Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Three Lessons from Ten Months on My Duff

I woke up this morning with my muscles feeling ... well, not in pain, but tomorrow will be trouble.  Technically, my soon-to-be-hobbled walk will be because I played soccer last night for the first time in a long while. The real reason for my aches, though, is that my life is returning to "normal."  The travels are done, work will begin soon, and I am finally in one place long enough to resume a routine.

It is time to get real and share more in-depth thoughts on the sabbatical.

 When I first contemplated my big time off, I asked myself:

What if you had ten months to do whatever you wanted with your life? What would you do?

That made me think about what I want out of my life.  Whoa, mama.  It is not the most comfortable exercise.  But you know what the hiatus taught me?

Uncomfortable is wonderful.

Without a doubt, my best experiences are those in which things go wrong, sometimes even horribly wrong.  Like when my many confused, lost, or death-defying adventures on Bolivian buses ended with me loving the country even more.

Or the time I drove - and crashed - a motorbike in Hoi An. 
Or when Kristin and I took the longest, dustiest, sweatiest, somewhat-sketchiest journey through Laos to get to Savannahket, and yet I loved every inch of that town and that trip.  Or the time we got lost, jet-lagged and exhausted, in the bowels of Shinjuku Station in Japan, only to end up with delicious bubble teas and a Tom Cruise-sighting.  Or my hiking trip to Utah, and every backpacking trip I've ever taken, the allure of which I could not come as close to capturing as Wilfred Thesiger did in Arabian Nights:
In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance. . . .  I had learnt the satisfaction which comes from hardship and the pleasure which springs from abstinence: the contentment of a full belly; the richness of meat; the taste of clean water; the ecstasy of surrender when the craving for sleep becomes a torment; the warmth of a fire in the chill of dawn.
Struggle can be wonderful and failure hilarious. It's something I would do better to remember well.

Experiencing that "second type of fun" on the windy, cold descent during our unsuccessful attempt on Chimborazo in January.

Travel isn't the answer for me.

When I decided to take the big trip, it could not start soon enough.  But then I got on the road, alone, and discovered that I was having a great time except that I desperately missed my family and friends.  I derived little sustenance out of the casual acquaintances that count as a social life on the backpacker circuit.  I felt much more like John Hillaby when he encountered some hippies sleeping on a beach during his walk across Europe:
They wander slowly from city to city in groups of different sizes, sharing discontents, the searching of youth, and its quick kinship.  By contrast I was alone: in theory free as a tramp.  Yet unlike me with a carefully worked out route to follow, with little time to spare, and a need to let a loving and anxious wife know where I had got to, regularly, they seemed far more free than I was.  But what is freedom?  At that moment I thought in terms of lack of constraints, of being able to act, to choose, to determine one's own fate, and all of that.  True, but . . . all lack of constraint is at best relative and perhaps the freedom in which the youngsters seemed to luxuriate was no more than my own inability to see their problems because I was so intensely caught up in my own.
Excerpt from Journey Through Europe

(I read this book in Bolivia.  So it was in Bolivia that I learned that I identified more strongly with a 50-something man from the 1960s than with the 20-something backpackers around me.)

Travel: better with the ones I love.
I have not converted into a homebody, but how I travel and why I travel has changed.

You have to be the change.

Speaking of changing, this is a phrase I have never truly understood, until now.  Sure, my sabbatical gave me time to think about and do new things.  I developed an interest in science news podcasts.  I took up ceramics again.  What surprises me, though, is how little I did compared to that list of things I thought I would do "if I only had the time."  There are all sorts of projects and ideas that I never followed through on.

A minor victory from the fall.
Yeah, I had some constraints to deal with: ten months isn't actually that long of a time; things cost money; there were those whole "taking the bar" and "planning a wedding" phases.  It's just . . . I still have to be the change I want in my life.  Giving myself time (away from work/life) isn't enough.  I have to get up off my duff and actually do those things I want to do to be that person I would like to be. 

And that, my friends, is where I am going to leave things for now.  There may be more updates on our future adventures, but it is time for a sabbatical from the sabbatical blog.  Thank you for reading.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Hot and Sunny: The Alaskan Honeymoon

Ah, your honeymoon. The chance to go somewhere where the sun is always shining, away from the crowds and modern-day stressors, where you can spend the days indulging in your favorite treats with your loved one while you lather on the sunscreen.  I know - you're already booking your ticket to go climbing in Alaska.

Yes, folks, we're back from our big Alaskan honeymoon.  It was amazing, and I have wayyyy too many photos to share.

The sun truly was always shining - this was near midnight. 

We flew onto the glacier in a ski plane, strapped on snowshoes for the first time in our lives, and set up camp.  Or at least, Mike and our guide set up camp.  I was still tripping over myself in my incorrectly-attached snowshoes.

To answer a few FAQs off the bat:
  • Yes, we slept in tents. 
  • No, no showers or running water.  Yes, on our honeymoon.
  • Dinners were dehydrated meals I'd put together in advance; chicken chili, tex-mex night, and beef stroganoff were the favorites. 
Camp dinnertime.

The climbing was very good for the first part of the trip. We bagged "Mt. Miriam" first, a relatively easy ascent.  The showshoeing across the glacier to get there and back, on the other hand, I could have done without.

Taking a break during the first of several death marches on the trip.  As Paul said, it looks like we're almost there, so that must mean we have at least 2 hours to go. 

Part of the view from the climb up Mt. Miriam.

Combined with a few rest days, we also summited the Control Tower and an unnamed peak we dubbed "Honeymooners,"  before attempting the Kahiltna Dome 8 miles up-glacier.   Ah, rest days: the time to take shelter in the tent from the blazing sun, eat lots of hard candies, and listen to dozens of avalanches falling off the nearby peaks.

 The ridge up to the top of Control Tower.

Honeymooners on the top of Honeymooners.

We didn't get to the top of the Kahiltna Dome due to high winds. It was another beautiful day when we started, and the lack of clouds or loose snow meant that we didn't have much warning when it started gale-ing on us near the top. So, a good climb, some hairy moments, and no summit. 

Moving camp up to the Kahiltna Dome.

 Eyeing our objective.

 Starting the climb.

 And (1000 vertical feet from the summit)... descending.

The intense sun kept up, and that meant that basically all the other routes we could have climbed were melted out.  Funny how we showed up prepared for storms and frigid cold, and our main problem was that the weather was too nice.

Solution to our extra free time? Ice-climbing and crevasse rescue skills review.

Mike working on a practice rescue.

Falling in a wide-open crevasse on purpose for rescue practice is much more scenic and fun than when a snow bridge collapses under you for real, I imagine.

 This looks much more daring than it actually was.

After 12 days, we were really looking forward to the hotel luxuries of a shower and black-out curtains.  Imagine our surprise when we woke up on the final morning to this:

 You bring a few extra days' worth of food for a reason. 

Thankfully, the fog cleared in the late afternoon, our ride off the glacier arrived, and we finally got out.

Mike even got to sit in the co-pilot's seat.  He was ready to take over in an emergency.

A few days before we left for the trip, Mike and I learned that we would be able to extend it by an extra week.  We decided to chill with a roof over our heads for that time and toured around the Kenai Pennisula searching for wildlife.  In addition to a porcupine, black bear, bald eagles, seals, sea lions, mountain goats, and puffins, we saw ...

Sea otters!

  Whales of the killer and humpback variety!  (Though orcas are technically dolphins...)

 Brown bears!  Including one nursing her cubs (camera + binoculars: not great).

 Moose!  In our yard!

And Ellens!

Many lazy days in Homer at the end, eating and reading and enjoying the view, and the honeymoon was over.

Over and out.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tom Cruise Wished Us Safe Travels

You didn't think I'd put Tom Cruise at the very top, did you?

Six days later, and I am almost caught up on rest from the southeast Asia trip.  At least, that is the only non-I-must-be-dying-from-some-exotic-disease excuse I can think of for falling asleep before 8:30pm for several days in a row recently.  (I feel better now, Mom!  Don't worry!)

I've told you of some of the joys of Laos and tastiness of Vietnam.  Now it is time for the Best of the Rest of our trip.

Hoi An = Tailors

We spent our last week in Hoi An, in southern Vietnam.

How can you fill a week in a small town, you ask?  Spend a lot of it at the tailor shop.  Let's just say my closet is much more stylish now than when I arrived.

Looking as sharp in my new trench coat as I can while jetlagged in Tokyo.

Motorbikes and Ellen Don't Mix

Care-free times before getting on the road and wondering things like "What does this button do?"

OK, OK - we also went to the beach on a couple of the days.  There are some lovely sandy strips a short bike ride from town.  It was hot enough and traffic light enough, that one day we decided to rent a motorbike from the hotel instead.

Now, this is Vietnam.  The hotel doesn't ask things like, "Do you know how to ride one of these?"  They just hand you the key.

That worked fine when Kristin drove us to the beach.

I drove on the way back.  And by drove, I mean that I crashed the bike (and me and my sister) into a soft fence in the first three feet of being at the wheel.  My bruises are still healing, and the ladies attending the parking area probably looked for our bodies on their way home that night.

The beach, however, was lovely.

Tea- and Pastry-Filled Days

Nothing to say that photos won't do justice to for the rest of our time in Hoi An.

Nom nom nom...
Tea time!


 Hanoi Isn't That Bad

I was not a fan of Hanoi, in the north, when we first arrived in Vietnam.  But we spent a day there on our way out of the country, and now I kinda like it.  Maybe by then I was more accustomed to the chaos and noise, but it seems ... cool in a way.  Even if it does have some odd installations at the Ho Chi Minh museum.

Why, that is an abstract volcano representing the rise of the Communist party in Vietnam!  How did you know?

I Love Japan
 Japan Loves Tom Cruise
and Maybe Tom Cruise Loves Me?

Now, about Tom Cruise.  Kristin and I had a long layover in Tokyo on our way back to North America.  We had a simple plan to take the train into town for a few hours ...

Er.  Simple...

And get some bubble tea from one of the very few shops in Tokyo that has it ...

Only took an hour and four people's help to find!

And then Kristin noticed there was a crowd gathering by the bubble tea stand.  We waited around, trying to look like harmless drink-consumers, and chatted with a Japanese man who told us Mr. Cruise himself would be making an appearance.  Forty-five minutes later...

Hi Tom!

And somewhere around Tom Cruise or Mt. Fuji or the Meiji shrine or Shibuya crossing ... we both declared our love for Tokyo.

Mt. Fuji from an observation deck in Toyko.
One of the gates for the Meiji shrine.

Shopping around Shibuya Crossing.
Enjoying rice balls on the train back to the airport.

I want to go back.  And that's the way you want to end a trip, eh? 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Baby Mustard - Best Meal of the Trip

I am not exactly a foodie, but I had heard so much about the deliciousness in Vietnam that I made local cuisine a priority on this trip. Fresh herbs and lime and chili, grilled meats, loads of veggies, great broths and sauces, noodles and rice paper everywhere - what's not to love? Well, my friends, I may have to stop eating Vietnamese food because two days ago, Kristin and I had a dining experience that I may never beat.

Nguyet: chef, restaurateur, host extraordinaire.

Note: All photos in this post are courtesy of Kristin, the class photographer.

Kristin and I signed up for a cooking class with the new restaurant Baby Mustard, which lies next to fields of herbs outside Hoi An. Nguyet (pronounced similar to Wet), the young owner and chef, met us at our hotel and took us first to the market to buy the meat and vegetables for our dinner. She taught me how to pick out good seafood, chicken, and pork, and told us all about the market and life in Hoi An.

That squid tasted excellent later on.

Before we left the market, Nguyet invited us to try a version of sweet and sour soup from one of the stalls. It was dark in there, and late afternoon, so fears of food poisoning almost held me back. But we went ahead and tried it, and I am so glad I did. The "soup" was an on-the-spot mix of several beans, corn, coconut milk, and some gelatinous, sweet syrup. It was quite tasty. I am craving it now.

Yummyness on the way.

From the market, we took a taxi to Nguyet's restaurant on the outskirts of Hoi An. Baby Mustard overlooks a massive herb garden that 300 families, including Nguyet's, maintain. Her family has worked in the garden for over 80 years.

We got to "work" on a tour of the garden, with Nguyet showing us all the different plants and how to care for them. Along the way she had us harvest some of the herbs for dinner. Now that is local eats!

The farmers fill these watering cans 100 times each morning to water their plots.

Learning how to replant spring onion.

Finally it was time to cook dinner. Nguyet guided us through each step, and it is a testament to her skills that the food, though prepared by our hands, was superior to any other meal we have had on the trip.

Making the first dish. Nguyet's grandma, far right, is grilling the squid we marinated.

First up: GỎI MỰC HẠT ĐIỀU. From work stations overlooking the garden, we made a julienned salad of grilled calamari, cucumber, green papaya, red pepper, onion, toasted cashews, mint and other herbs, and a lemon-based dressing.

Simply amazing.

Before the second course, Nguyet's mother gave us a traditional drink from the village. Sweet, iced ginger and lemon tea with lemon basil seeds.

Amazing again!

Second, BÁNH XÈO. These are a Hoi An specialty. Rice pancake with pork and shrimp, then add bean sprouts and greens, and roll in rice paper. Dip in fish sauce. Be happy.

All rolls will be measured against these ones at Baby Mustard.

Finally, GÀ XÀO SẢ ỚT. Chicken pan-fried with lemongrass and chili, with rice on the side.

Simple, tasty, wonderful.

After dinner, we had fresh fruit for dessert and Nguyet shared more about her life and plans for the restaurant. She hopes to open a cooking school one day. If the first few months of Baby Mustard are any indication, she will be a resounding success.

I, on the other hand, will probably not be a master chef. Despite my likeness to Ratatouille.



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