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Still Alive!

Aaaand, it’s over.

We’ve been home for about 3 weeks now, and it’s finally sinking in.  Those first few days, we were sort of in a daze–I would wake up in the morning and think that I was still asleep and dreaming when I saw our bedroom. It’s become a lot more real since then, but there are definitely still those odd moments.

We’ve been going nonstop (or what feels like nonstop to us) since we landed in St. Louis.  It’s been amazing, emotional, and frankly, disorienting.  As anyone who read our few posts from India can tell, we were ready to come home.  We had enjoyed a great run and were ready for a break from the effort of constant travel.  Even more than the fatigue, we were eager to see all of our friends and family in person.  And coming home was every bit as great as we expected to be.

Nonetheless, any dramatic change in routine is going to leave you feeling a little off-kilter.  Some of the strangest transitions were the smallest things.  After a full year of unfettered freedom in our schedule, making plans sometimes felt like a challenge.  We were so excited about visiting with people, but once, when trying to make plans in advance, Adam looked at me and wondered, “How am I supposed to know what I’m going to feel like doing tomorrow?”

And while being in Southeast Asia and India, where English is common, made the transition back into English-speaking culture a little easier, there were times when everything felt so distracting.  When you’re in a place where you can’t understand the language, it sometimes just sort of fades into the background, even if the volume is at 11.  Once we got home, I could understand everything!  I could barely focus because of all the snippets of conversations I kept hearing float past me.

Other times, the polar opposite would strike us as strange.  After the past five months in countries where you are dealing with an extraordinary number of people smushed into a remarkably small land area, we were used to loud.  Really loud.  Car horns, rickshaws, shouting, talking, cows mooing, dogs barking, music from temples, horns, horns, horns–we had honestly grown accustomed to it all.   A few days after we got home, we were stopped in a gas station in the middle of the day and found ourselves whispering–everything was so peaceful, we felt like we were going to disturb something  by talking in a normal voice!

These are tiny adjustments though. The transition has actually been so smooth that sometimes I stop myself and say “Did that really happen or was it just one really amazing dream??”  The beauty of the whole thing though, is that when I feel like that, all I have to do is pause for a moment and conjure one of my favorite memories from the trip, or flip through some photos to remind me that yes, it was real, and yes, it was amazing.

For now, we’re going to focus on the people we love and have missed so much, spoiling my nieces and nephew rotten, playing with our cool new dog, and just generally loving life at time.  I promise promise that there will be some photos from India forthcoming, along with the possibility of some photos from our trip to southern California, to which we are en route right now.  (Yes, I’m posting from the plane–in-flight wi-fi!  God bless technology.)

~Meg

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Life on the water

The Thinker

The Thinker

I love markets.  I mean, I really love markets.  I could wander around the local markets for hours, just soaking it all in.  On the second or third day of this trip, way back in October, we wandered into the central market in Lima.  As with most markets we’ve visited since, we saw everything from whole butchered cows to kitchen sinks to food stalls–it was noisy and chaotic and exciting and we were entirely too terrified to try any of the food.  I remember it clearly as the moment that I thought, “Wow.  We are really not in Kansas anymore.”  One of my best memories of our most recent stop in Bangkok was the labyrinth weekend market, an enormous set-up with thousands of stalls that completely dwarfed that first market, and where we ate all of the food.  Progress?

So, as I have a tendency to make waaaaaay more out of a market than is probably sane, it will be no surprise that visiting the floating markets of the Mekong Delta was towards the top of my list of to-do in Vietnam.  We initially planned on blazing through Vietnam in no more than three weeks, but quickly found that to be unrealistic.  By the time we made it down to the furthest southern reaches of the country, we only had three days left to visit the Mekong Delta before our visas expired.  In the interest of saving time, we checked out some of the tours on offer.  However, the idea of organized visits to brick factories and tours of floating markets in big groups was less than appealing, so we passed on the tour option.  We planned on recreating our own version off the highlights of the tours–some bike riding through the countryside, a homestay, a day of visiting the bigger floating markets, then off to Cambodia by boat.

We left Saigon with high hopes.  Then the sky turned black.  By the time we arrived at our first stop, the town of Vinh Long, where we planned  to book a homestay for that night, it was pouring rain and showing no signs of stopping.  As most of the ideas in the plan for that day were outdoor activities–bike riding,  boat tours with our homestay hosts, wandering the orchards around the homestay–we knew we needed a change of plans.  After a whopping 30 minutes in Vinh Long, we hopped on another bus and headed for Can Tho, the biggest city in the Mekong Delta and the nearest city to remaining floating markets.

You’ll notice I said “remaining” floating markets.  With the improvement of the road system in the Delta and the construction of numerous massive bridges, the land based markets are flourishing to the detriment of the floating markets.  Modernization, while it does have its benefits, is killing the floating markets of Southeast Asia.  For instance, we have heard over and over that the floating markets outside Bangkok now exist solely for the benefit of tourists, selling souvenirs and not much else (disclaimer: that is all hearsay–we didn’t go ourselves.)

That made me all the more grateful for the opportunity to visit two thriving floating markets in the Delta.  We hired a long tail boat in Can Tho and set off for the Cai Rang and Phong Dien markets.  Both are primarily produce markets.  The first is a wholesale market–sellers show up in huge boats just bursting with produce.  Sometimes you can see the goods spilling out onto the top of the boat.  In other cases, you can determine what’s on offer by checking out the long poles hoisting an example of that vendor’s goods high above the boat.  So clever!

Banana boat

Banana boat

This boat was selling a wide variety of veggies--squash, carrots, potatoes, lettuce--everything you see tied to the pole!

This boat was selling a wide variety of veggies--squash, carrots, potatoes, lettuce--everything you see tied to the pole!

Catching up on the latest gossip

Catching up on the latest gossip

Potatoes galore

Potatoes galore

Of course there were also vendors selling baskets to carry all the produce.

Of course there were also vendors selling baskets to carry all the produce.

The second market was a retail market, still primarily produce.  However, instead of the huge boats of the Cai Rang market, Phong Dien was a crowd of smaller boats maneuvering through and around each other, all buying and selling.  It was crowded with locals and much more personal.

Happy vendor

Happy vendor

Pomelo vendor, selling pomelos to our very sweet driver (on the far right)

Pomelo vendor, selling pomelos to our very sweet driver (on the far right)

Bustle

Bustle

Fruit vendors

Fruit vendors

More fruit boats

More fruit boats

One of the fantastic things about heading out on our own was that we ended up hiring a small boat, rather than the larger boats we saw carrying tours around.  That meant we were able to spend a couple of hours just motoring through the small canals, watching life go on in the Mekong Delta.  The people were remarkably friendly, which makes  any experience better.  It was also so interesting to actually observe how important the water is to the people who live in the rural areas here–they live on it, drink it, use it to wash, get food from it, use it as a primary means of transport, use it to water their crops, and unfortunately, they also throw their garbage in it.

Local boatman

Local boatman

Typical covered boat

Typical covered boat

Fishing/house boat

Fishing/house boat

These boats on the Hau Giang River were big enough to head down the river and out into the ocean.

These boats on the Hau Giang River were big enough to head down the river and out into the ocean.

Roving vendor selling jars along the narrow canals

Roving vendor selling jars along the narrow canals

A little bit different than the mermaid on the front of a pirate ship...

A little bit different than the mermaid on the front of a pirate ship...

Mekong carport

Mekong carport

Rice field

Rice field

Turns out teenagers are sullen everywhere :-)

Turns out teenagers are sullen everywhere 🙂

The boats have eyes

The boats have eyes

Our guide suggested that Adam might want to look for a Vietnamese woman as they really love washing.  I told him that I didn't believe for one minute that they did all that washing because they looooooved it.

Our guide suggested that Adam might want to look for a Vietnamese woman as they really love washing and I, admittedly, do not. I told him that I didn't believe for one minute that they did all that washing because they looooooved it.

A moment before I snapped thie picture, the women in the back of the boat were leaning out scooping water out of the river and washing dishes with it.  I also loved the man driving with his feet.

A moment before I snapped this picture, the women in the back of the boat were leaning out scooping water out of the river and washing dishes with it. I also loved the man driving with his feet.

After our day exploring the Mekong Delta by boat, we headed off to the border town of Chau Doc where we caught a boat into Cambodia.  For anyone who is traveling from Vietnam to Cambodia, I would highly recommend the slow boat from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh.  It was a very scenic trip and for my money, there’s no better way to be introduced to a country than by crowds of children playing along the riverbanks shouting greetings and waving frantically from the shore.

We’re now in Siem Reap exploring the ancient temples of the Khmers, including Angkor Wat.  It’s absolutely spectacular, and at the rate we’re going on the blog, we should be able to tell you all about by 2015 or so.  🙂

~Meg

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Worth 37,000 Words

Sometimes you just get lucky.

As with most visitors to Vietnam, a stop in Ha Long Bay in Northern Vietnam was a definite on our itinerary.  Whether or not to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site, a 1500 square kilometer area in the North China Sea featuring nearly 2000 limestone islets, was never a question–the only question was whether to join an organized tour or go it independently.

We had read plenty of horror stories in the guidebooks and travel sites about group tours that promise the world for a pittance and fail to deliver even the basics.  And generally, we’re not really tour-group types of travelers.  Despite this, we knew that a group tour would be much less expensive and (if all went well) much less of a hassle than getting ourselves from Hanoi to the coast, trying to negotiate our way onto a boat, potentially having to hang out for a day in a port town that didn’t seem very appealing or getting stuck in a ratty hotel on the only inhabited island in the bay.  Sooo, we decided to do our homework and give the tour group option a go.  We researched reviews online, we visited a handful of tour operators and we consulted the guidebooks.  Ocean Tours left us feeling most comfortable, so we booked and crossed our fingers (although we did that behind our backs, because apparently it’s an obscene gesture in Vietnam!!).

We were not let down.  Our tour guide was the most enthusiastic person you’ve ever met, and knowledgeable too.  The boat the we slept on was comfortable, and I got to eat delicious fresh seafood for three days straight (my idea of heaven). There are a couple of factors that the tour operator can’t control though–the weather and the other guests on the tour.  And those are the biggest risks.  An otherwise great trip can be downright ruined by terrible weather or by being stuck in a confined space with a group full of obnoxious asshats.  Thankfully, the travel gods were once again smiling upon us.

We had beautiful sunny weather and were so lucky to meet and make some great new friends on the trip–Dave and Tina from the UK, John and Gemma, also from the UK, and Maiken and Mikael from Denmark.  We had an absolute blast with them and are now traveling the same route as Dave and Tina and Maiken and Mikael, so are lucky enough to continue to get to hang out with such a fun group of people (John and Gemma, we all miss you guys!!)

As for those of you who are going, “OK, already, so how was Ha Long Bay??”  Well, there are some places that simply cannot be done justice with words.  Not with my words anyway.  So here’s a whole slew of pictures that probably still doesn’t do the place justice, but gets a whole lot closer than any adjectives I could throw at you would.  Enjoy!

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Sook Sun Wan Gerd, Adam

Adam, post bungee jump in Queenstown, New Zealand

Adam, post-bungee jump in Queenstown, New Zealand

As Adam and I were preparing for this trip, people would say to us “Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?”  This phrase often meant, “Are you prepared to be living out of a backpack, spending half your time on buses and, well, let’s just say, reevaluating your standards of what constitutes acceptable living conditions?”

But just as often, the subtext was, “Can your relationship survive this?  Are you going to kill each other after spending all your time together for an entire year?”  These were questions we always answered on faith, yes and no, respectively.  We had never done something like this before, so we couldn’t speak from experience, but we were as sure as one can be: “Yes, our relationship can survive this.  No, we won’t kill each other.”

Now, with the halfway point of our trip over a month past, and having spent approximately the last 5200 hours with just each other, I can confidently say that not only will we not kill each other, but that there is no one on earth with whom I would rather be sharing this experience.

Adam is the person who makes this amazing trip even more spectacular on the good days and so much easier on the trying days.  I rest easy knowing that we form a really good partnership–that I can always rely on Adam, no matter the circumstances.  Even more important than that, I feel so lucky to have found a person whose enthusiasm moves me on a regular basis, someone who has passion for things that would probably escape my gaze entirely, someone who both shares my interests and opens my eyes to new and exciting ways of looking at life.

Thank you Adam, for taking this leap with me and very simply, for making life better.  Sook Sun Wan Gerd (Happy Birthday)!!

~Meg

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Move over, Suzanne Sommers

The thighmaster has been replaced.  Meet my horse, or as Adam and I nicknamed him, Rusty, the beefaroni pony:

rusty

Adam and I decided to make a horseback riding excursion while visiting Bariloche. It taught me that it is a very, very good thing that I live in a city, not on a ranch. My first thought when I got on the horse was, “Ok, where is the seatbelt? And the handles? My saddle does not appear to have handles. Or guardrails, perhaps? Umm, guys, I think there’s something missing from my saddle.” Sadly, I was unable to translate those thoughts into spanish and we were off, me with only two measly little leather reins to hold on to.

It was a perfectly enjoyable little ride, that is until I saw our guide pull a small (not even as big around as my pinky) branch off a tree as we ambled down the path. As he pulled the leaves off, we passed into an open pasture. He proceeded to hand me the switch and motioned for me to use it to convince Rusty that it was time to really get moving. I, being ever obedient, but also not really keen on the idea of whacking an animal with a stick, gave him a little tap on the rump behind my saddle.

Rusty apparently did not appreciate the subtleness of the tap. He took off like that switch was electrified. My feet promptly slipped right out of the stirrups, leaving me holding on for dear, sweet life with only the strength of my inner thighs.

As I (painfully) discovered the following morning, it turns out that good old-fashioned fear is one of the best personal trainers out there.  I woke up with legs that were more sore than any number of squats or lunges has ever left them.  Have I stumbled on the next big exercise craze?  Runaway horses with ill-adjusted stirrups, coming to a gym near you!

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2008 in Review

I’ve been reading year-end wrap ups on my favorite blogs for years now. I never really had much desire to participate before now, but this year, the blog combined with an excess of time for reflection allowed me to indulge my inner lemming and join in the fun. (I put this together a few days ago, but we were more excited about our plans for the next few months than about a retrospective on the previous year, so that post went up first.)

1. What did you do in 2008 that you’d never done before?

So many things–2008 was a big year! The biggest and most obvious answer here: I took a leave of absence from my job and headed out to travel the world for an entire year. That was definitely a new experience.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

My one resolution last year was pretty vague, but I definitely made progress. I have made resolutions for 2009 and am excited about them. I didn’t used to be a big fan of making resolutions, but I like them now—the idea of taking advantage of a clean slate appeals to me.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

Yes!! Not only did my lovely sister give birth to an adorable little dimple cheeked girl, Julia, several of our friends are now parents as well. It was a baby-tastic year.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

Sadly, Adam’s grandfather passed away this year.

5. What countries did you visit?

Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Woo-hooo!

6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008?

This goes along with number 27 below.  I racked my pea-brain for days on this one and  I simply can’t think of anything important that I lacked in 2008.

7. What dates from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

October 15, 2008 was definitely the most memorable day of the year—the day we left on our big trip.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Getting the hang of the electric showerhead and managing to make it through Bolivia without getting electrocuted by one. Yay me!

Seriously though, this one comes back to the trip, too. Actually following through with our plan to go out and see what the world had to offer was definitely my biggest achievement. Until we left, I had a nagging fear that something would happen and we wouldn’t be out here right now.

9. What was your biggest failure?

Letting myself get stressed out by things I can’t control.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

Thankfully, nothing serious. My digestive system rejected Bolivia in general, but that hardly qualifies as “suffering illness”.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

Our first plane tickets from St. Louis to Lima, Peru. Once we booked those, I felt like we were really committed to the trip and there was no chickening out.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?

Without a doubt, I am so proud of the American people this year. The presidential election presented us with the opportunity to make a statement about the kind of leadership we want. Not only do I celebrate the approximately 65 million people who voted for Obama, but I was so excited to see the renewed passion for our political process, regardless of whose name was checked on the ballot.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?

Yikes. This one is too depressing to contemplate.

14. Where did most of your money go?

Easy. Traveling and saving for travelling.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Again, an easy one: our big trip and the election. Sensing any themes here? 🙂

16. What song will always remind you of 2008?

There’s no one song that was my soundtrack for the year. According to iTunes, I listened to a lot of Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson and Yael Naim. Stronger by Kanye West will always remind me of training for the 5k I ran in the spring.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:

a) happier or sadder? Happier

b) thinner or fatter? Thinner

c) richer or poorer? Poorer

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?

I wish I had continued on with photography classes.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?

Watched less TV. I spent a lot of valuable time bonding with the DVR.

20. How did you spend Christmas?

I spent Christmas in Buenos Aires, Argentina in the 90 degree heat. To celebrate the holiday Adam and I did some sightseeing on the nearly deserted streets of Argentina’s capital and cooked a steak dinner with delicious Argentine filet steaks. Yum. We also added a new twist to our New Year’s Eve meal tradition: empanadas!

21. Did you fall in love in 2008?

Without a doubt. I fell head over heels in love with my niece, Julia, and fell even deeper in love with my amazing husband.

22. What was your favorite TV program?

Total guilty pleasure: Gossip Girl. Yeah, I admit it. Gossip Girl. I also loved 30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother and Eli Stone.

23. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

No, no.

24. What was the best book you read?

Nonfiction: Footprints Guidebook to South America (I check this one out daily 🙂)

Fiction: This is a tough one, so I’m going to pick two. My favorite collection of short stories was No One Belongs Here More Than You, by Miranda July. My favorite novel was The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak.

25. What was your greatest musical discovery?

Does it count as discovery if you first hear the artist on an iPod commercial? If so, then Yael Naim and Jesca Hoop. Otherwise, just Jesca Hoop.

26. What did you want and get?

A leave of absence and the opportunity to return to my job when we get back to St. Louis.

27. What did you want and not get?

Nothing of any importance.

28. What was your favorite film of this year?

Not sure if it qualifies as film, but I have some good memories of watching Jesus is Magic with Kimmy. Good times.

29. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I was lucky enough to turn 28 this year while on vacation in Florida with my parents and sister’s family. We celebrated by spending the day bike riding, relaxing on the beach and cooking a stellar seafood dinner in. I also went out with friends to celebrate when we got back to St. Louis. I’m a lucky girl.

30. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

“Immeasurably” is a tall order. Things were already pretty great, but I’d say more time with my friends and family.

31. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008?

Snoozer. The only new clothes and shoes I bought were for the trip and were far more functional than fashionable.

32. What kept you sane?

Writing.

33. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

I tried to type Sarah Palin, as a joke, but I couldn’t even type the name without gagging a little…

34. What political issue stirred you the most?

I don’t think I can narrow it down to one issue. As I mentioned before though, I was and am moved by the renewed interest in the leadership of the US.

35. Who did you miss?

Oh, so many people.

36. Who was the best new person you met?

I have been lucky enough to meet so many new people this year while traveling. I don’t think I can pick just one.

37. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008.

Cheesy but true: people really are the same, no matter where you go or what language they speak.

38. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year.

Travelin’ Light, is the only way to fly
Travelin’ Light, just you and I
Way on down to ecstasy
Way on down and our own way
Travelin’ Light, is the only way to fly

Travelin’ Light, and you can catch the wind
Travelin’ Light, better let your mind pretend
Get on down to paradise
Maybe once, now maybe twice
Travelin’ Light, is the only way to fly

Get on down to paradise
Maybe once, now maybe twice
Travelin’ Light, is the only way to fly

–Travelin Light, Widespread Panic

I hope everyone’s year has kicked off to a great start.  Ours has been wonderful so far–we’ve been taking advantage of our long weekend break from Spanish classes and have been out exploring the city so we should have something more interesting to replace my navel-gazing shortly.  🙂

~~Meg

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Disconnected in Cusco

I know, I know, our next post was supposed to be a recap of our triumphant ascent out of Colca Canyon (or, in my case, our veeeerrrrryyyy slow, but “I am going to make it out of this canyon on my own two feet if it is the last thing I do” ascent out of the canyon 🙂

However, our computer is not cooperating and won´t let us connect to any wireless networks.  Well, it seems to think that we´re connected, the wireless network list says we are connected, but we are not, in fact, connected.  No Firefox, no internet explorer and no skype.  That makes blogging difficult.  We´re going to try to get it figured out soon, but we´ve tried everything we know to do with no luck (culminating with the occasionally successful ´turn it off and take out the battery´ approach), so it may be a matter of trying to find a repair place.  That is, unless any of our intrepid readers have any other suggestions. 

In the meantime, the Incan ruins of Cusco are calling, so we´re off to explore.

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