After almost of year of travel, both driving through Mexico and backpacking through Asia, we've decided to share some of our favorite items that we carry with us every day. Packing for long term travel is daunting, and we've made both good and bad decisions. Here are our top ten, okay, eleven things we love having with us, in no particular order:
Eagle Creek Travel Equipment. In 1999 we purchased a couple convertible travel packs, meaning you can wear them on your back or use the wheels and roll them behind you. For us, its critical to be able to either carry the pack, like when you are walking on the beach looking for a place to stay, or roll them, like when you are in airports and on paved roads. Because they open up like regular luggage, they are so much easier to live out of than a regular backpack. Eagle Creek also gets high praise for its durability and warranty which we have used in the past. We are also huge fans of their Pak-It cubes that keep our stuff contained. Thanks to Chris' mom and dad for handing these back down to us. Check 'em out at www.eaglecreek.com.
Watermans Sunscreen. We have basically been living outside for a year, and good sunscreen is key for us. While not cheap, Watermans Sun Cream and Face Stick SPF 55 proved it was worth the price. The sunblock ingredient is zinc oxide (so old skool) so it actually works, unlike most chemical blocks. It also stays on for hours while in the water and we needed surprisingly little of it because it lasted so long. Highly recommend it. Thank you Mike and Tracy Day for recommending Watermans and helping us get a bunch of it!
Sea to Summit Silk/Cotton Sleeping Sheets. One of the best investments we made. Super comfy, light, quick to dry after washing and/or hot nights when the power goes out and there is no fan, which is so very common, especially in Sri Lanka. They also pack up into tiny little stuff sacks. Thanks to Matt Lewis for helping us out there!
Patagonia A/C Yarn Dyed Shirts. Yeah they're expensive, but light, comfy and durable. What button-up shirt could you wear every day for 18 days while rafting down the Grand Canyon and then wear it for three years in an office cubicle, tucked in with a belt, then succumb it to Mexico dirt, then improve the design by removing the sleeves for the SE Asia leg of the tour? Chris' “Canyon Shirt” is like a baby blankie, full of holes, thin as rice paper, but completely lovable. What a man.
Barnes and Noble Nook E-Reader. What a great time in which we live. Guidebooks, novels, and non-fiction classics all on one device, readable in full daylight and the battery lasts forever. Thanks to Katy's mom for the Nook. Thanks to an anonymous good friend who somehow supplied us with over a hundred free e-books. Side note: To date, Katy has read 37 books (not including travel guide books) in the last year!!!!!!
iPad with 3G. In Mexico we had our MacBook but in Asia, we have a first generation iPad with us for entertainment, research, navigation, blogging, photo storage and editing, and storage of important numbers in case of emergencies. This also comes in handy when you are waiting for hours in a scuzzy bus station and want to entertain the locals with pictures of novelty things like snow or mountain biking. Unlike in the US, connecting to the Internet is SO cheap and easy. In every country we've visited, a local cellular SIM card could be purchased for between $1.50 and $5.00 USD. We could then add Internet usage for $5 to $10 USD, and recharge it as needed. This is one of those things that is so much easier in other countries than in the US. The iPad is both a lifesaver and the source of some majorly epic battles in sharing.
Thermarest Compressible Travel Pillows. These pillows have been with us since 2003, when we bike toured the Great Divide, and they still work great! Yes, they are kind of bulky and take up space, but these are lifesavers. Do not set off on eight hour bus ride without one, or you'll be drooling on your Indonesian neighbor instead of your comfy pillow. Also, while Asian guesthouses and homestays seem to usually have good mattresses, they are lacking in good pillows. They're well worth both the price and the weight.
Gold Bond Medicated Powder. Let's face it. It's the tropics. We are in the water a lot. It is hot. It is sticky. Rashguards don't always work. Things chafe. 'Nuff said.
Yoga Mat. Yes, it's sounds bulky, heavy and frivolous and it is. But when we are surfing a lot, it is so nice to have for yoga and stretching. When we are not surfing, it's so nice to have for stretching and yoga for staying in surfing shape. We cut the mat down a bit to fit better in our luggage. It also works great as padding between the surfboards when transporting them in the boardbag.
And most important……Addict Surfboards. Before embarking for Mexico, we needed new shortboards to travel with, so we did some research and found a shaper that we really liked in San Diego. Micah Shannahan of Addict Surfboards listened carefully to us, asked good questions, and understood what type of boards we needed, even if we didn't totally know what type of boards we needed. He set us up with two great all-around Epoxy shortboards to get us going. And, we got to spend a few hours with him at his shaping bay where he just gushed over how stoked he was to shape our boards and how excited he was for our adventure, which made us more stoked and excited. We couldn't do it without these babies!
A few years ago, when we were planning this “year of surf travel”, the inevitable came up: Are we too old for this? We are going to be truthful here. We are not too old but….we are getting tired.
While traveling through SE Asia (Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia) allowed us to see amazing sights, it took its toll. Another 10 hour overnight bus ride? Check! A quick four days in Cambodia, hiking the Temples of Angkor in 90 degrees with 110% humidity? Got it! Or, a day that goes like this: Early morning TukTuk ride to a bus station. Three hour bus ride to the Cambodia/Thailand border. Standing in a maddening four and half hour queue to get through Thai immigration. Another four hour minibus ride to Bangkok, with a terrible driver hitting the brakes then gassing it every 30 seconds. We're not done yet. Another classic ten hour overnight bus to Chiang Mai, complete with a drunk Thai woman singing karaoke and trying to be my best friend. That's 25 hours of travel, straight up. And just to clarify, at 39 and 40, we ARE the oldest people, surrounded by chain smoking European youngsters who are heading home in time to get back to “Uni”. Yeah, like, I finished “Uni”, uh, 18 years ago people!
Things really came to a head when I (Katy), after eight days of gastrointestinal woes, checked myself into a Bangkok hospital for treatment. After two days of wandering Chatuchak weekend market, which is touted as being the largest market in Southeast Asia, I hit bottom with a 100.5 fever. We suppose my street food habit indeed got the best of me, as I was diagnosed with an intestinal bacterial infection, and was pumped with intravenous antibiotics then sent home with a weeks worth of Cipro. Let the record show, however, that I persevered through fever, stomach cramps, nausea and the unthinkable all in the name of shopping to bring home cute clothes from Asia. Chris is quietly preparing his “Husband Of The Year” speech for his unwavering committment and support while I tried on shoes and jeans in my feverish state.
We know we aren't getting any tears from anyone, and we aren't asking for sympathy, mind you. And, yes, we know, we tend to overdo it a bit. But we are also trying to be honest about ourselves and the reality of travel burnout. No matter what the other travel bloggers say, it happens. The energy expended in daily life in a foreign country is huge: the game of trying to figure out how to get anywhere you want to go, the ever present language barriers, having to figure out where and what to eat for every meal, the constant bargaining for goods and services, the feeling that you are generally at the mercy of others, the general lack of solitude/privacy, and just plain ole homesickness for the familiar.
We combat these feelings several ways. First, we must get back to surfing. Having a “purpose” is good for us, and getting exercise and being in the water just makes us feel so much better. We now know we are surfers who travel, not travelers who surf. Second, we've tried to slow down. We moved quickly through Asia, never stopping somwhere for more than four days at a time, constantly sightseeing and keeping busy. Slowing down helps, even if that means staying holed up in an air conditioned room for a few days watching the Olympics on cable television and eating take out in bed. We did this by booking such a room (gotta love www.agoda.com) in Bangkok for a few nights before leaving Thailand. Third, while we try to slow down, we know that change is good too. A change in scenery, food, culture, activities helps keep us invigorated and excited.
So, while we have just very slightly hit the wall, we are on the rebound. Being back in Sri Lanka is awesome, and we already have a train ride, many crowded bus rides, some temple visits, and a few days in Kandy under our belts. We just adore the bustling mini-city of Kandy with its tea stalls, saree shops and curry restaurants. We also had a great day touring some of the Ancient Cities area. Even though we are pretty maxed out on temples, and we've seen literally hundreds of Buddhas, we managed to get to the Dambulla cave temples. We also acted on gut instinct and skipped going to the expensive ancient temple on Sigiriya, but instead let our TukTuk driver take us to the next rock outcropping over. We hiked to the top by ourselves, and got an excellent 360 degree view including Sigiriya and the hordes of people. Oftentimes, foregoing the obvious attraction leads you to better stuff.
We are now headed back to Arugam Bay, where we will stay put for at least three weeks, and pretty much do nothing but surf, eat, sleep, read and look for elephants. We'll be blogging as much as we can, so expect to hear from us again soon!
In several earlier posts, we have mentioned that really the only way we are able to travel for so long is to be on a pretty slim budget, so we have to pick and choose how we want to spend our money. Every day presents so many oppoortunities, that we just can't do it all. However, we splurged to spend time with the elephants.
Elephants, both wild and domesticated, are a very important and interesting part of Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand. Elephant imagery is found in the oldest of artifacts, proving that elephants have been a part of their culture for a very long time. However, the elephant-human interface lies in a precarious place, and the future of wild elephants is at stake in much of these parts. One hundred years ago, there were up to 300,000 elephants in Thailand. Now there are only 5,000, and only about half of those live in the wild. The other half are domesticated “working” elephants, with a variety of jobs. The Thais have a brutal historical method of “breaking” a wild elephant to train them for working. Learning the details of that will forever be imprinted upon both of us whenever we see a “trained” elephant. Many of the domesticated elephants have historically been used for logging, but with the ban of logging in Thailand in 1989, these elephants found themselves out of work, so they were put to work in tourist jobs such as elephant trekking, shows and street begging. Not a good situation for these jungle animals. Elephants are very intelligent, social and emotional animals and the physical and emotional stress of living in Bangkok or carrying people around on their backs is a tough life.
We decided we'd like to learn more and visit a place that has a positive impact on elephant tourism, so we did our research and found ourselves booking a two night stay at the Elephant Nature Park, an hour north of Chiang Mai. Elephant Nature Park rescues orphaned, abused and unemployed elephants and gives them a happy life at the park. They also work to stop illegal logging and habitat destruction, and help educate both tourists and locals about the plight of Asian elephants. This was definitely not fitting in our budget, but we could certainly justify giving our money to an organization such as this.
Upon arriving at Elephant Nature Park we see there are elephants just cruising around the property. After we get settled with our small group of other visitors, we meet our guide we learn a few basic things like “do not stand between two elephants” (no kidding), or “try to not stand behind the elephant”. As you can imagine, there are several reasons for this second rule. We get our logistics for the day and learn the days schedule, like when we have lunch, which is after we feed the elephants their lunch.
Every elephant has a mahout that helps care for and watch over that elephant. Mahouts are a very ancient tradition and every domesticated elephant has one. When an elephant is rescued and brought to Elephant Nature Park, the mahout either comes as well, or a new mahout is found for the elephant. The park then pays the mahout a decent wage and provides housing for him so he, like the elephant, doesn't lose his job as well. Since some of the elephants arrived at the park with injuries or poor health, the park has an elephant medical clinic where the elephants come in for treatments for various ailments. It looks like a gas station. The park also employs over 70 locals from nearby villages and most of the food comes from the local area. At any given time, they have 250 workers and volunteers at the park, all for the care of 34 elephants. Each elephant consumes 10% or more of their body weight, each day. They eat the grasses and plants within the park but need supplemental food, so locally grown elephant feed arrives by the truckload. It is quite an impressive organization.
The park is set up so that you get to spend time with elephants in both a human setting, like feeding them pineapples, watermelon, bananas and pumpkins from a feeding platform, and out in the field, where you get to watch them behave naturally. The morning started with meeting and feeding a few of the older “ladies”, incredibly gentle, friendly beings. Standing next to a 10,000 pound animal is strange, and odd things come into your head…like footwear. What am thinking, wearing open toed shoes? Does it matter? This thing could kill me with a quick swing of the trunk. Later on, we joined in on one of elephants favorite things, besides eating, of course. Bathing! The park is situated on a river, and several times a day, the elephants bathe. And when you are standing next to one of these giant beasts with a built in water hose, you get wet. They love it and we loved it even more.
The following day, we went with our guide out in the field. Our guide gives us the basic rules again. However, this morning, he gives us another rule. “When I say 'run', I mean it, and we have to run all in the same direction.” We look down at our flip flop clad feet again. Hmmm. Ring, ring. Pick up the clue phone. Just not getting it. So we walk out onto the property, spend about two hours learning more about each elephant, petting and feeding a few, and watching other elephants from a distance. With one elephant, our guide says “Give her a kiss. She loves kisses.”
Soon we started to recognize each elephant's unique personality. Some are friendly and enjoy attention and some are troublemakers. Believe us when we say an elephant, if it wants to, can make a lot of trouble. At one point in the morning, while watching a family of seven (they are very family oriented, and will group themselves into adopted families), it happens. We have to run. A four year old boy elephant, the very mischievous troublemaker of the group, strays from the herd and looks at us, walks a bit, then starts into a jog right towards us. When elephants “jog”, it's like a solid run for us. Our guide tells us to run and we trip our way through matted grass and piles of elephant poo. It is a little scary, yet oddly exciting in a warped kind of way. From our new, distanced vantage point, we turn to watch the young elephant again. He has stopped, but actually looks slightly amused at the whole scenario, as does his mahout.
Being able to learn about these fascinating animals in this setting was such a great experience, and we are so glad that we dipped a bit too far into our budget to do this. If you want to learn more about the Elephant Nature Park visit the website at www.elephantnaturepark.org. You can buy lunch for an elephant!
How do you begin to fathom an ancient city that held over one million people in the 12th century? We spent a few days in Cambodia in Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor. Having crossed into Thailand overland via train from Malaysia, our tourist visas were good for only 15 days, which means we had to make a “quick” exit out of the country and back to gain more time before we leave in mid-August.
Moooo. Moooo! Get on the cattle drive with the host of slackpackers for the next attraction. This part, we hate. Waiting at a roadside eatery, sitting next to young chain smoking Brits who talk about having to get back to “Uni” at the end of the month, waiting for a tiny Thai dude to wave us onto the next _____(insert ferry/minibus/bus/donkeycart). We feel old again. We finished “Uni” 18 years ago. Let this be a lesson. True, you are never to old, but consider how it may feel to sleep on a 10 hour bus ride now rather than in a few years.
With only a few days in Cambodia, albeit at the most populated tourist attraction, we fell in love with it. The Khmer are a fiercely proud, resilient bunch, with incredible sense of humour. These are people who have lived through some of the worlds most atrocious crimes of humanity and yet they manage to laugh more than anyone. True, tourists are their “bread and butter”, or shall we say “rice and noodles”, so keeping us happy is part of their job. But still, they make you laugh, especially when they tell a funny then can't finish it because they are cracking themselves up.
Three days touring the Temples of Angkor left us mind blown and exhausted (And sweaty. Notice a theme here?) The entire complex is massive, just massive, and the balance of these enormous structures with the most delicate of artwork leaves you thinking a bit about the course of the human race. To think that humans had the capacity for precise design, aesthetics, engineering, abundance of resources, and labor in the 8th to 12th centuries makes you wonder:
Have we really come that far? Or not?
We've been having fun with our camera. Enjoy the photos!