One Year Changes Everything

One year ago- August 29, 2011- we boarded a flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo and began our long-anticipated world tour. We couldn’t have dreamt how it would turn out.

Originally, we thought we’d spend August 29, 2012 somewhere in Croatia. Instead, we’re in an apartment about a mile from our old house.

Traveling through Asia with only a carry-on to your name is hard work. It’s even harder when you’re discovering that you and your wife have very different travel styles.

While our ambitious itinerary looked good to both of us on paper, it soon became clear that we had different ideas of how to travel through Malaysia… Cambodia… Thailand. Karen prefers to linger in a city and soak up its ambience with a stroll around the local market. I get a thrill from being on the move, hitting key museums and seeking out off-the-beaten-path gems. Karen’s hotel standards are a bit higher than mine (i.e. she has standards). These differences, which have existed on all of our trips over the years, are easy to manage on a three-week vacation in Spain. A non-stop, months-long expedition, however, pushes them into stark relief.

So we adapted. Despite glowing reviews from fellow travelers, we eliminated Laos and Vietnam from our itinerary. And we decided to break the trip into two parts by coming back to Milwaukee for the summer.

Now, we’re facing a conundrum. We’ve lost our we’re-already-in-Asia-let’s-just-hop-over-to-Europe momentum. We wondered (as did many of our friends) whether we would even manage to leave again after taking a break in the shiny, comfy USA. Where should we go next? That’s what we’ve been asking ourselves, in between cream puffs and margaritas.

We’ve decided to adapt once again and depart in late September for… the United States of America. Namely the national parks of the Southwest. It’s a trip we mapped out years ago and had to cancel twice, most recently when our dog Molly got sick. (We took her to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan instead. Not quite the same scenery.)

Although we’ve both traveled in the Southwest, we managed to go different places. The idea now is to explore parks Karen has visited and I haven’t, and vice versa, resulting in the ultimate western itinerary: Arches, Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, the Grand Canyon and others, plus a stop in Albuquerque for the balloon festival.


After that, well, we’ll see. As the mercury begins to fall, it’s tempting to head south to Central or South America. But somehow, being home hasn’t allowed us as much planning time as I thought it would. (How is it that I’m unemployed and have no car, and yet I’m so busy?!) We’ve also started dreaming about what we might want to do next- where we’ll live and what jobs we’ll have. More head-scratching to come.

For now, we’re dusting off our cowboy hats and six-shooters (and GPS units and iPods) and going west. Unless we change everything. Again.


The Next Stop: World Fan Club

They lurk on the fringes of the cyber world. Disembodied names, turning up again and again in the comments on our blog. They are… our groupies.

You see, our blog doesn’t just connect us with family and friends. Once news of our excursion appeared in Milwaukee’s newspaper, and later in regional Wisconsin papers, we started picking up followers we don’t know personally. Who is this mysterious Terri, expressing her enjoyment of my toilet videos? And what of the prolific Margaret, wondering how our stomachs are holding up?

Over time, it became clear that these two ladies are from the Milwaukee area. After a casual mention of La Fuente in one of our posts, Margaret offered to buy us a pitcher of margaritas when we got home, and it all came together: we would meet our two biggest virtual fans over a Mexican dinner.

Karen and I arrived at La Fuente a bit early. As we sat down to wait, we were surprised by a woman holding a printout of our blog graphics. Terri is a true fan indeed. Margaret and her husband Dick arrived moments later and made good on that promised pitcher of margaritas. ¡Que delicioso!

Happily, there were no Misery moments, just a free-wheeling conversation with some very interesting people. We’re even hoping to get together again before we continue our travels. After making so many friends around the world in the last year, why not a few from our hometown?

Terri's pic of our group

Who knows, they might even turn up in the comments on this very post…


The Sweet Smell of Excess

If the US is too bright for Karen, it’s just too much for me.

Sure, we all know that the US is a land of excess. One person commuting to work in a Humvee. Four-thousand-dollar dog weddings. Would you like to super size that bacon double cheeseburger?

What could be better than 1808 calories and 101 grams of fat?

It’s easy to shake your head at those broad strokes. But returning to the USA made me notice the less-obvious excesses all around us. Death by a thousand cuts.

The day after we got back, I found myself at burger chain Red Robin for a family dinner. I engaged in some intentional and long-awaited excess, ordering a juicy teriyaki burger with fries, while my nephew Nelson chose pizza.

Then it began. The waitress plopped down a huge pile of extra napkins, “just in case.” Without thinking, I reached for one. Then I reflected that across Asia, the typical restaurant napkin is about the size of two squares of toilet paper… and you save that napkin to use as toilet paper, since there won’t be any provided near the toilet. This is not convenient, but it is certainly self-regulating: you never use more paper than you need, and air-drying your hands is preferable to using up precious paper.

The most napkins we ever saw in one place (Nepal)

Quick, what’s the USA’s number one export? Nope, not corn or software or fighter jets. It’s garbage, mainly paper and scrap metal (much of which is shipped to China, recycled, and sold back to us). Add in all the other stuff, and we Americans lead the world in trash, with each of us generating 7.1 pounds of it per day, according to the new book Garbology. We’re #1! We’re #1!

How many times have you unwrapped a purchase and wound up with as much packaging as there is product? (Try buying an SD card some time.) Have you noticed that manufacturers are reducing the amount of breakfast cereal in the box… but not reducing the size of the box?

69% of our trash is deposited into landfills, which have to be monitored to keep the methane from exploding and the toxins from contaminating the groundwater. Despite our recycling efforts, we landfill most of our plastics– and they never rot. France puts just 32% of its garbage into landfills. Germany landfills less than 1%ach du lieber!

Back at Red Robin, our waitress offered us free refills on fries, but we declined. She brought my brother Paul the drink refill he requested… then one he didn’t request… and would have brought yet another if Paul hadn’t talked her out of it.

As Karen said, Americans looked huge to us when we got back, and indeed, one-third of our fellow citizens is obese. As we’ve settled in, we’ve heard the siren call of the drive thru and free refills. It’s difficult to remember that the smaller portions of a Cambodian meal were enough for us, water was our only beverage on many days, and if we found a Maxibon ice cream bar once in a while it was a mind-blowing treat.

Speaking of ice cream, is it cold in here? Yes, it is. Everywhere we go, the air-conditioning is cranked. This phenomenon isn’t limited to the US: when I saw The Muppets in Singapore, I almost froze my googly eyes.

Oddly, one of the biggest offenders we’ve encountered is our local library. We’re often there browsing magazines and mooching wi-fi, all the while nearly freezing our Dewey Decimals.

I’m not advocating switching off the A/C on 96-degree days. I’m just wondering why it’s 68 in Walgreens when the EPA suggests 78. Can the most pampered people in the world endure a temperature of, say, 72? When it’s 72 outside, we call it a beautiful day.

China opens a couple of these each week

We’re not #1 in energy use per person: there are several Middle Eastern countries way above us (something tells me they’re cranking the A/C too). China just surpassed us in total energy use. They look like the bad guy in total numbers (they consumed 4% more energy than us last year), while we look like the bad guy per person (each of us consumes four times as much as each of them). Match us up with a developed country with a robust economy- Germany again- and we’re using 1.7 times as much as them… nicht schon wieder!

We couldn’t wait to experience the excesses of home, and that teriyaki burger sure hit the spot. Now the challenge is to achieve some balance. The 24-hour convenience store across the street can be a lovely thing. But do I really need that overpriced, over-processed ice cream bar? Sure looks tasty… but not every day is a Maxibon day.


A Place of Our Own

Imagine spending nine months of your life constantly looking for somewhere to sleep. Yeah, not so easy. Thankfully, this didn’t continue when we came home to Milwaukee to rest. We had many friends offer to let us rest our heads at their places. One person thought we were nuts to stay with friends instead of getting a hotel room. We thought of it as another adventure.

We first landed in the suburbs with our parents. While it was excellent to bond with them again, it was also a reminder of why we leave our parents’ homes as young adults. Sorry, Pop. Besides, the isolation of the country was beginning to wear on our cosmopolitan sensibilities. After ten days, it was time to move.

We then enjoyed a stop in Wauwatosa, staying in a bustling family household that includes three children. Immensely enjoying the walkability of the village area and the proximity to just about everything one needs, Ken proclaimed that he was falling in love with Tosa. We enjoyed the comings and goings of kids with tennis, music, dance, science, fashion, and lots and lots of LEGOs on the daily agenda.

Just when the kids were wearing us out, we were whisked into an empty-nester household in Tosa, where we could savor the solitude and enjoy evenings filled with good cheer and delicious margaritas. We quickly learned that this living with friends business could be hazardous to our livers.

Our next major move brought us into the Riverwest neighborhood. Living near the Milwaukee River and across the street from Alterra, we filled our spirits with nature, and I filled my belly with coffee. We enjoyed Riverwest’s tiki bar, splash pad, wooded hiking trails, and 24-hour bike race. However, our favorite thing about Riverwest was at our hosts’ home: Daisy the dog! We enjoyed cuddling with our furry friend and caring for her when her people were on vacation.

While we delighted in hanging with our good friends, sharing their time and space, we realized it was time to be in our own space. Imagine our joy when we were offered a rent-free apartment for two months. Buying a second home and converting the first floor into his new office space, our friend said we could stay in the upstairs apartment. Sure, we have to put up with the noise of construction work, yet it feels freeing to have our own space. And we are back in our old ‘hood, about a mile and half away from our old house. Surrounded by familiarity, we settled in quickly.

The comforts of home

It’s a tremendous feeling knowing that so many people want to help us out. Yet it’s not a huge surprise. We opened our home to people in the past and look forward to the day when we can do it again. Call it spinning the big Karma wheel. What goes around comes around.

So many thanks to our parents, Phillip, Larissa, Nadia, Gavin, Skylar, Pam, Mark, Diane, Jeff, Di, Gary, Colleen, and Rich for opening your homes and your hearts to us. We are grateful for all you have done and wish you continued blessings in your future. And should you need a place to stay…


Carless in Milwaukee

We weren’t expecting to be back in Milwaukee this summer, so we sort of, well, sold almost everything we owned: our house, both our cars, our TV, our couch. We have a roof over our heads thanks to the generosity of friends. But how are we going to get around? Milwaukee jams a ton of fun into these three summer months, since the specter of a massive snowstorm forever hovers over the other nine. Summer fests aside, there are errands to run, groceries to buy, library books to check out.

The traditional US response popped into our heads first: buy a car. Hmm. We’ve spent the last nine months getting around without one… could we do it in the famously automobile-centric US? We decided to try.

Our bicycles (we kept those, or more accurately, gave them to my parents) were instantly useful. Our home base in Wauwatosa was deliciously bikeable, and I do mean deliciously, since I tended to wind up at Cranky Al’s bakery/cafe a couple times a week.

Bikes can only take you so far (and your butt starts to hurt on the way there) so we also bought a scooter- also known as a 49cc moped- essentially an underpowered motorcycle that you’re allowed to park on the sidewalk for free.

Nephew Nelson found the new scooter almost as interesting as eating crackers

It’s a peppy red Honda Metropolitan with a white trunk and a Dairyland pedigree: it was used in the 2011 Rose Parade, when the Wisconsin Badgers were in the Rose Bowl (hence the color scheme). Getting an amazing 110 miles per gallon, it’s the perfect ride for zipping around town, with one downside: it’s only for one person. Not only would adding a rider exceed the vehicle’s weight limit, carrying a passenger on a moped is illegal in Wisconsin. That’s the trade-off you make for all that free sidewalk parking. Did I mention it’s free?

How would Karen and I go places when we both wanted to go places? Take the bus, of course. Milwaukee has a pretty great bus system. Studying the system map, I was dazzled to see how easily we could get around. The #31 whisks us directly downtown from our Tosa home. The #10 carries us all the way to Brookfield, and comes in handy again once we’ve moved to Riverwest. Hooray!

Yet… I must be honest with you: we’ve hardly taken the bus. Because our friends are too nice. We have been overwhelmed with offers of help. Instead of busing to Brookfield, Chris drove us and my mom drove us back. We have borrowed cars left and right: from Marcy, Amy, Laura, David, Phillip, Pam, Eric, Di, Karen’s dad, and my mom. Avis can’t begin to compete with this outpouring of transportational generosity. We’ve gone carless, without actually going carless. We’ve given into US car-centricity without investing in a car and insurance and maintenance (though we’ve paid our share of fuel costs).

Upon our return, I was happy to discover that Milwaukee now has Zipcar offering short-term car rentals, albeit at limited locations near Marquette and UW-Milwaukee. It’s a start.

Yes, we do sometimes take the bus. Waiting for the #51 the other day reminded us that just as we were wildly wealthy compared to, say, passengers hopping a bus in Pokhara, we are also rich people here. Plenty of Milwaukeeans don’t own a car and don’t have friends offering a loaner. When the #51 rolled up 20 minutes late due to a breakdown, other passengers were nervously calling their bosses, apologizing for being late for work. We were late for the State Fair.

Despite the inevitable budget cuts, the Milwaukee County Transit System does a lot of things right. They’ve updated their fleet with 136 clean diesel buses, and they offer access to disabled riders, not to mention bike racks on every bus. They serve college students and commuters with discounted passes and have an Emergency Ride Program to keep riders from getting stranded in case of a breakdown. MCTS provides over 40 million rides a year; a lot of people get around this city without car insurance, maintenance, and those pesky fuel costs. I’m glad my tax dollars supported MCTS all those years (sorry, not this year- we’re not paying any property taxes).

Hopefully our excursions have been as efficient as possible: biking short distances, scootering or busing on medium-length trips, and utilizing cars that would otherwise be sitting in driveways for the long hauls.


The US is So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades

Blame it on the 12-hour, overnight flight from Beijing. Perhaps the six days spent in the hazy capital prior to leaving. Or the plane, darkened to encourage sleep, filled with black-haired Chinese flyers. After being away from the US for nine months and eight days, we landed at daybreak in Seattle, emerging into a shiny, new world. I was bewildered. Someone, please pass me some sunglasses.

Ray-Bans purchased in China for $3. Yes, they're the real thing (wink wink).

I was suffering reverse culture shock. Remember, I had spent the last six months in some of the more challenging countries of our world. It was becoming somewhat normal to experience the crowds, the garbage, the chaos. My first shock was the return of customer service. While window shopping at a deli in the airport food court, a clerk over-eagerly asked, “Hello, how are you? What can I get for you?” I mumbled something about not needing help and shuffled away. It felt odd, fake, and I wanted to say, “Don’t talk to me until I’m ready and then let me struggle to figure out a way to get what I want, because we’re not supposed to be speaking the same language and you’re supposed to be uncaring and I just want some sushi rolls and give me my change!” Oh shit, I have been on the lonely, non-English speaking road for too long.

The second shock was the infrastructure. The Seattle airport was new and shiny. So was the plane. On our second flight we were flying into the morning sun and the plane was full of people with blonde hair. Everything burned my eyes. I wanted to turn the brightness down, yet this was not my iPad. Landing in Milwaukee, Ken’s mom picked us up from the airport and drove us to New Berlin. Not a fan of freeway traffic, she drove Layton Avenue.

Is this heaven?

Normally this stretch of road, with old homes and worn-out strip malls, wouldn’t get much notice from me. On this day, I couldn’t stop staring. The roads were so wide, so organized, so clean. Grass was cut, flowers were in bloom, trees were full, landscapes were clear of garbage. Cars moved almost politely, stopping at intersections, staying in their lanes, following traffic laws, not honking their horns. Oh, and there were hardly any cars on the road. This was Milwaukee’s rush hour and traffic was sparse… seriously. You suburbanites who want to feel better about your commutes, spend a week in Mumbai.

Mumbai memories: this is a three-lane road

I made a point of driving through Milwaukee’s poor “hood” a few days later. Yep, wide, clean, quiet. It too made me stare in wide-eyed wonder. Wow, I thought, life is good, even at 23rd and Keefe.

My final shock was the people. The large, obese people. What happened, America? I am no svelte gal, and I try not to pass too much judgement about weight, yet when four women boarding the small plane from Minneapolis to Milwaukee were all candidates for gastric bypass, I thought, enough is enough. People, we are too big! Sure, obese people existed in every country we visited, yet we would see one or two a week. In the US, I see at least one an hour! While I wish no one the bodies of the stunted and underweight people we saw in India, Nepal, and Cambodia, I do think we could learn something from their simpler eating habits and shed a few pounds ourselves. Stop the junk, cook our food, and move around.

Living in Milwaukee for a couple months has definitely lessened the shock of being in the Western world. I find myself being more chatty with the clerks at Outpost. Noticed that 23rd and Keefe has some garbage tossed about on the street. Put on a few pounds myself, eating too many tortilla chips and drinking margaritas (finally!)

Our travels have certainly made an impact on how we look at the world, especially our own home. While we are eternally grateful to have been born in a country of plenty and blessed with rich lives, it feels important to live with an open mind and do things more simply. Stay tuned for more about that.


Next Stop: Home

We’re still working on the words and images from our travels in China, so the blog is time-warping back to the USA for a while.

Homeward bound in Seattle

On June 5, 2012, we hopped from Beijing to Seattle to Minneapolis to Milwaukee (aka home). Actually, hopping would have been nice- it sometimes seemed that we were crawling. But we made it.

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Twenty-six hours after the hotel room door closed behind us in Beijing, we ended our journey with a homecoming feast in New Berlin. Thanks to my brother Paul for snapping this pic of the festivities.

Catching up with family will occupy the next week: Karen is staying with her dad and his wife Dolores, while I’m staying with my mom (Dad is out of town for work). Thanks to our parents for putting up with us for a while!


Reflections on Nepal

“Madam, are you happy today?” asked the tour guide who had been stalking me for the last ten minutes. Standing in Durbar Square in the tourist city Bhaktapur, this is no strange occurrence. Yet a “no” or an “I’m not interested” response does not shake these salesmen (boys, really). The Nepali continues his fight to make the sale, saying, “Talk is free madam.” I think to myself, your talk is not free because you are taxing my brain, so no, I am not happy.

In a nation where one-fourth of the workforce is working outside of the country to create decent lives for their families, people earn a rupee any way they can. Agriculture, tourism, and service industries are the main sources of income in the country. A wealthy family lives well on US$6000 per year. An impoverished, farm family struggles on US$800 per year.

Despite the economic challenges, Nepal is easy to like, especially the northern area which contains the Himalaya range. However, this beautiful place caused us a few headaches as well. Roughs roads, electricity shortages, frequent political strikes, and constant noise, just to name a few. We took the bad in stride and really enjoyed the good when it came along.

Nepal surprised us by being more like India than the tour photos lead you to believe. All those ruddy, chubby-cheeked faces are Tibeatan Nepalis, about one-third of the population. The rest of the people are native Nepalis of various clans and a mix of Indian and Nepali ancestors. Many women wear saris, almost 60% of Nepalis are Hindu, and cows still wander the streets… thankfully in far fewer numbers than India.

Where Nepal is truly its own nation is in the food. Well, one dish actually, daal baht. As I mentioned in our Everest food video, daal Baht is eaten twice a day, every day, by over 80% of the population. Even when given other mealtime choices, Nepalis prefer their national dish. The plate is half-filled with white rice, a quarter with curried vegetables and a quarter with stewed meat, if you are very lucky. Otherwise, more veggies, usually potatoes. On the side is served a very watery, spiced lentil soup.

Eating Nepali style, you pour your barely-enough-lentils soup over the rice and dig in. With your right hand. Mashing everything together, Nepalis scoop the food into their mouths, not stopping until the entire plate is gone. Day after day, lunch and dinner, lunch and dinner. It’s a tasty enough plate of food, yet sadly nutritionally deficient.

Power outages are a daily companion in this country. Most of the power comes from hydroelectric dams, yet it’s not enough, so load shedding happens on a daily schedule. Or not. While the city government tries to follow a timeline, citizens were reluctant to tell us when power would return, as they never really knew when it would. We spent many evenings by candlelight, flashlight, and computer glow, until the batteries ran out.

And when that wasn’t enough to crimp our day, political strikes or banda would pop up to keep us alert. Our visit coincided with a great deal of strife in the political system. Lack of a system, really: Nepal has been without a constitution for over three years. In 2009, the monarchy stepped down to allow the country to be governed democratically. The new constitution was supposed to be completed a few days after our departure, but the politicians couldn’t agree and missed the deadline… again. Citizens and various political groups often take to the streets, causing transportation, schools, and businesses to come to a stop. These strikes affected three days of our trip to Nepal, and many more occurred after we left.

Most of the locals we met were friendly and willing to answer questions, if they had the English skills. Kids in particular loved chatting with us and were especially helpful when we were lost. The only major downside is that Nepalis, like other southeastern Asians, don’t like to use the word no or give you a negative answer. Some interactions proved challenging, and I still have not mastered asking my questions to get a detailed answer. If you mention a potential answer, they will always agree with it. “Is it to the left?” “Yes, to the left!” Sigh.

Thankfully, we tempered some of the Nepali nuttiness with our time in The Bubble. Thanks again to our hosts, the marvelous Meeks family. Through their eyes we learned that living in Nepal for three years can be filled with joy, provided you have a nice home with running water and a generator to return to each day!

From hiking to see wild rhinos, squeezing in with the New Year’s Eve crowds, whitewater rafting between beautiful cliffs, gazing upon Mt. Everest, and contemplating our spirituality with Buddha Eyes everywhere, we truly enjoyed our five weeks in Nepal. So yes, dear tour guide hawker, I am happy today.