In the Holy Land – Israel & Palestine, Dec. ’17/Jan. ’18

Howdy folks! (TL;DR: I&P pics here!)

Emily and I spent one and a half months in “the Holy Land,” primarily in Israel, with about one one week spent in the West Bank.

This was my fourth time in this part of the world, and Emily’s first. I was eager to get back to my “first” foreign country, Emily was excited to see what the hell I had been talking about since 2012, and we were both stoked to get a break the heat and humid of East/SE Asia.

And what a break we got! The weather in Israel and Palestine made us feel like we were already back home in a California winter – sometimes wet, often windy, but sunshine more often than not. The similarities didn’t end there, but they were cheek-and-jowl with fantastic differences in food, language, culture, and history.

Emily’s write-up about our time in Israel is a fantastic read for the more emotional side of our trip there. But for some lovely pictures of Tel Aviv street life, the Old City of Jerusalem, the difficult realities of Hebron, and the gorgeous north…click on the link above.

We’re back home in California already, believe it or not, but pictures aren’t done yet! Be on the lookout for pics from Paris very soon.

With love,

E&E

 

Eat Pray Love Laugh Netflix Fatigue Travel

While Skyping with my sister yesterday, she jokingly asked me, “So are you all ‘enlightened’ now that you’ve traveled around the world?” My initial response was an eye roll and immediate assurance that I have not changed all that much; the only changes that I could think of at the time are that I’m more open to eating other types of foods (which is actually a milestone for this incredibly picky eater) and I’m more used to living each day with fewer material objects. But her question stuck in my head after the conversation ended, for a few reasons.

The backpacker life comes with quite a few cliches, both the ones that are projected upon us and the ones we create for ourselves. In the former category, there are the assumptions that we’re all trust fund kids with superiority complexes who don’t actually care about the places we’re visiting as long as they provide good backdrops for Instagram photos. In the latter category, there is a culture of self-righteousness about our amazing journeys that allow us to discover our life’s true purpose through learning from “other” (non-white or non-Western) peoples. While I have met two or three individuals who match up to these stereotypes, they are few and far between. Yes, a few of us have read Eat Pray Love (guilty) or wear loose elephant-print pants (you know who you are) or wax poetic about “life on the road,” but the majority of people I’ve met have been… normal, for lack of a better term.

Some travelers have saved money for their trip, others work on the road to keep themselves afloat. Some wear makeup daily, others have quit looking in mirrors altogether. Some haven’t talked with a friend back home in weeks, others Skype their families every day. Backpackers of all kinds spend a lot of time watching their favorite shows online, complaining about the foods they miss, chattering about their pets, comparing prices of items at convenience stores, asking for tips about their destinations ahead; there’s no singular type of traveler I’ve come across, really. Occasionally I’ve talked to others about the “reason” why they travel, but somehow it’s assumed as a given among the group – if you have the means and time, why not?

Ethan and I went into this trip with similar feelings – we both want to see more of the world, this is a good point in our lives to do it, our financial situations are stable enough for awhile. Very quickly into this trip, Ethan brought up the quote: “Wherever you go, there you are.” We’re the same individuals who left Berkeley 5-6 months ago, just with a higher tolerance for mosquito bites and snoring roommates. I don’t think either of us expected an epiphany while climbing a mountain or a realization of some subconscious goal while eating a dumpling.

Still, there’s always a nagging feeling that we’re not doing/seeing/learning/experiencing enough, that somehow we’re traveling incorrectly. If my previous statement is true, that we’re traveling not for enlightenment but because we can, wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to stay at home and study these places? I could glean more about Chinese history in a week at a desk than I could schlepping a backpack through Sichuan for two months. An immersion program at a Japanese school in San Francisco would teach me more language skills than what I picked up at a hostel in Tokyo. Removing the physical activity, social stress, and money-spending inherent in travel would certainly make learning about these cultures much easier and arguably more amusing.

When I look back on this trip – about 100 days until its end, just a bit past the midway point – I don’t think about all of the history I’ve learned or the museums I’ve seen or the souvenirs I bought. I think of it in terms of moments: watching my mother successfully coax a frightened Malaysian teenager across Taiwan’s largest suspension bridge; singing Eagles karaoke at a Family Guy-themed bar until 4:00 am in Osaka; sitting in an alleyway in Kyoto with my boyfriend at midnight, frustrated after a stressful day of switching trains and climbing stairs. I think of all of the people who I became close with because we were in the same city at the same time and spoke the same language, people who I’d love to see every week for the rest of my life, but can’t because the world is too big.

I guess I don’t travel to become more enlightened; I travel to fit more “life” into my life. And really, one doesn’t need to be in a foreign country to try new foods or meet new friends or have more fun – it’s just that travel reminds you how to do those things when your life at home feels ordinary. The most challenging part of this trip, for me, will be learning to make new adventures without a backpack on, to extend the exhilaration of novelty into a place I already know. So, little sister, get ready to get enlightened right along with me when I come home next year. We’re gonna have some fun.

Ten-thousand Li From Home – Life in Sichuan

Hello e-travel companions,

TL;DR – Omg cute panda pics, cloudy landscapes, and Ethan getting his ears cleaned by a random dude. Pictures here!

Emily and I recently wrapped up three weeks – half our China trip! – in Sichuan province.

Sichuan is China’s “land of milk and honey,” or as it’s better (actually) known in Chinese, the “Land of Abundance.” It’s name Sìchuān (四川) means four rivers, referring to the waterways that have been tamed and diverted for thousands of years to irrigate the broad Sichuan basin. Free from flooding and strong influence from other parts of China, this region has given birth to separate kingdoms, unique languages, and – of course- really spicy food.

Our home base and first stop was the provincial capital of Chengdu. “Oh, Chengdu!” Chinese people will exclaim. “Did you go for the pandas?” No, we didn’t just go for the pandas…but hell yes we saw them and they were hilarious/adorable. But my favorite part of Chengdu was by-far its more laid-back culture, focused – it seems – on tea drinking, river strolling, and overall having a good time (read: eating). The city is large, but not overwhelming, and its public transit system has far surpassed the efficiency and ease of BART in less than a decade. Pair all of this with a wealth of museums, bars, and restaurants…yeah, Chengdu is already up there as one of my favorite cities ever.

However, half our time spent in Sichuan was outside the city – on a farm an hour to the southwest, as well as a brief stay on a sacred mountain to the northwest. Farm life – for me – was stupendous. Not because it was comfortable, but because it was rewarding. I forged lovely friendships with an Israeli couple, a Puerto Rican-American girl, a wild dude from Maine, and several of our fellow Chinese hosts/workers. I help rig an overhead irrigation system, ferried people about on an electric tractor, learned the finer points of wood sculpting (with a power sander, that is)…all around, it was an excellent Workaway.

Our adventure out of these lovely three weeks was…not so stupendous. However, that I will save for another post, because it’s a funny story that some of you may have followed-along with live on Facebook.

I write to you now from a hostel in TAIPEI, AKA Quite Possibly the Raddest City in Asia. But until we get to here, we’ve gotta get through Hong Kong (round 2!) and Macau pics. So! Until next time.

Love,

E&E

“The Eastern Expanse” – August 1-14, Guangzhou

Howdy folks! Ethan here (on Emily’s laptop, because she stole mine to play videogames).

TL;DR – Here’s a link to our photo album!

On August 1, we put those Chinese visas we got to good use and crossed the border north of Hong Kong. If HK was scary, Shenzhen was terrifying; never had we felt more out of place on this trip, wandering from the subway to our hostel. Suffice it to say, staring is not considered rude around these parts, and Emily’s hair is a roving tourist attraction. As I kept stupidly saying, “We aren’t in Kansas anymore.”

However, arriving in Guangzhou (just a quick high speed train ride away) released some pressure. Guangzhou (and the broader Pearl River Delta region) is a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, and smells, befitting of its sometimes-nickname of “The World’s Factory.” The people are direct, friendly, and have places to go, and their obvious hustle is a living testament to China’s incredible economic growth.

But, as soon as we arrived, we departed – off to a eco-village/meditation center (I know, right?) outside the city. It wasn’t the best experience (hippies aren’t the most organized folks), but it meant a week to get used to China in the surreal surroundings of the subtropical forests that ring a not-too-far-away megalopolis. There, Emily and I were put to work clearing trails that led away from the village and into the forest, armed with machetes. When we weren’t exhausted from doing that in 35 degree C (~90 degree F) heat, we became good friends with a Danish dude (not annoying) and a 17 year-old Chinese kid who didn’t speak a bit of English (sort of annoying; he’s a sweetheart though).

…and then off again! With the Dane in tow, we spent a week back in the city proper sightseeing, sweating, and eating lots of dim sum. Already, I’m eager to repeat what I said above – Guangzhou is a mesmerizing hive of activity. And yet, it’s a strangely cozy place, with plenty to eat, convenient public transit, and tons of things to do. For instance, I was amazed by not only the number of museums, but just how busy they are. Folks in Guangzhou might not be the most quiet or polite in museums…but they seem to really love learning about history, culture, science, and more. That I can really appreciate.

I write this to you now from a small village outside a slightly larger town outside a city 2 hours north of Guangzhou (by high speed train) – it’s called Yangshuo and it’s surrounded by unbelievable mountains. We’re working at an English language school for a week – our job is to talk with the students for 2 hours in the evening.

Will our heroes go have an insightful cultural experience? Will Ethan talk too fast for non-native English speakers to possibly understand? Will Emily go crazy from having to chat with – ugh – people? Tune in in two weeks.

Love,

E&E

 

 

On Language

By Emily

I’ve been trying to come up with a coherent post about my experiences with language on this trip, but I consistently come up short. There are so many different aspects to this topic that it’s hard to find a thread to string them together – hence my title, “On Language.” Still, I’m going to attempt writing this, in no small part because I’m interested to see what my friends and family have to offer from their own perspectives – please comment!

I’ll begin at the beginning, I guess.

I studied Spanish for a semester in sixth grade, then a semester about a year ago after college. I studied French for three years in high school and three and a half years in college. I took a semester of German on top of that, and have been using the occasional language-learning apps to practice my skills and attempt new languages sporadically. But still, I consider myself an English-only speaker, with a minor French proficiency.

And boy, am I lucky.

In every hostel I’ve stayed in – six so far in Japan – the default language used has been English. Germans, Portuguese, Thai, Turkish, Mexican travelers all introduce themselves to one another with “Hello, my name is…” Many of these individuals are in their twenties and thirties, and all use English with a comfort and skill-level I’ve never reached in my own language pursuits. Quite frankly, because of this phenomenon, I’ll never really “have to” learn another language. The world around me has evolved towards catering to my culture, which causes me both extreme relief and acute discomfort.

On the one hand, it’s normally easier for all participants in a conversation to immediately switch to English than to watch an English speaker struggle through foreign verb conjugation. Because our (speaking for Americans here) education system doesn’t prioritize language-learning, many of us weren’t even given the option to expand our speech until high school or college, quite a few years after the “ideal” developmental period of pre-K. Other nations begin language-learning much earlier, and for a variety of socio-political-economic reasons, English has been a very common second language to teach.

I’m certainly benefiting from these phenomena – less formal schooling AND other people cater to me?? Hell yeah!! – but I’m aware of the problems implicit within them. For instance, should the world suddenly stop catering to Americans, I’d be screwed. And from a more progressive standpoint, I’m part of a system that’s hindering my own mental growth. Dozens of studies show the benefits of learning multiple languages – they broaden your mind measurably, allowing you to look at problems and situations from a myriad of perspectives in ways that single-language speakers can’t grasp. Looking at the current political situation in the US, I think it’s fairly clear that many of us have certain stunted narrow-minded attitudes that are manifesting themselves in racism, violence, and willful ignorance (not to say that a lack of language-learning is the only influence at play here, but it absolutely doesn’t help).

So here I am, a witless American touring a country whose official language I can’t begin to comprehend. Sure, I have the basics covered – “Please,” “Sorry,” “Thank you,” “Where is the plum wine?” – but putting together a sentence is like pulling my own teeth. Invariably I’ve been rescued by a kindly shopkeeper with some English, or by Ethan (who adores learning languages) eager to practice his Japanese. Most Japanese citizens respond to him with a combination of surprise and delight, totally floored that this pasty-white blue-eyed foreigner is asking them questions in (mostly) grammatically-correct Japanese. Quite often, they compliment him on his language skills if he says anything beyond “Konnichiwa” or “Arigatou gozaimasu.” As his girlfriend, I love watching him astound other people. But as his travel partner, I wonder if I’m depending too much on him in situations that could advance my own language-learning, for fear of the anxiety and embarrassment that comes with language practice.

It’s not as if all of Japan speaks perfect English – one of our favorite travel pastimes has been pointing out billboards, shirts, and storefronts with odd English-inspired phrases on them. Things like “I Hate’ Mondays,” “Wel Come,” or “It is strong in time, and it is gently to time tough at time” (which I still haven’t figured out) have us nudging each other and giggling. But when I flip the situation, in which I were a store owner trying to cater to Japanese clients, I certainly would do much worse in trying to diagram a phrase in Japanese. This fear of speaking less-than-perfectly is part of the reason I gave up on learning Japanese after memorizing hiragana (the phonetic Japanese alphabet) and beginning katakana.

But then again, this journey isn’t about doing anything perfectly. It’s about getting outside of my comfort zone long enough to learn something, to see something new, to talk to a person (or ten) I’ve never met before. Perhaps this whole essay “On Language” is really about the difficulty in leaving comfortable situations behind, and embracing the unknown.

Or maybe, I’m just procrastinating studying Mandarin before we arrive in China.