I don’t know at what age people usually start writing holiday letters but I guess I’ll start now. It’s been a big year so I have a lot to say – I’ve put headers on everything so if you start to lose interest, you can just jump around to the bits that interest you.
The Bridge from 2016-2017
After 5 months of traveling – seeing the Dali Lama in India, trekking Annapurna in Nepal, making close friends and doing the interior design for a hostel in Malaysia, and SCUBA diving with sharks and manta rays in Indonesia – Dave and I celebrated New Years 2017 with fireworks in Singapore.
Our following days in Singapore were spent experiencing the green and futuristic city, cultivating a vision of what the metropolises of next generations will look like.
Following this, we spent a very active month exploring Vietnam. We most enjoyed visiting the UNESCO World Heritage site of Halong Bay via boat. But the French-influenced Northern capital of Hanoi was close to follow. We found the Vietnamese to be quite friendly and welcoming but it was hands down the most difficult place to eat vegetarian without MSG.
Spiritual Thailand and Myanmar
Exhausted by all the movement and at a point where we were seeking spirituality, we came to peaceful and relaxed Thailand. I studied Thai massage, which is as much a physical therapy as it is a massage. Then we did a silent Vipassana retreat for a few weeks. We left feeling more centered, but happy to be back in a city. We spent a while enjoying calm and tropical Chiangmai and met with the lovely Taranto twins and their mother, friends from university. It was also during this period that I put this blog together.
After living in Bangkok a few years ago, I really loathed the city. But we had a layover there for a few days and experiencing it with someone I loved for just a few short days rather than a several long months gave me the space to find the charm in the big chaotic city that once occupied my nightmares.
While there, I had the very good fortune of visiting Nico, the French foreign exchange student we hosted when I was in high school. We did not click so well as teenagers, but with a bit of growing up we found ourselves really enjoying one another’s company. And so, perhaps as a payoff for the hard work of the meditation retreat, the little sojourn to Bangkok proved to remove old thorns and heal their vintaged wounds.
We had to leave Thailand as our visas were expiring so we spent a week in Myanmar (aka Burma) visiting Bagan, the city of 1000 temples – and I think there are in fact an unexaggerated 1000 temples there. The Burmese were perhaps the friendliest people we encountered in Southeast Asia, probably because tourism in the country just recently opened after a long civil war, and perhaps also because they are Buddhist. The Buddhist places I have visited – Thailand, Myanmar, Japan, (Colorado), and Dharamsala – have the sanest and kindest people compared to everywhere else. The Burmese spoke incredible English too, perhaps a product of relatively recent British colonization.
After Myanmar, we returned to Thailand, this time to an island in the south called Koh Pangan. We spent two months living in a lovely little jungle bungalow, enjoying daily visits to a perfect little secret beach, and attending the truly incredible Agama Yoga School, which we were very fortunate to find. Our months in Koh Pangan were some of the best of the year, and some of the best in my life.
To finish our time in Asia, we spent a month in Japan, perhaps the most fascinating country of the nearly 40 I have traveled. We spent a lot of our free time in Thailand studying Japanese in preparation for this trip, which made the whole experience feel more authentic and deep. We visited the immaculately manicured gardens and vast temples and palaces of Kyoto while enjoying the best ramen anyone could imagine.
We visited the art island of Naoshima, where we saw some of Monet’s “Water Lilies” exhibited in a way that resulted in what could only be described as a spiritual experience. Truly the collective Japanese consciousness has reached heights that nowhere outside of Asia will reach in our lifetimes, if ever.
We biked 70km in one very long and strenuous day through a series of islands exploring magnificent Japanese nature and local culture that we would not have seen in the cities. We in fact quite enjoyed the traditional Japanese customs of sleeping on the floor on fold-out “futons” (foldable and storable mattresses) and eating on low tables while sitting on cushions on the floor.
Finally we arrived in busy, weird, and wired Tokyo, which for one of the world’s largest and most densely populated cities is astoundingly quiet thanks to the impeccable manners of the Japanese. We had so much delicious sushi, sake, and matcha. I fell in love with karaoke thanks to Dave’s insistence. In Japan, you just rent a little room that accommodates small private groups for the night with bottomless drinks. We tried our hand at Japanese arcades and had inventive cocktails at the Skybar from “Lost in Translation” (a movie I would highly recommend).
Finally we visited Fuji and completed an exhausting hike to reach some of the best views of the Mt. Fuji. While we were in Fuji, we also visited a traditional “onsen,” essentially an elaborate spa which refreshed us before our impending transcontinental travels.
As could be deduced from the amount of writing I have contributed to Japan in this letter, Japan left us with many impressions and all of them good. It was perhaps our favorite country to travel to and we learned much from it. I believe it to be the most civilized and most holistic country in the world and I believe all people and all countries could learn something from Japan.
A Quick Sojourn Home
At this point, I had not been home in a year so I made a point to visit on an eastward route to Europe. Aside from seeing all of the family, I was also able to catch up with my old friends, Dalainey and Kindra and some of my favorite faculty members from Marian. I was sadly, but fortunately, back home for the week that Phil, our family dog, passed. Sad of course because of the loss, but fortunate as I was able to be with my family and with Phil during this emotional time. Still, I sometimes catch myself dreaming by encountering him still alive and realizing that I must be asleep. Conclusively, it was an unprecedentedly peaceful and agreeable trip home.
Not So Impressive Eastern Europe
Then Europe! My favorite continent in the world and my third time here (thus 3.o). Dave and I ventured through Eastern Europe – Prague, Budapest, Croatia, and Slovenia. Prague was by far our favorite and we made many friends there as well as met up with an old yogi friend, Eva, that we had first met in Hawaii. After refining our cultural and culinary palates in Japan (read ‘becoming regrettably picky’), we didn’t find our other stops in Eastern Europe particularly notable except for their unfortunate Soviet influence (read ‘oppressive communist style architecture and grouchy people’) and an unagreeable diet consisting primarily of beer, bread, and beef. Fortunately, it didn’t take us long to jet over to romantic Italy!
Then we traveled through Italy, mostly places I had been, but which Dave saw for the first time. We met up with an old yogi friend from Thailand, Elise, and enjoyed her tour of her home town, Bologna. We became very good friends with our AirBnB host in Rome, Dana, who I still keep in touch with.
The highlight for me was undoubtedly visiting Caccamo, the village were the ancestors on my mother’s side are from as well as other locales of Sicily. I was overwhelmed and humbled by realizations of the interconnectedness of all things and deeply affected to come closer than I ever before had with my roots. Seeing the similarities in the Sicilians – the mannerisms, the way of speaking, the physical appearances – and how closely they reflected those of older family members made me feel like being in an island of home. Such a sense of hominess is something that one does not come by in the heterogenous melting pot of the young US. I think visiting the lands of one’s ancestors is one of the most rewarding travel experiences one can pursue. Every hour I spent studying Italian was well worth it for just a few weeks being able to so deeply connect with the land of my lineage.
To end Europe 3.o, we came to Spain. We spent all of our time between Valencia and Barcelona, some of my favorite cities on earth. Unfortunately Dave was bedridden for most of Spain as well as Italy because of a disastrous spinal injury that took many chiropractic appointments to correct (the danger in sleeping awkwardly in unsuitable beds). I spent a while doing a Workaway in a hostel in Valencia, where I made many lovely friends and started giving Thai massages on the side – a surprisingly lucrative and fulfilling type of side work. Both Barcelona and Valencia are beachfront so we could enjoy the beach for the first time since Thailand. We decided we would like to live in Spain and spent much of our time figuring out how to make it possible. Ultimately, I decided to return to university and Dave is still figuring out which route he would like to take. Spain was a pleasant time to practice our Spanish, socialize, and think about our futures, along with visiting some incredible museums, tasting delicious and cheap wine and sangria, and being surrounded by some of the world’s best architecture.
After 3 months in Europe, we unfortunately had to leave (strict visa rules), so we made our way to South America. But first I stopped for a long layover in New York and visited my close friend Dani that I first met in Kuala Lumpur almost exactly a year earlier. We did all of the classical Manhattan things and I realized that America isn’t all uncultured – just everywhere that isn’t New York or San Francisco (just kidding! …kind of). Anyway, I was quite impressed by Manhattan and particularly liked the MoMA (although the behavior of people around the museum’s rather unimpressive presentation of some of Monet’s “Water Lilies” seemed absolutely appalling, one could perhaps say sacrilegious, when compared to what we experienced with others of the “Water Lilies” series in Japan. Whatever the case, I left my stint in Manhattan with the (basic) sentiment of I <3 NY (and a higher than usual credit card bill).
A continent where nothing is efficient, on-time, or sensical, but where the people are nice and honest and the food is good.
Colombia – A Place with Great Avocados
We had the intention of living for half a year in Colombia, namely Medellin as I had got a job offer to teach English to Chinese kids online. We wanted a place that was Spanish-speaking, cheap, and livable. Well Medellin was all of those except livable with absurd pollution and a truly hideous skyline. The travel blogs had dramatically overestimated the glory of “The City of Eternal Spring.” We quickly found a cute, clean, and colorful village, Guatape, with $1 avocados the size of my head and reserved a month there. However, upon moving in we discovered the internet capabilities of the village were far less than were suitable for working online in video chats.
After much searching we realized that clean air, beautiful architecture, and good WiFi do not coincide anywhere in South America so decided to just do the touristy things we wanted to do on the continent and get back to Europe as soon as possible.
We still had a few weeks before our flights out of Colombia which we spent reading David Mitchell books, writing, and running. In fact, they were quite pleasant weeks with daily guacamole, incredibly sweet Colombian people, and a cute little local festival. Colombian nature is worth a visit, but we left uncompelled to return.
I was very pleasantly surprised by Cusco. The city was filled with both colonial and Incan architecture, delicious veg restaurants, tons of historical landmarks and museums, and friendly people. An authentic Peruvian pulse vibrates through the city and anyone’s taste for culture or cuisine should be satiated there. We visited Machu Picchu, which was so much better than I even expected. It’s rare that such an acclaimed site beats high expectations, but Machu Picchu was a highlight of the whole year. A long and beautiful hike prepares and settles visitors. We fortunately arrived very early in the morning and beat the crowds so we could really immerse into the history, nature, and tranquility of the site. It is a place that words should not try to explain so I will go no further about Machu Picchu. We also visited an animal sanctuary in Peru where we could interact with llamas, alpacas, and monkeys – some of my favorite animals. In fact, the few hours we had at the animal sanctuary were a highlight of South America for me.
Chilly Chile – Yes, Even in Summer It’s Cold Here
We were pleasantly surprised to find how European Santiago was. The architecture, the style, the food, and the people all had a rather Euro pulse to them, which made us feel quite at home after the enjoyable but often tiring foreignness of Colombia and Peru. We met up with a Santiago-native friend that I met at a meditation retreat in Dharamsala, Matias, and got the inside scoop of Chilean politics and culture. We enjoyed surprisingly good sushi for the first time since Japan. And then we headed to Punta Arenas. Punta Arenas is the base village for the Los Torres trek of
Patagonia. We enjoyed a few days of prepping for the trek and I finally began studying for the entrance exams I will have to take to apply for Spanish university. The 5-day trek through Patagonia was breath-taking to say the least, although I should also note that it was cold (it’s nearly the closest to Antarctic one can get) and exhausting as we trekked 60 kilometers with all of our camping gear. We saw glaciers, turquoise lakes, thriving greenery, and otherworldly rock formations. Nonetheless, we were quite happy for the trek to be over when it was and to lay around limp for a few days.
Before heading out of Chile, we took a day trip to a penguin island. What cool and weird little creatures penguins are.
Almost done – I promise.
Oh So Lovely London
Back to Europe! We had to fly through London so we figured we might as well stop and see it. It was awesome! After months of speaking only Spanish to everyone but ourselves, it was so refreshing to be back in a land of English-speakers, especially ones with such lovely accents. We went ice skating, saw all of the touristy things, met up with a uni friends who happened to also be traveling there, visited a Whole Foods (that is a true highlight when you are a veg out of the 1st world for a while), and saw the hilarious Book of Mormon. We loved London so much we are already thinking of when we can make it back and stay for a while longer.
Life in a Palace Penthouse
And here we are now in Split, Croatia, where we have improved our impression of Eastern Europe. Split is really old – like they have a colosseum older than Rome’s and the center of the city is in the walls and buildings of an ancient palace, which is where we’re living now. The AirBnB we were in didn’t end up having the WiFi speed they promised so they upgraded us to a modern 5-bedroom penthouse in a 1700 year old building with a spectacular view and walking distance from the sea and spectacular restaurants. We are enjoying finally living stably for a month and being able to work – me as an online English teacher and Dave financial consulting remotely for his old Silicon Valley crowd. 2017 has been good to us and is leaving off on a note as high as it started.
All the Lovely People
Reflecting on this year, I am filled with immeasurable gratitude. Gratitude to the friends who have showed me their cities and made me feel at home in them – Eva, Michal, and Roman in Prague, Elisa in Bologna, Dani in Manhattan, Matias in Santiago. To my family for sparking the initial interest in travel. Who would have guessed I’d take it this far? To Kindra, my old friend from Europe 1.o and 2.o who became a flight attendant and put me on her benefits, making such extensive and spontaneous continent-hopping possible. And especially to Dave, who has shared these adventures with me, who has kept me balanced, strong, and connected to love through the highs and the challenges of this year, who has made so many of these experiences feasible and who has been a better partner than I could have every dreamed of or hoped for. We’re both wholes – none of that other half none sense – but this was a feat only accomplishable by 2, not 1.
Gratitude to the artists, architects, urban planners, chefs, and musicians throughout history who have crafted the beauty of civilizations. To the developers of technologies that allow modern travel to be so much easier and more attainable than ever before in history. To the activists who have brought rights to nations across the world. To the people who have and who continue to maintain culture and tradition in the face of consumerism and globalization. To the kindness, friendliness, wisdom, and intellect of the many people we have crossed paths with on our journeys – especially in Thailand, Japan, and Spain. To Mother Nature for creating so much beauty.
The World as we Know It
It would be irresponsible of me to have seen all of the beautiful things I have and to not share the reality of how threatened they are and the influence that everyone, and inordinately Americans, have in this incredibly interconnected world of ours.
Who Turned Up the Heat? …Oh, We Did
The natural world is incredibly threatened. The beautiful Puerto Rico and Necker that I enjoyed just a few short years ago is destroyed and my university city of Tampa nearly encountered a similar fate. London was threatened by a similar hurricane for the first time in history. Such storms are products of warmer oceans. The Great Barrier Reef that I once saw is dead. The glaciers I saw just months ago have been melting at an alarming pace. Fish swim with plastic (and eat it to their demise) in the world’s best SCUBA destinations. Consume less and consume cleaner. The biggest impact you can have (aside from adopting rather than adding another body to the population) is eating less meat, especially beef. Meat consumption is the largest contributor to global warming, more than all transit combined. Go solar if you can. And opt for public transit or carpooling over driving alone.
How Did Starbucks Get in this Letter?
American chains are gaining ground across the world at the cost of local business. Literally, Italians are starting to drink Starbucks. Thais are forgoing pad thai for Pizza Hut. What makes foreign countries unique is already irreversibly damaged and continually threatened. So buy local. When you support local restaurants or at the very least smaller more local chains, you not only support your community but you keep power away from companies that are threatening foreign cultures.
Very scarily, America’s absolutely horrendous food system is spreading globally. Already most food in Asia and South America is GMO and drenched in Round Up, but Europe is even being threatened with Monsanto seeds and high fructose corn syrup. So buy organic. The less money (power) you give to GMOs, the less strength they have to spread.
Fuck da Police – Yep, I Just Said That
Furthermore, if you are in the US, make as much of your money as tax exempt as possible – US tax money subsidizes coal and funds violent, unnecessary, and environmentally unsustainable wars. Much more of it goes to evil than it does to good, especially under the current administration. Not to mention our current government just robbed us of a free internet. They deserve *nothing* of you. The power and money that they can get from you is only power and money that they will use against you and against the welfare of humanity and the planet.
Ok, Let’s End on High Note
So what’s next? Well you can see I won’t be back in the US (voluntarily) anytime soon. So where will we be? After our Schengen time resets in the beginning of 2018 we’ll be heading back to Western Europe. Lisbon and Barcelona are options. Then when we have to leave the Schengen again in March, we’ll probably split up our time between London and Eastern Europe. After that, we’ll hopefully be able to attain visas to stay in Spain and spend the rest of our year there. However, we will have to briefly return to the US while those visas are processing so you just might see us in passing if you’re across the pond. Dave and I will be continuing our work during this time and my study plan in Spain is Environmental Biology.
But alas, nothing ever goes according to plan, so we’ll see how it all turns out around this time next year.
I hope this letter finds you well. Wherever you are in this big beautiful world, I love you. Happy holidays. Happy life 🙂