The Things We Bought (And Then Carried)

Jeff and I aren’t really big shoppers, and we’re not much on souvenirs. Sorry friends, but it’s unlikely you’ll get anything from us when we return from a trip. It’s not that we don’t like you…it’s just that we don’t like you that much.

Kidding. Kidding. I just hate dusting. And I assume that most of you all do too, so what’s the point of me buying you something that you’re just going to have to dust. That’s hardly a gift I’d say. And it’s not like we’re usually out buying all kinds of stuff for ourselves either. I don’t like to shop, so doing it on vacation is not really my idea of a good time.

But don’t let me fool you into thinking that I’m immune to “Oh look how cute this is” or “Wouldn’t that look fantastic by our fireplace” (which, you have to remember, was completely make believe while we were traveling). But usually I resist. On an average trip, a short little 10 day trot around some foreign locale, the most I’m likely to come home with is an ornament.

Many, many moons ago, when I took my first trip abroad and probably didn’t even have my own bank account and thus not much money to shop with, I purchased a Waterford crystal shamrock Christmas ornament. (I was in Ireland in case you didn’t put two and two together). After that I decided to make it a habit, to purchase a Christmas ornament from each place I visited. Then, once a year, I’d get to pull each one out and reminisce about my travels. As far as souvenirs go, ornaments are about as good as you get I think. They’re small, they’re inexpensive, they’re fun, and they actually have a purpose. The only trick is that they’re not particularly easy to come by in countries that don’t celebrate Christmas or even in many countries that do celebrate Jesus’s birthday when it’s not the holiday season. But fortunately, there are lots of things that can serve as ornaments, and considering I like an eclectic tree and not a prim and proper everything matching tree, the more interesting the ornament the better.

On our trip around the world, we managed to snag an ornament in every country. In the process of unpacking and putting things away in our new house, I found them. Here you can see a few that will be gracing our Christmas tree next year (a beaded lion from South Africa [originally a magnet], a carved wooden gorilla from Uganda, a knitted penguin from Argentina [originally a finger puppet], a turtle carved from a tree nut from Ecuador [originally a key chain], and a carved blue-footed booby from the Galapagos).

Seeing that we were gone a year and we saw some pretty fabulous stuff, our shopping was not limited to ornaments. We did come how with a few (ahem) other items.

In Swaziland, we bought a too-cool-for-school carved wooden chair. It rode around in our car for six weeks, and then Jeff carried it in his backpack for another six. He’s a swell husband, I tell you. (Especially considering I wanted this, not him.)

In Malawi, we scored a pair of iron Masai men, who now stand guard next to our fireplace. (See, it wasn’t imaginary after all). I got to carry these in my backpack for a couple of weeks. (I may have also wanted these, so I guess that’s fair.)

In Peru, we picked up a ceramic ox of the type people put on their roofs for good luck and a papier-mache mask that now scares visitors to our bathroom.

In Ecuador, we added a crudely carved chess set to our collection. (In the past, I’ve bought chess sets in Greece, Egypt, Russia, and the Czech Republic, but I’ve given them all to my brother, a chess aficionado. That’s a good thing, because I don’t know where to even put one of these things, more less five.)

In Tanzania, we went wild with the paintings, buying three of the famous Tinga-Tinga style works as well as the long repeating image of Masai. Our collection of artwork also includes propaganda posters from Vietnam, flower art from Ecuador, feather art and elephant dung prints from Namibia, and a batik from Swaziland.

And from all over the world we picked up fabrics. Kangas in Africa, krama scarves in Cambodia, batik sarongs in Malaysia, silks in India, woven table runners in Ecuador…

Add to that a few vases, a few more masks, a collection of woven bowls, a finely carved cheetah (yeah, that one’s interesting), and other odds and ends, and we’ve got quite a collection of souvenirs. With all of it laid out in the extra bedroom that we don’t yet know what we’re doing with, it looked a bit like we were getting ready to open a tsotchke shop. I was considering taking orders. But now that it’s slowly dispersing through the house…finding a home on a mantle, a bookshelf, or the wall, it’s looking pretty good. While some people might go formal with their living rooms, we’ve gone African. It might not be everyone’s style, but we like it. And on dreary days of same ol’ same ol’, all it takes is one look at the Tinga Tinga on the wall or the Indian bedspread on the bed and you’re instantly transported elsewhere, sometimes just for a minute, but always long enough to remember just what a fantastically interesting world we live in.

What about you? What’s your favorite souvenir?

The Ship Has Sunk


In the remaining twilight, we survey our surroundings. We don’t see people. We don’t see houses. No one is going to find us if we stay here. We have three choices. We can go south, toward the end of the island, but we’re practically there already, and we’re not convinced we’ll find much life that way. We can go east, further inland, but we’re afraid that we might get lost and just wander aimlessly if we do that. Plus there are a few too many poisonous snakes on the island for much shoeless wandering. Our final option, and the one we choose, is to go north. That’s the direction of our lodge, and so we know that there is life that way. Plus by staying along the shoreline, we’ll at least have a guideline, a way to know that we’re continuously moving in the right direction. And so we pull ourselves up from the rocks and start moving before darkness completely overtakes us. It’s no walk on the beach but is instead a clamber up and over boulder after boulder. We each take a paddle and use it like a blind person uses a walking stick, poking it out in front of us and feeling our way forward.

Jeff falls first, slipping into a crevasse between rocks. There is no light anymore (not even moonlight), so we can only make out the vaguest outlines of shapes. Each step is a guess. Jeff guesses wrong. I scramble to his side, wondering what the heck I am supposed to do. What if he broke something? I certainly can’t carry him. I’d have to leave him. Try to find help on my own. Luckily it doesn’t come to that. Jeff gets up, scratched and bleeding but okay, and we continue on.

I fall next, stepping on a rock that rolls and then flips over onto my leg when I fall. I’m pinned down, and I’m not sure the state of my leg under the rock. Jeff hurries back and removes the rock. I take stock of my state. Like Jeff, I’m just bloody and bruised. We’re lucky. But we’re beyond frustrated. Our progress is so slow, and at this rate, one of us will end up good and hurt. It doesn’t seem there’s anything we can do but keep pressing on through the darkness that makes it nearly impossible for me to even see Jeff directly ahead of me.

But then, my brain unfogs for a minute. I remember that I saved the daypack. I grab it from Jeff and feel my way through it.

Though one Nalgene bottle floated away when our boat sank, there is still one in our backpack, and if I remember correctly it’s the one I want. Once upon a time Jeff bought a Nalgene lid that with a press of a button illuminates a light and turns your Nalgene into a lantern. I made fun of him for it then. But now, I swear to take it all back if only the light will still turn on after its long dip in Lake Malawi.

I find the bottle. I press the button. For a moment, nothing happens. But then it flickers on. It works! The glow it casts is small, but it’s enough. We can see where we’re stepping. Slowly, slowly, we continue on, our feet cut up, our bodies exhausted. We stumble where we shouldn’t, our coordination not up to par.

I also remember that my whistle, the one I take with me when hiking, is attached to the front of my backpack. I grab it and begin blowing, hoping that someone will hear it and come investigate. At one point, I think I see a light, and I start yelling like crazy. No one responds. Turns out it’s just a glowing plant. I keep whistling, but no help comes.

We walk for an hour. At least. It feels like forever. And then finally we see a flicker of light ahead, which we soon realize is a fire. We move with renewed energy. The boulders give way to beach. We hurry through the sand to the fire, around which a group of men is gathered. When we approach, they all stare, jaws unhinged. In front of them stand two white people, soaking wet, dripping blood, and carrying paddles though there’s no boat in sight.

Jeff takes charge, asking if anyone speaks English. No on answers. He repeats the question. No answer. We don’t have another language to fall back on, so we just speak, slowly, clearly, trying to explain our situation. Blank stares are what we get in return. We gesture toward their boats, all still lined up on the beach. “Fishing tonight?” we ask, casting out imaginary lines. Every other night we’ve seen the lights of boats blinking from the lake. “Can you take us?” we ask. “Motor us back to our lodge. We’ll pay,” we say. Finally, a man steps forward. In broken English he says, “No fishing tonight. Lake too rough.” We should have known.

On to plan B. “Does anyone have a phone?” we ask, pantomiming calling someone. They exchange glances. Then one of the men runs off, returning shortly with another man, who speaks better English and has a phone. He hands it to us. We stare at it. Theoretically it should be of help, but we don’t have any numbers. Who are we going to call? We ask if anyone knows the number to Mango Drift. Silence is the response.

I am completely exhausted at this point, my body wrecked. I am also being stared at as if I am an alien, as if I just shot down from a hovering spacecraft. I collapse into the sand. I sob. I am overwhelmed, uncertain how we’re going to make it back, but mainly I’m overwhelmed by the realization that we’re okay, that that we’re going to be okay.

The people are trying their best to help us, but they don’t know much more than we do. “You should just stay here tonight,” they suggest, gesturing toward my cuts, still dripping blood. “You’re tired. You can sleep here with us, and then we’ll take you back in the morning.” I thank them. I try to smile. They are warmhearted and generous. But we can’t stay here. We have to get back. They’re expecting us back. They expected us long before the sun set.

We return to the phone. There has to be someone we can call who can help us. “The police,” I suggest. “Ask them to call the police.” Jeff hands the phone back to the owner and asks him to call the police for us. He dials.  We wait. He hangs up. “No one answered,” he says.

Shit. Now who? I rack my brain. “Call the hospital,” I suggest. There’s a British-run hospital on the island, and we had met some of the workers earlier in the week. “They speak English,” I say to Jeff, relaying my chain of thought, “and can call the lodge.” The man with the phone dials the hospital. Again the phone rings and rings, but no one answers.

There’s no one else we can call at this point. We stare at each other, blank, not knowing what to do. Finally, we ask if they know where the hospital is. In chorus, they shake their heads yes, and point in a general direction. “Will you lead us there?” we ask, and again receive a chorus of nods. It’s not close, a couple of kilometers, but closer than the lodge. We also don’t have shoes. It’s going to be a long, painful journey. But at this point, we don’t see what choice we have. We start walking.

But we only make it about 200 meters before our guide stops and enters a house. He returns, then gestures for us to follow him in. I have no idea what’s going on. I hope he’s not trying to get us to stay there for the night. We can’t.

Jeff and I look around at the house—a very nice one for the island with couch and TV, a dining table, separate bedrooms—and try to figure out what’s going on. Then a man, nicely dressed and speaking excellent English, addresses us. He’s the mayor of Likoma Island. We’re in the mayor’s house. I feel like Dorothy when she finally makes it to see the wizard. I only hope that there’s no curtain.

He immediately tells Jeff that he knows Mango Drift, that he goes there often for a beer, and that he’ll call them as soon as the man who was leading us returns with a card for his phone. It’s low on money. Then he begs me to have a seat. I decline. I’m still wet, blood’s dripping from my elbow. I don’t want to sully his furniture. He insists until finally I relent. Then he offers me dinner, asks us to eat with him and his wife. I look at the steaming bowl of cassava and know that there’s no way I can stomach it right now. I decline. When I agree to eat a banana and have some tea, he accepts this. He asks what happened, listens to our story, tells us that we are lucky, so, so lucky, that so many people have died on the lake when the weather suddenly turned.

Then the man is back, and suddenly Jeff is on the phone with Josh and Becky, the managers at Mango Drift. In ten minutes, Josh is at the door, laden down with blankets, chocolates, cookies. He keeps saying how happy he is to see us. How they’d kept watching and watching the water waiting for us to return. How when the sun set and we weren’t back they called to the lodge on Chizimulu to see if perhaps, if hopefully, we’d decided to stay there for the night. How they’d called everyone they knew on the island, asking if they’d seen a kayak, if they’d seen two white people. How they were sending out the rescue crew just as we called. We express relief that we caught them before they pulled out the big guns, say how happy we are to see them too.This adventure gone wrong, oh so wrong, is over.

I snuggle close to Jeff in the car as we ride back to the lodge. My mind keeps replaying the events of that afternoon. But already the day has become grainy. Already it’s become unreal. Already it’s become nothing but a good story.

Thank heavens.

Onboard a Sinking Ship

Ferries and other passenger ships in the developing world have a terrible habit of sinking. Far too often, reports of such ships show up in the international news. In fact, while we were on Zanzibar, a ferry from Dar Es Salaam sunk just outside the harbor, resulting in the death of many passengers. So every time Jeff and I boarded a boat, I paid close attention to the safety briefing (if there was one), scouted out my exits, and snagged a life jacket (if there were any). I was prepared for an incident that though not likely wasn’t improbable. Where I failed was in considering the possibility that a boat I myself was piloting could be the one that sank.

On our third day on Likoma Island–a place we wrote about earlier in regards to its warm, friendly people–the sun rises bright and clear, and after a big breakfast at Mango Drift, the backpacker lodge where we are staying, we push one of the lodge’s kayaks through the sand and into the warm, deep waters of Lake Malawi. Our destination is the island of Chizimulu, 13 kilometers away. According to the lodge managers, no other guests have made the trip during the few months they’ve been there, but they see no reason why we can’t.

The trip starts out as nearly all of our kayaking trips start. Paddle left, paddle right. Bicker, bicker. Paddle left, paddle right. Bicker, bicker. I don’t like taking orders, and when you’re the person in the front of the kayak, as I always am when I’m with Jeff, that’s what you have to do. I eventually get over it, and we find a rhythm and have a good time.

But about 20 minutes into this trip, I pull my oar into the boat and turn to Jeff. I’m feeling uncertain about continuing on. Though we still have about 2 hours of paddling left in front of us, I’m already feeling like we’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s just us and a lot of water. It’s a little bit scary. And I’m starting to think that maybe we ought to have life jackets, a thought I share with Jeff. He reminds me that this is Africa, that life jackets aren’t standard equipment, that people who can’t even swim go out in boats every day without life jackets, but he also offers to turn around, either for good or to inquire about life jackets. I turn down his offer. I’m not a quitter. And if we go back, I’ll probably end up staying. Paddling 13 kilometers across Lake Malawi is freaking hard.

We forge on. The sun beats down, and we roll gently with the bobbing of the lake, which at 26,900 square kilometers might as well be the ocean. I paddle 100 strokes and then I break. There’s no hurry, and after about two hours of paddling, we land on the shores of Chizimulu. A coalition of cute kids greets us, and then they lead us to the island’s only tourist lodge, where we grab lunch, snorkel, and relax.

Around 2:30 p.m., we’re back in our boat. The African sun sets at 6 p.m.. It took us two hours to get across. To be safe, we’re giving ourselves an extra hour and a half to get back. More than enough time, we think.

But anyone who’s spent any time in nature knows that it’s not always predictable, not always willing to adhere to your time schedule. When we get outside of the sheltered area near the island, we find the water to be a bit choppier than it was on our way in. By the time we we get a few kilometers out, when we’re afloat in the no-man’s land between the islands, where going back or continuing forward will take approximately the same amount of time and effort., things get flat out rough. The wind picks up. Whitecaps surround us. It really is as if we’re in the ocean. In a kayak that’s meant for tranquil lake waters.

We know from rafting through the Grand Canyon in an inflatable kayak that you’re most likely to flip when a wave hits you on the side, so we turn the kayak ever so slightly so as to head directly into the waves while still aiming for our lodge, a landmark we can’t see yet but know thanks to the cell tower behind it.In order to keep the boat oriented properly, Jeff must paddle only on the left side, a balance to the wind. Soon, I too must join him. Paddling properly is futile. We’re not kayaking anymore, we’re fighting.

We can’t take a break. We just paddle, ignoring the burning muscles. We paddle and paddle and paddle. I scream with each stroke, angrily yelling at the wind and the water. Jeff, usually the optimist, starts talking about how we’re not getting anywhere, that we’ll never make it. I yell at him too. I’m the pessimist, not him. That’s my job, not his. And in this situation, I need positive. I am celebrating every meter, every missed wave.

Unfortunately, for each missed wave, there’s a wave that gets us. I’m soaking wet. There’s a few inches of lake water in the bottom of the boat. At one point, I try to bail, but it’s futile. I have no bucket; with a snorkeling mask, I can toss out a cup or so, but without me helping to hold the line, more water comes in than I can get out. There’s nothing to do but keep on paddling. The sun certainly isn’t holding still; it’s continuing its westward arc, and we’re now racing it.

Eventually, we find ourselves about 1 km from shore. We can make out the lodge, swear that we can even see a few people. It looks like we’re going to win this fight, this race.

Ha, nature responds. It’s not giving up so easily. Instead it ups its game. The wind comes harder. The waves break more frequently. With land in sight, we give up the battle to land straight up on the beach at our lodge, and aim just to get to land, period. I’ll drag the kayak back if I have to. We have to focus our energy.

The wind pushes us harder and faster than we’d imagined. In no time at all, we’ve been pushed nearly the entire 8 kilometer length of the island. Unfortunately, at the same time, we’re not a whole lot closer to land. Time after time, we’ve spotted a great landing area, pushed with all our might, and then watched as we were swept right past it. We’re going nowhere, and I don’t understand why.

But Jeff’s got it figured out. Over the wind he calls to me to turn around. Though there’s only a few inches of water around my feet, in the back of the boat, behind Jeff, the water has nearly filled the boat. We’re too heavy to go anywhere. We must bail. It’s the only way we have a chance. And so we both drop our paddles and furiously throw water overboard. The lake returns the favor by throwing it right back in. We’re in a losing battle.

And at that moment, for the first time, we both realize that we’ll never make it to shore in the boat. Jeff looks at me and says “What should we do?”. I, with a calmness that surprises me, say “Well, I guess we better swim.”

With that, we roll out of the boat and into the lake. I again wish we had life jackets. This is fresh water; we’re not buoyant. And the wind and waves mean the water is regularly going over our heads. Plus the sun, well it’s about to touch the lake. In a matter of minutes, it will be gone.

I grab the small daypack we took with us and try to hold it over my head. I lunge for one of my flip-flops, as the other along with a water bottle, floats away. I take a quick survey of the sun’s position. Not good.

I kick hard to stay above water. Jeff meanwhile dives under.

“What are you doing? I yell to him.

“I’m trying to right the kayak,” he yells. I think we both thought we’d slide out, flip the boat over, and then hold on to it and kick into shore, but the kayak has other ideas. It’s gone Titanic. The front points straight up, the back straight toward the bottom of the lake.

“Screw the boat,” I yell. “There’s too much water. You’ll never get it up.”

He agrees. But then goes underwater again.

“What are you doing?” I yell again.

“I lost my sunglasses,” he replies.

“Screw your sunglasses,” I answer, thinking that he’s lost his mind. It’s nearly dark now, and we’re still a few hundred meters from shore. We have to start swimming. And most importantly, we have to stay together. If we’re still in the water when it gets dark, we’ll never find each other if we’re separated. Staying together is number one on the importance list. Getting to shore is number two. Luckily, while evacuating the boat, I had the good sense to hold tight to the paddles, the only slightly buoyant items we have, and so I thrust the a kayak paddle toward Jeff. He grabs ahold of one end, I cling to the other, and together we start kicking.

Fortunately, we’re both good swimmers. But still we struggle. It’s not easy.

Fortunately, we also both keep our heads. Our boat is gone. We’re in an angry lake that is hundreds of meters deep right up until you reach shore. We’re on the cusp of darkness. But we know what we have to do: swim. We know that’s the only thing there is to do. We know it’s the one thing we can’t stop doing. We’re focused.

My life doesn’t flash before my eyes; I think only of how it would kill my mom if I drowned here in Lake Malawai. I’m not brave; I’m just determined. In fact, I say more than once to Jeff, “I’m scared,” but always calmly, detached, as a statement of fact not emotion. Jeff has left his pessimism behind with the boat and is only reassuring: “We’re almost there. We’ve made it one rock (referencing a peninsula we could still see further down). We’ve made it two rocks.”

And then, after what seems like the longest swim of my life, there’s solid ground under our feet. We pull ourselves up onto the big boulders lining the shore and take big gasping breaths. Our kayak is gone. And with it, the light. Darkness has come to Likoma Island. And though we’ve made it on to land, we’re nowhere near any signs of life. The nightmarish adventure isn’t over yet. We still have to make our way back to the lodge.

(To be Continued…)

An Incident in India

Our visit to the holy city of Varanasi began horribly. It started with a six-hour wait in the Agra train station, where I watched enormous rats race in and out of offices and even up one man’s back as I waited for our long-delayed train. By the time we got off the train, my purse had been stolen, and I was in a rotten mood. Then spending hours and hours in the train station police office, where I was required to write over and over my account of the incident (everything was done by hand, and there could be no cross-outs, so any time they wanted me to change even one tiny word, I had to rewrite the entire thing) did nothing to help. Finding out that after all that we’d have to come back in the evening to pick up the official report because the transcriber had a headache brought me to the brink of losing it. By the time we found out half of the city streets were closed for a festival, and we’d have to schlep our bags a long way through the Indian heat and humidity, I was too far gone to even care.

India was, at this point, pretty much dead to me. I just couldn’t be bothered to care…not about the cow shit I had to trample through to get to our hotel, not about the kids with soulless eyes begging for our change, not about the six flights of stairs I had to climb to get to our room. The overwhelming amount of poverty that constantly affronted me combined with my own experience of being a victim, most likely of someone without a chance in the world, had numbed me. I didn’t have anymore outrage left in me. Or so I thought.


As night fell on the Ganges, and its unholy mix of cremated bodies, garbage, animal carcasses and pollutants, we ventured out from the relative comfort of the hotel where we’d entombed ourselves all day into the chaos of the city. We stumbled up and down alleyways that smelled of human excrement, incense, chai, and sweat until we emerged onto a broad street, packed with people celebrating Durga Puja, an important holy day in this part of the country. Effigies–some expensive looking, others constructed with no more than hay and old clothes–were being transported down to the river in the beds of trucks, behind which rich young men danced to the pulse of Indian music. Crowds lined the streets and pushed their way around, a tidal wave of humanity. Kids ate what appeared to be cotton candy, and a man repeatedly brushed himself up against me (a much too common occurrence) until Jeff realized it and stared him down and chased him off.

If it had been another day, I’d have taken photos. The festival was the kind of thing I usually love. But that day, I didn’t care. Everything about it annoyed me. All I wanted was a rickshaw, a means of transport to get back to the train station to pick up the police report I wasn’t completely convinced would even be available (at least not without a bribe). Finally, after walking around for at least an hour, we found one, a cycle rickshaw with a driver that would agree to a price we’d been told was reasonable.

I hated cycle rickshaws. They seemed so inhumane to me. I felt like an old colonial subjugator, sitting primly on the cushioned seat while a terribly poor man forced his skinny legs up and down in an effort to pedal me through the streets of Varanasi. But, on the other hand, this was the only way these people had to make a living. If I denied him service, I wasn’t helping him. I was instead depriving him of a chance to have something to eat that day. That, and the fact that I always paid much more than the agreed-upon fare, were the only things that soothed my conscience.

On this evening, our driver was chatty, introducing himself to us as Michael. That seemed an odd name for an Indian to me, but he quickly added that he was Christian and Michael was the name he’d taken when he was baptized. It made sense, especially since just a few days prior I’d been reading about a recent trend in which many of India’s poorest were converting to Christianity, attracted by its teaching that you could be saved through faith and good works and in only one life time, a stark difference from the prevailing Hindu beliefs that require cycles of reincarnation, a seemingly endless road for those deemed the lowest of the low. He was friendly and helpful, pointing out sights all while pedaling his heart out, and I felt my mood lift a bit in his presence. There were good people in India, I was reminded.

At the train station, the report was ready and handed over to me without so much as even a hint at a bribe. Things were looking up. We grabbed a bottle of water, since we were covered in sweat from the heat despite having done nothing but sit the entire way there, and then we grabbed a second bottle for Michael. I think it cost all of 10 cents. It was no great act of philanthropy, though he was beyond pleased when we offered it to him upon our return.

The ride back was for the most part uneventful. Michael kept up his chatter and we responded appropriately, glad that this day was drawing to an end and hoping that a better day awaited us the next morning. But as we got within the vicinity of the hotel, the roads again became crowded, and Michael was forced to weave his way through the throngs of people. One of the “floats” was ahead of us, and getting around it was going to be tricky. We had to stop and wait while it passed, but then with a break between the truck and the followers, Michael saw his chance and decided to hurry through.

Not so fast, however. One of the celebrants, an obviously wealthy young man with nice clothes and nothing more important to do than dance behind a truck, approached our rickshaw with a band of followers. In Hindi, he began to yell at Michael. Michael did not yell back. He just hung his head and let the young man rant. Though perhaps India no longer has any official caste system, the caste system lives. Then, still yelling, the man picked up a stick and made a motion as if he were going to hit Michael. All this, because Michael dared to try to cross the street in an effort to make a living. I’d been sitting there watching, quite uncertain of what was going on, but at that point I lost it.

I normally shrink from confrontation. But, on that night, after that day, I’d had enough.

“Stop it,” I yelled, “Now. Stop it now. Just stop.” I don’t even know where my voice came from but I was outraged. “Do not be violent. He is a person. A person. Treat him like a person. ” I just kept yelling.

The men stopped and stood there dazed. It was as if I had hit them. This was not the response they usually got. This was not what they expected. I must have seemed crazy, rabid. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. They stopped, left us alone, let us continue.

Not wasting a second, or letting the men change their mind, Michael pedaled hard until we were away from them. He then slowed and turned to me. “Thank you. Thank you,” he said. “You’re such a good person.” He repeated this over and over.

I shook my head. “No,” I said. “No.” But he wasn’t listening.

I wasn’t a good person. I was just a person. A person doing what people are supposed to do. Yet there, for people like Michael, I was extraordinary. Perhaps that should have made me feel good, but it didn’t. Instead I felt sick. Simple human kindness should not be extraordinary. Basic human dignity should not only be for the privileged.

Arriving at our destination, we got out of the rickshaw and pressed money into Michael’s hand. He smiled broadly and thanked us again and again. I walked away, shaken to the core, then stopped and turned back. “Good luck,” I yelled to him, wishing desperately that being treated like a person didn’t require luck.

In Review: Our Top Ten

Though narrowing a year’s adventure down to pick out our top ten experiences is a nearly impossible task, we tried to do it anyhow. After all, it seems to be what everyone most wants to know. So here it is, the ten experiences we most loved, ordered not by rank but in the order in which we did them.

1. Hiking Torres del Paine

Of all the landscapes we saw on our trip, I think the mountains of Torres del Paine were the most majestic. The sheer beauty of this place was breathtaking for each and every moment of the four days we spent hiking the W.

2. Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu itself is mindboggling and not just because of the altitude. The amazing architecture and well-preserved state of this city in the sky wowed us. But what made seeing it really special was the intense three days of hiking through the Andes that we had to do to reach it. We also got to enjoy the company of my brother Gregory on this part of the adventure.

3. Cruising the Galapagos

This was eight days of pure bliss. From swimming with sea lions, sharks, and penguins, to laughing at the antics of blue-footed boobies, to marveling at the beauty of the natural landscape, to watching the stars rise from the deck chairs of our catamaran, our experience in the Galapagos was top-notch. It was far and away the most budget blowing of our adventures, but it was worth every single penny.

4. Living it Up in Buenos Aires

An apartment in a nice neighborhood, big steak dinners, ice cream every day (at least once), and a visit from my parents…our stay in Buenos Aires was like a vacation within a vacation. The city is vibrant and easy to get around with great architecture and atmosphere and tons to do.

5. Going on Safari in southern Africa

We saw our first lion in Kruger, got up close and personal with rhinos in Hluhluwe Imfolozi, encountered more elephants than we could count in Addo, found a few new species at Mountain Zebra, and became king of cheetah spotting in Etosha. We did a lot of safari-ing and never once got tired of it. In fact, I’m ready to go again.

6. Seeing the Surreal Landscapes of Namibia

Namibia might not have many inhabitants but they sure do have impressive landscapes. At Fish River Canyon, in the Quiver Tree Forest, atop the red dunes of Sossusvlei, in the forests of Naukluft, or along the Caprivi Strip, we were pretty much constantly snapping photos.

7. Meeting the Lovely People of Likoma Island

Until we ended up there, Likoma Island was never even on our radar. Malawi was supposed to be more of a pitstop on our way up east Africa, but it turned into one of our favorite spots. There’s not a lot to do on Likoma Island besides lounge on the beach and enjoy the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi, but the people are among the most friendly, welcoming, and fun loving that we met on our journey. I think we wore a constant smile the entire week we were there.

8. Trekking with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not a misnomer as trekking through the dense forest is not easy, but every step is worth it for the opportunity to spend one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas. These magnificent creatures left us all awestruck. They are impressive in size, in expressiveness, in the way they reflect so much of us and we of them. Another pricey experience, but again worth every penny. Plus we had the good fortune to get to share the experience with Jeff’s parents and sister.

9. Learning to Scuba Dive

Experienced scuba divers claim that once you start, you can’t stop, and they know what they’re talking about. We’re already addicted and can’t stop thinking about when and where we can next dive. Take any of the underwater shows you’ve ever seen and multiply the magic quotient by 100. It’s that good.

10. Exploring Rajasthan

India was tough, but we did greatly enjoy our foray into Rajasthan. The forts, palaces, and heritage hotels preserved fantastic architecture and the feeling of glory days now gone. Though hassle was still present, it was low in comparison to other parts of the country, and we met some very friendly and interesting locals. This seemed to be the India of lore.

Homeward Bound!

363 days ago, we sat in the Houston Airport and shared with you all this post. We were excited, nervous and anxious about the year ahead. Today,we share with you the same image of us in the Seoul Airport, waiting to go home.

All those things we were so anxious about are now memories. It’s been more exciting than we could possibly have imagined. It’s been a magnificent year, but now, we are ready to come home! See you all very soon!

Our Stories Might Not Be the Same, But They’re All Worth Telling

In a year of traveling around the world, we’ve met a lot of people, many of whom are fellow travelers. We’ve found the majority of them to be fun, interesting people. We’ve shared some good times with them and, in some cases, exchanged info in the hopes of one day meeting up again. But every once in a while, you meet a bad egg. There’s lots of things that can spoil a person in my opinion, but there’s one thing, above all, that I can’t stand: a superiority complex. Just a tad too often for my tastes I find that long-term travelers develop this notion that they are somehow superior to the family and friends they left back at home.

To paraphrase them: “I’m out seeing the world. Every day is a challenge. I’m learning so much, doing so much, growing so much. They’re all just sitting at home, their lives the same today as they were yesterday as they will be tomorrow. They’re not changing at all.” To my never-ending amusement, I usually hear this sentiment uttered by a person sitting at a hostel watching television and drinking beer.

Most of the time I don’t waste my breath with such people, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to tell them off. Yes, Jeff and I have had an amazing year. Yes, we have learned all kinds of things—about places, about people, about ourselves. We’ve challenged ourselves physically and emotionally. We’ve grown. But so have the people we left at home.

Sometimes when we answer people who ask how long we’ve been traveling, we’re told that we’re “brave.” I usually just smile and feel awkward. We could probably just as easy be called “selfish” for saying screw it to everyone and everything and disappearing into the world, or “stupid” for giving up good jobs just as the economy crashed. We obviously don’t think it was selfish or stupid, but we also don’t think it was brave.

Brave, I’d say, is choosing to bring a new life into the world, something many of our friends and family have done this year. Brave is going back to school in your thirties to completely change careers. Brave is saying that your dream job is no longer going to be just a dream. Brave is giving up a job you love and a salary you very much like to stay at home with the kids you love more. Brave is giving everything you have to a relationship but knowing when enough is enough. Brave is promising to spend the rest of your life with the person you love.

No, our friends’ and families’ lives have been anything but boring, static. They have completed degrees and taken first jobs. They have moved to new cities, and they have bought homes. They’ve been promoted at jobs they love and left jobs they didn’t like. They have said, “I will” to the question of “Will you marry me?” and “I do” to the question of “Do you take?” They have become moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas. They too have traveled, some acquiring a passport for the first time, some going to places that we dream of one day visiting. They have grown and changed and been challenged, just as we have.

When our plane lands back in the States and we again get to see our family and friends, I hope that they ask about our trip. I hope that they want to hear about our year. But I also hope that they will tell us about theirs, that they too will have stories they want to share with us and pictures to show us. Because if this year has taught us only one thing, it is that our world is an interesting place because of our differences. How boring the world would be if we all chose to walk down the same road.

“Special” Price for You

If you’ve traveled anywhere outside the developed world, you know that for you there is always a “special” tourist price, and by special I don’t mean discounted. If locals pay $5 for a taxi ride, you pay $10, though you’re probably quoted at least $15. Walk into a hotel and the rate you’re quoted is probably not the same rate quoted to the person in front of you or person behind you. You’re constantly being sized up. How much money do you look like you have? How much money do you look like you’ll pay? How big of a sucker do you appear to be?

Most things don’t come with a price tag in the developing world. You have to figure out what something is worth to you and then bargain with the person offering said item until you reach a point where you are happy with the price or you just have to walk away. It’s all a part of the game. Some people take it too far, fussing over the equivalent of pennies, while others hand over whatever is asked the first time around. Neither is good…for you, for other travelers, or for the local economy.

Most of the time I don’t mind it. But sometimes, like when a guy selling fake sunglasses asks $30 for them when even in the U.S. you wouldn’t pay more than $5, it bothers me. Do I really look like I found the tree from which money freely falls? I’ve accepted the fact I’ll pay more; I’m not willing to be extorted.

In Asia more than anywhere else we have been, “special” prices for tourists are the norm. And here tourist rates aren’t just for taxi rides, market purchases, hotel rooms, and the like; they’re also for admission to attractions. On one hand, I understand this. The citizens of developing nations usually don’t have loads of extra cash to spend on visits to museums, historical sites, and the like. You can also argue that through taxes and the like, locals are already paying for these places.

On the other hand, why can’t there just be a set value for things? In the U.S., if I want to visit the Grand Canyon, I have to pay the same as someone from Europe as someone from India as someone from Mexico. We have determined that the seeing the Grand Canyon is worth a certain amount, and if you want to visit it, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you have to pay the price. Some of my taxes are already going to support the national parks, but I’m not given reduced admission because of that. Perhaps using the U.S. as an example is not fair considering they’re not going to let you in to the country in the first place unless you can prove you have a good bit of money, but the idea remains…there is a firm and fixed value for things irregardless of circumstances.

Most of the time, I just roll with it, pay what I have to pay and move on. And sometimes it seems like it’s not a bad deal. For instance, to visit the forts and palaces in Rajasthan, India, we had to pay about 250-300 rupees ($5-6) each while locals paid around 10. It’s a big difference, but for their 10 rupees locals were given nothing but admission; those paying the foreign price received nice brochures as well as very well-done and interesting audio guides. Additionally, the notices that said the admission fees were going toward restoration work didn’t seem like BS, as the buildings were all in rather remarkable shape and were well tended to.

In Uttar Pradesh, it was a completely different story. At Fatehpur Sikri and Orchha, we again paid about 25 times the local price, but this time got nothing in return, not even a sketch map of the site. Additionally, the sites were not very well-maintained, so it felt as all the extra money we paid was just going right into the lining of someone’s pocket (which I have no doubt it was).

At the Taj Mahal, foreigners pay 750 rupees, 75 times the local price. But don’t worry you do get something extra here: a 500 ml bottle of water valued at 6 rupees and a pair of shoe covers so you can walk around the Taj without removing your shoes worth about 10 rupees. Definitely worth it, don’t you think? And while paying approximately $15 to visit a world famous site like the Taj Mahal isn’t in itself unreasonable, what makes the price so hard to swallow is knowing that just five years ago, admission was 15 rupees, or $0.30. And no, the price didn’t rise with inflation or go up each year; it was actually increased from 15 to 750 in one fell swoop. I don’t know, but to me that feels like they’re not charging what they consider a fair price but are instead trying to see just how much us crazy foreigners will hand over before we call the bluff.

What do you think? Should foreigners have to pay more to visit sites than locals? Should the U.S. and Europe implement a similar policy? If it is fair to charge more to foreigners, how much more? I’m curious as to what you all think.

Iconic India

For some people, there’s nothing more emblematic of India than the Taj Mahal. For others, including myself, the most iconic image is of the pilgrims of Varanasi bathing in the Ganges. In our last week in India, we took in both of these sights.

First off was the Taj. According to pretty much everyone, you can’t go to India and not see the Taj, so we braved Agra, a city with really no redeeming qualities beyond the fact that it’s home to the Taj Mahal, to see this monument to love.

I’m not creative enough to add any descriptor to the long list people have already created when waxing about the Taj Mahal. It’s beautiful. The fact that there’s nothing behind it, no background noise to take away from it, magnifies its beauty. It’s a wonder to gaze on (and we were lucky enough to get a $10 hotel room with a million dollar view of the Taj Mahal from our window). But I have to say, if you die without seeing the Taj Mahal, I think you’ll be okay.

Maybe it’s because I’m not a romantic, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with awe at the Taj. I thought it was a beautiful building, one of a number I’ve been lucky enough to see in my lifetime, but after an hour I was pretty much done with it. We ended up staying and staring at it for three hours though, because it cost $15 to enter (a pretty damn high price for India) and we were determined to get our money’s worth. Plus there wasn’t anything else in Agra we cared to see.

Anyhow, seeing as I have nothing new to add to the conversation of the Taj Mahal, I’ll just put up some photos. Judge for yourself where it comes on your list of the world’s most beautiful places.

Then it was on to Varanasi, the one city that I’d been determined to see since India made it on to our itinerary. As it was the city we arrived in just after my purse was stolen, I didn’t reach it in the greatest mood, and the filth of the alleyways we had to wander to get to our hotel almost sent me back to the train station. Much of India is dirty, filthy. It was nothing new. But when the alleys are barely as wide as two people standing next to each other, the filth is impossible to miss. Cow shit, dog shit, probably human shit, food waste, plastic garbage, and who knows what else literally fill the alleys. I wanted to burn my shoes when we left; I refused to put them back in my bag.

But if you can look past the filth, there’s more to Varanasi. We woke early the morning after we arrived and went down to the Ganges, where we boarded a boat for a sunrise ride past the ghats lining the river. And while I was unwilling to touch the river with more than my pinky (which, thank God, hasn’t rotted off), Indians find this river to be holy. (Unfortunately that also means that they “give” all kinds of things to the river including dead bodies, cows, and all manners of offerings.)

The ride along the river was fascinating. We watched men, women, and children bathe in the waters.

We watched people raise up handfuls of water and mumble prayers as it flowed back into the water.

We saw dhobis washing laundry in the Ganges, pounding it clean on the stone steps.

We saw the effigies of the goddess “Durga,” who was being celebrated while we were there in huge festive parades that ended with the image of the goddess being submerged in the river.

And we saw bodies being cremated in pyres at the river’s edge. For Hindus, there is no better place to die than in Varanasi because they believe that if you die there you will skip the cycles of reincarnation and enter directly into nirvana.

India is not an easy place. I think it might be one of the basest places I’ve ever been. Though it’s teeming with humanity, it is for so, so, so many people impossibly inhumane. The desperate level at which so many people live is devastating. The disparities are despicable. But it’s also interesting. The north, where the Himalayas provide constant backdrop, was so beautiful. The history so well preserved in Rajasthan was magical. The spirituality of the faithful along the Ganges was moving. India is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back. But I think I’m glad I went. For all the good and all the bad, there’s simply nowhere else in the world quite like India.

Rajasthan Wrap-Up

We’re quite happily back in Thailand now, enjoying the last week of our trip at the beach before heading home. We didn’t, however, keep you updated on our whirlwind tour of India, with all of its ups and downs. So with that, I’ll pick up where we left off and finish off our tour of Rajasthan with visits to Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer.

Jaipur, dubbed the Pink City, was not as pink as you would think. The shops along the bazaar were painted in more of a peach color, which was at least uniform if not particularly “pink,” but everything else was painted however the tenants wanted. Suffice it to say that was a variety of colors.

Nevertheless, the city was teeming with fantastic Indian architecture. Without even counting the interesting historic houses and commercial buildings dotting the city, the city palace, the Jantar Mandar and the Hawa Mahal were fascinating to explore. I thoroughly enjoyed the Jantar Mandar, an astrological observatory with a sundial accurate to two seconds, and all sorts of fantastic angles to photograph.

From there we headed on to mainly two forts: Jaisalmer Fort and Jodhpur Fort. Both were fascinating in different ways. Jaisalmer Fort is still lived in and in many ways reminded us of Zanzibar, will tiny alleys leading to fascinating slices of life within the fort. It was great to wander around and get lost. We met a few locals that were given to conversation and found ourselves on a beautiful rooftop for sunset. The lit up for after the sun went down was particularly beautiful.

Jodhpur Fort was physically, a more imposing and more impressive fort. The architectural majesty and beauty of the fort was unrivaled in the India we saw.

For all of our current lamentations about India, Rajasthan was an area we thoroughly enjoyed. It is rightfully the most well traveled part of India, it has the culture and history and tradition people come to India looking for.