My Amazing Wander Is Better Than Your Amazing Race

I’ll go ahead and admit it right now—I used to want to be on the Amazing Race. In fact, I wanted to be on it so much that I actually applied—video, forms, the whole nine yards. But I didn’t hear a word. It was crushing.

Not so crushing, however, that I didn’t try again. I figured that Jeff, whom I first applied with, was the weak link, so I ditched him and applied with my brother Gregory. And though I willed my phone to ring by staring at it all day every day for two full weeks, it never did. Again, it seems that my partner just wasn’t up to par.

(Hold on, what’s that I hear you whispering? You think maybe I was the problem. Um, no, you’re wrong. It definitely wasn’t me. In fact, I think the truth is that the reason I never got a call was that the producers, upon seeing my application, were completely overwhelmed by me and certain that I would absolutely crush any competition, making the show not all that interesting for its viewers. Oh, to be as talented as I am…)

Anyhow, as the show has moved from season to season, my interest has waned, and I’ve gone from being obsessed with getting on the show to watching the show if I happen to have the time. I’m just not invested anymore. I think part of it is the realization that while the show’s contestants travel the world, they don’t really get to see much of it. It’s a race after all, and the goal isn’t to see the scenery or get to know a local or enjoy foreign cuisine. The goal is to accomplish whatever task you’re given as quickly as possible, whether that task is milking camels, consuming pounds of caviar, or running roughshod all over town in search of a hidden clue. The other reason for my slackened interest is my realization that maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t actually do that well. Let me tell you why.

1. I don’t perform well on little sleep. I need to get my ZZZs, otherwise not only am I a huge grump-monster, I’m also completely useless. Even as a kid, I wasn’t interested in staying up all night. At sleepovers, I’d stay up just long enough for someone else to fall asleep first and thus be subjected to whatever pranks the other kids could come up with. Once the toothpaste was all over the other kid’s face or their hand was in a bowl of hot water, I was in my sleeping bag and asleep. In college, I never even once pulled an all-nighter. I always figured a good night’s sleep would do me better than a few woozy hours of cramming

2. I do even worse if I don’t get to eat on a regular basis. When I get hungry, I want food NOW. Just as with lack of sleep, a lack of food makes me grumpy. And I have a problem that I call jello legs because when I need food, my legs get to feeling like jello and I feel as if I’m going to collapse. Not good for racing.

3. I can’t stand obnoxious people, and if you have ever watched the Amazing Race, you’ll find that most seasons have a good share of people I’d place into this category. This is reality television after all. Conflict is good for ratings. Stupidity might even be better for ratings.

4. I hate losing. If I ended up being eliminated from the Race, you can bet I wouldn’t be happy about it. No way I’d stand there jumping up and down and cheering for the winning team like all the eliminated losers do on every season’s finale. I think I’d stick my leg out and trip them instead.

So take that Amazing Race. I don’t want to be on your show anyway. Rather than getting paid a million dollars to run around the world like a chicken with my head cut off, yelling at cab drivers, cursing everyone who doesn’t speak English, and screaming at the top of my lungs about how much I hate my partner (oh yes, all common Race occurrences), I’ll pay my own way so that I can move at my own chosen speed. (And sleep and eat when I need to, get away from obnoxious people at my first opportunity, and not have to worry about my sore loser tendencies.)

Country Face-Off #1

When you’ve got the travel bug, you always want to go everywhere, see everything and do everything. This, unfortunately, does not gel too well with the real world and it’s limitations of money and time. With that in mind, we need to start trimming some of the fat off of our trip. And what better way to do that then by enfranchising you, our readers? In an series of intermittent and in-no-particular-order face-offs, we will be asking you to help us decide which of two similar countries should stay on our itinerary, and which should get the boot. So please vote in the poll at the bottom, and leave us a comment in the comments section to enlighten us about why you voted the way you did.

In our first face-off, we’re looking at two island nations in Southeast Asia.


Indonesia or Philippines

So really, both of these countries are so enormous (and islands so numerous) that we will never see all of either one. The Philippines has over 7,000 islands, but that’s dwarfed by the over 18,000 islands that make up Indonesia. Both consist of a “main” island that is the home to a majority of the population, Java for Indonesia (124 of 234 million people) and Luzon for the Philippines (40 of ~80 million people). This means these two islands are not a particularly attractive travel destination for us, due largely to the overcrowded cities, development and pollution. Disagree? We want to hear about how wrong we are.

What we are more interested in is the “less developed” part of each country. We are largely looking at the Cebu region of the Philippines, and Borneo and Sumatra in Indonesia. A little more detail on each, you say? As you wish.

Cebu City is located on Cebu island in the center of the Philippines. It is a hub for the myriad of ferries that fan out to all of the smaller islands in the region, and a quaint city in its own right. Within easy reach by boat are (obviously) beautiful white sand beaches complete with crystal clear waters, reportedly some of the best preserved WWII shipwrecks for diving (we’ll worry about that certification thing later), and the cherry on top, swimming with whale sharks at Donsol (which is actually on the southern tip of Luzon island).

Borneo and Sumatra are raw and natural islands, some areas of which have still been undisturbed by man. Borneo is known as the home of Orang Utans, pygmy elephants and pygmy rhinos, while Sumatra has its own version of each of these species and more. On Borneo, river boats go up into the jungles and the native outpost villages that exist, which sounds entirely exotic and amazing. Sumatra is a touch more developed, but not dramatically so. Plus they each have their requisite beautiful beaches and opportunities for relaxation after all that action.

So there’s a bit of an introduction for you guys. It’s a tough decision. Both are relatively inexpensive, offer beautiful scenery with a touch of adventure, but in subtly different ways. Of course, we’ve only mentioned here what we found most interesting about each country, you may be interested in entirely different aspects. Here’s some places to find a little more information if you want to dig a little deeper before casting your vote.

World Travel Guide Philippines

World Travel Guide Indonesia

Without further ado, open the polls!




Want to Help Educate Kids in Cambodia?

Today Jeff and I received an email from a friend of ours from college. Maryann was my roommate during the summer I interned in DC, and throughout college we spent many afternoons together watching Rice baseball. Since graduation, she’s been doing amazing things–teaching English in Japan as part of the JET program, working as staff abroad the Peace Boat, and most recently dedicating herself to PEPY, an organization in Cambodia that merges voluntourism with a mission to improve the lives of young people through education. Maryann is a dynamic person—the kind of person who doesn’t just talk about things but gets them done—and PEPY is a fabulous organization. (I’ll personally vouch for it’s credibility, but go ahead and check out their website and look it up for yourself if you want).

Anyhow, Maryann’s email, which I’m going to share below, is a request for help. PEPY is trying to raise money to expand their programs, and if you donate through this link— —by the end of January, you can help PEPY not only through your donation but also by upping PEPY’s chances of winning an additional $50,000 dollars. Imagine how much $50,000 can do in Cambodia. Imagine how much your donation can do.

I’m not usually one to pass on things like this or solicit people for donations, but I think this is a worthwhile project, and I believe some of you may be interested in helping out. (If you can’t give by the end of January, I’m sure they’d be happy for donations any time. Also, be sure to check out their voluntourism programs and consider joining them for what promises to be an amazing trip.) As Jeff and I are especially interested in organizations doing good work in areas which we plan to travel to, we will certainly be making a donation to PEPY.

The email:
Dear friends and family,

Your 10 dollar donation might be able to earn PEPY Programs $50,000…. can you help? No, this is not a Cambodian magic trick, but a contest for whoever can get the highest NUMBER (not amount) of online donations ($10 or more) before the end of the month. The donations have to come through this link to count

I hope you know its not my style nor PEPY’s to bug people for funding. BUT, we really think we can do this and we need your help!

If you have $10 to spare, please help us out right now by going to the above link and shooting your credit card numbers into cyberspace! This contest only lasts 8 more days so it has to be soon!

If you can’t donate right now, you can still be a huge help for us by sending this message to 5-10 of your friends and asking them to donate as well. We need to get a few hundred more donations to be in the running for this, and if half the people on this list can donate $10 and get a few friends to as well, it’s very possible.

Plus, the $10 or more that you donate through this Network For Good link will go to support PEPY’s educational programs in Cambodia, so no matter what, your efforts will be doing good! Just a little catch-up for those who aren’t in the PEPY know. Besides being my new life/job in Cambodia (yes, along with grad school still, don’t worry), its also experiencing some fabulous growing pains at the moment. So many new exciting ideas and programs in our heads! We are in the midst of planning meetings this week for our one, three and five year plans, and to give you some heads up on bigger projects in the pipeline, we have been discussing:

– purchasing land in Chanleas Dai near original PEPY Ride School in order to set up a community based development organization. The office housed there would have PEPY Program Managers working on community and parent education, school educational programs, environmental and health initiatives (designed by, and income generating training programs. They would also work with an extensive team of community leaders hired to disseminate this work into each village. (you are the first to hear this! we have been discussing this week – more to follow!)

– working with RDIC to bring their Sesame Street-esque educational series to 100+ schools across Cambodia. By working with RDIC as they hire and train local educators to visit schools monthly, equipping them with projectors and solar powered batteries with which to show each classroom of students we will help bring social, health, environmental, and literacy issues to light for communities around Cambodia. Each of the 27 minute episodes in the 13 part series (there will be a new series produced each year), also includes an educational workbook and the students are able to do lessons and activities both before and after seeing the shows.

– we are also trying to help RDIC get the $7000 per episode raised to get this first series on TV. We are confident that once these high quality animated/puppet shows are on the air, sponsors will be knocking each other over to get their name and commercial into the allotted 3 minutes of commercial time as, as already proven in testing these videos at schools and communities including The PEPY Ride School, these videos are very popular among kids and parents alike as there is NOTHING like this in Khmer.

….. and more. These are all still on the drawing board, but keep up with us over the next few months as, with our new Cambodian Country Manager, Aline Meas, who brings seven years of experience as the Executive Director of a local NGO, we are on a great path and lots of developments are in the works!

Thank you for supporting our work and please remember to donate $10 through this link, or pass it on to friends if you can!

Many thanks for your belief in me, in PEPY, and in our team and big hugs to all,


Maryann Bylander
Interim Executive Director

maryann (at) pepyride (dot) org

Phone (US): 914-458-4262
Office (Cambodia):023-222-804
Cell (Cambodia): 012 189 2120

Travel Take Two: Egypt

Welcome to the first entry in what we plan to make a recurring series here on Lives of Wander in the run-up months to our actual departure. I mean, you did come here to read about travel, didn’t you?

What we’ll be doing in our Travel Take Two series is take a second look at some of the trips Jeff and I have gone on together. We’ll recall the highlights—the events that make travel the wonderful adventure that is. We’ll also remember the lowlights—the moments when you want to say screw it and jump on the first plane home. And we’ll see what kind of lessons we’ve taken away from each trip, lessons that hopefully will help us maximize the highlights and minimize the lowlights on our RTW trip.

Destination: Egypt—A 7-day tour through Cairo, Aswan, and Luxor with a sidetrip to the Red Sea.
Date: June 10-17, 2004
Travel Partners: My brothers Gregory and Mark accompanied us on this trip. We also spent two of our days with friends Kate and Ben

For me, the most amazing thing about Egypt was that it was just as incredible as I thought it would be. When you’ve spent your entire life imaging a place, you often find that when you get there, it doesn’t live up to your expectations. This was not true for Egypt. I think I spent the entire trip walking around wide-eyed and slack-jawed. So what did I love?

1. The Pyramids of Giza. Completely awesome in person, it was phenomenal to wander around the only surviving ancient wonder of the world.

2. Luxor Temple. We explored this temple at night, when it felt absolutely other-worldly. The avenue of sphinxes glowed, bats flittered around, and robed men would pop out from behind columns looking to get a tip by explaining something or pointing something out to you.

Temple of Luxor

3. Tour of the West Bank—Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Temple of Hatshepsut. It was cool to get to go inside the tombs, and it was nice to have a guide who gave us little history lessons at each site and explained art work, hieroglyphics, and ancient Egyptian religious beliefs.

4. Local food. The steak shish kebabs at Amoun Restaurant in Luxor and the chicken fatta at Cafe Riche in Cairo (each maybe about $2) were awesome.

5. The Egyptian Museum. It was like a huge warehouse of treasures. You couldn’t turn around without seeing something amazing, but the mummies and the Tutankhamun exhibit were the best.

Egyptian Museum

6. Just exploring Cairo. The city was a cacophony of sounds, sights, smells. Wandering along the Nile, hearing the call to prayer blasting out over the city, being out on the streets after dark when it seemed the whole city would come out with huge crowds at sweets and icecream shops, exploring the confusing alleyways of the market, dancing in the back seat of a taxi with a very enthusiastic driver…it was a mad, mad city but in a completely intoxicating way.

7. The friendly people. Almost without fail, everyone we met was friendly. I can’t even count how many times we were told “Welcome to Egypt” from people we simply passed on the street.

8. Getting to travel with my brothers. The combined trip to Greece/Egypt was both Gregory and Mark’s first major international trip, so it was really cool to get to share the experience with them. We’re hoping that family and friends will meet up with us at times on this trip so we can share the adventure of travel with them.

While there were certainly “lowlights,” I have to say that in the big picture all of them were rather minor and had little effect on our enjoyment of Egypt. I think that all of my travel companions would agree that this was a fantastic trip that we’d all be happy to do over.

1. The bus ride to Hurghada. The air conditioner didn’t work for the majority of the trip. A young girl threw up in the aisle. A Bollywood movie was played at absolute top volume and involved multiple women screaming in the most shrill voice I’d ever heard. In general, it wasn’t a pleasant trip.

2. Hurghada. Hurghada was our access point to snorkeling in the Red Sea. While the snorkeling was good (though the waves at our last stop were a little much for me), the hassle of Hurghada was annoying. The town was rather dumpy and quite the tourist trap. No one would give us a straight story when it came to organizing a trip, and the hotel rooms we reserved were not what we were given. We were happy to spend the whole day out on the boat and away from this town.

3. The unexpected stop on the bus ride from Hurghada to Cairo. Somewhere in the middle of the desert, in the pitch-black, our bus stopped, and we (the only non-Arabs) on the bus were made to get off and talk to a soldier with a big, scary gun. It was a bit nerve-racking, but it turned out fine as they just wanted to know where we were going.

4. The constant requests for baksheesh (tip). Wherever we went, people called out for baksheesh. I have no trouble tipping people if they provide me with a service, but I find it frustrating to have people ask for a tip for doing something like showing me where a McDonalds is when a) I didn’t ask them to, and b) I have no interest in going to McDonalds. That’s not a service. That’s an annoyance. It’s hard to always say no because you know these people don’t have much money, but just handing out money indiscriminately isn’t the answer.

5. The 25 mosquito bites between my elbow and wrist that I received in one night at the Africa Hotel. Overall our hotels were not so great, except for the New Radwan Hotel in Luxor, which with its pool and air-conditioning (at the crazy rate of about $14 a night) was a true treat.

Egypt was a new experience for us in many ways. It was the first predominantly Muslim country we’d ever visited. It was the first time we’d visited the African continent. It was the poorest country we’d visited. There was a lot to learn.

1. Not all jellyfish sting. Who knew? Until I swam through an entire swarm of them, I had no idea. I guess the big takeaway point here is that what is true at home may not be true elsewhere. Be open-minded. Be daring.

2. It’s important to maintain perspective when haggling over prices. When we were in Hurghada, we were trying to find the best deal on a snorkeling trip. We’d walk into a place that had a price listed on the wall, but when we’d ask at the desk, they’d always say that price wasn’t right and quote us something a little higher. This was really frustrating, and we spent some time haggling, before realizing that we were really arguing over the equivalent of a dollar or two. It wasn’t worth it.

3. Always ask to see a room before you commit to it, and don’t be tempted to book multiple nights before you’ve stayed at a place. It’s good to have a place booked for your first night (especially if you arrive at 3 a.m. as we did in Cairo) but don’t commit to more than one night without having seen the place. In the morning, you can book another night if the place is good, and if it’s not, you can find somewhere else where you can ask to see the room first.

4. Agree on a price before you get in a cab. Most of the world’s cab drivers don’t use meters…or they don’t use them properly. So it’s important to find out how much a trip should cost by asking a local or checking a guidebook and then agreeing on a price before you get in the cab. Oftentimes, the cab driver will try to raise the rate when you get there, but stick to what you agreed, pay, get out, and walk away. Ignore the cab driver yelling at you as long as you paid what you agree. If, however, by some accident you should realize that you actually stiffed the guy, then run back to the cab as fast as you can, pay up, and add a nice little tip to the top to make up for your mistake. (Real life experience speaking here. Ooops.)

5. Eat local. We ate almost every meal at local restaurants and never once got sick. We then went to a McDonalds one day when we were in a hurry and we all got sick. Yuck. (Bonus tip: Carry toilet paper with you at all times in the developing world…chances are the bathroom won’t have any and I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in learning the left hand method so popular in that part of the world.)

6. If you’re only going to have a short time in one place, have a plan for what you want to do. Just exploring and stumbling across things is great when you have lots of time, but isn’t the right way to approach only one day in a place. We didn’t get the most out of our time in Aswan, because we didn’t really have a plan.

7. Bring ear plugs. Those Bollywood films are really, really painful. Ear plugs are necessary if you plan to maintain your sanity.

8. Dress appropriately. When we were at the Valley of the Kings, a tour bus pulled off and a number of tourists got out wearing clothes that were entirely inappropriate—bikini tops and cut off shorts, men’s tanktops, etc. Egypt is a Muslim country, and while no one expects you to wear a burka or shalwar kameez, it’s only considerate to wear conservative clothing. Not only is this a simple matter of respect, it also protects you from unwanted attention and/or harassment. The same is true if you’re visiting a Catholic Church in Italy, a Buddhist monastery in Southeast Asia, or your new boyfriend’s grandma right here in the U.S.

9. “Just close your eyes, pray to Allah, and go.” As we were standing across a huge intersection from the Egyptian Museum, staring at buses that didn’t ever stop but only slowed enough for passengers to jump out of, cars that paid no attention to lane lines, and automobiles that used their horns instead of their brakes, wondering how in the heck we were going to get across, a local man approached us and gave us that advice. He then grabbed us by the hand and led us through the traffic, dropping us off right in front of the museum, then wishing us a good visit and disappearing into the crowd. His advice has stayed with me. Sometimes to have the experience of a lifetime you just have to set aside your fears and go.

Aswan FeluccaNile WashingEgypt CrewPalm Date TreeSphinx

A Setback, Literally

The start date for our trip has always been fluid, tied not to a date on the calendar but to an event, namely Jeff’s completion of his PhD. As anyone who has ever worked toward a PhD or anyone who has lived with a PhD seeker knows, nailing down a graduation date can be tricky. The finish line can be squarely in sight, seemingly so close, but then as you’re about to pump your arms in triumph at completing this marathon—this Ironman—you learn that you have another lap to complete before you can break through the tape. This ambiguity seems particularly true with the sciences, though I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have experience with other fields. Jeff can work all day, every day, (weekends included) and do everything “right,” but if he doesn’t get the results he wants, it doesn’t matter. Science is fickle. As I mentioned in an email I sent to many of you announcing this Website, we hoped to leave in July, neuroscience gods willing.

Well, folks, it doesn’t seem the neuroscience gods are on our side. (Who wasn’t making the proper offerings to the gods? Go ahead, fess up.) In some ways, July was always a pipe dream. For us to leave in July, everything had to go right. Everything. Even if you never took anything beyond high school chemistry, you probably could have figured out the chances of that happening were slim to none, and that’s looking at the odds in a positive light. But damn it, for once, I was being an optimist. And for a while, it looked like things would go our way. The head of Jeff’s lab here in D.C. gave the nod of approval to the June graduation plan in the pre-Christmas weeks. (Apparently he’d been drinking too much eggnog, especially considering his wife is due to deliver their first child in June, which makes me think the chances of him booking a flight to Stockholm for a June defense date were, again, slim to none.) A schedule was drawn up, dictating what paper would go where when. This was going to happen. Jeff would be working like a madman, and we’d have to cram all our planning into the wee hours, but this was going to happen. Maybe those optimists know something.

Alas, no. Jeff’s been doing everything right, but the universe is not on our side, or to be more specific, Sweden isn’t on our side. Apparently Sweden is going to extract a toll in exchange for those cheap visa fees. Jeff’s mentor in Sweden isn’t on board with the June graduation plan, and if he’s not on board, there’s really very little that can be done, considering he may just be the only person on the planet who has any true idea of what the Karolinska graduation requirements are, since they seem to change with the wind. One requirement I have been made aware of, however, and which you may find interesting, is that Jeff must apparently publicly declare his intent to defend some months before the actual event by literally tacking his thesis to some board. Very Martin Luther, me thinks. I suggested that he just email the thesis to someone else and tell them to print and tack up the dang thing, but he says that’s not allowed. Seriously? What kind of weird system is this? He’s supposed to fly over to Sweden in order to tack some paper to a board? While we all wish his thesis might be as earthshattering as Luther’s theses, I just don’t think it’s going to be (no offense, Jeff). Email seems a plenty viable option to me.

He also must recruit an opponent, someone well-established in the field, but someone with whom he has never worked, to show up at his defense and challenge him (this in addition to his committee). Perhaps that also happens in the U.S., but I’ve never heard of it. What is this, a boxing match? And don’t even get me started on the general bureaucracy, which seems to require that once he actually finish his research and thesis, he then spend months wading through paperwork. Even if every single experiment goes right, every paper gets accepted, I still don’t think he could manage to graduate in June.

So if no June graduation, what about July, August? Oh no, folks, this is Sweden, land of endless vacations. If not early June, then September. Those are the options, the only options. And so that’s that. It seems, unless you all—and I do mean you all–start reciting novenas, that happy day of defending will not happen until September, which means that we will probably embark on our trip in October.

It’s not by any means the end of the world, but I must admit that I’m a bit disappointed. Though I knew the timing was fluid, I had really started to think of July as departure time and to build my plans around it. I was already counting down to my quit date at work. Guess I’ll have to refigure that. As for the trip, one major thing will change, and that’s the route we’ll take. Instead of the Southeast Asia to Africa to South America journey we had been envisioning, we’ll now be going Central/South America (approximately October to February) to Southeast Asia (March to May) to Nepal/India (June) to Africa (July to September).*

And while I’m disappointed, aren’t you excited? This gives you three more months to spend with me before I hit the road. Lucky you.

*All dates are approximate. One day we’ll nail down an actual itinerary, and when we do we’ll post it right here.

I’m happy to be a Swede

When I was in college, we went to Sweden one summer, not unlike a number of other summers of my childhood, since my mother is from a small town in central Sweden. On this particular trip, however, my mom, dad, sister and I all stayed for three weeks in one hotel room in Uppsala, while my sister and I took a language course. With European hotel rooms being what they are and at that time in my life, let’s just say it was difficult to be confined in such a way. To boot, we were right on an intersection that, while not seeing much traffic, is friendly to blind people. Meaning it beeps. Loudly. Alternating between quickly when the pedestrians have a walk signal, and more slowly when they do not. So all through the night, my brain would rattle with a bee-bee-bee-bee-beep … beep … beep … beep … bee-bee-bee-bee-beep. I longed for mere Chinese water torture.

The carrot for enduring this temporary loss of sanity, along with a few more bureaucratic hoops, was permanent Swedish citizenship, which these days translates to EU citizenship. This has already been very useful, affording me flexibility in work trips to Sweden while my classmates fiddle with visas. (And since Theresa is married to me, she can easily get a work visa should we ever desire to move to Europe. Nice option to have, and one that many others would kill for.)

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being Swedish for the culture as well. I see a lot of how I am in the way the society works, both in good and bad ways. I feel I understand and fit in with both the timidity I disdain and the thoughtfulness I appreciate. Swedes have a very egalitarian perspective on society (as their government reflects … or is it the other way around?). And Stockholm manages to be the cultural center of Sweden while still feeling small and walkable.Sweden vs US Visa Info

But now there’s another new reason now to be pleased about being Swedish. When we looked up the visa requirements for all of the countries we were interested in visiting, we saw that many countries charge EU nationals substantially less than U.S. nationals for visas. I mean, check out the chart (click here to see a full-size version). At least Vietnam, Zambia, Brazil, Chile, and Bolivia all charge way more for U.S. visitors than Swedish visitors. I figure in total, my visa fees will be less than half of Theresa’s. So that’s useful.

I guess what I’m getting at is, thanks mom for pushing me to get my permanent citizenship. It’s an invaluable trait to have in an increasingly connected world. While my Swedish nature leads me to desire citizenship even without any benefits, saving a few bucks on my visas sure doesn’t hurt.

Travels Through Our Own Backyard

Whenever Jeff and I travel—whether it be a weekend trip to a nearby destination, a week-long vacation around the U.S. or abroad, or our upcoming RTW trip—we always devote some time to figuring out what it is we want to do at our destination. Skimming guidebooks and scanning websites, we make lists of attractions that interest us and take notes of restaurants others are raving about. Lord knows we don’t want to visit a place and miss the best spots.

Funny then, isn’t it, that you can live in a town for years and still never see some of it’s most worthwhile attractions.

Jeff and I live in one of the most touristed cities in America. (Trust me, having worked at the Smithsonian and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I am well-versed on “tourist season” in D.C. I try to have patience. Really, I do. But for the love of Pete, could you please move to the right side of the escalator if you don’t plan to walk!)

We’ve been here for multiple years (4.5 years – Jeff; 3.5 years – Theresa), and there are still plenty of things we haven’t done. But I don’t think Jeff and I are alone in this. I’d wager that the majority of us rarely take the time to be tourists in our own backyards.

For Jeff and I, the start date of our RTW trip will be the end date of our life in D.C. We won’t be returning here. Where we’ll end up, we don’t know, except that it won’t be here. As we prepare to say hello to the world, we must say goodbye to the only place that we, as a married couple, have called home. To make the most of it, we’ve compiled a list of things to do before we go. In between trips to the REI, we’ll be squeezing in as much as we can.

  1. Ascend the Washington Monument. The first few years we lived in the area, security concerns closed the Washington Monument. Restoration work kept it closed even longer, but it has since re-opened, so it’s time for us to go check out the view.
  2. Make a few more trips to Eastern Market. I love markets of any sorts. You can be sure that I’ll be checking them out in cities around the world. Eastern Market is the best in D.C., and wandering the food, craft, and flea market booths is a great way to pass a weekend morning.
  3. Tour the Smithsonian museums that we have yet to visit. I’m ashamed to admit that even as an employee of this venerable institution, I have yet to make it to all the museums (African American Art, Postal Museum), and others I have just made rather cursory visits to (Freer & Sackler, Hirshhorn). I will correct this before we depart.
  4. See the Supreme Court in session. This is a bit hard for us to do, since it’s in session on weekdays, but I think we can manage to squeeze in one visit. If not, we should at least take a tour.
  5. Enjoy Kenilworth Gardens. These aquatic gardens have been on my list for a while but I haven’t yet made it there.
  6. Rent a pedal boat and paddle around the Tidal Basin when the cherry blossoms are in bloom for a prime view of the beauty.
  7. Attend a Nationals game at the new stadium. It’s set to open this season, and it will be one more stadium Jeff can cross off his list.
  8. Explore the National Archives and Library of Congress. I think Jeff and I have both been to these at one time or another but not recently. I think they’ve both been improved since we last set foot inside.
  9. Check out the National Building Museum. I’ve meant to do this forever but never have.
  10. Make a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It’s the largest Catholic Church in the Western Hemisphere, and is supposed to be quite visually stunning.
  11. Take part in a protest. How is it possible that we’ve lived in D.C. this many years and have yet to protest anything?

What have we missed? If there’s a D.C. spot that you think we might not have made it to but absolutely must, let us know. And what about you? What backyard spots have you yet to visit?

A Boring Post About Insurance (Who Said There’s No Truth in Advertising?)

We met with our local Allstate representative on Friday, because the completely useless DMV decided to further complicate our already busy lives. While there, we checked the official DMV records with our agent and the proof of insurance they threatened to fine me for not sending them was in fact in their database already. Silly DMV. Anyway, we thought it would be a good opportunity to ask a few questions about our travel related concerns in regards to insurance.

Anyway, here’s what we learned there:

(1) Renter’s insurance will still cover your personal belongings in storage. Though we plan to be able to find homes for most of our belongings with friends and family, it’s reassuring to know that our standard renter’s insurance policy will still cover our belongings against damage or theft while they are at a storage facility. We’ve accumulated a fair number of things already that we plan on keeping for a while. This makes me hear Tyler Durden in Fight Club hearing “The things you own end up owning you.” Food for thought.

(2) You should never cancel your auto insurance policy (while still keeping a car). This seemed to me to be a great idea to save money while we’re gone, but it turns out I was way wrong. Here’s why. This causes all kinds of headaches in terms of vehicle registration, because most states (including Maryland) will require the insurer to take your tags. Also, when you return and want to purchase insurance again, you must pay a substantially higher rate because you have not had continuous coverage. What you can do is reduce the levels of insurance to a very high deductible with liability coverage only. So it still costs us a couple of hundred dollars, but that’s better than having to re-register and pay a lot more later. The other option is to just sell the car, but we’ll need a car as soon as we get back (wherever we end up) and don’t want to have to buy one right away.

(3) A lot about life insurance. I’m gonna be honest, it’s not something I have thought much about getting, since we’re young and can both support ourselves just fine. But with this trip and the uncertainty we face anyway when we get back, we thought it would be a good time to get some sort of policy. At our age, term life insurance makes more sense as it is a lot cheaper, and we have decided to just get a 10 year term policy. We’d be plenty young to get cheap insurance when we reassessed in 10 years. Anyway, it is definitely something to think about when planning a trip, just in case.

So I hope that wasn’t too boring for anyone, but it definitely has a lot of good tidbits of information for any of you thinking about logistics. Just a few more of the many things to worry about for us to now check off of our list.


Sometimes change seems to happen at a slower than snail pace. Other times change seems to burst forth suddenly. The world can be a staid place. It can also be extremely volatile.

For many years, Kenya has been considered one of the most stable countries in Africa. Sure, Nairobi is a fairly dangerous city, and many Kenyans suffer from a lack of things we would consider basic necessities. Undoubtedly, Kenya is part of the developing world. But politically it has been stable, avoiding the troubles that plague many African nations: civil wars, despotic rulers, and violent rebel armies. Democracy seemed to have taken root. Corruption, on an African scale, was minimal. When Americans considered traveling to Africa, Kenya was often at the top of the list of places they might go.

But suddenly, our perceptions have been challenged. The results of the recent presidential election (which international monitors are now questioning the legitimacy of) sent the country into a spiral of violence. As I’ve followed the news, what I’ve found so disturbing is the way in which a dispute over election results has transformed into ethnic violence, pitting members of native ethnic groups or tribes that have been living together peacefully for years against each other. A large amount of the violence seems to be directed by members of the Kalenjin tribe against members of the Kikuyu tribe. Though my knowledge of Kenyan tribal history is practically nil, my understanding is that the Kikuyu are currently in power, while the Kalenjin consider themselves historical owners of the land.

In this Washington Post article from today’s newspaper, one of the survivors from the church that was set aflame while it was packed with Kenyans (most Kikuyu) fleeing the violence described the attack and then noted that the most disturbing thing for him was looking out into the mob that was attacking and seeing a man named Paul, who he described as “my neighbor, my friend.” For anyone familiar with the Rwandan genocide, the similarities are haunting.*

It is scary to see what lies beneath the surface and to witness how fragile peace can be.

As for us and our trip, what does this mean? At this point, nothing, really. We probably won’t make it to Kenya until just a little less than a year from now. Much can happen in that amount of time, and it’s futile to speculate. For now, this is a reminder that things can change quickly, that our itinerary will never be set in stone, that a place that was once a certain must-see could become a must-miss. While we are anxious to see as much of the world as we can, and while we won’t be deterred by idle and baseless fears, we do value our lives and safety and will never knowingly put ourselves in a dangerous situation.

Let us all hope and pray that the violence soon ends in Kenya.

*If your knowledge of the Rwandan genocide is limited, I highly recommend that you read General Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil. I discussed this book on Spargel in May 2005.

Happy New Year!

Allow me to echo the sentiments of the rest of the internet/Western world and wish everyone a Happy New Year!

I, for one, enjoy the holiday, though not for the overpriced parties. It’s always a time of renewal, redemption, and hope. Anyway, as is the tradition, I had my period of reflection and self-assessment, otherwise known as the New Year’s resolution. There are two big ones, and everything else is trivial by comparison.


(2) Get our trip organized and started.

Now both of these have smaller and more finite sub-resolutions, though I guess nothing is more finite that getting a diploma and getting on a one-way flight armed with just a backpack.

And should I meet my goals, New Year’s 2009 will be a lot different for us than New Year’s 2008. Our current best guesses put us somewhere in Africa. Who knows what we may find ourselves up to. On a beach? On a safari? Tracking gorillas? And what will we find to resolve then? And if we’re lucky, we’ll find ourselves celebrating “New Year’s” multiple times during the year. I’m sure there will be plenty of times we could use a little hope and rejuvenation.