baklava for breakfast

fancy piles of Turkish Delight

fancy piles of Turkish Delight in Istanbul

We are finally out of Asia! Letting go of updating this blog while on the road was a relief for both of us, since we’ve been so busy with travel, packing, unpacking, optimizing our gear, and so forth, not to mention all the classes and sightseeing we’ve been doing. The final nail in the coffin was extraordinarily poor Internet access in our last couple destinations.

We’ve been taking an insane number of photos and both of us have been writing up a lot our reflections offline, so we have lots of fodder for eventual posts on our travels in Asia. The plan is to eventually publish them on here once we have settled down a bit. I’ve also been posting some of my photos over on my my flickr stream, so feel free to go check that out if you’re interested. It’s still many months behind, but I’ll be continuing to update it as we go.

Ideally, I would be sticking photos here, but the WordPress photo tools are, plainly put, godawful. There is no sane way to set up photos for batch processing offline, and I got sick of spending precious Internet time frantically trying to get the metadata of small handfuls of photos working right. With flickr I can process photos when I’m offline and then just bulk load them all at once and they magically act more or less the way I’d like them to.

a healthy start to the day

a healthy start to the day

Anyway, back to the actual subject: here in Istanbul we bought a silly amount of balkava and Turkish delight yesterday afternoon near Taksim square, mainly so we could try all the (slightly) different flavors. Since it’s a lazy rainy morning, it’s great to have a bunch of pastry sitting around waiting to be devoured while we mobilize.

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blog updates, or a lack thereof

Things have been a little hectic over here, even though we’ve had some long stays in various places. Neither of us was entirely ready with our gear and we’ve also been planning next stops as we go, so much of our “spare time” has been taken up with necessary shopping and travel planning.

Aside from what the blog’s already covered, we’ve been to China and Indonesia, and are presently in Japan. We’re in the middle of wrangling a bunch of photos for all of those places and getting the blog ready to accomodate them.

We just added an up to date travel map to show our progress, as well as the start of some photo galleries. We also posted a bunch more Alaska photos over in the Crusin’ Alaska album so check those out if you’d like to see some shots from the Mendenhall Glacier, the White Pass Railroad, and Glacier Bay!

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3 Weeks At Sea – Part 1: Spaaaaace Madness!

a moment of loafing in the sun

a moment of loafing in the sun

[September 15 – October 8, 2012]

We began our slow trip to the east with a 23 night cruise from Vancouver, Canada to Tianjin, China aboard the Diamond Princess. I had mixed feelings about supporting the cruise industry, but curiosity won out; I wanted to experience it rather than scoff in ignorance my whole life. Besides, it was on sale. Repositioning cruises such as this one cost half the usual price, which turned out to be over twice our monthly budget target. Still, if we hadn’t scheduled this we might have never left at the rate we were going. It gave us a deadline, which gave us focus.

The Suspiciously Awesome Arrival: We boarded to discover that we had been mysteriously upgraded to a super sweet balcony room. Holy crap! We figured we had a 50/50 chance that they would discover their mistake and punt us back to our obstructed view cabin in the lower decks. There must be a word for a surprise that is so wonderful that it fills you with dread because you aren’t sure you’ll actually get to keep it. We spent the day in limbo trying to stay unattached until finally relaxing and settling in after dinner. At last, we had arrived!

fear and loathing on the high-seas

fear and loathing on the high seas

The Setup: I told myself this cruise would be all about lovely scenery that I could mostly ignore while floating from the US to China. I was thinking “Ahhhh. 23 days at sea with nothing to do but to come down from the stress of what it took to get here. I will lock myself in the cabin for days on end and lose track of all external reality.” This was not to be. Our cabin came with a friendly steward who was directed to come in and tidy twice a day. !!! 0_o !!! This mandatory courtesy slash safety protocol caused a daily cat and mouse game of cabin occupancy that initially shocked me into a depression that lasted days. (I’m an introvert. Princess needs her alone time.) This will be part of a recurring “no escape form humans” theme, but I digress.

I thought that I’d be too cool and/or jaded for those cheesy cruise activities. But every day a schedule was delivered and included things like dessert buffets, dance lessons, lectures, classes, and movies. And the excursions, which I had valued only as lures to get Scott out of the cabin, started looking interesting…nay…imperative. The FOMO set in. Because really, when would I get another chance to hike an Alaskan glacier? How could I not visit a dog sledding summer training camp? I wound up doing about 10% of the available ship activities. These things were fun, but looking back I probably would have been better off sticking to my guns and getting the alone time.

never got tired of this

never got tired of this

The Good: Early on we had the joy of seeing a whale that paced us only 100 meters away and then leapt out of the water and did a flip, which I was totally convinced was a greeting. Moments later we saw water shooting up from the blowholes of maybe 30 of the rest of the pod off in the distance. It was magical. Sometimes I was profoundly in touch with the movements of the ocean through the ship. Most of the time I really enjoyed the chance to practice awareness to stay in balance on my feet. During the week at sea we set the clocks back each day until time became increasingly meaningless and we were awake for sunrises without having to try. I rather enjoyed the daily report from the captain which tended to remind me that this wasn’t completely a cellophane-wrapped adventure; there was always some twist in the plan and it was neat to be kept informed en masse. There was that ever so slight chance of a cold, watery death that spiced up the day when the weather got rough, promoting a greater atmosphere of cameraderie and gratitude in our otherwise pampered existence. At night I would sit outside and make peace with my fear of the dark ocean and the various monsters that were most likely lurking out there in the surrounding fog. But my favorite thing was just sitting on the balcony, watching and feeling the ship’s movement with the waves and marveling at the endless water on the horizon in every direction – I loved this so much that I was always a bit down when we would pull into port.

joy! another compulsory disembarkation photo

joy! another compulsory disembarkation photo

The Meh: Overall, I felt cruising was more of a “go with the flow” adventure than a “retreat” (much in the same way that I no longer expect burn events to be “restorative”). The flies in the ointment ranged from sad overcooked vegetables to the huge letdown of missing a much-awaited port to avoid a super-tsunami (we had to skip Aomori, Japan), or spending a sleepless 12 hour night being aggressively jostled in a shallow, stormy port. I found the idea of making plans to be stressful and preposterous but felt still compelled to do it every day for fear of missing out. The attentiveness of the staff – being monitored and greeted in all places or wrangled by our steward – kept me on edge. I felt out of place dressing like a punk amongst the relentlessly fancy. There was strong pressure to overeat and overspend, the music playing on the ship was inescapable, and the mandatory photo ops defied reason.

getting down to a mere two layers!

strippin’ down to hunt glaciers

About half of the ship events did leave truly fond memories: creature sightings that would get the whole ship buzzing, morning Zumba class with spry people aged 20 to 80, glacier sightings (and glacier sounds!), the Ship Info lecture, the Horse Whisperer lectures, yoga class on a moving surface, and the thermal spa. We avoided every single formal night, the live shows, and the consumer experiences with no regrets. In the end I managed to get just enough restorative time that no one wound up dead, but it wasn’t really enough to bring me to a state of calm.

so many ways to kill ourselves with food!

pass the insulin, please

All in all it was an adventure that I’m thrilled to have experienced. It proved to be a fairly comfortable introduction to some universal aspects of open ocean travel aboard a giant ship. I’d do it again…but not as a way to recover from overstimulation. It seems sooo obvious in hindsight. I’d go for either a themed cruise (yoga, martial arts, detox, etc) with few stops, or one going to the right place for a low price, favoring the companies making the biggest changes toward environmental responsibility. I might even try a freighter if it’s going my way.

One might question the logic of wallowing in luxury for weeks as a precursor to spending months in rural China. Fortunately, a week in Beijing broke our fall. But first I’ll cover the places we stopped during the journey in Part 2: Alaska, Russia, Japan, and China.

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the end of the road

midori's glamor headshot

midori in macro

[10 September, 2012]

A bit of a segue: I’ve avoided writing about a situation that was present during the road trip. My lovely lorikeet, Midori, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma earlier in the year. She survived dangerous surgery performed by my awesome vet in Austin in late May to remove a throat tumor that threatened her breathing and ability to eat. All appeared well for a couple of months, but in July a new bump began to form, this time in an inoperable location in her jaw.

The tumor appeared to be growing back so slowly that it wouldn’t be a concern for many months, so we went forward with the plan that my parents would take care of her while we were gone. But at the end of our visit to California, her condition took a sudden turn for the worse as the tumor began growing back inside her mouth, so fast that there was a visible difference from one day to the next. By the time we were in Oregon she was having difficulty biting into solid food.

At that point I made the tough decision to euthanize her when we reached Washington. She only had a couple weeks left at most and I wanted to be there for her when it was time for her to pass. So, we took a day off from trip preparation to give her the most awesome day we knew how to, and then the next morning took her to a gracious vet in the area. Midori pulled a fast one on me in the car and I ended up having to chase her under the seat to get her back into her cage, which was just like her.

At first the vet seemed ready to make sure I wasn’t rushing into anything but when she took one look at Midori’s tumor she saw the severity of her condition. I chose to hold Midori while she was injected, and tried to make her as comfortable as possible while Heather and I whistled goodnight to her.

This was certainly not how I envisioned our road trip ending, but I am also grateful that I was able to be there for her through to the end. She was with me for all but the first few weeks of her fourteen years. I still miss her companionship every day. Over the last couple of months that has mostly shifted from deep sadness to fond remembrance. I still think of her frequently, especially when I see little birds.

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in the pacific northwest

[5-13 September, 2012]

After a brief overnight in Eugene we went right on to Portland, Oregon. Incidentally, this was our fifth Days Inn on the trip – I highly recommend them if you are traveling with a pet. Their pet policy varies a little from place to place (sometimes it’s free, sometimes it’s a small extra fee), but it was great to be able to keep Midori in the room without having to be sneaky about it. Most other lodgings in a similar price range are decidedly pet unfriendly, or only allow dogs.

We went on a somewhat traumatic two-day last-minute-shopping blitz in Portland, taking advantage of tax free shopping at fantastic stores including Oregon Mountain Community, the Danner factory store, where we both got some awesome boots, and the new Icebreaker store downtown. We were able to hit a couple favorites including Powell’s Book Store and Waffle Window. Sadly, no Mission Kontrol or Voodoo Donuts this time around. Finally, we were set to go up to my parents’ in Washington and begin final preparations.

Up at my parents’ we hunkered down and wound up having no time to see our friends in Washington. My parents did arrange a lovely dinner at Ivar’s Salmon House for my close family who we wouldn’t be able to see during the holidays. It was good to get that family contact in and I’m looking forward to some more quality time with friends and family in Washington when things are less hectic on our return.

The bulk of our time was taken up with finalizing our gear for the trip, mostly via multiple lengthy visits to REI’s flagship store in Seattle. The Container Store also provided some useful items. More on gear in a later post.

Heather adds: It was a really rough week for both of us. My experience of it was a mashup of great comfort and support with the extreme stress of gear decision burnout, death, human overexposure, computer upgrade discomforts, and problems with my glasses that had me facing most of the cruise unable to see or read clearly. I was questioning the point of all this, especially when I snapped my prescription goggles (the only specs I could see clearly through) in half during my all night pre-departure packing frenzy, triggering a spectacular meltdown. We pulled it together and felt mostly ready when it was time for us to head up to Vancouver where we would catch our ship the next day.

I can’t say how much I appreciate my parents’ ground support. They’re holding onto a few of my irreplaceable items, taking care of my car, and are also handling some admin things for me that I can’t do from the Internet. I worked out how to do 90% of the things I need to online, but every now and then it’s awesome to have someone who can make a phone call on my behalf so that I don’t have to stay up til 3am. Thanks, Mom & Dad.

We were on the road for 2.5 months tying up loose ends and saying goodbyes in America. It was a roller coaster of joy and stress, and we are profoundly grateful for all of the love and hospitality and support. Now onward, to Vancouver, Canada!

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the redwoods

[August 28 – September 3]

The drive North out of the Bay Area was far more pleasant than most of the drive to get to California. The 101 was friendly and mellow; we caught an early Indian lunch in San Rafael, then wound our way up through Mendocino where we steadily saw more trees and less people. Once we crossed into Humboldt we found an amazing little wonderland of a natural grocer in Garberville when we stopped there for gas. Finally we made it up to Jim and Mary’s place up near Fortuna, overlooking a lush dairy valley halfway into Humboldt.

This was our first real chance to relax on the trip without much on our agenda other than chilling out and hiking (although Heather got stuck doing some rejiggering of her belongings while I spent more time out). Jim has built a long winding loop trail around his property, so we walked that almost every day. We got to enjoy picking and eating chanterelle mushrooms from one of the patches by the trail. They’ve also got an amazing little garden so all of our dinners were full of delicious, fresh-picked veggies!

On top of all that nature, we went on three hiking excursions all around Humboldt. Guthrie Creek, to the Grove of the Titans near Mill Creek, and to Fern Canyon. The Grove was a particular highlight – it is in a semi-secret location and is home to several of the most massive redwoods on the planet. Eating lunch while sitting at the base of the biggest one (The Lost Monarch) was awe-inspiring.

Since we were the real Northern California we also sampled some of the local flavor with a visit to Mycality Mushrooms, a small mushroom farm which happened to be having a factory tour. A trip to Humboldt wouldn’t be complete without checking out some of their fantastic breweries, this time around it was time for Eel River and Mad River. Despite being so small and off the beaten path, the treats in Humboldt are world class.

On our last day of relaxation and downtime we packed up and went up to beautiful Fern Canyon, one of my favorite places to visit. Luckily it was cool outside so leaving Midori in the car for a couple hours wasn’t an issue. We parted ways with our friends at the beach and then drove up to Oregon for the last leg of our roadtrip.

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the bay area

Heather and I just made it across the ocean and are stopping briefly in the port of Muroran. We’re sitting on the sidewalk right outside some art store that offers free WiFi. Meanwhile, here’s the next step of my trip recap:

[August 19 – 27, 2012]

After crossing into California, we slowed our pace up for a bit. On a whim, we decided to try to stay overnight in Yosemite on the way into the Bay Area. This was apparently rather foolish of us given that it was the absolute height of the season and the valley floor was crawling with tourists. As luck would have it, the Yosemite Lodge had an emergency cancelation minutes before we arrived and they had a room ready for us. It wasn’t air conditioned but it was also a step up from the tents and cabins.

In the morning we did a little hiking in the Yosemite Valley. It felt fantastic to stretch my legs out after the all the driving. The experience was pretty surreal compared with most other California parks I’ve been in due to the number of visitors, not to mention the wide range of languages being spoken. It was like Disney had designed an idealized version of a California park, and I was visiting that instead.

In the afternoon we drove the rest of the way to the Bay Area and spent a week in Berkeley and Oakland. There wasn’t much time to rest with all the people I wanted to see and the errands we had to do. We finally ended up paying someone to handle our Chinese visas for us because the Chinese Consulate’s process was confusing at first and would have been too time consuming. I probably only ended up seeing half of the friends who I wanted to, given our brief stop I really had to cherry pick. On top of that a bunch of them were also in the middle of getting ready for their own Labor Day plans so it was hectic all around. I’m looking forward to a more mellow visit next time I’m in town.

Soon I’ll post about our visit to the redwoods and the conclusion of our roadtrip!

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roadtrip, phase 1

Wow, we’ve been so busy that we haven’t had time to post anything! There’s been a ton of transit, last minute gear acquisition/tweaking, and visiting with friends and loved ones that we haven’t had time to write it all. Currently we’re stopped in Anchorage for our last hour on US soil until we board a one-way ship to China. More on the ship later, we’re going to start this thing out by playing catch-up with the last couple of months.

Our flock (Heather, Scott, and Midori) finally left Austin with a car and a truck crammed full of stuff. First stop was Fort Worth where we dropped Heather’s truck off and spent plenty of quality time with Heather’s grandparents, parents, siblings, and other assorted family members. The visit wasn’t overly relaxing with a bunch of family medical stuff going on and temperatures spiking 110, but we both got a lot out of having an extended period of time to connect with family.

After two weeks around Fort Worth and reduced down to a single car filled to the brim, we set out west for California. Midori sat shotgun with Heather’s lap as shock absorption, and Scott drove most of the way. We had a two night stop in Amarillo where we got our stuff together after the chaos of bouncing between relatives’ homes. We even got some great Thailand tips from the owner of Thai Star, a local eatery.

Coming out of Texas we got crazy weather with 110 degree dry patches mixed with 60 degree thunderstorms. In Albuquerque we ended up shipping some more of our stuff because the car loads and unloads were getting irritating. There was also an inevitable REI stop and admiration of the xeriscaping along the freeways. We also had our first causality there: the iPad sadly got left on top of the car when we pulled out and run over and/or stolen.

In Flagstaff we greatly enjoyed the Beaver Street Brewery and the lovely downtown area then in the morning Scott ended up doing IT support for the local UPS store while Heather was sending out a family photo album project she’d been working on. Incidentally, by this point Days Inn had become our favored resting place because they have fabulous pet policies.

For our last pre-California stop we stayed at the quirky Atomic Inn in Beatty, NV, just outside of Death Valley. The drive between Vegas and there was totally surreal, we kept seeing strange ball lighting on either side of the freeway, some of which was vaguely over Area 51.

Expect more in the next couple of weeks to catch us up to our visit to California, the rest of our roadtrip, and our visit to Alaska! For now we’ll be holed up in a boat crossing the Pacific and our next stop is Japan.

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guardians at the gate

Actually getting out of town is hard work. Trip preparation has taken far longer than planned, all sorts of unexpected delays have cropped up, and we kept wanting to see our friends and loved ones “one last time”.

Without going into gory detail, over the last few months we updated our house to code and got it rented out, moved into a transitory apartment, purged unnecessary items, filled a storage unit to the brim, cared for and rehabilitated our pet bird Midori who got cancer, mostly finalized and acquired our travel gear, went through piles of papers and personal projects that we’d been meaning to work on forever that had to be dealt with before we left, and visited and provided assistance to suddenly ailing family members. Ironically, I feel like a lot of things I worked on to get ready for this journey could have been done years ago to make my stationary life more sane. Now that they’re done I’m happy about it, and I’m glad this trip provided the impetus for my to stop procrastinating and actually do them!

Every one of these obstacles has made us reconsider the wisdom of this trip, but we’ve stubbornly tackled them one by one. We are grateful for all the help and support we got from friends and family along the way. We’ve had to work with the practice of letting go of “perfect preparation” so that we don’t end up preparing forever. As our nomadic friend Kai said to us a couple months back, “Getting ready for your trip will take exactly as long as you have.” Shortly after that we bought tickets for our first leg of travel, which gave us something concrete to schedule around.

We are finally out of town, and last night was the first night our little flock (Heather, Midori, and me) had on our own. It’s exciting to feel underway!

our car mascot

our giant pile of stuff

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words, words, words

It amazes me to observe how much my psyche is tied up in my books. With the upcoming trip I’ll have to put my ebooks into storage, so it seems prudent to get rid of ones that I won’t be needing in the future. I’ve also got my Kindle, which I absolutely love, and part of my justification for getting it was that I could save house/storage space by obtaining digital copies of books.

That said, the titles on my bookshelves say who I was, who I am, and who I want to be. If I replace them with my Kindle then I won’t have a physical reminder of who I am, and no way to show that off to visitors. When I set up a home one of the first things I do is deploy the bookshelves and unload the books. That makes it feel way more like home. Screw my dishes – as long as I have a plate and a fork I’m good for a couple weeks.

Going through this purge feels like a multifaceted assault on my self-identity. What makes it even harder is that I notice all the self-judgement and “shoulding” when I look through the books.. There’s the literature that I’ve been meaning to get around to reading, and I’ll be a better person once I’ve read them. Others are nonfiction for hobbies that I don’t have yet but I’m sure I’ll have at any moment as soon as I have time and space for them. Then there’s the books for hobbies I used to have that I don’t keep up with anymore and feel bad for not keeping up with them. They say to me “hey man, you were really into this, why aren’t you doing it anymore?”

I’m aiming to cut out about half of them this go around. Delicious Library has been particularly useful in this endeavor – I feel that if I at least record what books I had, then I’ll be able to get them again later (or get digital copies to read when I actually have time to read them). I really have no idea how the true nomads manage to get rid of EVERYTHING for good. Maybe I’ll get more of a taste for that as I travel, but for now, I really like the idea of having a home full of books to come back to.

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