Chennai, India, March 2017

After recovering from the 21 hours of travel and the 10.5 hour time difference, it was wonderful to spend the next day or two wandering in Chennai with MB. The main things we saw were tourist sites I had seen on the internet when looking into the city from the US. We also rode in tuktuks, to my delight, ate amazing food and enjoyed the familiarity of a 30+ year friendship in a place of overwhelming beauty. Over and over I realized how lucky I was to have this time and this trip. 

Kapaleeswarar 

This temple is a popular Chennai attraction and also an active place of worship. The temple buildings are roofed in the historic pyramid shape with a flattened top and adorned on each level with many colorful figures from Hindu mythology. I learned a tiny amount about the Dravidian people associated with this type of architecture, and indeed the history of south India, and it is a mesmerizing subject. Besides forming a unique language group that persists to this day, their architectural and math/astronomy accomplishments are marvelous.

Photo above is looking through a decorative peephole in a cement wall that otherwise sequestered a shrine 

As for us, we sat on the ground with the worshippers, got blessed by a monk, and were approached by people who wanted to give us flowers and a type of cookie I remember eating in Jaipur last year. I don’t remember spending quiet time at a temple like this last year; usually we were fielding requests from the kids for something or other. It was so pleasant to just watch people, all of us barefoot and in awe of the fantastic structures around us. 

Government Museum 

This is a complex of buildings with displays of different kinds, including archaeology, biology, geology, and sculpture. We spent time in these exhibit areas and walked around a little outside, but it was hot! Inside and out! We saw far from everything.

The kids below wanted a photo with us, but a guard told us we couldn’t take photos here. No one seemed to object to people, like the little guy at left, sitting on the artifacts, however!

Philadelphia to Chennai, India, March 2017

I stepped into the airport and everything fell away. The deals and debates it took to get here, the strenuous deliberations with bosses and budgets, myriad stresses of my job, the bickering daughters, the leak in my bedroom ceiling, political evils, the tribulations and disappointments of everyday life, the clamor of bills to be paid. I was going to be lifted into the air, transported thousands of miles away and ten hours into the future, and on the other side- my dear and daring exclamation point of a friend MB and the exotic world of the Indian subcontinent. Chennai, in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, I was going to Chennai. 

MB (after playing Holi, above) is a master teacher of children in the Montessori tradition. She is earning a PhD level certification over several years and the study requires her to teach aspiring Montessori instructors in a new setting. She told me a couple of years ago that she would be going to a Montessori center in either Wisconsin or in Chennai, and I made an optimistic plan to visit her. 

Shrine to Ganesh, remover of obstacles, at train station 

I have been avidly watching her timeline and ours as she was sent to India while we were in Europe. When I had plenty of time in the autumn due to unemployment, she welcomed me for a visit but I had no income and couldn’t justify the cost of traveling. When I started working, it was hard to request time off for such a journey. But by the grace of Ganesh and two co-workers who covered my shifts, I found a 16-day stretch of days off and things looked good. Mr. Fantastic was back on hand as the travel planner extraordinaire and we found plane tickets and went through the India e-visa process. This was much easier than getting Indian visas to enter by land as we had done last year in Yangon, Myanmar, by the way. I didn’t have much time to contemplate the trip since I was working so much, but the day drew closer. 

Tuktuks in Bangalore 

It being international women’s day, the European airline let women board the plane first. It was the first but by no means the last time they would earn my enthusiastic appreciation. The early boarding, plethora of movie choices, free wine with excellent meals, empty seats next to me on which I could sprawl and sleep, warm towelettes for washing, ahhh it was a dream. Of course, I am not your jaded frequent flyer. We went around the world last year with almost no flights and before that it had been years since I was airborne. Also, I was beginning a happy solo journey to experience two incredible adventures – south India and MB. Unlike the RTW trip, I did not have to be influenced by up to five other people about how to spend the day. I didn’t have to multiply admission prices or a milkshake splurge times six. I had no work burdens, no family demands, no housework. On the plane, I probably could have been crated in storage and still been blissed out. 

Riding a tuktuk in Chennai 

It was a long flight, though. Two flights, to be precise, each around eight hours. In Frankfurt, I was briefly inconvenienced. The German officer told me I had to drink all the water in my water bottle before passing to my connecting flight. It felt like a college drinking game. I chugged and was permitted to move on. Also, before landing in Frankfurt, we were told we had to sign our passports or they would not be considered viable documents. Kind of uptight they are, over there in Germany, where I was just passing through. 

Stone carvings at Government Museum in Chennai 

On arriving in Chennai, it was a little confusing with jet lag, customs, many people jostling to improve their place in line. I had to try three lines before finding the right one for e-visa holders such as myself. My passport was grudgingly stamped by a slow moving government employee and I was shown the exit into the humid night air. It was 1:30 in the morning and I had arrived in Chennai. And there was a driver with my name on a placard! The adventure began.

Thanks, Ganesh, remover of obstacles! This is a 30′ tall Ganesh at a Shiva temple near Bangalore.

“You’re ruining my life!”: a post about family dynamics and long term travel

In our family, we spent years, literally most of the kids’ lives, talking about our big trip. Much in the way that some kids grow up knowing they will go to college or take over the family business or follow a certain religion, our kids knew we would take a year off to travel. This was not up for discussion. However, much like these other life-defining paths, once it became closer and clearer in meaning, it took on a new perspective and was questioned. And then, once we were actually out there, thousands of miles and a significant number of time zones from home, it got real. 

We had a teenager and a pre-teen with active social lives who had been removed from their milieu. The twins were just nine years old, but they had friends they missed as well. There were phone calls and video chats and other electronic means of communication, however there were also things happening back home and my kids were not physically there to join in. There were changing relationships and our homeschool theater group shows and holiday parties and Girl Scouts and birthdays and my kids were absent for all of it. Even the twins had times of sadness and I felt massive pangs of guilt every time. The kids didn’t dream of travel, I did. They knew about it and they liked some parts of it, but they ultimately had no choice about going. Every time the homesickness set in for the kids, I felt their sadness and I had to remind myself of the benefits of this trip. I didn’t have to look far to see the upsides of travel and I could always bring myself back into enthusiasm and optimism about our life at the moment. That doesn’t mean that it was easy to encourage them to enjoy the trip. It certainly wasn’t easy to see them unhappy. 

Fiercely could be brutal with her criticism. Going on sixteen and normally of a calm and positive disposition, Fiercely had moments of misery and suffering. She lashed out crying more than once. We had taken her away from her friends, her sisters were driving her crazy, we demanded too much schoolwork, why were we in [current country/ area] anyway?! We listened to many complaints at times. We gave her what choices we could, which often resulted in her staying ‘home’ while the rest of us went sight-seeing. 

Cleverly thrives on solitude and having her own space- almost impossible during the trip. With our tight budget we were often, for long stretches of time, in one hotel room together or on a crowded train. She began drawing and has developed admirable skill after spending hours almost every day with paper and pencil. She created, and sometimes viciously defended, her own personal spaces as best she could while traveling with five often intrusive people. 

The twins, age nine when we left, were fairly pleasant travelers. They were game for most activities and I can’t think of an instance of them boycotting anything. They did have sad moments of homesickness and missing their friends, which were heartbreaking to witness. The challenge with them was the bickering between themselves and with their sisters. 

Sometimes all of the kids just wanted to stay in the hotel room or apartment. It was usually a comfortable place with wifi. Outside were the world’s wonders, yes, but also it was hot, or raining, or cold, and there were pickpockets and squat toilets and no one speaking English. There was a lot of walking to do, and strange food, and no internet and a lot of things we might like but couldn’t afford. They often preferred to stay indoors and text about our exotic location rather than experience it. 

We had trying conversations about life after the trip. I, for one, was open to living abroad for a year or more. If that didn’t work out, I was interested in moving back to upstate NY where we had a nice farmhouse and some land, rented out at the time to a difficult tenant, rather than to our house in Philadelphia, rented out to lovely tenants who wanted to stay. This occasioned vehement pushback from several family members. “You said one year!”was a frequent comment. “Isn’t this enough for you?! How can you complain?We’re in Kat! Man! Du!”. In truth, it wasn’t enough for me when I considered picking up with our pre-trip lives exactly where we left off. It appears I like novelty and change as opposed to tradition and familiarity. As time went on and a job abroad did not materialize, going back to Philadelphia seemed to be out fate. And it has worked out very well in almost every way. The kids joyfully reunited with friends and the neighborhood in general and to be honest I sulked for a while. Now the situation was reversed. I was the one who could get cranky about our current situation. I was the one questioning our lifestyle and our choices and sometimes viciously defending my personal space. And so our family moves on. 

The thing that sticks in my mind when I think of our family and our dramatic escape from- and then return to- our lives is that many things do not change simply due to geography. Our good and bad coping strategies were present during times of stress and boredom worldwide. Our joy was wide and our frustration deep at intervals similar to those in years past, though the background could be quite exotic. When we were trying to get Russian visas in Beijing, while negotiating entertainment options on cruise ships and while bumping along on night buses in Myanmar, we remained ourselves in the big, big world. In terms of family dynamics, perhaps that is the most surprising, and most comforting, thing of all.

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.