Exactly one year ago today about this time I was flying into L.A., feeling slightly relieved to be back in the U.S., really sad that our ‘trip of lifetime’ was over, and extremely excited to see my family and friends. Kevin and I were still giddy with excitement from our engagement two days earlier, and the next year was full of unknowns.

Today, I’m working in a cubical (although it is a good job), Kevin just started his new position at the U of I, we’ve been homeowners for a little over a month, and newlyweds for 3 weeks. Doesn’t sound too bad. But, of course, it doesn’t sound like a trip of a lifetime either…

As I’ve been thinking more about the trip recently with the year anniversary of being home, I get a little nostalgic and depressed (okay, just slightly sad).  I DO still intend to finish up the remaining posts…I’ve had this one saved in my drafts since shortly after our Kili hike (December 2009), and since I wanted to post something today, I thought this would do. I’ll also be running the Illinois Marathon in 2 weeks, so the timing is somewhat appropriate….


Although difficult, maybe impossible, to compare these two physical feats, I thought I’d go ahead and try to draw some conclusions on how I personally would rate them.

–Preparation: Mountain. Kili “wins” this category because of the relatively little amount of training necessary. A typical marathon training schedule is 16-18 weeks long, requiring you to devote numerous hours of time throughout the weeks, and especially on the weekends.  When you count preparation and recovery from a 20 mile run it sometimes feels like a whole weekend is shot. In addition, training for a marathon (properly) not only affects your fitness level, but you must also factor in a greater need for nutrition and rest. While ‘training’ for Kili I didn’t alter my routine of ~15 miles/wk too much. I thought about the fact that I needed to be in good shape for long days of hiking, which kept me motivated, but didn’t change the workouts I would have likely done anyway (except a measly one session on the stair climber and a few hikes in Southern IL). Knowing that being fit was small in comparison to the affects of the altitude, and not having anywhere to train at high altitude, I didn’t feel the need to stick to a schedule. Although it’s nice to know you have some control over how you fare in a marathon by how you prepare, the little training needed for hiking Kilimanjaro makes it somewhat appealing.

Mentally: Marathon. This is a tough one, because for both endeavors you go through so many mental states/thoughts: “This is incredible. I can’t believe I’m doing this(+)! I can’t believe I’m doing this(-). I can’t do this. I feel good. My legs are strong. I feel like shit.” and so on..) The difference, of course, is that a marathon lasts 4-5 hours and the trek lasts 6-7 days. Granted, training for a marathon is mentally taxing and those thoughts most definitely enter my head throughout runs. Even then, though, you can look forward to when that run will be done (in 20 min, or worst case closer to 180 min). Although each camp did serve as a destination and accomplishment of its own, the looming peak was always there was a reminder as to what the “real” challenge would be. I suppose it was a “fear of the unknown”, since there was no way to gauge how your body would react with the combination of thin air and exhausting days of hiking. (Recall this post about a girl fainting one morning. I always felt like I would be next.)

–Physically: Mountain. Another tough one, but Kili comes out ahead since, besides adjusting to and coping with the high altitude, the physical demands of climbing are less than that of running a marathon, in my opinion. Again, although being in shape is no doubt important, the fitness required for a marathon is higher.  Hikes were steep, long, and exhausting, but it was by far more mentally than physically taxing. Surprisingly I was really only sore on the hike down, when I got tight quads/hamstrings  and developed blisters on my feet.

Financially: Marathon. Although I’ve often felt like running is an expensive hobby, there is no way I could afford to climb a mountain every couple of years. Granted, we could probably find some less expensive treks,  and closer mountains than Kilimanjaro, but everything taken into account, a marathon is a much more financially feasible feat.

I will without a doubt run another marathon (hopefully several), however I can’t say whether another 6-day trek is in my future…

Even as I read this over today, I can tell some of the painful Kili memories have worn off, and more of the good ones remain. Besides the financial aspect, I’m finding myself thinking– “I could totally do that again!”

Coincidentally, I read this article earlier today: “Marathons, once special, are now crowded“. Although still a remarkable accomplishment to be proud of, “what was once an act of rare heroism is now sort of common”. I suppose you can’t say that about summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro….point mountain.

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Well, my attempt to finish the blog has been nothing less than pathetic! It’s hard to believe we recently passed our year anniversary of leaving (November 30). A while ago, my dad requested that I finish up this last post so he could share our recount of Bangkok with his fellow NRCS employee and our travel companion, Maxine. Since my dad is retiring today (after 37 years with NRCS), this seemed like a good time to finally continue…

We headed out bright and early the next morning, with no set plans, but armed with our guidebooks and Maxine’s knowledge from living in Bangkok the last couple months. For our first adventure, we boarded a “longboat” for a visit to a floating market.

The Taling Chan floating market is one of my favorite memories of Bangkok. It was more primitive and calmer than the Bangkok we had previously experienced–shimmery gold buildings and a noisy city full of skyscrapers. “These markets preserve a way of life in the past when communities lived near rivers and canals. Their lives were closely linked to the waterways which provided the means for movement and trade in their agricultural produce.”

As we traveled along the waterway leading up to the market, a couple vendors passed by our boat, and Maxine made the first purchase of the day– a stylish, multi-colored cone-shaped hat.


We made our way  to the dock, disembarked, and spent the next 30 minutes making our way around to the numerous food stalls, taking in the sites and smells of the local market.


Luckily, it wasn’t crawling with tourists like ourselves, and it was neat to see Thai people going about their daily life. Much of their day, and their culture, is centered around food.


Some of the food looked (and tasted) delicious, but we steered clear of some stalls with questionable looking sanitary practices.


We climbed back aboard the longboat and continued on the elaborate network of canals– known as khlongs– that gave Bangkok the nickname “Venice of the East” at a time when most transportation was by boat. Although most of the canals have been filled in and converted into streets, some khlongs still exist (although most are very polluted), with people living along them and a few remaining floating markets.


With all the moments and sites we captured on camera throughout the trip, one that we sadly missed was our sighting of a komodo dragon. This large species of lizard grows to an average length 6.5 to 10 ft and weighs around 150 lb! I couldn’t begin to guess how big the one we saw on the banks of the khlong was–but it was pretty awesome! We did, however, get a pretty good shot of some kids playing in the water…


We decided our next adventure would be a lesson in Thai cooking– something I’d been wanting to do again since our cooking class in India. With so many courses to choose from, lucky for us Maxine had the inside scoop. She had actually taken May Kaidee’s Vegetarian Cooking Class at it’s northern location a couple weeks before, but enjoyed it so much she suggested we try it out. We arrived just in time to join the 4-hour afternoon session.


Much different than our cooking instructor in India (who taught in her own modest kitchen and threw trash out her window), May Kaidee was poised, elegantly dressed, and has made quite the name for herself throughout Thailand as a successful entrepreneur.  She currently spends half the year in New York City establishing the first U.S. locations of her restaurants and cooking schools.


After a  lesson in making chili paste, we took a short walk to see first-hand how rice paper (used for spring rolls) is made, which as it turns out, was quite entertaining. A woman sits behind a warm skillet with a ball of dough covering her hand; she lightly rubs the dough on the skillet, making a perfect, thin circle; after heating for a few seconds, she effortlessly flips it, removes the thin paper, and starts again.  I’ll have to find the video another time, as this description/picture seems pretty mundane.


Throughout the rest of the class we made–and ate–eight delicious Thai dishes. With all of the ingredients cut up and set out for us in little containers, Thai cooking seemed pretty easy!


After our dessert of mango and sticky rice (better than it sounds), we were treated to a lesson in traditional Thai dancing, where May Kaidee made us all look ridiculous as she moved rhythmically to the music while we flailed about.


Before meeting up with Maxine, Kevin and I had looked into taking a water taxi, but since they are normally used mostly by locals, and the stops aren’t necessarily marked in English, we were a little intimidated. But, yes, you guessed it– our seasoned traveler showed us the ropes to a fast, cheap way to see the city!


Refreshed from a much-needed nap back at the apartment, we headed out to Chinatown that night to experience a vibrant, one-of-a-kind historic area. Some 200 years ago, this area began to grow from groups of Chinese immigrants who moved from communist China and continued to do what they did best: trade. As we made our way down Chinatown’s traffic-jammed Yaowarat Road, filled with market stalls and street-side restaurants with cheap, “interesting” looking food, and the city’s largest concentration of gold shops, we were thoroughly entertained just watching the night unfold.

If you know my eating habits, you might guess I was not intrigued by the shark fin or bird’s nest soups, pork dumplings (shown below), or endless supply of meat on a stick.

We did treat our selves to a couple items from various street stalls, including roasted nuts (above) and our new favorite delicacy: a Thai pancake with chocolate syrup (recall the “you-hoo! lady” from a previous post.)


After finally deciding on and eating at a restaurant, we headed to a bar we’d read about in our guidebook (I will have to look up the name later). Similar to the Hancock Building’s Signature Room bar in Chicago, this skyscraper featured a fancy, overpriced bar on it’s 80-something floor; however, unlike Chicago, this was a rooftop bar, with nothing between you and the streets below but a short metal railing. Not for those with a fear of heights (or a few too many drinks).

While walking back to the apartment, we came upon the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, still open although it was nearing midnight.


Selling almost anything you can imagine: gifts, clothing, jewelery, fruit, DVDs, hand-made products and fine arts, we could have walked around the vendors well into the night. There is a large beer garden that often features live entertainment and–big surprise–a wide variety of food.


Like nearly everywhere in Bangkok, there was no shortage of massage parlors– which seemed to be packed with tourists and locals at all hours of the day/night.

We didn’t spend too long at the night market, knowing that the next morning we were heading to the largest market in all of Thailand: the Chatuchak Weeknd Market. If you think TJ Maxx is overwhelming, Chatuchak is not for you. It covers 35 acres, with over 5,000 stalls, and an estimated 200,000 visitors a day! Although we had a map and our experienced guide Maxine, there is really no good way to navigate through the rows… and rows…and rows of stalls. It’s a good thing we didn’t have a lot of room to carry souvenirs in our bags, or we (I) could have really been in trouble.

As if we hadn’t shopped enough, after Chatuchak we stopped off at one of Bangkok’s many super-modern mega-malls. In the air-conditioned comfort of the brand new mall, surrounded by high-end fashion boutiques and expensive electronic shops, it felt like we were a world away from the bustling market earlier that morning.

Sadly, that night we boarded yet another bus for an overnight trip north to Chiang Mai. Although we were looking forward to seeing a new part of Thailand, with a cooler climate and beautiful scenery, we were sad to leave Maxine and the city of Bangkok with so much left unseen/done. One non-traditional tourist experience that we missed out on was participating in a “hash”. A few days earlier Maxine had mentioned her boss was a member of a running group who participates in hashes: running in hot weather, followed by drinking beer. Right up our alley! I had heard of the Hash House Harriers in the States, but had no idea it was international. We had hoped to join Maxine’s boss and friends on a Hash, but the timing just didn’t work out. (However, in the weeks to come we would do plenty of running in hot weather and drinking beer on our own…)

Thanks again, Maxine, for your generous hospitality and one-of-a-kind tour of Bangkok! We had a awesome time experiencing the city with you.

And, dad, happy retirement and congratulations! I look forward to reading about your travels in your book…

Now, on to Chiang Mai….

Our next day in Bangkok began like any other– with a short run before it got too hot; a cheap, filling breakfast; and a short chat with my parents on skype– but little did we know we were in for a treat later that afternoon. My dad had emailed me a week earlier with the contact information for a fellow USDA employee, Maxine, whom he’d known for over 30 years. We contacted Maxine, eager to meet up with someone from “home” and also maybe get some dirt on my dad, but we ended up with much more.

Maxine graciously offered to let us stay at her nearly brand new, 29th floor apartment, complete with our own bathroom, a pool, and best of all: air conditioning! After months of budget hostels and shared bathrooms/bedrooms, we were in heaven! Not to mention our top notch hostess and tour guide, Maxine, who made sure we saw and did the very best Bangkok has to offer.

After relaxing at the apartment and doing a little swimming, Maxine treated us to a delicious Thai meal before Kevin and I headed to the infamous/seedy/touristy Patpong district, otherwise known as the “red-light district”. Though historically a sex tourism hot-spot for farangs and expats, in recent years it has been overtaken by the Patpong night market, live music bars, and nightclubs. Sadly, however, the area still has numerous “upstairs bars featuring (technically illegal) sex shows, with women performing various creative acts”. Feel free to look into that further, if you are so inclined, but I better keep this “G” rated.

Originally this post was going to cover our entire stay in Bangkok, but as I began I soon realized each day needed to be separated, as there was so much to say. With approximately 6.5 million people, three days was really not enough time to do the enormous city justice, but we certainly tried our best.

We were dropped off near the infamous “backpacker ghetto”, Khao San Road, around 5am, after another overnight bus ride (by this point I’d become surprisingly used to sleeping on a bus). Although we (Kevin) would normally opt to hoof it and find accommodation without paying for a taxi, neither of us was ready to try to navigate the city on our own so early in the morning (or at least one of us wasn’t). We picked one of the popular hostels from our Lonely Planet “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” guidebook, Lamphu Tree House, and bargained with a rickshaw driver until we felt the price was right.

He stopped a few minutes later and directed us the rest of the way since the rickshaw couldn’t drive down the alley. We were hesitant, but finally got out and trusted that he wasn’t trying to pull a fast one on us, as we’d become so used to. Turns out we should have trusted our instinct. Although it seemed to be an accident, the driver had taken us to the Lamphu Tree House Boutique Hotel, starting at 1,500 Bhat (~$45 USD), well out of our price range. Although it was torture for me to walk away from the clean, inviting lobby, which was being set up for a delicious buffet breakfast, we set back out onto the street, making our way towards the budget hotels. (Kicking ourselves since now, a taxi ride later, we were walking farther than we would have when we originally got off the bus.)

Being so early in the morning, many of the places were full and didn’t know if they’d have rooms opening up later on or not (many backpackers, including us, wait until the day-of to let the hostel know whether they’ll be checking out). Instead of both of us walking miserably from door to door with our backpacks and other possessions (few, but heavy), I sat on a curb guarding our things while Kevin set out to find us a “home”.

Seeing signs like this reminded me I was far from home

As I sat and watched the morning unfold I tried to take in my surroundings and really appreciate where I was. Even two months into the trip, sometimes (most times) it still felt surreal that we were actually doing this.  I was used to seeing places on a map and reading about them, but with every new destination I would find myself thinking, in disbelief, “We are in Thailand!

While a rooster crowed in the distance and a rat scurried around the remains left by a food stall, I saw a monk walk by barefoot in his long orange robe, presumably on his “Morning Alms Round”. During this Buddhist ritual, monks walk around the neighborhood while local people “make merit” by offering them food. “In Buddhism, alms or almsgiving is the respect given by a lay Buddhist to a Buddhist monk… It is not charity as presumed by Western interpreters. It is closer to a symbolic connection to the spiritual and to show humbleness and respect in the presence of normal society” (from Wikipedia).

At the other end of the spectrum, I saw a “couple” making their way back to their hotel after a long night of partying. Unfortunately this couple consisted of a young Thai woman and an older foreign white man, representing the all-too-common sex tourism industry in Thailand.

After successfully securing accommodation and going for a short run (we were, after all, supposed to be well into our marathon training by this time), we set out for some ambitious sightseeing, with only a few hours sleep. Our first stop was to a monastery that we had read about in our guidebook, offering free Buddhist meditation classes. We may not seem like the zen, meditating type (and we really aren’t), but, you know… “when in Thailand..”

Following our short course in “Vipassana meditation” we hit some of the “must sees”, starting with the Grand Palace. Built in the 18th century to serve as the official residence for Thai Kings, it is a complex of buildings that literally glitter in the sun, as most are covered in tiny pieces of shimmering colored glass and glimmering gold. The Grand Palace is also home to the famous Emerald Buddha.

Our next stop was Wat Pho, boasting more than 1,000 Buddha images, including one of the largest single Buddha images: the reclining Buddha, measuring 46 meters long and 15 meters high!

With hundreds of wats (a Buddhist place of worship), a tourist could spend days in Bangkok just marveling at these amazing cultural and architectural buildings. But, of course, our time was limited, and that night we were heading to another cultural attraction: Muay Thai (“a hard martial art similar to kickboxing”).

Although we weren’t happy about the entrance fee of 1,000 bhat each (~$30 USD)–compared to just 200 bhat for Thais!–we decided this unique experience would be worth it. However, as far as I was concerned, the crowd yelling out their bets in Thai and communicating numbers with hand gestures was more exciting to watch than the fight. Not that the fights weren’t entertaining, but there were nine of them, and I can only watch guys kick, elbow, and knee each other in the stomach for so long.

First we sat right in the middle of the action, but soon realized this was not the place for foreigners. Around the other side of the ring were the dimly lit, sparsely populated seats where we found refuge from the intense screaming of the locals.

With signs in the hallway like the one below, it’s a wonder we even questioned where to sit…

Think this would fly at the United Center?

The picturesque beaches of Ko Phi Phi (pronounced pee-pee), off    the west coast of southern Thailand, certainly lived up to all the hype. I felt like I could swim forever in the crystal clear blue water, even inspiring me to sing songs from The Little Mermaid (no, Kevin didn’t join in). The island itself was OK, for being one big tourist shop. Although we’d read it was far less developed than the main tourist spots of Phuket and Ko Samui, the island had more than its fair share of tour agencies, souvenir stores, and restaurants (recently rebuilt after the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004).

Kevin continued to eat Pad Thai for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and we also enjoyed some delicious Thai Pancakes (thin dough spread on a grill and filled with sweets- our fave was bananas and chocolate) from our favorite vendor whom we affectionately referred to as the “You-hoo Lady”.

She would yell "you-hoo! you-hoo!" to get the attention of people walking by. It worked on us!

The one good aspect of so many tour companies was that we could shop around for the best price. After talking with nearly a dozen tour operators we booked our day-long snorkeling adventure to several nearby islands, including Maya Bay- the site for the movie The Beach starring Leo DiCaprio (and an entertaining, albeit unusual, book). I’m far from a snorkeling expert, but as far as I’m concerned it was some of the best in the world!

The best we could do without an underwater camera

We also made stops at a small “secluded” beach and “Monkey Island”, with dozens of monkeys who are not only not scared of people, but steal their food! It’s fun to see the monkeys close-up, but actually pretty sad because they are “tame” due to tourists feeding them. Then, many times they end up getting aggressive if you don’t give them food and may eventually have to be killed.

Aboard our "long boat" heading to a beach

We also took full advantage of the excess number of bars, each offering their own promotion—usually a free bucket during a specific 5-15 minute period throughout the night. We conveniently left each bar just in time to walk along the beach to the next one by the time their special began.

Of course each place had the ubiquitous Thai fire entertainment. The locals were absolutely amazing at fire limbo– one guy actually lit his cigarette with the fire while practically bent in half underneath the bar! (video on Flickr)

This time we both tried the limbo, and Kevin even jumped through a burning ring of fire (not the only one he “fell into” on the trip :)).

April 13, 2010: Fiji consists of over 300 islands, but I’m pretty sure we chose the best one. About an hour boat ride from the main island of Viti Levu, Waya Island is home to two villages of approximately 100 people, many of whom work at the only hotel on the island, the Octopus Resort.

Octopus Resort, Waya Island

On this particular night we were not in our usual dorm room accommodation, but in one of Octopus’ fancy private bungalows (about $300 USD per night)– with exquisite handmade wooden furniture, a private front porch, refrigerator, and to top it off– an ‘outdoor’ shower with an open roof so you don’t miss out on the sun or stars while bathing.

View from our bungalow

No, we didn’t decide to blow the rest of our money in Fiji. To make a long story short(er): there was a miscommunication when we arrived concerning our reservation. We had booked through an outside website, Hostelworld.com, which we’d used in several countries, but as it turned out, this resort did not use. Even though we had a confirmation number and had made a 10% deposit, the hotel wouldn’t accept our reservation since the price listed on Hostelworld was half as much as the regular rates. After an argument with the unaccommodating owner, I was ready to leave. Realizing it was neither our nor Octopus Resorts’ fault, Kevin went to talk to the owner once we’d all calmed down. He came back over an hour later to report Nick (the owner) and him were best friends, and that Nick had actually upgraded our room for the following night.

So, on the second to last night of our trip, after a rough day of lazing in the sun and ‘hand line fishing’, we were getting ready for another excellent dinner. As we walked out of our beach side residence I found a small candle-lit table waiting for us by the water. The first thought that crossed my mind was that our neighbors were having a romantic dinner, but quickly realized it was for us! I was very excited, but told Kevin he really didn’t have to do this. He replied that he wanted to do something special since it was almost the end of our trip. Since this wasn’t completely out of the ordinary (Kevin being sweet, not him blowing money on fancy dinners), I didn’t suspect anything unusual.

Dinner for two

However, I started to wonder when we said “Thank you” to the woman who brought our soup she nodded and said “Congratulations”. It crossed my mind that maybe she had ruined a proposal, but it didn’t seem to faze Kevin so I figured this Fijian lady was confused and meant she was happy for us and our romantic dinner.

I raised my wine glass before taking a drink and waited for Kevin to make a toast. Usually we would say something simple like “To India!”, depending on where we were. I don’t know what he had planned originally, but me gesturing for him to make a toast created the perfect opportunity for him to profess his undying love for me (am I being dramatic?). As I realized what was happening I started crying (the good kind). He came around the table and knelt down beside me before asking, “Bridget McLeese, will you marry me?”

He then pulled something out of his pocket, explaining that the hotel staff had woven a ring for him to give to me since he hadn’t been carrying a diamond with him for the last four months. He put it on my finger (oh yeah, I said “yes”) and through tears and laughter I looked down and asked “What is this?!” It was a wicker, straw looking thing that fit better on my thumb than ring finger, but of course it’s the thought that counts!

The happy couple

The next day the hotel had a jewelery making class and Kevin used some fishing line and a small sea shell to make a ring for me. It’s much more elegant! Actually, the first one he made is somewhere in the Pacific, so the ring I have now is really my third one. When my dad saw it he said, “See, that’s all you need!”  I agree…kinda…not enough to not get a ring though (sorry, Kev).

Today (April 28) happens to be Jim and Bernice’s 42nd wedding anniversary (Happy Anniversary!). Kevin and I both feel so lucky to have parents and relatives who have set such a great example of what love and marriage is all about, even though some days might feel more like a crummy Indian hotel than a romantic Fijian resort.

Back in the USA

We ended up waiting to tell our parents the news when we saw them at the airport two days later, which made our reunion that much better. On the way home from O’Hare I commented that our Fijian proposal story probably sounded cliché, as I’d joked in an earlier post that proposing on Mt. Kilimanjaro would be. My mom replied, “It doesn’t sound cliché, it sounds like you made it up!” Cliché or not, it was the perfect ending to our 136 days around the world.

Keeping up with my habit of finishing with a  quote– this one from Kevin when he finally got around to finishing his toast: “To the end of a trip, and the beginning of a lifetime together.”

135 Days, 17 plane rides, 15 countries, 12 jars of peanut butter, 7 loads of laundry (not nearly enough), and 1 rental car replacement hubcap later…

A few months before leaving I was at the doctor getting referrals for some of my numerous vaccinations. After listening to me rattle off the dozen or so countries I was visiting the doctor asked why I was traveling to all of these places. She was probably looking for a simple answer like “work”, “pleasure”, “vacation”, etc. I answered hesitantly, almost questioning: “To see the world..?” (She laughed at my innocence). Of course my reasons were more than that, and as you can imagine the experience itself is also hard to put into words.

The past four and a half months have flown by; yet at the same time, leaving for Rome on November 30 seems like forever ago. While waiting at O’Hare the morning we left, I got a text from my mom (yes, she texts) asking “Has your stomach gone into your throat yet?” I replied that it had been there all morning (all week, actually). I remember the sick/nervous/excited feeling all too well. It stayed with me for part of the trip; I don’t quite remember when it left. But, as expected, it slowly faded as I became more accustomed to travel (and all that it entails) and the only feeling I had landing in a new country was excitement.

I confessed to Kevin a few nights ago that even after all of this, I still don’t quite feel like I fit the ‘backpacker’ mold. Of course, traveling takes all types, but I’m talking about your typical care-free, bandanna-wearing, adventure-loving, living-off-a-credit card traveler. We met several people who were literally spending all the money they had, then going home only to work and save more money to travel. Without a doubt I will be saving money to travel (that is, when I get a job), but I’m not planning any extensive trips in the near future. I’m actually looking forward to the relative simplicity of everyday life, not living out of (and carrying) a backpack, cooking my own meals, sleeping in my own bed, Peanut M&Ms…. I could get carried away.

It’s funny, though, because as I am writing about all the things I’m looking forward to, I can’t help but think about everything I’m going to miss about traveling. That has to be another topic though– there’s too many to list now, and more that I probably won’t even realize until I’m back. (Although I can say pretty confidently that “not working” will be up there).

Thanks for following our journey; I hope it’s been at least somewhat informative and maybe mildly entertaining. We enjoyed hearing from you and knowing that people at home were interested in what we were up to. Although the updates weren’t always timely (I think we’re about half way through the trip), there will be plenty of time for that with regular access to free, reliable internet and a relatively calm daily schedule.  Hopefully it doesn’t diminish the sense of adventure too much knowing that I’m typing while sitting in the comfort of my house.

It’s hard to believe in 20 short hours I’ll be back in “the States”. Back home. It’s true what Dorothy says: there’s no place like it.

Upon arriving in Bangkok, before we’d even left the airport, I smiled and said, “I think I’m gonna like it here” (borrowing a line from one of my all-time favorite movies, Annie). It felt like we’d traveled to the future; the sleek, spotless, nearly brand new airport felt a world away from India.

As we walked outside into the warm night air and climbed in our perfectly chilled, neon-colored cab, complete with stark white seat covers, I had to laugh. Just that morning we’d left Chandi’s aboard a nearly broken down van. The seats had been removed so instead we sat hunched over on a seatbelt-less bench, surrounded by junk on the floor, and heard a few choice Hindi words from a biker we almost hit.

After just one night in Bangkok we boarded our first, of many, buses and headed south to Koh Phangan island, famous for its Full Moon Parties which, not by coincidence, we were just in time for. We had read about the FMP before we left and thought it’d be worth checking out… “when in Thailand.”

Full Moon Party 2010

After unsuccessfully finding accommodation online (apparently this is the one time backpackers book in advance…well, besides us) we arrived by boat the morning of the party, hoping to find an available beach hut, or at least a secluded spot on the beach. We were somewhat successful– finding a hut, but paying nearly double for this once a month event.

The FMP was a short walk from our place, but sounded much closer. We arrived at the beach, about 1/2 mile long and filled with people, and didn’t have to look far for some fun. We both tried out the giant slide, from which I suffered our first injury of the night, a small burn on my heel. (It’s been awhile since I’ve gone down a slide, but I kinda thought it was like riding a bike?)

Weee!

Kevin’s burn was a little more expected– a result of one of his attempts at (Bernice and Karen skip to next paragraph) fire jump rope. A thick (~2 inch diameter) rope is soaked in petrol (otherwise known as gasoline), lit on fire, and used to jump rope. And now Kevin walks around with a small hole in the back of his pants (neither of us is an experienced seamstress).

Don't have a good pic of Kevin, but he has the hole in his pants to prove he did it

In his defense, the next day we saw people walking, or limping, around with a whole multitude of injuries: bandaged limbs, heads, bruised ankles, one girl on crutches.

Neither of us was brave enough for the fire limbo (that night at least), but it was certainly entertaining to watch, along with the many fire jugglers.

One of the many fire entertainers

We found this type of fire entertainment common on other Thai islands, along with another mainstay of the FMP: buckets of alcohol. Small, colored buckets like you’d use to build a sand castle, with a little handle to carry around your rum and coke or vodka and Redbull. They even sold shirts with “creative” slogans like “Buckets ’10”.

It might go without saying that we didn’t quite fit in with the glow stick waving, raving to techno music crowd, but it was a great beach party nonetheless, even if it has turned into an over-commercialized, over-done (they’ve added 1/2 moon and black moon parties) scheme to make money.

Excited about my new hat that a drunk partier lost... finders, keepers!

It’s not at all uncommon for partiers to pass out on the beach for the night; we spotted one of these sand-covered fools at noon the next day.

At least someone was nice enough to get him water

Those who aren’t ready to call it a night head to “The Backyard”, an “afterhours” bar starting (or continuing) the party at 7am! Kevin made the hike to this hillside bar the next day to see what it was all about. He found “an eclectic group of middle-aged parties who made for good people watching”. He didn’t stay long.

The night after the party we set out for yet another overnight journey, this time on a sleeper boat, adding to the modes of sleeping accommodation we’ve taken.

Sleeper Boat to Ko Phi Phi Island

Although my posts on India may be focused on decrepit cities, a “romantic” jewelry salesman, and a day-long train ride, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy my time there. Indeed, it was not high on my choice of destinations, but I am very thankful it was included in our itinerary.

When locals would ask how long we were staying they were normally appalled when our answer was two weeks. “You’re just having breakfast here!” one man exclaimed. We would agree that it was a short time to see the enormous country, and yes, we hoped to visit again. Kevin would normally shoot me a look when I said we’d be back, knowing that at times I was overwhelmed by the country.

While I was sick in Hong Kong I watched an abnormal amount of BBC, and saw this India commercial probably 20 times. Even though I’d visited, it still evoked a feeling of wonder and awe, making me want to experience more of the country. It truly is a magical place. I might not be ready for a full meal, but lunch or afternoon tea sounds perfect.

I had read that India is a land full of contradictions, able to “inspire, frustrate, thrill, and confound all at once”. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I found my experience there to be filled with mixed emotions about nearly every aspect of the subcontinent.

What follows are all generalities; we saw only a very, very small fraction of India and interacted with an even smaller portion of its 1.1 billion people. However, here are some brief, some detailed, examples of our impressions…

Beautiful: vivid colors of women’s saris; carts full of fresh fruit and herbs; beaches of Goa; colorful, sparkling scarves; strands of plush, exotic flowers; The Taj; bright, elaborate sun umbrellas

Imagine me trying to make a decision here!

Kevin buying me flowers??

…and disgusting: men peeing in alleyways and boys squatting in the road; the smells; decrepit old buildings not even attempted to be maintained; trash everywhere; black boogers (TMI?) due to pollution (a man in Jaipur told us “I don’t eat curry, I eat pollution”)

The banks of Lake Pichola in Udaipur

Not our only picture of a cow eating trash

Friendly: going out of their way to help– giving directions and advice; genuinely interested in you, your impression of India, and your home country

We took part in a couple school-related surveys. Students asked questions about us and our thoughts on India

…and deceiving: taking advantage of tourists– gem scams, hotel/tour touts, attempting to charge exorbitant amounts for taxis, souvenirs, etc.

Inspiring: unbelievable work ethic (washing clothes in the river, hauling several kilograms on their head, long work days/nights); devotion to their faith; strong community and family relationships; organizations to help street kids
…and depressing:
hit-you-in-the-face poverty; beggars (usually disabled, elderly, or single mothers); street kids; countless numbers of stray dogs and puppies; disregard for environment (We were wondering what people do with their trash, as their seemed to be no garbage cans on the street. Then in Udaipur our cooking instructor simply opened up her kitchen window and threw out some wrappers, answering our question.)

Along the Agra to Varanasi train ride

Streets of Jaipur

Progressive: world leaders in Information Technology (IT); success of  Bollywood (the film industry produces more movies than Hollywood); one of the world’s fastest growing economys; “ballooning” middle class
…and primitive: lack of public bathrooms; “barber shop” on sidewalk; carbon copy paper; never enough small bills to make change; post office lacking packing materials; oxen/bicycle pulled carts; use of manual labor over machines

Too bad Kevin didn't need a haircut

I could go on… but, I think what it boils down to, is passion. Indian people are passionate; passionate about their food, their religion, family, money, knowledge/learning (“Indians love to learn”), driving (honking!)… If they’re going to do something, they do it with all their heart and soul. It’s difficult for a tourist to understand and appreciate the extremism of their culture. (At least it was for me.) It certainly makes for an interesting and unforgettable experience.

 

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