Friday, December 30, 2005

Happy New Year 2006!!!!

We're leaving Chiang Mai (and Thailand) for Laos early on New Year's Day, taking a two day journey up north to Luang Nam Tha, where we hope to do some trekking. Laos is going to be a different experience: no ATM's, few western toilets, likely many less phones and internet but also hopefully a lot less touristy. It's an experience we've heard good things about and are looking forward to.

As a result, we wanted to wish everyone an early Happy New Year and hope 2006 brings whatever makes one happy.


Brian & Becca

(we've added two new entries below this as a new years gift to you :-) )

Popular Thai Food...Not Spicy!

A couple last notes from our stay in Chiang Mai

-- It is almost impossible to get away from the touristy areas, though we did try. The food cart pictured to the left here might be one of our favorites though. Can you be appealing any more to the non-adventurous?

-- One of the things you quickly become very aware of is how much bigger we are than the Thai people. The message gets communicated in many ways. 1) In the cooking class they were talking about Thai garlic or other ingredients (which is different than the western version because it is smaller). 2) When you pass people on the street, you tower above them. 3) Perhaps the most humiliating, when you try and buy clothes. Personally, my self-esteem loves it when I can't fit into the extra-large men's clothing. (I didn't even bother trying on any of the women's styles). At least I wasn't trying to buy a new bra..... Meanwhile, Brian has been trying to buy a new pair of shoes (since 6 months of wearing them everyday has worn his hiking shoes out) and a new hat (since his got lost in Lyon). Unfortunately, Thai feet don't come in size 12. And no one (not even the stores in Europe) seem to carry a hat big enough to fit his noggin. We're thinking of seeing if one of the suit tailoring places can make him one...

-- It was very strange for Brian spending Christmas here. As well as being the first year he wasn't with his family, it is sunny and hot in a Buddhist country. Hard to get less Christmasy than that. There are some trees and decorations scattered around for the tourists, but it wasn't the same. Instead of a big family meal for Xmas eve, we ended up eating street-food pad thai (though granted it was the best pad thai we've ever had and we've gone back there twice) on the sidewalk facing the 7-11 and trash bags. Not the most atmospheric of meals. (or incredibly atmospheric, depending on how you look at it). Since Hannukah started on Christmas this year, I found us a Christmaskah tree to decorate so that we had a little bit of holiday cheer in our dark guest house room.

-- Speaking of guesthouses, we learned a lesson there too. We had originally booked at the Pun Pun Guesthouse, which came recommended in the guidebook. When we got there we discovered that though the staff were very nice 1) it was much farther out of the main downtown area than we had realized (about a 20 minute walk), and while we usually don't mind walking, there are hardly any sidewalks here and we were frequently concerned with being hit; 2) the place was 9 pm all the lights were out and there was no group of fun travelers hanging around to talk with and learn from and have fun with.; 3) we didn't sleep very well there as the noise from the road, the apparent dog kennel next door, and our neighbors came right into the room (as the top of the wall on each side (including to outside) was just mosquito netting). All that being said, it was only $7/night and was nicer than the hostel we stayed in in Phitsanulok for $10/night. Still, after 3 days of scary walks, depressing evenings, and no sleep we decided to find someplace new.

-- We ended up just around the corner from the cooking school's downtown location and restaurant at the Smile House. Though we now had to use shared toilets/showers instead of having one attached, we had a bigger room, with much more comfortable bed and quieter atmosphere; there was a whole indoor/outdoor hanging out area downstairs where we have been drinking beers and swapping tales with other travellers from Sweden, Ireland, Switzerland, and home; they have cable tv to catch english premier league football matches, HBO movies, and CNN news; and there is even a pool(!)...not that we have gotten in it, but we have enjoyed sitting in the chairs and couches around it to read, write in the journal, and play cards. Best of all, it's right in the middle of everything so that if we want to come back in the middle of the day and just chill for an hour or two we can, instead of having to be out and about all day. All that, and the room is just $5/night. Sometimes you just have to love travelling. (And it taught us a good lesson too about waiting to get a room until you can check it out in person instead of reserving it ahead of time).

-- English signs in Asia crack me up. This one was very zen though...

We're off now to finish our prep for our Laos adventure and to check out New Year's eve in Chiang Mai. Should be a trip. Check back later for observations on travel in Laos, including what it feels like to be a walking piggy bank (there are no ATMs in Laos so we have to bring in all our money with us.

Happy 2006!


Cooking up a storm...

One of the things that we have tried to do on this trip is to dig a little more into local cultures. We try and pick up as much of each language as we can (which has ranged from almost nothing to a pretty decent mini-vocabulary/conversation ability), we try and meet local people and talk to them, and we try to experience local life/see local traditions. In the Czech Republic and Italy, that meant going to low-level league soccer matches and being the only non-natives in the crowd. In Spain that meant going to a bull-fight in Madrid and observing all the people coming in their sunday best and participating in the ritual. In Thailand, whose culture revolves around the social aspects (and aesthetic pleasures) of a meal, that meant learning how to cook Thai.

Thai food was already one of our favorites back home, but aside from a couple of fish curry dishes, we never cooked it at home. Given that we are likely going to be on strict restaurant rationing when we get home, it was important to us to learn how to add this cuisine to our repertoire. The popularity of thai cooking and cooking classes for tourists has exploded, so it seems like every tom, dick, and guesthouse is offering a cooking course. After reading a bunch of reviews and scoping out websites, we decided to do it right and went with one of the original Thai cooking schools here in Chiang Mai, the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. While it was more expensive than many of the others, it looked liked it offered a lot more in terms of hands-on cooking (versus just demonstrations) as well as the number and variety of dishes to be prepared.

The school offers 5 different one day courses and then master classes. Being relative culinary novices, we thought master classes might be a little beyond us, but we also wanted to do more than just dip our toe in the figurative ocean of thai cooking, so we signed up for 4 days of cooking classes. (This is one of the wonderful advantages of being on a long term trip. Almost everybody else we met in the classes were just taking one day because that's all they could fit into their 2 week vacation across Thailand.)

The school runs like a well-oiled machine. Each day starts with an activity: we did vegetable carving, introduction to thai ingredients, tour of thai markets, and making curry from scratch . Then you start cooking. Every dish is demoed for you, you taste the instructor's version so that you know whether you need to dial up or down the spiciness, sweetness, saltiness, etc in yours, and then you return to your individual workstations and cook your version of the dish, adjusting it to your tastes. The schedule goes: demo, cook, eat, demo, cook, eat, demo, cook, demo, cook, eat the two dishes for lunch, demo cook eat, demo cook eat dessert. The afternoon dishes tended to be very quick and require more mixing than actual cooking, which was good as we were usually approaching food coma by that point.

In addition to the importance of fresh ingredients and quick cooking, one of the most emphasized points was that of presentation. For each dish, the instructors would show us how to garnish and dress it to (in their words) "get more money from the customer". They would show us a dish they had just cooked and say "this is 80 baht dish". They'd add some curled chives, a pretty cluster of basil, some shredded kaffir lime leaves, and/or a tomato flower and then say "now, 150 baht." We were encouraged to do the same. Little things like making patterns in the top of dark mushrooms took just a couple of seconds, but looked very nice in the finished dish .

It was great to learn how to cook all of our favorite thai dishes like tod mun plaa (fish cakes), spring rolls, pad thai and chicken green curry , etc., and also be introduced to new dishes that were just as good or better: chiang mai curry, fried fish with chilli peppers , roast duck red curry, and steamed banana cake with coconut. You can be sure that we will be cooking those when we get home.

Ironically that's one of the things we're a little bummed about. After 4 days of getting these techniques ingrained on us by repetition, we are all psyched to start using them and to start perfecting these dishes. In reality, it will be at least 8 months from now before we'll have the chance to be in our own kitchen cooking. I made lots of notes in the recipe margins, so hopefully we'll be able to remember enough. Once we have them figured out, we will be happy to be making these dishes for you all, though they may be a little spicy....

Other great things about these classes, which we highly recommend to anybody visiting Chiang Mai, were the instructors, the setting, and the other people you meet in the class. The school is offered in two locations: downtown behind the restaurant, and about 20 minutes out of town at the facility Sompon (the chef) built next to his home. We HIGHLY recommend you choose that location if you have the option (they drive you out and back) as it was much prettier, more spacious, more relaxing, and more pleasant. You are on open (covered) verandas looking out at palm trees and the herb garden in quiet country environment. The instructors are great too. If you are out at the house, then Sompon himself will teach a couple of the dishes or techniques, but the rest of his staff is equally good, energetic, and fun. There are tons of them too, so you always have somebody keeping an eye on your wok and making sure things are going ok, and as we have since discovered, they are jacks of all trades, also driving the cars for pickup, working in the office, and even washing the cars. Finally, we loved meeting and getting to know the other people in the class. Each day it was different mixture of people evenly spread across countries. We cooked next to folks from Ireland, England, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Sweden, France, Japan, Korea, the States, and Switzerland. It was a great way for us to get travel advice for future parts of our trip and to make new friends.

All in all, the 4 days exceeded our expectations in almost every way. The only downside was the food coma at the end of the day from eating so much food, but on the positive side, it did mean that we saved money by not needing dinner! Not only did it improve our cooking skills in general, and provide us with recipes for dozens of new dishes, but it gave us a nice little insight into an important aspect of Thai culture. You can't ask for more than that!

Here's to further culinary adventures......


Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Thailand: The land of friendly people and whiskey... is that a good thing?

No, we haven't be captured by Thai rebels or stomped by any elephants. Instead we're just rising out of our food stupor created by our four days learning Thai cooking. Plenty of exciting stories and pics and the secret to Thai cooking, but I leave that for another entry from my now gourmet cook wife.

Instead, I bring you completely unsolicited thoughts, opinions, observations on Thailand. Well Thailand from Bangkok north to Chiang Mai. No touring the beaches for us; we decided we'd much rather explore the north and if there's time to visit the beaches in the south at the end of our travels so be it. So with no further ado....

- For anyone who's ever thought about traveling to Thailand but is concerned about coming because of language differences, cleanliness, etc. don't be. It's just as easy traveling here as it was traveling Europe. Even easier in some places. My impression is this is easily the most accessible to people on a short vacation.

- Most of the ease in travel comes from the Thai people. Everyone we'd talked to before we'd visited had gushed about their friendliness and general goodnatureness. We'd certainly agree. Plenty of smiles, eye contact (a pleasant surprise after many European countries) and overall goodwill.

- The Thai goodwill is a double edged sword in the more populated tourist areas. A large number of the Thai are involved in the tourist industry. Our hostel has it's own cooking school next store, sells bus and flight tickets, runs a number of treks and for all I know has i's own brothel. In short, everyone provides everything. Heck even the Pad Thai food stand might have a suggestion of who to tour with if you asked them. Talking with the teachers at our cooking school was informative as many of them served as guides or did other tours in their spare time to earn extra cash. As a result, it's nearly impossible to find an objective opinion about any of the local attractions, treks, routes out of town or even where to get a decent pint from the locals which had been our strategy to this point of the trip. Lends to more blind decision making and a lot more desire to be in hostel type situations where we can pick the brains of fellow travelers.

- Walking is not big here. In fact it seems to be actively discouraged. Tuk-Tuks and Scooters rule the day. Becca and I have explored our stops (including biggies such as Paris) on this trip almost exclusively on foot. However in Thailand it's an adventure. What little sidewalks there is typically are filled with street vendors, leading to two directions of people trying to get through the same hole. Walking along the edge of the street is even more adventurous as even if you think you have some space, you're more than likely to have a scooter come buzzing from behind a truck or car. And even if after all that you're still willing to walk, the Tuk-Tuk drivers are trying to get your fare about every 10 ft. When you tell them "mai chai khrap" (no), they look at you like you've had a "happy" pizza or something.

- Along those lines, crossing the street is like the old Frogger game. They don't stop, even if you've somehow secured a crosswalk AND a green walk sign. Even the locals drop into a full sprint when necessary. Our solution: find the local, let them get between you and the traffic and move on their cue.

- TV's are prevalent in a large percentage of shops throughout Thailand. You can be walking down the street, look into a store and their heads are looking up at whatever is on. Makes sense for those whose workplaces are merely the front of their residence but there's something amusing about watching someone watch TV in an empty bank after hours.

- One funny note. In the Thai language there are different words for women and men to use to end their sentences. For the men, it's khrap. I've lost count the number of times I've said something to someone in Thai (we've gotten up to about 30 words/useful phrases) forgotten khrap, only to utter the American version halfway down the road. Occasionally I even utter it quick enough for me to prevent offending whomever it was I'm talking to.

- Finally, the Thai have pretty decent beer (Singha and Chang are ours favs) but they love their whiskey. I'd be curious as to how much of Johnnie Walker's business is done here as we've seen it just about everywhere and plenty of Thai's downing it in large amounts. Of course, they also have their own local brands (like the firewater I had courtesy of an Irish duo we met) but JW Red and Black (with soda water) just seems to be a normal part of the Thai daily meal. Curious to see how the Lao Lao (a evidently very potent rice wine from Laos) is in comparison...

So there you go. Thailand has been a great way to start the adventure of SE Asia and comes highly recommended for anyone looking for an initial trip to this part of the world. Great people, cool touristy things to see and just a very accessible entrance to a different way of life. That being said, the amount of tourism is a bit overwhelming at times. We've enjoyed the more off the beaten path locales on this trip so we're looking forward to continuing our adventure over the border and into the slower (and less developed) country of Laos. We've been told multiple times that Laos is like Thailand 20 years ago. We're looking forward to it.


Saturday, December 24, 2005

Happy Holidays!

Just wanted to wish everyone a happy holiday season!

Hope that you're able to spend the time with the ones you love and matter most. It's hard for us to be away from our respective families this time of year (amazingly this is my first year away for the holidays) but we wouldn't pass up the experiences we've had over the past six months for anything in the world. Even for those tasty little xmas nougat candies that I (Brian) eat by the kilo every year. :-)

Thanks to everyone for all the postitive thoughts, emails, comments and otherwise general good karma. We'll be thinking of everyone as we're learning vegetable carving in day one of our Thai cooking class!

Brian & Becca

PS Amazed we were able to find an actual xmas tree here. Guess that's what happens when you go wander through one of the swanker places in Bangkok.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Chiang Mai bound

Hopping the train to Chiang Mai in a bit, but time for a couple of firsts:

-- First elephant of the trip. A teenager was just riding the small elephant down the side of the street here in Phitsanulok like a bicycle. He even had a blinking red light tied to its tail.... (To all the kids out there that we know, none of the pictures we took of it came out, but we will do our best to send you pictures the next time we run into elephants.)

-- First cockroaches of the trip. Two big ones skittering around our room last night. Okay, so they weren't the giant ones, but at 2-3 inches long they were big enough for me. We finally got them (leaving a nice cockroach guts design on the wall of the room) with our shoes, but it did make sleeping a little harder. I kept imagining things crawling on us. Ah, the joys of budget travel.

-- First songthaew ride of the trip. Songthaews are pickup trucks with rows of benches in the back that act as buses or taxis around Thai towns. We caught one from the old city in Sukhothai 14 km in to the bus station, crammed in with students in uniform coming home from school, two little old ladies (one with her basket of laundry and one with her pole with baskets hanging off each end (don't know what that's called....) who kept smiling and laughing at us, and one drunk peasant who the lady running the ride kept trying to shoo out the back. I'll post the picture later if I can. It looked like one of those clown cars in the circus with people stuffed in and hanging off the ends.

-- First two open-air aerobics classes of the trip. In both Bangkok and here in Phitsanulok, we have run into these end-of-the-work-day extravaganzas with several hundred people kicking and bouncing to the beat. In Bangkok it was in a park, but here it was just along the riverside, spreading up and over the sidewalk. Men and women both, all getting down to "and a one, and a two" in Thai. They appear to be free, all-comers events...kinda like the exercises you see the Japanese or Chinese workers doing in documentaries except for more music and jiggling...

-- First bad meal of the trip. Up to this point (and especially in Bangkok), the food has been amazing. We have been eating at local dives (that look like places I'd be too nervous to go into at home) and we have just revelled in the tastes. Yesterday on the outskirts of the Sukhothai old town we grabbed a bite at a more touristy places (with pretty wood tables and plants) and were very underwhelmed in the tasteless (or bad tasting) dishes we were served. Just goes to reinforce our general strategy of following the locals.

Enjoy the double holiday weekend!


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Random cleanliness thoughts

Hanging out in Phitsanulok and Sukhothai (one of the earlier Thai capitals) for a couple of days before heading up to Chiang Mai.
One of the things we have noticed is that there are dogs EVERYWHERE here in Thailand, mostly of the stray or allowed-to-roam free variety. Actually, they may be more the latter, as a goodly number of them are wearing shirts or sweaters. I swear I'm not making this up. (I'll try to post a picture soon). Anyway, despite the overwhelming number of dogs running around you cannot find dog poop on the streets or sidewalks or grass anywhere. (In complete contrast to the minefield that is France). It's unbelievable. The street cleaners here are gods.
Something else we notice. Despite the fact that it's so super clean on the streets or other public places here , it's often incredibly hard to find a garbage can to toss something into. Go figure....
More later

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Postcards from Bangkok

Impressions of Bangkok
(have attached a couple of pics, will try and load more into flickr soon...)

-- First of all, we both like the city far, far more than we were expecting to. (Then again, our expectations were pretty low). We have spent most of our time walking the streets or riding the rivers in between seeing temples and palaces or shopping, and it just doesn't feel like a city of 6 million people. It helps that our hotel (New World Lodge Hotel, no where near as fancy as this makes it look) is on a little canal, away from the commercial nightmare that is Khao San Road (the budget tourist/backpacker capital of the city) and far away from the ritzy commerce of the area around all the upscale hotels (The Oriental, Shangri-La, etc.).

-- We are captivated and fascinated by the markets lining the streets, especially all the food vendors. Walking down the street you pass by cart after cart with exotic looking fruits and soups and meats and noodles, and catch whiff after whiff....some familiar, some strange, some drool-inducing, some repulsive...and the sheer number and variety just makes your head spin. That more than anything has probably given me the "I guess we're not in Kansas anymore" feeling. It's like walking through a postcard or documentary.

-- While we haven't eaten anything off of the street carts yet, I have no doubt that we will. (Though we will choose carefully to try to avoid paying for it later.) Actually, our culinary adventures have been a huge success so far. While we haven't quite made it to the street vendor stage, we have stayed far away from any restaurant aimed primarily at tourists. Ironically while we have been following some of Lonely Planet's recommendation, we have seen very few other westerners at the restaurants. But the recommendations have been good ones as most places have been packed with Thais, with tables spilling out down the sidewalk. Our favorite local dive (Jeh Hoy, on Th Samsen) is actually an open air restaurant, with the kitchen outside on the street corner and the woks and knives flying constantly. We've pretty much loved everything we've eaten and most dinners have been under $6 (for both of us). After wincing each time we paid for food in Scandinavia, this is more like it.

-- One of the things I like the most about being here is the friendliness of the people and the fact that when you are walking down the street and you smile at somebody, they smile back. I hadn't realized how much I had been missing that.... Plus we have gotten lots of smiles and giggles from out attempts to speak a (very little) Thai and to wai (bow with hands folded) at the right moments. Hopefully in the coming weeks we'll be able to add a few more words to the vocabulary.

-- Of course, the Thai reputation for friendliness is also a downside, because it makes it very hard to figure out whether somebody is genuinely being friendly, or is trying to scam you. I think as we get farther into rural areas, the ratio will fall shift firmly into the genuine category, but for the moment over half the people who approach us are actually trying to con us into going on a tour with them, taking their tuk-tuk to destinations unknown or buying something... We're trying hard not to let it turn us cynical, but it does get old at times.

-- The river taxis are fantastic and we highly recommend them for anybody visiting the city. While their greatest benefit may be the fact that they let you avoid the terrible city traffic and (most) of the exhaust pollution, they are also a great way to see the city and commute to places with Thai people instead of only on tourist-mobiles. They are also very easy to figure out and use, once you past the initial awkwardness of transferring between dock and boat (the boats stay in dock just long enough for people to get on and off so you have to be pretty quick jumping)

-- We have of course gone to many of the requisite places and seen the first set of what I'm sure will be many, many, many exquisite temples. Favorite sights and moments so far...appreciating the detail and decoration on the building housing the emerald buddha, being impressed by the sheer size of the giant reclining buddha (finally, someone with bigger feet than Brian!), getting a better sense of the king and royal family walking through an exhibit of the king's personal photography, and sitting at the back of a temple soaking in the ambiance as 30 monks chanted their evening prayers.

-- One of the more interesting cultural items has been learning and experiencing how reverent the Thais are about the monarchy. We had read that saying bad things about him can be a criminal (and in fact jailable) offence, but we weren't prepared for the pictures of him everywhere: shopfronts, intersections, schools, office buildings, ATM machines, etc. And these aren't small framed pics on the wall, like you often see other places, these are billboard-sized photos dominating the landscape. We have also caught a glimpse of this national reverence at 6 pm on a few of the days. At this time, everything stops and the national anthem is played (at concerts, events, movies, on the street, etc). Once we were out walking and heard the music and noticed that people at the bus stop had all stood up so we stopped and stood too, and then last night we were actually watching a football match on tv and it broke into the programming to play the anthem, complete with patriotic images and the words scrolling across the bottom (all that was missing was the little bouncing ball).

-- Finally, our shopping woes continue. After 6 months of wearing almost the same things every day our clothing is growing a little ragged. So we have been trying to replace a couple of items for a while. In Europe the last 3 months we struck out because we were looking for warm weather clothing (short sleeves, etc.) and shops there were all full of winter gear. Now here we are finding more weather-appropriate clothing, but now we're running into the problem of size, as Brian's head and feet and my general body are a little bigger than your average Thai. Sigh.... Wish us luck!

Tomorrow we head north to Sukhothai and Phitsanulok for a few days and then will continue up to Chiang Mai.


By the way, a few days ago was the six month mark since we landed in Belgium to begin this Still going strong, though.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Sawatdee from Bangkok!

Letting the faithful readers know we have successfully touched down in Bangkok.  Plan on spending the next 5-6 days here sightseeing and doing some planning for the rest of our visit to Thailand.

Couple of quick thoughts:
- British Airlines excellent.  American Airlines sucks. Easiest flight I've ever had (despite it being over 11 hours) compared to the no-sleep inferno we had coming over to Europe.
- While landing we noticed that there is a golf course situated in between two of the major runways.  And they say golfers are wimps about noise!
- As we were walking around town, we heard what sounded like dogs barking from the apartments above.  Either a lot of pets or there's a decent chance we eat Fido in the next four months.
- For anyone visiting Thailand on their own, getting into Bangkok proper was very easy.  With just a little work you can find the affordable taxi, hotel, etc.
- Just had a tasty dinner of fried seafood with garlic and pepper and tom kha gai (spicy coconut chicken soup) for under $5.  Total.  Me thinks our budget is going to be a little happier here.
- Of course choosing dinner was difficult as we were walking past all these tasty food vendors with their wares filling the air. 
More later!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

We're Off!

Heading off in a couple of hours to the airport for our trip to Bangkok! (Though unfortunately we added 4 hours of flight time by having to go west from Copenhagen to London before heading east to Thailand).

We're all packed and ready, or at least as ready as we can be at this point. After a little more than four weeks of staying with friends, I think we're starting to feel a little soft. We'll have to crank it back into gear again to be on the lookout for pickpockets, clean toilets and places to lay our head at night.

Though we do feel a little bit out of the travel groove, we can't overstate how wonderful and helpful this break has been for us. Many of you have asked if we have gotten homesick at all or sick of travelling. And while we are still loving the trip and looking forward to continuing it, the answer is (not surprisingly): yes, we do get burned out and tired of being "on" all the time. You want to be sure that nobody is stealing anything from you/hustling you, you want to be sure that you are making a good impression, you're concentrating to try and pick up words in languages you don't know, you're paying a lot of attention to different cultural cues, you're thinking about where your next meal will come from and if you can afford it and where you will sleep the next night, and you're out and moving almost the whole day, almost every day. That definitely wears you down. That's why having a home again has been so very nice.

We also get asked what we miss the most. Excluding the obvious answer of our friends and family, I'd say this is our top 5 list:

5) Having a job. Now before you all think I'm crazy, let me explain a little. I certainly don't miss having to be at my desk for hours staring at a computer instead of hiking in the alps. Or bringing the laptop home EVERY night and working weekends instead of lying on Thai beaches. It's just that there's a certain amount of feelings of responsibility and accomplishment and identity that come from working that I miss. (And I notice that the most when we're staying with people who are going off to work while we hang out.)
Ed. note: Brian is quite happy getting his intellectual stimuli and sense of being elsewhere for now. Not saying I don´t think about work, how it differs overseas or what I want to be doing upon our return. I just don´t have the guilt/need surrounding work that my wife does. The difference between a type A and type A+ personality I suppose...
4) Mexican/Tex-Mex food. We've eaten a wide variety of cuisines so far, and while we haven't had as much Thai, Vietnamese and Indian as I would like, I know that'll change starting tomorrow. However, we really haven't found any good Tex-Mex. While we don't eat it that often at home either, there have been a couple of days when we've REALLY been wanting a burrito. And for some reason our hostel spam quesadillas didn't quite cut it :-)
3) The concept of a couch. Another thing that's missing in most backpacker/budget accommodations is anything resembling a living room with a couch. And the majority of the cities we visited didn't have an abundance of public spaces and benches and parks to use as warm weather living rooms. (Paris and Seville being notable exceptions). Not that we had the time to do it that often back in our real life and not that this is going to get much sympathy from all of you with little kids, but we really miss just being able to occasionally crash on a couch and lounge for an afternoon reading a book or watching football, etc..
2) Being part of a group. One of the most different things about this kind of a trip is that you are pretty much a world unto yourselves in terms of significant social connections. We look to meet people and make friends at hostels or in new towns, but most of those end up being at most nice acquaintances, as you're moving on within a couple of days. It's a good thing we're such good friends and get along so well, but we really miss hanging out with other people and feeling part of a group or network. I think some of our loneliest/most homesick moments have been observing other groups of friends in different places and wanting so badly to be a part of things.
1) The concept of "coziness" (hygge in Danish). It's unbelievable what a difference having or not having that makes. Backpacker/traveller clothing is very functional (easy to wash and dry, breathable, yada yada) but it is not cozy, especially when you are a little chilled. Give me some comfy fleece any day. Likewise, backpacker/budget accommodations, while clean and safe, are generally sterile, cold, and not particularly cushy. Military-style bunk beds provide a sleeping space, but hardly a good spot to lounge. Sometimes you just crave being curled up in comfy clothing on a deep couch in front of a roaring fire, etc.......

It'll be interesting to see how this list changes after travelling in Asia. My money is on clean, western-style toilets moving to the top of my 'missing' list!

Next post from Asia!


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Living la vita dolce in the Cinque Terre

Last but not least on the tale of our Italian tour (in fact, it was actually the first place we went to with Earl and Elaine.....) is the national park of the Cinque Terre, or 5 lands. This park, in the Liguria region of Italy, encompasses five villages perched on or between cliffs along the sea: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. These towns are connected only by train and by boat (there is a highway up above from which you can with difficulty reach the towns, but it doesn't go through (or very near) them. Thus the towns have a peaceful, car-free, "old-time Italy" feel. Vernazza was our favorite town, as it had the best combination of small town feel and amenities.

This was probably our favorite place in Italy (though we liked Tuscany a lot) and we highly recommend it for any one to visit with a couple of important caveats.

- We were there at the end of shoulder season: end of Oct/beginning of November and it was crowded enough for me. I can't imagine it during the height of the tourist season and I believe it would likely be difficult to see the cities' charms through all the people. October is much calmer, and the weather (if you have good luck) is still beautiful and warm during the day (though quite cold at night).

- If you have physical issues with hills and stairs (LOTS of them and STEEP), then unfortunately this is not the vacation locale for you. There was simply no escaping the climbing up and down and up and down. On the flip side, it made us feel a whole lot more virtuous with all the pasta and gelatto we were eating.

Highlights from our stay in the Cinque Terre include:

-- Relaxing out in the hanging garden of the Trattoria Gianni Franzi hotel gazing out to sea...It's an incredible spot, just carved out of the cliff

-- Hiking between the towns of the Cinque Terre, between olive groves (with the cool way that they harvest olives) and vineyards, and at each corner oohing and aahing at the view. It's actually kind of brutal for picture-taking, because you keep thinking it can't get better and then 5 minutes later realizing it IS better and you have to take another picture.

--Watching the Halloween festivities in Vernazza. (Yes, I am writing about Halloween in December. So I'm a little behind....). We had seen a riot of scary commercial Halloween decorations in every store in Lyon, France earlier, reminiscent of the commercialization of the holiday that we see at home. (Which was a surprise to me (and further proof of the Hallmark-ization of the world) because when we lived in Belgium in the late '70's, no one had heard of Halloween) Upon arrival in Vernazza we had noticed several carved pumpkins around the town (often with the ubiquitous cats curled around them), but hadn't thought that much about it. But at dusk on the 31st we walked down the street to see what Halloween must have been like in the States 30 years ago. All the children (and it was only young children) were either dressed up as witches (complete with pointy black hat and long wig) or as ghosts (complete with white sheet). No cartoon or movie characters, no pop culture references, no toy tie-ins. And they seemed genuinely pleased to receive something. Earl ended up raiding his snack sack when he saw them coming which is how I ended up distributing granola bars to a number of bemused young Italians.

-- Discovering that anchovies can actually be good! Yeah, we didn't believe it either...but they catch them and serve them fresh that day, with a little bit of lemon, and they're YUMMY. Who knew?

-- Sitting out by the harbor in the morning with a pastry and the Gazetta della Sport (Italy's soccer newspaper which actually outsells all other newspapers of any kind in Italy) and watching the locals stroll by, or sitting watching the sunset enjoying a gelatto

All in all...a destination that has made its way onto our greatest hits lists.


Monday, December 05, 2005

From pickled herring to pad thai...

Greetings from Copenhagen!

We were bemoaning the icy, rainy, blustery 30ish degrees here until we were not so gently reminded by our Minnesota brethren that it was -10 to 2 degrees there. Yeah....this'll work. And 80-90 degrees in Bangkok next week will work even better!

That's right, we finally have a plan and more importantly, a plane ticket! I have to admit it was a strange conversation at the travel agency:

-- Hej. Hvordan kan jeg hjælp dig?

-- Hej. Jeg vil gerne ha et ..... Um, we'd like to buy a ticket please.

-- <seamlessly switching into flawless English...I hate the Danes> Yes, where would you like to go?

-- Well, we were thinking Bangkok.

-- No problem....

-- And then maybe Hong Kong....and then Sydney....a side trip to Auckland....maybe to Indonesia...back to Australia....then towards the States?

-- No problem, I have just the ticket program for you here. <and gosh darn if he didn't have exactly the type of routing and overland trip options we were looking for>

-- Yeah, that would be great. We'll take it.

-- And when would you like to leave?

-- In two weeks. <which is high season to go to Thailand, btw...>

-- <masterfully manages not to blink> I think we can make that work. There. <and upping the ante...> And as you get one more stop for this price, why don't you break up the trip home with a stop in Fiji....

-- Um. Yeah. Ok. <Brian and I are wondering if this question is in the dictionary under 'No-Brainer Decisions'>

And then some paperwork later we walked out of the office, considerably lighter in the checking account (though not really considering all the places the ticket is going to) but holding tickets to get us all the way back home again at the end of next summer. I must admit it's not everyday that I just make that kind of major purchasing, life-affecting decision so casually, but the planning process for a trip like this really warps your brain.

The Eurorail pass in Europe starts the change in thinking. As you have the ability to get on any train going anywhere, you begin to relax your itinerary and be open to more spontaneous decisions about destinations. The logical end to this train of thought occurred as we were planning the Asian leg of our adventure. There are many places we want to see and definitely not enough time to dive deep into them all. As we have decided that we don't want to rush around the area, that meant we needed to make some choices, leading to the following email conversation (paraphrased slightly).

Lincoln: so where are you going to be spending Christmas?
Brian: Well, we're not sure. We may go to Bangkok and be exploring Thailand, but we are also toying with being in India. But since we also want to visit China before hiking in New Zealand, and don't want to cut Laos and Vietnam short, we might skip India.
Lincoln: This has to be the all-time best sentence in an email I've ever received. You make it sound like India, China, and New Zealand are stores in a strip mall. Last night I toyed with hitting Target but I had to stop at Fred Meyers, the gas station, and the bank before the kids' bedtime
It's great having friends to remind you when you are off floating in rarefied air. But it's also kind of a cool transformation to watch happen to ourselves that we are actually starting to think that way.
More details as the departure date approaches. But just wanted to let everyone know that as of December 13th, it's a whole new ballgame! (sorry...was practicing my holiday movie taglines. Now we just need movie announcer guy to say it for us)
Happy December.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Quick Poll

You the readers:

Knowing that this blog serves as a journal for our travels as well as entertaining reading for those of you at home, are there any particular opinions as to what (if anything) we can do to improve the site?

Are the blog entries too long?
Would you rather read descriptions of our travel vs. quirky opinion pieces?
Other thoughts?

Mainly we just wanted to get people´s opinion of the site to date. If you have opinions as to how it might be improved, send them our way via the comments link below. Or if you think it's too personal (aka Brian's writing sucks), send it to us in an email.