Some notes and anecdotes I forgot 

Embarrassing yet entertaining. We  were on a minibus in Thailand discussing the physics of eggshells, specifically chicken eggshells. Apparently, if you hold an egg in your fist and squeeze, the force is equally distributed and the shell will not break. The minibus stopped and, lo and behold, a snack stand was selling eggs. Always eager to take advantage of a teaching moment, Mr. Fantastic bought an egg and commenced applying pressure on the egg enclosed in his fist. Thai snack sellers looked on with mild curiosity. The next thing we knew, boiled egg innards were splattering the surroundings in a radius of impressive dimensions. Yellow goo was splashed in every direction as by-standers jumped back and began laughing. The ladies behind the snack counter laughed loudly and long. Then they gave us a replacement egg for free. We tried this trick again recently and came to the realization that the egg must be raw- hard boiled eggs do not work!

Roadside rest stop. We were driving out west in the US somewhere desolate when Truly had to go to the bathroom and she could not wait. I was behind the steering wheel and decided to pull over rather than wait who-knows-how-long for an exit that might or might not have facilities. Really decided to get out and take advantage of the opportunity to empty her bladder as well. They got back in and someone closed the door. I pulled away and quickly realized they hadn’t both re-entered the car. Truly was a few hundred feet back, on the narrow strip between the highway and the desert, waving and running after us! I stopped, reversed, and picked up my poor anxious baby. I am so sorry Truly!

Embarrassing yet entertaining part 2. Ok, this was embarrassing at the time but so funny in retrospect. I’d like to tell you it happened to someone else in my family but… it was me. We felt a little self-conscious in Yangon, where it seemed everyone wore long skirts (even the men in their longyi) or pants. I had a large piece of fabric I liked and I would often wear it as a skirt by tying it around my waist. It reached to my ankles, so I was well covered, but my method of tying was not so good. I often had to tighten it during the day as I felt the fabric becoming loose or noticed it dragging a little on the ground. I took to wearing black shorts, kind of like bicycle shorts, under the skirt to tuck the fabric into and to cover me better during frequent public instances of skirt re-tying. Anyhoo, maybe you can see where this is going. I was walking along a typically busy sidewalk and the skirt was beginning to drag behind me. I didn’t notice until I got pulled back by the fabric a little. This was happening because someone had stepped on it, but I ignored the tugging and kept walking. Unfortunately for me, but to the delight of bystanders, the whole thing untied, the fabric was largely behind me on the ground and there I was with my big ol’ white legs naked as the day I was born, and thank goodness for the shorts!  The modest locals laughed, especially the group of men playing cards and chewing betel nut leaf. They looked up from their cards, forgot to spit the red betel nut juice for a moment and laughed. I just laughed along and grabbed the fabric as quickly as I could and kept walking, wrapping and tying as I walked along. The whole thing was over in a flash- did I just say flash?!

Random notes…

Traveling west was a great way to go. After losing 24 hours crossing the International Date Line at sea in September 2015, we gained time slowly the rest of the trip. We almost never traveled by air and never crossed time zones by air so we were never jet lagged. I think that gaining time made it easier to make it to trains and busses on time and to get enough sleep. Traveling eastward would mean losing those hours instead. We did not plan it this way, in fact I originally wanted to cross the Atlantic first and continue eastward, but I like how it worked out.

Obama and leap year. I feel lucky to have traveled during Obama’s presidency because people around the world seemed to know and admire him. Also, we scored an extra day of this long vacation because we happened to travel during a leap year!

Washington, DC, January 2017

LW was back in DC after working in Haiti for almost a year, Cleverly and I had flexible schedules, we found bus tickets and an affordable place to stay, and soon we were walking Lincoln (LW’s adorable dog) in the DuPont neighborhood under cold, sunny skies. We hadn’t seen our friends or their lovely city in about a year and a half. We had a marvelous weekend.

Above:Smithsonian castle!

Washington really is a lovely city and compares well with Paris, St. Petersburg, Beijing, Istanbul, and other cities we saw in our travels. The different neighborhoods are walkable and have beautiful architecture and interesting restaurants, the metro is convenient and affordable, and of course the museums and other attractions are legion. It is generally expensive, though budget options can be found and many museums are free. We cut corners on lodgings and some meals, and splurged on a few non-essentials. 

Above: Cleverly at Union Station 

I couldn’t get tickets on the Chinatown bus as we had done in the past. We traveled on a newer bus option for a little under $60 for the two of us round trip. It was a double-decker bus and we sat upstairs beneath a glass roof! It was sunny and clear on our trip out, and the views were beautiful. On the way back, we sat in the first row on the upper floor so we had an amazing view, especially when we went through snow a few times. “Like a movie screen,” observed Cleverly. Both buses were clean and quiet and comfortable. The bathrooms were extremely clean and well-equipped. The D.C. location was gorgeous Union Station. 

Hindu statue at Sackler Gallery 

We stayed in a semi-legal shared apartment I found online. Clearly this is a business as the man has many listings. It was very similar to places we stayed in Mongolia and China with two bunk beds in each of two bedrooms in a fairly new apartment complex. It felt like a youth hostel in a two-bedroom apartment. The ‘host’ posted a stock photo that looked nothing like him in person and repeatedly told us in emails that we were his ‘friends’ and not to mention the site we found him on if we spoke with building residents or staff. The other guests were from all over- South Korea, Scotland, China, and the US. People were very friendly and two of them mentioned they are longer-term residents doing internships in the city. I liked the shared-space, international vibe, and the location was very good, just a few minutes walk to the metro. The place was clean and the neighborhood (near NoMa metro station) felt safe. We really didn’t spend much time there, but could have cooked and done laundry there if we chose.

Postal museum next to union station We arrived on a Friday at Union Station. It is a grand marble building with soaring arched ceilings and many shops. Trains, buses, subways, and cabs come and go here and I felt like we were in Bucharest again, or London. Right next door was the National Postal Museum, way more interesting than one might predict. There were displays on transportation, including tuktuk-style vehicles and airplanes, and on mail crime. Mailboxes and stamps throughout history and from different countries are also on view (above photo). Check out the actual planes:

We met LW in the DuPont Circle neighborhood and got there a little early. We were lucky enough to meet a mural artist at work near the metro station. Check out Jay F. Coleman in front of his city-sponsored mural on a disused metro stairwell:

Mr. Coleman is a sculpture and mural artist who also taught special ed for years. He was very friendly and upbeat. Cleverly draws a lot and was excited to meet a fellow artist. What a great first few hours in the city!

We were so happy to see LW and Lincoln the dog after all of our travels and theirs. We started out with dinner and walking around the Adams Morgan neighborhood. We had pizza at a chain originally from LW’s hometown of Atlanta GA, then we had cupcakes at this cute bake shop.

The next day we went to the Phillips Collection, a modern art museum. I had never heard of it, but it was amazing. Modest in size, but with many pieces by artists even I know such as Van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Renoir. LW was especially interested in a series of prints about the Haitian ex-slave and revolutionary leader Toussaint L’oveurture. It was really colorful and informative. That night we had Turkish food with a bunch of foreign service workers and government workers who have riveting stories of their work and the effects of the new US president on their jobs. The next day we celebrated the Chinese New Year at a dim sum brunch with more of LW’s friends. Hooray for the year of the rooster! Then we spent the day at Mount Vernon. 

Squee! I am currently reading about and crushing on US revolutionary figures, mostly due to being a shameless fan girl of Hamilton the musical. Anyway, I couldn’t get Ron Chernow’s Hamilton (the biography that inspired the musical) from the library because of a waiting list of over 200 people. So I read his Washington, a Life instead. So good!! And that led me to want to see Washington’s home of Mount Vernon. It is a large property, about 500 acres on the Potomac River. Though some parts are seasonal and were therefore closed, and the mansion was closed for renovations for two weeks (giving us a 50% discount on tickets, but I would have happily paid to see the mansion! Must return!), there was still a lot to see. We saw the slave quarters, gardens, a 16-sided barn designed by GW for threshing, a working blacksmith, Washington family graves including George’s and Martha’s, and the outside of the lovely mansion. The splendid museum is divided into sections on enslaved people of Mt. Vernon and on GW’s life and times. It looked very new and had videos and animated displays. I bought the Hamilton book at the gift shop and am now happily reading another superb Chernow book. All I’ll say for now is that we in the US could really use, right now, some intelligent, driven but  humble, honorable leaders with a fraction of the integrity of the founding fathers. Thank you, General Washington, and rest in peace. 

Our last day, because it was next to our metro stop, we visited a new, flagship store of a company that sells outdoor gear. Their prices are out of our budget, but I got to feel superior since we hiked the Himalayas in second-hand shoes and, anyway, I wanted to see the historic building it occupies. It had been built for an ice company in 1931, then later served to house Eisenhower’s inaugural ball and the first US Beatles concert in 1964. They still have some stadium seats as decoration, and there is a nice courtyard.

We hit two more museums and the Smithsonian castle before saying goodbye to friends and the city. The Hirshorn museum had stellar modern art:

The Sackler Gallery has Asian art that helped me deal with sadness from leaving Asia where we saw such beauty daily. The middle photo is the Cosmic Buddha with engravings telling Buddhist mythology. 

The Castle tells the unlikely happenings that led the wealth of Mr. Smithson, a British national who never came to the US, to create this extraordinary institution. And I got this composite photo of myself rendered in images from the Smithsonian collections!

Alas, we had to leave Monday afternoon. Bye for now, Washington! See you, LW and friends! We hope to come back soon.

Post-trip blues part 2

Yeah, yeah, I’m bummed the trip is over but you probably don’t want to read about that any more. And hey, we made it through the first few months back. If I were a reader I’d want to know the practicalities on that, so here are some gory details. 

We didn’t have a car. We biked a lot and took public transport in bad weather. The buses and subways here are pathetic compared to everywhere we traveled. Very expensive, slow, inconvenient. We rented cars for longer trips. We probably should have learned to use Uber or Lyft but we didn’t. We joined a car share but haven’t used it. We paid a friend to use his car, which he was trying to sell anyway. It is a good car for now but it only seats five and it has a lot of miles on it so we will eventually get another car. We mostly own that car now, and we have car insurance now which makes it cheaper to rent if we need to. I took a job close to home. I bike or take the subway to work.

We accepted a personal loan from a friend. We preferred not to ask family for various reasons, and this friend generously offered. The credit cards were maxed out, there was very little cash, and we never did get that bank loan we had arranged before leaving.* We drew up legal papers for our friend’s loan and we are paying interest on it. Mr. Fantastic has continued teaching online as he did since Thailand so we had that income and some rental income to help until I started getting paychecks. Eventually (6 months to a year from now) I will have enough pay stubs and we plan to get that home loan again to pay off the credit cards and avoid their high interest. 

We had no health insurance for about two months. After hours on the phone, we kept hearing that we weren’t eligible for ‘Obamacare’, which I had assumed would be there for us on our return. You can only apply at the end of each calendar year for the following year, unless you experience certain specific life events which evidently do not include our situation. We submitted many forms and faxes requesting state health insurance, for which we parents were denied. The kids eventually got on that insurance November 1st, but we didn’t know that until the end of November and we didn’t use it. My job required a wait of almost two months for insurance, but I lucked out by attending an orientation day before I could start working. They counted that date as my start date and we had insurance on December 1st, about a week before I started working for real. If I hadn’t gone to that orientation day, we would have had to wait until February! And I work in the emergency room!! This is hard to take for a healthy, working family of six who just want to avoid illness-related financial disaster. 

More on insurance. It’s a big thing in the US where there is no national plan other than the new (and confusing and currently threatened) Obamacare which fines individuals who do not have health insurance while providing some assistance in finding and financing it. Medical costs are extremely high and prices are unclear, complex, and frustrating. Like most people we know, we’ve always had insurance through an employer, though once between jobs we bought a short term ‘catastrophic’ plan that would save us from bankruptcy in the event of an expensive injury or illness. These are affordable but not available now for our situation from a little research I did. Buying a mainstream plan would cost us about $1200/month, which we don’t have. One thing I considered is continuing the travel health insurance. It only functions 100 miles from our home address, but it is affordable. We did go to NY and OH and maybe could have driven 100 miles if we had a problem at home. We only had one incident where we might have used health insurance- bug bites on my foot. They got larger and I couldn’t walk for a day or two. Fortunately they became smaller after that. Don’t think I missed the irony that after a year traveling with over six months in Southeast Asia and India, the worrisome insect bites we had happened in New Jersey!

School. We homeschool so some things are easier. However, we missed several autumn deadlines and start dates because we got back at the end of September. We organized some things online abroad. All the kids were able to join the homeschool theater group again as well as foreign language classes in progress. Fiercely was able to join an older teen group in progress, and we host a weekly homeschool group for the twins. Cleverly decided to apply to a music charter school for next year and has been busy with the application. We found a kids’ writing organization we like nearby and have joined some of their groups. Some days seem a little slow but overall it has been smooth with school. 

*We received and deposited a large check (a loan on our house) the day we headed out on the trip. The bank called us a few days later (when we were driving across Nevada) requesting more paperwork and telling us they cancelled the check and could we come back to sign more papers. Arghhh!!! So we never got that money and we ran up several credit cards instead. 

 Post-trip blues

Our luggage ready to leave St. Ferriol 

What happens after? To an outside observer, as I was for many years on other blogs as we planned our Big Trip, the first few months upon return are worthy of attention. Assuming you quit jobs and generally burned-or at least shut down- bridges when you left, what do you do when you return? What do you do for income, health insurance, work? And if, somehow, these are not concerns, how do you integrate into a community that has adjusted to your absence? What if you were happy to leave certain things, and now you have to deal with them again? How about the fact that you were seeing  magnificent cities, exotic countryside, and UNESCO sites daily and now you spend your time listening to hold music waiting for another disgruntled customer service rep at the utility company? Additionally, in our case, there was a brutally unkind national election going on and discussing it had become perilous whatever one’s beliefs. 

Back to America The USA is wonderful for many things, as I was reminded often while traveling. People all over the world admire US opportunities, wealth, and ideals, and many long to live here. But for me returning to the US, my difficult re-adjustment was taking place against the usual backdrop of rampant US consumerism and waste relative to most things we had seen around the world. I offer as one small example- laundry. Everywhere we went, people did not use clothes dryers, even if they owned one. We saw clotheslines of many designs in China and Southeast Asia. The Rajasthan air dried things rapidly whether hung inside or outside. Our generous hosts in famously rainy London had an ordinary tumble dryer next to the washing machine but seemed to prefer the foldable clothes drying rack, they even had a drying rack that plugged in-their ‘electric clothes dryer’! At the castle in France, S hung out her laundry on a picturesque line and was very aware of water use. She watered the garden with rinse water from the dishes. People we met in China and India and even Europe had small living spaces, few possessions, and generally used relatively little resources. Here in the US we have the perception of unlimited water, gas, electricity, and garbage disposal and we live accordingly. It is commonplace to drive everywhere, heat or cool the house to 68 degrees F, and throw out countless disposable single-use items, and to throw out food. I have always tried to counteract this in my own household, and it is a challenge in the US milieu of overconsumption. 

I was blue. I think the hardest thing for me has been losing the beacon of the trip. I looked forward to it for so many years and now I enjoy looking back, but this is bittersweet because it is over. And, as I probably mentioned, I couldn’t work for over two months due to paperwork issues. I don’t know if I’ve ever had so long a stretch without work, school, newborns, or travel. During the trip, I was happy to consider living abroad or in upstate NY, so returning to the city was a bit of a letdown. When I started work a few weeks ago it was a welcome change, but it is also extremely challenging because I haven’t worked for 15 months. It is humbling and another reminder the trip is over.

Some things help. I had to make some structure for myself when I wasn’t working. I couldn’t really spend any money. I forced myself to write and meditate almost every day, and to go jogging every other day. I wrote 50,000 words in November with the NaNoWriMo challenge. We were able to visit my parents in Ohio for a few days, and there was my sister-in-law’s wedding, and the holidays. I wish I could say I started studying Chinese or did a week of hiking somewhere or refinished our kitchen or something, but I haven’t been feeling very ambitious. I did help re-do our cast iron tub and paint the bathroom, which looks great. New charcoal walls, refinished original 1890’s tub, original wall tile, thanks, Victorians!

I become obsessed with Hamilton the musical and I’ve been reading a lot of US history after jogging to the Hamilton soundtrack. I find it calming in this political climate, and also inspiring in several ways- great stories of the actual history and people, great music, amazing Lin-Manuel Miranda! And now I’m working, which gives me a schedule and income and a challenge to meet. And of course I am very lucky to live with Mr. Fantastic and our kids who are all happy to be back. They are doing very well with their friends and activities. I am taking longer to get into a groove here but it’s coming along. What I really need to do is plan another trip. Happy 2017 and here’s to happiness at home in the new year!

Ohio and general goings-on, November/December 2016

Life is moving along and sometimes it seems as though we never left. We jumped right back into things around here and even took a trip to Ohio to see the grandparents. November brought Thanksgiving and the parade downtown:

We saw the parade and later had a spectacular feast with friends. The next day, I made the familiar trip to Ohio. Fiercely is sixteen now and soon will probably be busy with other things and unable to go, so I thought about that as I drove. Also, I will be at a new job and will not be able to take time off for a few months. So we took advantage of the five days we had and off we went. We had a rental car that was smaller than what we were used to, but otherwise the seven-hour drive was typical. It was strange to rent a car and go without tuktuks, taxis, trains, or busses. I tried to appreciate the US highway system, but I wish we could go by train instead. I especially miss those trains in India with the chai and snack sellers coming down the aisle as the countryside passed by our window. We don’t own a car so I notice acutely the lack of public transportation almost every day. Luckily, autumn was very mild and we have bikes. We have been biking quite a bit around our city. Here is a view from the bridge near our house and a newish bike/walkway over the river is visible on the right:

Giant swing outside the train station:

As for Ohio, we did enjoy visiting Ohio and my parents. The twins, my mom and I went to beautiful Penitentiary Glen and saw the resident animals that were rescued and rehabilitated there. 

The twins wanted to take a photo on the butterfly bench again like we had taken there years ago:

Also, we went through the walk-through board game about the seasons and local wildlife. It is geared towards younger kids, but fun anyway, even if you’re 10:

The autumn for us also means our homeschool play, usually a musical panto. This year was different and the chosen show was The Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett, a sort of mideival sci-fi story with references to Shakespeare. The kids practiced outside at city parks and performed in a small theater downtown. Fiercely, below right was one of the three witches:

Cleverly, right, speaking with Death, was the ghost of King Varence:

And there are the twins as peasants speaking with a witch:

And now we have an actual Christmas tree instead of the green mosquito net we used as a tree in Bangkok last year! It’s quite lovely in our house, which is itself nicer than previously due to less clutter and repairs/new paint we (well, mostly Mr. Fantastic) did for the tenants before we left. 

So deck the halls, y’all. It’s kind of a weird Xmas for us, familiar but we skipped all this for a year so it’s oddly novel, too. I’m probably the one having the hardest time adjusting to being here and I’ve always had some issues with the big holiday anyway, so pardon my less-than-jolly self. I’m working on a couple of other posts about post-trip thoughts and adjusting to post-travel life. Thanks for reading!

Summary, November 2016

So, we’ve been back well over a month now and it’s time to do a little review. We moved out of our house August 1, 2015 and returned September 29, 2016. 

Here’s an outline of the trip:

Drove from Philly to San Francisco in a driveway car, then from there to Vancouver in a rental car.

Took a ship (16 nights) from Vancouver, Canada to Shanghai, China, crossing the international date line and losing a full day which we would gain back one hour at a time during the year.

Took a train to Kunming, China and then busses and taxis to the Lao border. Stayed in Laos a month, then in Thailand for three months, then Myanmar about a month. 

Crossed by land into India and spent about 10 weeks there, mostly in Rajasthan. Went to Nepal for a couple of weeks and then back into China. 

Took the tran-Siberian railway from Beijing, China to Moscow, Russia with a stop in Mongolia and a few places in Russia.

Flew to Istanbul from Moscow, stayed about a week then flew to Bucharest, Romania (with a 19-hour layover in Athens, Greece). Drove and took trains from Bucharest to Croatia, took a ferry to Venice, and then trains and rental cars and a ferry west to Ireland, stopping in France and England. 

Came back east to Barcelona (ferries and trains) and took a ship 11 nights to NYC. 

Here’s the grand total, more or less:

$86,000, or $14,333 each. We had some saved, but we’re probably in debt for half that. 

How many days? 426

So that’s: $201.89 per day. Pretty awesome!

Significantly, 27 days were spent on cruise ships for about $12,000 or $444.44/day. Taking this out of the equation, we get a little over $185/day for the other 399 days of the trip. This includes health insurance (about $1800), replacing two laptops ($2000 total- ouch!) and a stolen motorbike, and all those visas- over $3000 for China, Russia and India alone. 

List of countries: USA, Canada, China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, India, Nepal, Mongolia, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Romania, Croatia, Hungary, Italy, France, England, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal. Then there was Vatican City (technically its own country) and Wales (part of the U.K. with England). Places we went that are not countries despite what some may believe include Siberia and Transylvania. 

Favorite experiences: for the kids, it was the cruises, teaching in Laos, and anything with animals. They also mention Ireland and India as favorite countries. I loved so many things I can’t choose. 

Least favorite: we knew it at the time, and luckily nothing was worse, because really, things could have been so much worse! No surprise here: the overnight train ride on a wooden bench in Myanmar from Yangon to Mandalay.

Animals: we spent quality time with Bactrian camels, dromedary camels, Asian elephants, Irish thoroughbred polo horses, Indian Marwari horses, Mongolian horses, Cambodian crocodiles, Laos monkeys, several species of Indian monkeys, water buffaloes, yaks, goats, bats in Cambodia and France, newborn goats in Nepal, French standard poodles, street cows in India, small Thai fish while snorkeling, kittens in Laos and China, St. Petersburg pigeons, and countless dogs and cats and I’m probably forgetting even more!

Favorite foods: the kids were very specific and different from each other on this. From youngest to oldest: Truly- vegetables and rice at a roadside restaurant in Laos; Really- dahl fry in India: Cleverly- pasta at the pub in the mountain village of Roviano, Italy; and Fiercely- pad Thai we made in our Bangkok cooking class. 

Population Extremes: we were in one of the least densely populated countries, Mongolia with under 2 people per square km, and one of the most densely populated countries, India, with over 440 people per square km. 

I’ll end for now, happy thanksgiving!