WHAT?!
– Minimum wage is $17/hour. Holy Macro! However, the cost of living is astronomical here. More on that later.
– When you buy bread at the supermarket, there is a special bread cutting machine that slices the bread up for you.
Some other things we noticed:
– There seem to be a lot more smokers here than in Minneapolis.
– Transportation seemed to be on the honor system. We bought a 24-hour bus and rail ticket and never had to show it when boarding.
– People on the bus are SO kind. Numerous times individuals would give up their seats for others who had greater needs (ex. For the elderly, and even for Matt w/ his huge backpack). This was not the exception, it appeared to be the norm.
That first night we camped in a campsite overlooking Oslo. It was a great site, except for the fact that the sun did not set until midnight, and even then it wasn’t dark. We were SUPER tired, but the children at the campground were still having a grand old time at 11 at night and the birds stayed up all night squawking too. Despite wearing earplugs and wrapping a handkerchief across my eyes, I did not get much sleep.
I’m sorry to report that we did not make it to any Viking museums; we only one afternoon to explore before catching the train for fjord country the following morning.
So sorry for the delay in posting! Life was pretty hectic at the last moment and we’ve been pretty jet-lagged sense arriving in Norway. The last month has been very surreal. When people at work would find out that I was quitting to go travel they’d say “You’re crazy!” A few months ago I would just grin in response (it’s so easy to romanticize about traveling!); however, the last few weeks I’d begun to think the same thing myself!
“Overwhelmed” is the word I would use to explain my last week in the states. I was overwhelmed with everything that had to get done. I was overwhelmed realizing that I had become connected to our church community and how difficult the nomadic life will be with no support group, especially when it comes to a faith community. I was overwhelmed saying goodbye, wondering if this was the last goodbye with some and speculating about if I’d be able to just pick up where I’d left off with others. Obviously life in the states was not going to freeze while I was gone; I was overwhelmed thinking about the wonderful things I would miss out on, like weddings and new babies.
I have dreamed of traveling since the 7th grade. When I looked into the future my career aspirations and significant other hopes were always foggy and insignificant; but I always knew that I wanted to see the world. To see what God’s diverse creation looked like – to drink it in, smell it, taste it, and especially, to meet people from different cultures and listen to their stories. I knew there was much to be learned and that my soul might be just a little bit trapped if it never heard the other side of the story on the other side of the world.
Lately I have taken great comfort in Mark Twain’s words: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” I realize how easy it is to fall into an unhappy, going through the motions rut in life. I was scared thinking that Matt and I could fall into that rut by continuing to live out our days, him doing IT work for a small luggage company and me finding a new teaching assistant job every fall. It would be a pity to fall into a rut and 20 years later realize that we had gotten too busy to chase a life changing dream.
I definitely feel as if I am sailing away from my safe harbor. Life as we know it will quickly be turned upside down. Where will we sleep every night? What if we get really sick? What if we get robbed? These are all questions that occasionally run through my head; but this is the risk we choose to take when we set off to explore. Realizing we will not have the comforts of home to reassure us in the midst of this vulnerable, nomadic lifestyle, I guarantee we will be inviting God into our daily lives and consciously relying on our creator more than ever before. All I can say is, it is about time!
It is getting late, past 11 pm, and the sun still has not set here in Norway! We should probably find a place to camp; soon we will catch you up on how we hit the ground running and how the crazy sun never takes a nap!
There’s no turning back now. It has been a hectic day: breakfast, without any dishes or silverware or frying pans? UPS to pick up the memory cards, USPS to mail out the spare car keys, pack the backpacks, the bank to activate our ATM cards. We still need to clean the windows! LUSH in Macy’s for some solid shampoos. Last-minute drop-in to the clinic; we REALLY need those travel meds now! We closed up the apartment and slid the key under the door; Kate’s mom will mail in the extras we forgot in Iowa. To REI! To Best Buy! To The Shack! The bookstore doesn’t have what we want. The prescriptions are ready for pickup at your local Walgreens. “Are you sure this is enough for a whole year?” Home. Goodbye cats, goodbye house, goodbye Mom, Dad. Here’s your vacuum cleaner back, and thank for storing all our junk! Nik is right on time, almost, and we’re off to the airport. Traffic slowing, stopped, let’s get going!
We get to the airport and the stress of the day melts away, as the check-in counter is prompt and friendly, and as the security checkpoint folks said “thank you.” Now we sit, waiting to board the first of a few flights. First stop: Norway.
I was wondering when the Journey would begin. I assumed it would be when we bought our ticket, then I thought when we gave notice to our jobs, or maybe on the last day of work, or when we left the apartment, got the the plane…so I can’t find any specific beginning, and I haven’t felt any “this is it” moment, but this has definitely begun. And there will probably be lots of beginnings. But we couldn’t wait for them all before getting this blog started! So here we go! We hope to keep you entertained when we can, so check back from time to time.