Some quick notes from Stockholm

As you all may or may not know, I’m over in Stockholm for only five days (my shortest trip here ever) for a conference. I thought I might enlighten you all with some of the things that are bouncing around my head here.

– I think the more you travel, the less of a problem jet lag seems to be. I haven’t noticed any problems this trip, even though I didn’t sleep at all on the plane over here. Does anyone have any good theories about why this is? Is it just that you know what to expect?

– As another sign of how connected the world is now, I was walking through central Stockholm, hopping on buses and trains, all the while talking to Theresa in DC on our cell phones. Total cost for this convenience? ~15 cents a minute. Impressive.

– I am strongly anti-pay toilet. Especially when you don’t even have change so it’s not even an option (though even when I do refuse on principle). That McDonald’s always has free toilets is the only thing that makes them worthwhile. (By the way, pay toilets were apparently common in the US until the Committee to End Pay Toilets In America (CEPTIA) was successful in the 1970’s. Hooray Wikipedia. Now that’s a cause I can get behind.)

– Fondue is awesome. I had dinner tonight with some family friends Hasse and Lena, and we had beef broth fondue. Delicious! And fun!

Travel That Benefits Others

Traveling is a wondrous experience. It opens our eyes to new ways of thinking and living. We meet amazing people and see breathtaking sites. But we also come across things that are difficult. We encounter poverty, and not just beggar-on-the-street poverty. We encounter poverty that is desperate, that is so entrenched that it seems impossible to overcome. When this happens, we realize just how fortunate we are. At the same time, we often feel so powerless. What can we do to make a difference?

Recently, I came across an organization, Charity Begins, helping travelers to do something productive–deliver needed goods to non-profits in developing countries throughout the world. Here’s how it works: A few months before you take a trip to a developing nation, you contact Charity Begins. They then get in touch with a non-profit at your destination, gather supplies needed by this group, and deliver the supplies to your door. Then you take the supplies with you to the airport, check them with your luggage, pick them up when you arrive, and deliver them to the charity. Kind of cool, right? You literally become a link between worlds.

So consider it next time you’re traveling to the developing world. Or if you’re not traveling, help out by donating needed goods. After all, charity begins at home.

Taking the Time to Travel

In the November/December issue of National Geographic Traveler, an article addresses what they have deemed “Vacation-Deficit Disorder,” referencing a recent study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research called No-Vacation Nation. The article focuses on both the sad state of paid vacation available to most U.S. workers and the fact that many Americans don’t use the few vacation days they are given.

Among countries with advanced economies, the United States is the only country that does not mandate vacation days. Throughout Europe, companies are required to give employees anywhere from 20 (Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, the United Kingdom…) to 30 (France) vacation days each year. Even workaholic Japan stipulates 10 vacation days each year. No wonder Americans are so poorly traveled in comparison to the rest of the world. A two-week European vacation or a trip to Australia isn’t going to fly for the majority of working Americans.

So, how, I can hear people, asking is it possible to take an entire year out to travel? Well, as I see it, there are a few options. First, if you have a job that you like, check with your higher-ups to see if they’d be willing to give you a leave-of-absence or a sabbatical. This will give you the freedom to travel with the security of a job to come back to. Unfortunately, I must say, that the likelihood of your job allowing this is slim. But, as my momma always told me, the worst they can do is say no.

Second, if you’re still a young’un, consider taking your first year out of college to travel, or even put off college for a year to travel right out of high school. In the United Kingdom and Australia this is a common practice, referred to as a gap year. One problem might be that having never been employed, you’re unlikely to have much money. The good news is that as a young person you’re likely to need less money. You haven’t yet got used to the luxuries that older people find hard to give up. And you can always do odd-jobs as you go to bolster the bank account. Though this idea is still a bit radical in the U.S., it’s starting to catch on, meaning that universities and employers are beginning to look at it as a positive experience, not just a year of goofing off.

Third, you can say the heck with the job and give your notice. That, effectively, is what we’re doing. Or, more precisely, what I will be doing. Jeff is completing his PhD, so in some ways, he falls more under option two (although thankfully he is making money). I, having moved here with the stipulation that we’d leave D.C. once the PhD was in hand, would be quitting my current job regardless, so in many ways this is a natural break for us. But instead of moving to a new place and getting new jobs, we’re going to move to a lot of places and have no jobs. Obviously, a good choice.

In some ways, that’s a little scary. What in the heck are we going to do when we get back? We’re not 18 year olds who can just head on to school, we’re not retired folks who have no plans to go back to work, and we’re not beloved employees of a company dying to take us back upon our return. But you know what, I’m not too concerned. We’re both intelligent, hardworking, talented people (in my humble opinion, of course). We have education, and we have experience. We’ll find something. And if I have to work some weird jobs while I find a good position, well, that’s okay. I once pulled garbage bags full of maggots (see job at the Louisville Zoo). I can handle anything.

There’s never a perfect time. But there are plenty of good times, and in my opinion, it’s about priorities. This is what we want to do. There probably won’t be a better time to do it. So, hey, that’s it, we’re doing it. I’m not going to miss the rat race. Would you?

(And, yes, I know that the other question on everyone’s mind is how in the heck can we afford this. We will be addressing that in a future post, and while rumor has it that it’s not polite to talk about money, I’m going to do it.)

In Praise of the Internet (and Guidebooks)

Not that the internet doesn’t get enough praise, but spare me a few moments to make my case. Last weekend, when we were back in Seattle for a friend’s wedding, we got to talking about my parents adventures in Africa in the 1970’s. They had headed there as part of a travel tour that would take them from Morocco to South Africa in the span of three months with adventures galore. As the trip began, it became clear that all was not as advertised, their tour guide had never made this trip before and a number of their reservations, such as Land Rovers, were not as certain as previously thought. After three months they were not even one-quarter of the way. It wasn’t that they got duped or anything: the tour guide was a friend of a friend and had decent intentions, he just wasn’t prepared for what he had recruited people for. Fortunately, my parents were resourceful enough to put together their own adventure from then on, and to this day this trip is a source of some of their best memories. But here is what I kept thinking listening to the stories:

How did they not know more going into it? There are lots of other lessons to glean from my parents trip, like the value of resourcefulness, the lifelong friends you make along the way, how to handle emergency situations. Many of which I’m sure will be covered much more in depth on this blog in the future as we plan, but I’m not going to focus on that now.

Instead, I’m going to quickly mention the reasons that quickly came to me … among other things, they didn’t have any internet, guidebooks weren’t as ubiquitous. The access to information was not nearly as instantaneous. The first thing I would do today if I was thinking about booking a tour would be to fully vet them online, googling and looking for online reviews, opinions and experiences. Alternatively, I would’ve dug through a guidebook from the library looking for recommendations of tours or which places I would want to go. And, in fact, that is what we have spent the better part of our preparatory time doing: research.

These mediums are not without their downsides, the internet makes misinformation just as accessible and guidebooks can help create an almost insular travel culture, but they provide an unprecedented ease and convenience to access information. So with that, I would like to offer a simple thank you to those things that make preparations for this trip much easier. I do hope (and fully believe), however, that we will have just as many opportunities to test our resourcefulness and make our own lifelong friends along the way.

Life on the Loose

In response to a recent post, my friend Megan left a comment with the lyrics to “Moon River,” which led me to think of songs that in some way inspire me, that capture in lyrics the way I feel or what I aspire to, particularly in regards to this trip and travel in general. Of course, this led to a far-reaching mental journey that transported me through space and time. Music is very powerful. Like smells, music has a way of taking us back, of capturing a particular moment or feeling, of reminding us of a special person.

As I pondered, I was transported back to a very specific place, Bear Creek Aquatic Camp, on the shores of Kentucky Lake. As a girl, I used to spend some time every summer at Bear Creek. In some ways, I think this camp, though still within the borders of my home state, really had a significant impact on the development of my love of travel and adventure. I started going there in fourth grade, so it was the first place I went without any family. It was a place of new routines, new food, new adventures. It might as well have been a million miles away from home. I did things there that seemed exotic and crazy to my ten-year-old self. I learned to windsurf, sail, and water ski. I challenged myself to a half-mile-long lake swim. I met new people, made new friends. I mastered the art of showering in a stall where the water was lukewarm at best and controlled with a pull string.

And I learned the lyrics to a lot of songs. And I remembered them. If you know me, you know that I can pull out lyrics to the most nonsensical and ridiculous songs at any moment without any trouble. Need a song about a crazy acorn, a girl sucked down a shower drain, a fly in a grocery store? I’m your girl. But not all the songs were silly. It was at Bear Creek that I was introduced to Bob Dylan, John Denver, and a slew of other folk singers. And it was in the fire circle at the point, looking out across the water to Land Between the Lakes, that I learned the song “On the Loose.” The first time I heard it, it spoke to me, and more than a decade and a half later, I still find that the words capture for me something that I otherwise find hard to put into words.

The chorus seems the most pertinent, summarizing in just a few lines a creed of sorts for the way I want to live. And I can’t hear the words without remembering those summers at Bear Creek: the smell of pine, the feeling of my hair in the wind as I cruised across the lake, the warmth of a campfire under a starry sky, the feeling of freedom, of unbridled joy, of absolute certainty that I could and would live the life I imagined. Life seemed full of possibility. As we plan this trip, life, again, seems that way.

On the loose to climb a mountain
On the loose where I am free
On the loose to live my life the way I think my life should be
For I’ve only got a moment
And a whole world yet to see
I’ll be searching for tomorrow on the loose

To-Do #1

So while that list below looks intimidating, there are a lot of things that will be pretty easy to take care of. By far the biggest and most complicated item is #1: Where to go … and when to go there. I mean, “round the world” is just a little too vague. With that in mind, I’m going to quickly outline how we are trying to figure that out.

To start with, we are in the “information gathering” process right now. This means I have my nose stuck in a guidebook to all of Southeast Asia, and Theresa is buried waist deep in an Africa guidebook. We are finding all of our “can’t miss” places, when to go there, how to get there and how long to stay there. None of these things are simple to coordinate … there are endless combinations and logistical problems. When we finish, we’ll trade (and do South America). Then we’ll combine notes and do the best we can making the things we *have* to see the loose framework to the trip.

But a lot of the uniqueness of a trip like this happens in the in between times (or so we think), when you’re not necessarily on a safari or taking in Angkor Wat. Like meeting locals or fellow travelers with secrets to share, wandering through a local market, or otherwise getting to know a culture beyond the backpacker’s hotel. The advice my parents gave me the other night was, “make sure you don’t plan too much, leave lots of time for the spontaneous things.”

Point taken. I mean, Egypt was an amazing trip at a whirlwind pace, but a lot of the magic of it came from the “non-sites” (and believe me, the sites were astounding): the day we decided that it was just too hot so we drank in the hotel pool all day, singing along with our taxi driver, being told we didn’t speak English properly, the foul smelling juice stands that somehow sold miraculously good juice. It’s not necessarily what you seek out but what you run into.

Anyway, with that in mind, we want to be careful not to plan too much. This is difficult for us; even on our honeymoon we overbooked. But we want this trip to be about more than just checking sights off our 1000 places to see, we want to delve into cultures and understand the people. Besides, there’s no way we could handle our usual traveling pace for an entire year, so this will help us come back still married.

The Giant List of To-Dos (With Theresa It’s Never Get Up and Go)

1. Determine where we want to go: the must-sees along with the if we have time I’d like to sees. Make the hard choices about places that just don’t make the cut.

2. Figure out flights. Is a round-the-world ticket the best option or are one-ways better? Can we use our frequent flyer miles? Do we just want to book the big inter-continental flights or are there some intra-continental legs we also want to have set in stone?

3. Investigate the visa situation for countries we plan to visit. Do we need to get any in advance or can we get them at the border?

4. Make a packing list. Whittle down the packing list…and then do it again. Purchase anything we need but don’t have.

5. Determine what vaccinations we need and get them.

6. Arrange to get any necessary medicines: malaria pills, a generic antibiotic, contacts & supplies for a year, a years-worth of any prescriptions we have.

7. Secure travel and medical insurance. Make sure the insurance covers adventure activities and care within the U.S. should we have to return here for medical care.

8. Find a home for all our belongings. Sell or get rid of what we don’t need/want. See if anyone wants to be a foster parent to any of our stuff. Get a storage unit for whatever remains. Move out.

9. Assign someone power of attorney.

10. Figure out the best way to access money and handle credit card payments, etc. Make sure all companies are aware of our plans and don’t cancel our access to our money just when we most need it. Be sure someone we trust has access to our accounts should it be necessary.

11. Make copies of all important documents. Scan and email copies to ourselves and leave with trusted contact at home.

12. Sign up for a Skype account and make everyone aware of the details so we can stay in touch.

13. Get many, many multiples of passport-size photos made for visas, etc.

14. Set up a flickr account for photo sharing.

15. Get Theresa a plain silver band to wear in leiu of her actual wedding band.

16. Get student IDs if possible.

17. Figure out what to do about taxes while we’re gone.

So, all you savvy travelers out there, what’s missing?

The Situation in Burma/Myanmar

Since Jeff and I first decided to take this round the world trip–it’s been years in the making now…hurry up with the PhD already–we’ve been makings lists of places we want to go. We get a zillion travel magazines and we’ve read through books like “1001 Places to See Before You Die” and “Lonely Planet’s A Year of Adventure,” searching for locations that seem interesting to us. So far, we haven’t settled on anything certain, but we have a pretty good idea.

One of the places on our list was Burma, although it had a faint little question mark next to it. It’s a place we’d both like to discover but that we had uncertainties about. As a country led by an oppressive and illegal regime, we wondered what was the right thing to do. For political reasons, should we boycott this country, refusing to contribute money to a corrupt and cruel government? Or should we go in spite of the government, to meet the people, to better understand the situation, to try to put money into the hands of people who need it? We hadn’t really formulated an answer.

Recent events have made it such that the decision is not so difficult. Clearly Burma is a troubled and dangerous place–at the moment for travelers, probably always for citizens. And even if it calms down, I am not sure we’d go. I think before, when violence wasn’t so blatant, it was somewhat easier to justify a trip there. Now, with my political sensibilities more strongly awakened, it seems that it would be wrong to go against the wishes of democratically-elected leader Aung San Suu Ky, under house arrest since 1990, who asked that people boycott the country until the military regime is deposed and civil liberties are restored. I hope that happens soon, that these protests are not futile, that democracy is indeed on the brink of a comeback. And I hope that not just for my own petty interests, but for the welfare of a people.

What do you think? How much should issues such as these play in to decisions about travel? I’m not exactly sure if I can draw a line in the sand, establish a base criteria. I’m not going to go to somewhere that is clearly dangerous—Iraq for example. But I don’t want to not go somewhere because of sensationalized danger that is in fact, not truly there. A fair amount of people thought we were crazy to go to Egypt in 2004, but if I hadn’t had gone, I would have missed one of the most amazing and friendly places I have ever been. And what about when a place might not exactly be dangerous but is very strongly anti-American? Although I hear wonderful things about Iran, I’m not planning to go there. However, I think we will go to Venezuela, which is led by a man nearly (or just) as crazy and anti-American as Ahmadinejad. I can’t articulate my reasoning, and I can’t say that it won’t change. Often making decisions about travel has to do a lot more with your gut than your head. It’s a rapidly changing world, and sometimes even a line in the sand is a little too permanent.

The Worse Half?

So it seems I’m called on to talk a little about myself. Having never kept up a blog before (I’ve started probably 4 that ended after one post), this is all new to me. So expect some growing pains … not all of us can be the blogging expert (nor the superb writer) that my wife is. So with out further ado … all about me!

Who am I?
I’m Jeff, 26, former high school quarterback, former college baseball player, current science nerd. I’m Hawaiian — only in the sense that I was born there. I now claim another island, Bainbridge Island, as home. I’m half Swedish and have the IKEA furniture to prove it. I follow baseball and the Seattle Mariners religiously, and football only slightly less religiously.

What do I do in the “Real World”?
I am pursuing a Ph.D. in Neuroscience. The program is a relatively new joint program between the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD and Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. That Swedish background is useful after all! If you’re not a science dork, skip the next two sentences. I’m studying the cell biology of Parkinson’s disease, focusing on the protein DJ-1 and oxidation. And if that got you excited, this is what I’ve published (except for the one random nursing paper that stole my name). OK, now everyone’s back. I plan to finish and defend my thesis next summer, just before we take off on this adventure. It’s gonna be a great time for a break.

What places am I most excited about experiencing?
1. Galapagos Islands — As a fan of all things biologically inclined (and islands), how could this not be #1 on my list. I just hope it’s not overrun with people and we can really experience it. And that we can afford to go there.
2. Nepal — It’s been such a spiritual, mythical, and beautiful place.
3. Serengeti National Park — I told myself I wouldn’t overlap with Theresa, but c’mon, it’s a frickin’ safari! In Africa! With elephants! And rhinos!

What am I most looking forward to?
I’m looking for the constant adventure, the changing situations and circumstances. It’s something you don’t get on daily basis when your routine is getting up and going to work. But when every day is something new, well, that truly is something to look forward to.

What am I most worried about?
Logistics. I’m not a logistics person. Fortunately and unfortunately, my wife is. So we’ll be well planned, but we’ll probably have our share of arguments about it. That and the runs.

So there’s your first introduction to me, I’ve got more, but how will we keep you coming back without the suspense?

Introducing Me, The Better Half

Since we’re expecting this blog to be BIG TIME, with readers who aren’t my family members (Hi Mom, Dad, Matthew, Gregory, and Mark!) or the other five or so regular and commenting readers of my, um, less popular blog Spargel (Hi Laura, Megan, Anne, Lisa, and Jessica!), we thought we’d each do a little self-interview so people know we are. Reveal a bit about who we are in the real world, what we’re looking forward to on this trip, how we ended up so crazy as to think that we could and should do this. You know, the good stuff.

Who Am I?
I am Theresa. I am 26 years old. I am the wife of Jeff, the sister of Matthew, Gregory, and Mark, the oldest child of Mary Jane and Terry. I am a Kentuckian, born and bred, but I currently live in Bethesda, Maryland. In the interim, I have lived in Houston, Texas; Freiburg, Germany; and Athens, Greece. I am a pisces who doesn’t put much stock in astrology. I am a Rice University alumna, a Sacred Heart grad, a St. Athanasius Hornet. I am a wanderer.

What Do I Do In the “Real World”?
Currently I work as an editor at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I have had this job for over one year, which is a record for me, if you don’t count the three seasons I worked at the Louisville Zoo in high school. Since graduating, I have also been a Teaching Fellow at Athens College, an intern at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and a program assistant at The Children’s Partnership. Though all of these positions have had their interesting moments, none really captured my passion. They were jobs, a way to make money, a means to make this trip happen.

This year, I’ve also begun to make money as a freelance writer. This, to me, is more than a job. It’s something I enjoy. One day, my only job title will be writer. Maybe even novelist.

What Places Am I Most Excited About Experiencing?
1. Patagonia. I think the landscape will be awesome. I can’t wait to do some trekking and to get up close and personal with this kind of natural beauty.
2. Serengeti National Park. I’ve always wanted to do a safari, to see the wild in the wild.
3. Vietnam. Growing up I don’t think I ever thought of Vietnam as a real place. It was an abstract, a synonym for war. I want to experience it as a real place with real people.

What Am I Most Looking Forward To?
I’m excited about investing time in getting to know a place, in being a traveler and not a tourist, in meeting people and learning about their lives, their hopes, their beliefs, in making connections. I’m also excited about sharing all of this with Jeff.

What Am I Most Worried About?
I don’t know if it’s a worry so much as something I know I need to be aware of. When I travel with someone else, I tend to hang back and let the other person take care of things, especially encounters that have the potential to be trying or difficult or result in some form of “rejection.” Not only is this not fair to the other person (aka Jeff), it also inhibits the kind of personal growth that these trips inspire. So I have to make a conscious effort to be less reserved and to push my own levels of comfort.

I must also admit that I’m not really looking forward to squat toilets.

And on that lovely thought, I’ll sign off for now. Jeff, your turn.