Friday, August 14, 2015

Friday five: more frequently asked questions.

We've already answered the most common question we've been asked as we re-acclimate to life on the mainland and start to catch up with friends and family. Here are five other common questions and their answers, in no particular order...

1. "What was your favorite place?" The long-term traveler's least favorite question - you want us to choose one place out of 800+ days and 17 countries? Impossible!

In short, it's definitely fair to say, we really enjoyed places we knew very little about before visiting.

such as Brasov, Romania

and Cappadocia, Turkey

It's also fair to say that the places we stayed the longest were some of our favorites.

7 days in Porto, Portugal

10 days in Sapa, Vietnam

And finally, it may not be the most exotic answer but all of our farmstays were amazing.

not many people can say they made friends with 80 Nubian goats in Wakefield, Quebec...

... or stomped grapes at an organic winery in Nemcicky, Czech Republic

(The subquestion here is usually, "Was there anywhere you didn't like?" Just a few places. We were really uncomfortable visiting Marrakech and Essaouira in Morocco. These two particular cities drained our patience and trust, and it took us a while to regroup. For very different reasons, we also hope to not spend more than an hour in Bucharest ever again.)

2. "Where would you go back?" We'd love to go back to Transylvania and hike those Carpathian Mountains! We'd also like to visit the countryside of Hungary (but not go back to Budapest). Given the right volunteer opportunity we'd go back to Poland or Cambodia for an extended stay. And there will be more diving in Thailand at some point!

We found something - and often many things - to love about every place we went, and we would absolutely recommend many other specific places for curious travelers, but there are new countries we'd like to visit before returning to most of the other places we've already been.

3. "What's the weirdest thing you ate?" Curse you, Anthony Bourdain, for making this such a common question. Why does no one ask about the tastiest food we ate, or the best home-cooked meals we enjoyed, or the food we really want to find (or figure out how to make ourselves) here in the States?

Okay, fine. Patrick tried a fried tarantula in Phnom Penh and we both ate sautéed whole baby frogs and cow skin salad at our hilltribe village homestay in Thailand. Patrick also tried duck brains at the homestay.

reportedly, the tarantula was "chewy"

While the tarantula was consumed with our Habitat Global Village friends on a bit of a dare, in general we approached all food opportunities with open minds and we absolutely did not want to be those tourists wrinkling their noses at unusual food (especially not when that food was made by our gracious hosts). We also didn't take photos of unusual foods while wandering the streets - fried bug vendors at the night markets had signs requesting $1/photo; many gawking tourists ignored the signs and snapped photos anyway. It was infuriating.

4. "Did you ever get sick?" Sure. Patrick had a few eye infections early on; he eventually stopped wearing his contacts to prevent future issues. I was briefly ill in Saigon (never did figure out what caused that). We both had a "tourist row" pancake in Luang Prabang and spent the next four days laid up with food poisoning in Nong Khiaw.

there are worse places to have to lay around all day

I guess I understand why this is such a common question, and such a fear for some people when they consider international travel. But we didn't really think about it. We ate at food stalls in alleys where dishes were washed in buckets; we drank tap water if hotel staff said it was okay to drink; we usually forgot to wash fruit we bought at the markets. Aside from the few exceptions I mentioned, we were fine... (Although there's a decent chance we contracted something that won't show symptoms for another six months or so. Haha.)

Besides, we were overseas for 19 months. Who doesn't come down with some sort of illness over the course of 19 months?

5. "How did you make money along the way?" We didn't. Before we left we worked, we scrimped, we saved. We lived off our savings on the road, and we continue to live off our savings now. Lots of travelers manage to make a living working on the road. These folks typically have internet-friendly professions (web designers, writers, photographers, etc.) - but quite honestly, I don't know how they work and still manage to enjoy traveling. Keeping up with this blog over the last two years was hard enough!

Any other questions? We're happy to answer them!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Tales of a traveling Trader Joe's grocery bag.

On the heels of a very hard post to write, we bring you a really silly post. This post is not sponsored by anyone or anything.

A bazillion years ago when I lived in Oakland, I shopped at Trader Joe's fairly often and wound up with a few reusable grocery bags - the thick canvas kind, not the cheaper plastic kind you can buy now. When we left Portland back in April 2013, we downsized our respectable reusable bag collection to about five, including one of these and Patrick's (now vintage!) Wild Oats canvas bag. They really came in handy on our Canadian national parks road trip that summer.

we traveled with a ridiculous amount of food

When we left the east coast for Poland in September 2013, this Trader Joe's canvas bag was one of the verrrrrry few posessions we took with us.

all we had for 19 months

It was kind of bulky but oh-so-practical and sturdy. We really wanted to be conscientious about not using plastic bags in Central Europe and Asia so we also took a smaller canvas bag that zipped up into a tiny little rectangle, and we ended up accumulating several more in Poland and Nepal, so we really never needed plastic bags when we shopped... Somehow we always ended up with at least 24 of them at any given moment though!

Anyway. In all honestly, Trader Joe's is not our favorite store - they use too much packaging, their produce is definitely not local, you can only get certain ingredients around the holidays, and everyone who works there is disconcertingly happy all the time.

However! When you're planning to car camp for two months and you're on a FUNemployed budget, nothing beats Trader Joe's for things like dried fruit, nuts, whole wheat couscous, pre-cooked brown rice, soy milk, salsa, and yes... boxed wine. So we stocked up at the Trader Joe's near my parents' house in Maryland as we prepped for our US national parks road trip.

[Cue Traveling Trader Joe's Grocery Bag photo project...]

Silver Spring, MD

Much like REI's retail outlets, Trader Joe's stores were few and far between along our southern route across the States. We rationed our sesame sticks and sunflower seeds accordingly, and availed ourselves of every opportunity to stock up on snacks...

Lower Greenville, Dallas, TX

Decatur Blvd, Las Vegas, NV
(we went here twice over a 24-hour period)

Eugene, OR

And then one day about five weeks ago we finally revisited our old stomping grounds.

Hollywood, Portland, OR

I so wish that we had done a Flat Stanley montage of our Trader Joe's canvas bag worldwide tour, but we were too busy giving Clarence his international Flat Stanley moments (and taking 10,000 other pictures). I'm glad we were able to capture some of our US moments though.

This bag was a silly reminder of home wherever we were in the world. Regardless of whether you love Trader Joe's, hate it, or are indifferent to it, it's certainly iconic. Almost every American we ran into overseas would "oooooooh!" when they saw our grocery bag - it was a great conversation starter. Our Hawaiian farm hosts had Trader Joe's care packages delivered from LA on a regular basis and every time I saw that familiar brand on a bag of trail mix, I got a little nostalgic. And during our US national parks road trip, whenever we saw someone with a Trader Joe's grocery bag we would fight the urge to run over and ask them if there was a store nearby. It was oddly comforting.

Fellow travelers, what reminders of home have you taken on your journeys? If you haven't done much traveling, what do you think you would bring along if/when you set out into the world?

Monday, August 10, 2015

"So, how does it feel to be back?"

Of all the questions we've been asked since we arrived in Portland, the subject of this post is probably the most common. It's also the most difficult to answer.

The quick, accessible reply is that it's weird. (Irony of ironies that it's "weird" to be back in the Weird Capital of the US... but it's true.)

Portland has changed a lot over the past few years. We're not about to complain that dozens of new breweries, distilleries and food carts have popped up around the city. But rents have skyrocketed, gentrification is rampant, and dear lord - all the condos, all the traffic, all the people! Where are they all going at 10:30am on a Tuesday, anyway? (Non-Portland people, click here to find out whether you should move to Portland.)

To be fair, we've changed a lot more than Portland over the past few years. We still appreciate the city's commitment to green, the DIY attitude toward just about everything, the ease of finding delicious local food, the abundance of music and culture (and so much of it free!), the glorious Multnomah County Library system...

... and yes, the weird

But our tolerance for crowds, noise and traffic is much lower than it was in April 2013. Patrick's tolerance for inconsiderate bikers, my tolerance for snark and sarcasm, and our collective tolerance for "weird for the sake of being weird" have also all taken a nosedive. We still don't enjoy Portlandia - but we understand it a lot more now than we did two years ago.

We loved this city when we left and there are definitely elements of it that we still love, but we're not exactly sure Portland is for us anymore - which is great to know, that's the whole reason we parked here for the summer.

Unfortunately, we don't know where to go from here. So "lost" would be another really good answer to the question. (It's also ironic that of the 17 countries and countless cities we visited, the city we called home for over 5 years is officially the only place we've actually felt lost.)

You know how, when you go back to work after a 2-3 week vacation, it takes you an hour or two to really get back into the swing of things? Well, imagine if that 2-3 weeks were 2-3 years instead. For the last five weeks we have spent many hours wondering where we were, who we are, what we're doing, what we should be doing, and whether that whole 26-month jaunt around the world actually happened.

another perspective

And honestly? Here's how it feels to be back: lonely. In a city of 600K people including many of our friends, we feel lonely. (Is that ironic or Alanis-ironic? I'm not sure.)

I was exchanging emails with a traveling friend a while back; she'd just returned to Portland after 15 months abroad and I had asked her about re-acclimation. She replied, "People ask 'where was your favorite place you visited?' And I say Myanmar and then we move on to talking about their cat or whatever."

I laughed at her description at the time. Now that we have lived this exact scenario dozens of times between Maryland and Portland, it's not so funny. Friends and family ask questions about our trip but often can't relate to our answers about countries they've not visited and experiences they've not had. Totally understandable. So they ask "what's next?" and as we start to describe our non-9-5 future options, their eyes start to wander. Also understandable. We ask what's going on with them; we can't really relate to their 9-5 lifestyle and our eyes wander. Eventually we all talk about the weather, because hasn't it been insanely hot in Portland this summer?

On the other hand, there have been many conversations where no questions are asked... That makes me feel even more weird, lost and lonely. We did really just jaunt around the world for 26 months, right?

There are definite exceptions to these scenarios. We've had great conversations about our trip and our future since returning to the mainland, and those have left us energized and excited about whatever is to come.


Just to be clear: this is not a "no one understands!" whiny post - at least that's not my intent. All this doesn't mean that we haven't enjoyed catching up with friends and family while we've been Stateside. It's been fun to see familiar faces in familiar territory, catch up on life news and work gossip, and meet new family additions.

We're just in a different mental place right now. We've been through this with friends who had babies or found religion or whatever, so we get it and we appreciate everyone's patience as we desperately try to inject travel stories into every conversation. We have also been very fortunate to connect with new faces here in Portland with whom we can share travel stories and farm talk.

a gentle reminder
(Field, British Columbia)

Many travel bloggers have written about the challenges of re-acclimation after an extended trip, and they've said it much better than I ever will. Their posts are comforting and help with the weird, lost, lonely feelings. (Seeing these bloggers in person and commiserating over beers helps immensely!)


I asked Patrick to read a draft of this last night; I'd only gotten as far as that last sentence. He commented that he wasn't sure about the conclusion. I thought that was a pretty appropriate summary of the whole topic...

Maybe this is the real answer: we're not "back" and we don't know "what's next." All we know with 95% certainty is that we're in Oregon through mid-November. This is exciting... and challenging... and scary as hell.

Isn't that how life should be?

"you just gotta keep livin' man, L-I-V-I-N"

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

US national parks road trip on $33.50/person/day.

When we originally thought about doing a US national parks road trip after our international stint, we wanted to leave the east coast and meander for as long as possible before landing on the west coast. We looked into WWOOF and HelpX gigs along our route, hoping to find a nice place here and there to rest up and learn some new skills. Our travel funds were getting low and we even considered stopping for several months somewhere to try to earn a little money.

And then we got an email from a woman in Portland, Oregon inviting us to housesit for the whole summer. It would cut our road trip short and it definitely meant no farm stops, both of which we were a bit bummed about. But there's no city like Portland in the summer - free music abounds, bars open their patio seating, there's a street fair every weekend, and that big yellow ball in the sky makes its brief annual appearance... What we didn't spend on an extended national parks road trip, we would be able to spend on delicious PNW beer and Portland food carts. So we cut our schedule, cut our budget, and cut our losses in order to make it to Portland by the end of June.

Our two(ish) month US national parks road trip ended up being amazing. However, it was surprisingly more expensive than Canada and Australia (although we also spent a good portion of our time WWOOFing in those countries which obviously helped keep our costs low). And it was stressful! It's pretty safe to say that we probably won't be doing a 50+ day US car camping road trip again anytime soon. Those farm stays abroad were not only fun and educational, they helped us maintain our sanity!

Anyway, here's the lowdown...

Initial budget: $4000 (based very roughly on average campsite costs along our route, gas costs/mileage expectations, and a daily food/drink allowance)
Actual cost: 53 days at $3556 ($67/day, $33.50/person/day)

we'll just pretend the pen used for the "A" had blue ink
  • Lodging: $1076 - two motel nights in Nashville and Waxahatchie; one hostel in Moab; the rest national/state parks or other camping facilities ranging from $10-28/night
  • Transportation: $801 - almost all gas, which went from about $2.30/gallon on the east coast to $3.30/gallon on the west coast
  • Groceries: $659 - $12.50/day (thank you oatmeal breakfasts and cheese sandwich lunches!)
  • Meals: $301 - BBQ in Nashville, Memphis and Austin; the very occasional grab-and-go lunch or dinner; a few happy hour snacks at Moab Brewery; sad to say that the rest went mainly to McDonald's for coffee (and an occasional order of fries or a hot fudge sundae) so that we could get free wifi
  • Tours: $164 - Luray Caverns, Mammoth Cave and Mesa Verde National Park tours; Johnny Cash and National Civil Rights Museum admissions; a few $1 trail guides here and there
  • Alcohol: $316 - that equals about one pint of good beer/day costwise... not bad!
  • Gear: $34 - propane and sunglasses
  • Miscellaneous: $203 - laundry; city parking; fee showers; gifts for friends along the way; souvenirs (yes, we actually bought souvenirs for ourselves on this leg of the trip - that Junior Ranger vest is gonna be so amazing!)
This is not exact. It doesn't include the $80 we spent on our National Park Interagency Annual Pass (which paid for itself after about 5 parks and historic sites). It doesn't include a new camping chair and cooler, or the groceries we bought in Maryland before we left. It doesn't include ticket prices for Frank Turner's Nashville show. Etc., etc. We were too busy having fun to edit the spreadsheet accordingly, so it's not exact but it's close enough to show that local vacationing can definitely be affordable.

Other fun US national parks road trip facts...
  • National Parks visited: 17 (18 if you count Volcanoes back in March)
  • Miles traveled: over 8000
straighter than our usual lines
  • Miles hiked: approximately 210
  • Bunnies seen on campsites: 93
  • Gallons of coffee consumed: don't wanna know
  • States crossed: 15
  • Supermarket discount cards accumulated: 5, plus a RiteAid card and a Dunkin Donuts card
know anyone who can use any of these?

Over 50 days for about $3500 - all in all we were pretty pleased with costs on this trip. We didn't really feel like we denied ourselves anything (except maybe TexMex in the southwest and a few more zero days), we did almost exactly what we wanted to do, we ate well, we had a lot of fun and we saw some amazing sights.

Next year is the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service. Hopefully these posts will inspire you to check out some of the natural beauty in our own backyard. Melbourne and Barcelona are nice and all, but so is the southwestern US... It's also much more affordable!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Winding down the US road trip - caves and rivers and Portland, oh my!

Three days until Portland. Gulp.

Stop #1 was Lava Beds National Monument. We toured several caves, went to an interesting ranger program, enjoyed some spaghetti at their nice little campground, and mentally prepared for re-entry into Oregon the next day. (The bottle of Bulleit rye helped immensely in that department...)

now-mandatory photo op

going, going...

oh hai, Shasta

(holy %&$^)

Stop #2 was Crater Lake National Park, of course.

national park #18/18 -
stick a fork in us, we're done

We drove around the park...

... ate lunch at the lake ...

... took some nice photos ...

... but our goal that day was Camp Sherman Campground in Deschutes National Forest. Patrick came to this area often when he was younger; I'd never been to this part of Oregon but five minutes after we set up camp I totally understood why he wanted to stop here.

goal achieved

we want to live in a tent down by the Metolius River

roasted veggie salads never get old

breakfast by tree trunk in front of Douglas-fir forests also never gets old

Stop #3 was Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery, where for $0.25 you can feed the fish.

Wizard Falls

feeding frenzy


happy campers

Stop #4 was Dee Wright Observatory along the McKenzie Pass - more nostalgia from Patrick's childhood, more new Oregon sights for me. We couldn't have picked a better day. The skies were clear and mountains were everywhere!

oh hai, Mt Hood

40 degrees of the 360 degree view

not at all what I was expecting
when I heard we were going to an "observatory"

After lunch, instead of driving around for hours looking for the perfect "last night" campground we decided to stop early and enjoy the afternoon before heading north to Portland the next day.

Stop #5 was Paradise Campground just west of the Pass. I highly doubt there is a more aptly named campground anywhere in the world - Patrick found a spot right by the roaring river, we were surrounded by trees, and we were completely unaffected by the heat wave hitting all of Oregon that day.

paradise indeed

the river is RIGHT THERE
(keeping the site # secret this time, haha)

going all civilized for our last campsite meal
(shush, box wine is SO civilized!)

If arriving in northern New Mexico felt a bit like coming home, and arriving in Colorado felt like stretching out on that comfy couch in the living room for an afternoon nap, then camping in Oregon's national forests felt like that bear hug from your partner after you've been away from each other for way too long.

Camp Sherman and Paradise were absolutely perfect. We really couldn't have asked for a better end to this whirlwind US road trip and we definitely want to go back to each for a much longer stay.

Many more pictures of our last three days here... And then?

oh hai, Portland!

Stop #6, day 796. Gulp.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Two days in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

With just a week of our epic national parks road trip remaining, we decided to skip the entire Bay Area this time around (sorry, friends!) and just head straight for Lassen Volcanic National Park. We expected beautiful mountains and pretty mountain lakes, and we were looking forward to hiking in pine forests again.

But otherwise we didn't know much about the park (like, for example, that it's still an active volcano - a minor detail) so we were pretty surprised to drive past bubbling cauldrons of mud and steam vents when we first arrived.

We saw most of the major highlights over two full days. As usual, the park rangers were very helpful and the signage throughout the park is accessible and informative - sometimes even funny!

"the volcanoes in the park are not dead,
just resting"

The hikes. There are 150 miles of trails in the park and the PCT also weaves through. Serious hikers who visit the park all want to climb Lassen Peak. The ranger recommended the slightly longer Brokeoff Mountain hike instead, promising amazing panoramas of the park as well as great views of Lassen Peak that you wouldn't see if you climbed the Peak. (Kind of like when I lived in the Bay Area - why live in San Francisco and look at Oakland, when you can live in Oakland and look at San Francisco?)

San Francisco from Oakland
(now it makes sense, right?)

We also walked down to Bumpass Hell to see the "resting" volcanic action, and we hiked down to Mill Creek Falls one morning.

Bumpass Hell pools

burbling, steaming mud
(see a video here)

Lassen Peak from Lake Helen

Mill Creek Falls

Dozens more scenic photographs can be found here... The views really were stunning and the geology of the park is fascinating.

But for me, Lassen was really about the wildflowers. After being in the desert for so long I really couldn't get enough of springtime in the mountains.

[Begin ridiculous flower photo series.]

[End ridiculous flower photo series.]

Dragonflies and butterflies were everywhere too, especially around the walks to Cold Boiling Lake and Summit Lake.

one-month lifespan ...

... seems so unfair ...

... for such beautiful creatures

The campsite. There are three at Lassen - Manzanita Lake in the north, Summit Lake in the central area, and Southwest (guess where that one is located?). We arrived too late for a walk-in site at the Southwest campsite. Summit Lake wasn't open for another week and Manzanita Lake was too far to drive that night, so we headed back down the road to Gurnsey Campground in Lassen National Forest. It would make a good base for exploring the national park if you couldn't actually get a spot in the park, and we'd definitely stay there again.

In the morning we secured our walk-in site at the Southwest campground. Patrick chose the most remote site and we were surrounded by trees and beautiful mountains. It was perfect.

campsite #5 for the win

our backyard view

The food. Campfire cooking for the win... Except for the first night at Gurnsey, when we just needed "easy."

salad by campfire

grilled tofu, veggies, and rice
(and four thumbs up for Unruly Red)

nacho(ish) night

The summary. Lassen totally wowed us. It probably helped that we'd just come from over two weeks of hot, dry desert and almost six weeks of the general south, but I think if we'd gone straight from Portland we would've still been wowed. We definitely want to go back and explore more of the trails but it's also the kind of park where even we, the constant go-getters, would be happy sitting at our campsite and soaking up the views.

y'all come back now, ya hear?

So close to Oregon now... So close!