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!


All good things must come to an end, New York City, September 2016

We got up at 4am to watch as the ship passed the Statue of Liberty. It was exciting, it was an ending and a beginning for our family as we returned to our native land. We thought about how our ancestors just a few generations ago had entered the US on a similar route from Europe to NYC, though of course with drastically different circumstances. We had left the US from Washington state over a year ago and we had gone through about 25 countries almost entirely by land and sea in that time. We were bound for our old neighborhood and house in Philadelphia, our bills, our friends, our first autumn in two years, a wedding, a crazy election and many other ups and downs in our re-entry. There’s the Statue of Liberty left of center:

We had breakfast, watched the sun get brighter as the ship docked, and loaded up our backpacks for the last time as we exited the cruise ship. We were tired from staying up late the previous night watching a movie starring Fiercely and the teen group, and from getting up so darn early. 

We said goodbye to my parents who were headed back to Ohio. We went through customs, which went smoothly, and we got a warm welcome back from the man who checked our passports and heard a bit of our story. Then we waited at a port building for our ride. 

To our delight and my happy surprise, we were picked up by none other than the illustrious KJ! She and her daughter came to the port building and loaded up our luggage and we spent a few hours in Manhattan. Little did we know (well some of us knew) that she had planned a surprise welcome back party at her place for that evening. She was keeping us busy so we didn’t get there too early. We had great diner food and walked on the Brooklyn Bridge. A few hours later we were in her living room seeing friends we hadn’t seen for over a year. Friends of the kids were there, and watching them reunite was truly a beautiful moment. Challenges were ahead, and I know this in detail since I am now writing over a month later, but the first day back, overall, was fantastic. 

Transatlantic cruise Barcelona to NYC part 2

There were beautiful sunrises and sunsets on the ship. We had fancy dinners and watched movies and went to the gym and generally passed the time with no obligations to do anything. It was kind of nice but it could be boring as well. And we inched inexorably towards the US. 

The next stop was Sydney, Nova Scotia in Canada. It was a small town, very pleasant to walk around, and it was nice to get off the ship. The community is very proud of its musical heritage and its ‘largest violin in the world’. A community orchestra played in the small port building near the ship dock. We walked around the town and were happy to find a used book store. The twins made a friend on the ship and we walked around together.

Later the kids returned to the ship and I walked around some more. I checked out St. George Church, the oldest building in Sydney. 

I also enjoyed St. Patrick’s Church Museum, which had a nice exhibit on the native language of the area inside and old graveyard outside. The Mi’kmaq language had hieroglyphics that were documented by missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

I really savored this town as it was almost our last before hitting US soil and the end of our trip. We got back on the ship for another day or two of cruising. The best parts were hanging out with my parents and seeing the kids so happy and independent. Fiercely, being a teen, actually had access via her room card to a special elevator key going to the teen hangout on an upper floor of the ship. The other kids enjoyed sleepovers and parties that usually require extra fees but were complimentary on this off-season cruise. All of the kids made friends with kids from other countries, which I loved. Before long we were docking at Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

It was a beautiful day and the waterfront boardwalk was nice. I spent some time at the maritime museum, notable for two historical exhibits of fame for area- the Titanic and the Halifax explosion. Halifax was the closest land to where the Titanic sank in 1912. Rescue teams set out to aid survivors and to document those who did not survive. Here is a transcript from a shortwave radio operator of the messages coming from the ship that night and some recovered objects.

The explosion happened just five years later, on December 6, 1917. This watch stopped at the moment of the explosion, just after 9 am. 

It was a massive event, the largest man-made explosion until nuclear weapons were developed decades later. A cargo ship loaded with explosive weapons collided with another ship and ignited, killing and injuring some 11,000 people in what was then a busy port. All structures within 800 yards were destroyed, it melted metal and snapped trees beyond that radius, and a tsunami devastated a nearby Mi’kmaq community. 

The museum had many other ship-related items such as a lighthouse glass, ship instruments, and displays from foreign lands. 


I liked the museum and Halifax. I liked it all the more since this was our last day as world travelers on this trip. Happily, Halifax is drivable from the US east coast and, unlike many places we’ve been, it is reasonable to think we may be back before too long. 

Barcelona to NYC transatlantic cruise, part 1

Our trip of over a year was coming to an end. We had to say goodbye to the beautiful Languedoc region in France and get back to Barcelona in time for the cruise. Though we had been looking forward to the cruise for months, it was bittersweet because it was an ending of a remarkable journey. I had very mixed feelings as we left gorgeous St. Ferriol and started back to Barcelona. One of the many feelings was fear that we might not make it back as my dad once again got behind the wheel! We did make it ok, and one of the most scenic parts of the drive was leaving St. Ferriol and driving through the grey rock mountains of the surrounding area. The car was surrounded on all sides by the rock at several points and there was a sweet little river next to us at times. Castles on hilltops were in the distance under the bright blue skies. 

Another of the many feelings was some pressure to get nicer clothes for the fancy dinners we would have every night with my parents on the cruise. The six of us had very few items of clothing that fit properly and were free of stains, rips, and other embarrassments. We had stocked up at thrift stores but these were few and far between. Heading out of France, we were in search of discount clothing stores, of all things. We had about 30 hours until all aboard. The pressure was on! If anyone ever made a movie of our trip, this would be the dressing room sequence where we all try on different outfits to some upbeat pop music. In reality, I was possibly more stressed out than I had yet been on the trip since I was frantically buying new, poor quality, slave-labor produced, overpriced clothes made of synthetic fabric at a mall. Arghhhhh! This is the polar opposite of our usual slow-paced, second-hand, natural fiber, frugal wardrobe additions. I told the kids to live it up since they loved it and I hoped never to do this again! We found a shop in Quillan and a mall near the highway close to the French/Spanish border. Also notable was a thrift store a few blocks from our Barcelona apartment. I think we pulled it off.  

We returned the rental car, did a little shopping and errands in Barcelona, lost the apartment key (unorganized to the bitter end!), packed our backpacks and the new clothes, and made it to the cruise ship on time. This cruise was 11 nights and included days in Portugal and Canada. It was with a different cruise company, but we knew we would be spoiled, overfed, and possibly bored like last time. We boarded in a bit of a daze, apart from the kids who had been dreaming of this since the last cruise and knew just what to do. This ship was much better in terms of kid programs and theater productions, a bit better in rooms, similar in gym and food, and completely lacking in educational programs. We missed Chelsea the marine biologist! And the library! But I’m not complaining because being on a ship is so awesome compared to flying. And we got to go to the Azores! 

My dad rented a car, the kids stayed on the ship, and the four of us adults drove around the island of São Miguel. We first explored the historic 1550’s fort of São Brás, above, which houses military artifacts and currently serves as a base for the Portuguese Navy. It is a large place; we saw a lot in the underground tunnels and other exhibit spaces, but didn’t see everything. We were interested in the town and lakes in the extinct volcano (second photo below). The roads are beautiful and there were exhuberant pink flowers blooming here and there. 

The town is called Sete Cidades and the ex-volcano in which it is situated is three miles across. There was a church in Sete Cidades, and a statue Mr. Fantastic liked of a pastor named Eduardo Costa Tavares. 

We had a lunch there that was very modestly priced. The setting was unreal with so much green and flowering vegetation and the just-discernible rim of the massive, ancient volcano. The next place we wanted to see was Mosteiros off the northwestern part of the island with a black sand beach and coastal cliffs. We just walked around here and admired the stunning setting and views. 

Also, we met an interesting woman on a bicycle there who runs community cob structure building workshops. She travels internationally by bike. Inspiring!

Next, we were back to the port area, Ponta Delgada. I was struck by the amount of volcanic rock used in building here. Very striking dark color against the white, and very nice sidewalks and other structures.

Then it was time to head back to the ship. As always, I’d love to return. The island had much more to offer- we had heard of hot springs, whale and dolphin watching, and food cooked by geothermal heat- and seemed affordable despite the cruise ship scene. For now, onward we went, west towards the US.

Travels with grandparents, part 2

A day in Carcassonne and a five-course meal in the Great Room- I think we showed my parents a very good time in southwestern France. We had made it to the chateau, and we rented the whole house next door where we had stayed as volunteers. We were comfortable there and we had our oversized minivan for transportation. Though it was rainy when we arrived, the next morning it was back to the usual sunny, gorgeous weather. We drove to Carcassonne to see the lower city and the mideival walled ‘la cite’. Both areas are really quite beautiful and I’m glad we could visit again. We parked in a lot near the city wall and very close to the impressive gothic Cathedral of St. Michael of Carcassonne (top 2 photos). We also saw this neat building with sundial (above). We walked a similar route as we had our last time here, entering near the Chateau Comtal castle entrance rather than the main entrance to La Cite. 

This involves a bit more walking and an incline, making it a little difficult for my parents. We left through the main entrance (above) and felt that would have been an easier route but we hadn’t known. Another nice plaza in the lower city, my parents looking around:
We decided not to enter the Comtal and rather walked around the shops and the Basilique Saint-Nazaire in the walled city. The Basilique is a gorgeous building dating back to the 1100’s on a church site going back to the 500’s.

 I hadn’t noticed this awesome breastfeeding mama before:

We had lunch outdoors and walked across the walled city and out the impressive main entrance which we hadn’t seen before. Then we wandered around the lower city back to where we started.


Soon we were back to the lower city wall and we called it a day.

Another treat awaited us. S had invited us to the Great Hall for dinner. We assured my parents that this was far less formal than it sounds and we had eaten there quite casually many times with the kids and the other volunteers. We didn’t realize S had been cooking a special dinner for three of J’s clients. It turned out to be a wonderful evening of wine and amazing food and fascinating conversation with history enthusiasts. We stayed up far too late discussing genealogy, Catharism, iron tools and other topics with an American traveler and two sisters from Australia along with the entertaining and knowledgeable chateau residents and my parents, all there in the centuries-old massive stone building that had countless stories of its own. As the church bells rang that night, I knew it had been a magical time and I am so grateful we could share it with my parents.

Barcelona, Spain and St. Ferriol/Carcassonne, France reprise with grandparents! September 2016

We were to join forces with my septuagenarian parents for this last leg of the trip. Barcelona to Carcassonne/St. Ferriol and back, then an 11-day cruise from Barcelona to New York City. Eight of us, three generations, two weeks, four countries, a cruise ship, rental cars in foreign lands- what could go wrong? As it turned out, we missed their arrival at the airport, there was a mild rental apartment snafu and, yes, the car got towed once in Barcelona but everything else went fairly well. 

As for us, first we had to get from St. Ferriol to Barcelona. This took all day by train due to Sunday schedules. We had two-hour layovers in both Carcassonne and Perpignan. Many things were closed, this being Sunday, but the weather was lovely and we did walk around both places while waiting for trains. The train rides were pleasant, especially heading out of Perpignan when we were by the sea. In Barcelona, we had a decent apartment with a nice view from our sixth-floor deck. We could see the port in the distance and many city lights. 

The next day we met my parents, however their flight had arrived early (?!) so they had gone to their hotel. We found them and had a happy, though travel-weary and jet lagged on their part, reunion. Then we found a modest diner and had a nice lunch nearby. The head waiter/manager was so welcoming and suave. The food was good and there was wine if we liked, or coffee, both excellent. I was thrilled to be able to speak and understand Spanish, finally able to communicate in a foreign language after over a year of travel. The next day, we picked up the rental car and also saw the famous Sagrada Familia church. 

Barcelona was hot and crowded but also nicely pedestrian. We enjoyed eating at a street cafe and hanging out at a park near the famous church while we waited to enter. We had timed tickets- the first of the entire trip! It is a beautiful church. It has been under construction since 1882, famously designed by Antoni Gaudi from 1883 until his death in 1926, and was consecrated in 2010. My mom had been here in the 1990’s and said visitors could not enter at that time. Currently it does hold services on occasion, but the vast majority of visitors are tourists like us. 
I went down to the crypt, the older part of the church which houses Gaudi’s grave. It was darker and much more typical of other European churches we had seen.

Gaudi’s grave, top photo above and this one below:

The next day we drove to France and St. Ferriol. We were excited to get an early start, but it was not to be. The car was not where Mr. Fantastic had parked it, in fact it had been towed less than an hour before we went looking for it. This cost us about four hours and $200, unfortunately. But we were happy that be together and looking forward to France, so not too bothered and eventually we were able to head for the highway and the French countryside. I won’t say much about having my 75-year-old Dad behind the wheel, but I will point out that though he rented and drove the car, he was rejected from several agencies first for his age. Also, my dear Mr. Fantastic had nerves of steel and the patience of Buddha as he sat next to my dad and navigated through Barcelona and on to the freeway with its toll booths and rest stops and on-ramps and other exciting moments. I just tried to breathe deeply and not look out the window! We made the trip in about three hours, with the last part unexpectedly taking us along a cliff and across a high bridge which made us a bit nervous. Or someof us, anyway. We pulled up next to the chateau and introduced my parents to the chateau family S, J, and G. We settled in up there on the hilltop and rested before the next adventure.

San Ferriol and Montsegur, France, September 2016

‘Bring them to me,’ ordered the chatelaine majestically as I listened to her describe the day’s work. ‘I have special plans for their demise,’ she continued and laughed an evil laugh. It was S and though she was referring to mortal enemies, they were weeds rather than people. The crusades had been here, true, but that was centuries ago. We were gardening.  For us, St. Ferriol was beautiful views, iron tools, and hazelnuts right off the tree! And the beautiful garden of course.

So, we were back for more at the chateau! The kids settled back into their room, happy to be somewhere familiar and happy to see the family again. There were other volunteers that week and also S’s brother in London who came to visit and we really enjoyed their company. We were back in the great room for meals and back in the unfinished part of the castle doing cleaning and organizing. I did some garden work, too, and S had the kids picking apples, hazelnuts, and lavender. G, the eight-year-old, was in school now so wasn’t around as much as last time. He did join the kids in building a nice fort and generally running around. The weather again was sunny and clear, cool at night and just perfect. The kids cleaned ancient glass bottles and the twins went kayaking with G at a creek in Quillan:

One evening, S and J invited us to see a guide they were considering as a partner. We drove about an hour to Montsegur where we met the guide (who, as it happens, is an interesting guy and filmmaker of some note) and hiked to the castle ruin up a somewhat treacherous uphill path. The Cathar religion was a 12-14th century movement targeted by the Crusades that included beliefs in pacifism, vegetarianism, reincarnation, and the idea of co-existing good and evil gods. Chateau Montsegur was built on an historic Cathar site where trace stonework of actual Cathar structures remain. J is an expert in the Cathars and many people come to the region to learn from him and study this religious history. The ruins were grey and offered fascinating stories and wonderful views.

Another thing we did this week was hike nearby Chateau St. Ferriol to see another view of the countryside. This was only a few minutes walk from the chateau:

Beautiful! I also climbed out a skylight on the top floor and sat on the chateau roof with Fiercely.

Some other events of that week: a fancy gathering of academics in the great room, which felt very Downton Abbey as I was polishing the silverware then hiding with the kids so as not to disrupt the evening. Kids making bouquets for the great room and also picking lavender and making sachets. Watching “Cool Running” movie on the wall of the great hall one night with the kids. Hanging laundry on the line and watching it flap in the breeze. S bringing us pain de chocolate one morning by surprise. And our last day, lining up our backpacks outside the little yellow house as we got ready to leave:

But it wasn’t goodbye- not yet! We were coming back in a few days- this time with grandparents!