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This Post Does Not Have The Expected Title

Because the expected title bugs me. It just does.

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I went through a phase in junior high where I was really into John Denver. To this day, I really cannot account for this brief foray into the world of country music, but I suppose it probably has something to do with my guitar lessons at the time -- John Denver recorded songs that were easy to play for a beginning guitarist, and I think they probably fit well into my pubescent vocal range. I learned ‘em all... “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” “Annie’s Song” (I fantasized about singing that schmaltzy song to the girl I had a major crush on -- blech!), “Take Me Home Country Roads.”

And, of course, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

I refuse to write a blog post entitled “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” despite the fact that almost everyone does (sorry April, no offense), because I passionately despise John Denver and I really hate that song. Never mind that I am in fact in the middle of leaving on a jet plane (a Continental Boeing 737, to be specific), currently somewhere between Houston and Los Angeles, though I can’t tell exactly where because we are currently enveloped in cottony clouds stained peach by the sunset, which is quite beautiful.

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(The above photo was taken after said clouds had dispersed...)

The experience of flying is really quite amazing and would be a lot of fun if it didn’t require you to deal with airport traffic, airports, airline employees (some of whom are of course very nice), airline seats, airline food, and other airline passengers.

So anyway, ignoring the paradoxical leaving on a jet plane without Leaving on a Jet Plane, we are now officially On Our Trip. And that’s sort of hard to believe, partially because when you spend so long planning something big and then it finally happens, it feels sort of surreal. It’s also partially because the past six months, and past ten days especially, have been so stressful. I had initially wanted to have the four days in Houston before we left to just leisurely prepare ourselves mentally. Of course, that didn’t happen because we were so busy scurrying around making our final trip preparations that didn’t happen last week because we were so busy rushing through packing up all our belongings, which didn’t happen earlier because of the play, with which I was behind because... *deep breath* ...of getting the house ready to sell, and blah blah blah.

Stress. It can really get to you after a while. So this morning, to de-stress and get in the mood for Asia, we went and got Thai-style massages down in the city. Houston has a huge population of nearly every variety of Asian, and it’s a great city for massages. So after an hour of being kneaded, elbowed, punched, wrenched and stretched in every direction in most excruciating fashion (Thai massage is very, shall we say, active), we are on our way and feeling wonderfully loosey-goosey.

But only physically. Mentally, I’m still as tight as my neck was before the massage. I have so many trips under my belt now that I don’t sweat travel at all, even to places that I have never been before. Normally. This trip, on the other hand, has me more nervous than I can ever remember being. It isn’t that I’m not excited about it, because I am, and I would be fine with visiting any of these countries individually. But going on the road for four-and-a-half months has logistical issues that the normal vacation of a week or so doesn’t present. We have planned very carefully, but I feel like a lot of the prep was rushed, and I just have the sneaking suspicion that something kind of got away from us.

In a way, I’m expecting Asia to stretch us just like the little Thai woman (and how can such small people be so incredibly strong?) who worked me over this morning. There are going to be bigger challenges than anything we’ve encountered in our previous travel experiences -- less familiar cultures and languages, more bizarre food and probably more intimate communion with the toilets of Asia. And just like my massage today, I figure we’ll probably come back sore for a while. But I expect we’ll come through it stronger and more flexible than before we left.

Posted by Bwinky 15:39 Archived in USA Tagged preparation Comments (4)

Stuff

What are we supposed to do with the pretty baubles this world lays before us?

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Don't hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or -- worse! -- stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it's safe from moth and rust and burglars. It's obvious, isn't it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.

There were moments that I honestly thought there was no way that we would survive the last week. We are now packed, loaded, moved out of the house, and officially "on the road." Strangely, though, I feel decidedly un-Jack-Kerouacish. Mostly, I just feel tired.

We arrived in Houston yesterday afternoon after leaving Milwaukee Friday night with a full car-load of our stuff and stopping to see Lynn's sister Jane (Hi, Jane!) in Stevens Point. Saturday, we drove as far as Arkansas and then finished the drive yesterday. In the preceding six days, we had the rather wrenching experiences of tearing apart the place that had been our home for the past fifteen years and saying "see you later" to all of our friends and family. Most of our stuff got loaded into a pod that will be shipped to Houston and stored for us, and a least one more car-load is waiting in Mom and Dad's attic.

The emotion of it all didn't really hit me until we were all loaded and ready to leave and we did our final walk-through, and then I really broke down. It wasn't so much from sadness about leaving our house, though there is an element of that because we have put so much of ourselves and our creativity into it. It was more from the accumulated stress of the week and the fear and uncertainty of leaving the house unsold while we are gone.

That fear was exacerbated by our garage being broken into on Tuesday night. We spent all day Tuesday loading the pod, and someone apparently noticed that we had some stuff waiting in the garage and came back, broke down the door, and stole it. We lost all our crystal, half of our china, and worst, my two guitars and amplifier.

We've been broken into twice before, and people often talk about the feeling of "being violated." I don't know that I have ever really felt that. More than violation, I feel anger that there are predators in this world who take advantage of others for their own gain; the idea of stealing someone else's stuff is so far out of my own psyche that I can't even imagine it. If I knew it was some modern-day Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry family, I'd feel different, but knowing that it's probably going to feed a crack addiction or something makes it really tough to not take on David's mantle of righteous anger and cry to the heavens, "When wilt Thou slay the wicked, oh Lord?"

But laying aside that emotional response, it's really not that big a deal. OK, sure, it created a whole new hassle in a week that was filled enough with them. But apart from all that, it's just some stuff that we lost. How often do we use our china? Yes, there is an emotional attachment to the guitars, one of which was given to me for Christmas by my parents when I was 13, and the other by Lynn and our college friends for my birthday right before we got married. Losing them does hurt. But ultimately, they're just stuff. I'll buy a new guitar, and OK, maybe it won't be the same one, but that's just one more part of the story.

The whole congregation of believers was united as one -- one heart, one mind! They didn't even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, "That's mine; you can't have it." They shared everything. And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy.

Interestingly, this fits in very nicely with a big philosophical conversation that Lynn and I have been having over the course of the entire past two years that we have been planning the move. It relates to how we as Christians deal with material things, the "stuff" that life offers us. How much is enough, and how much is too much?

We are big fans of a show on HGTV called "Small Space, Big Style," and I love seeing how some people fit their entire life into a tiny apartment or something. We decided we really wanted to do that, and eliminate much of the most-useless stuff in our life. I mean, you would not believe the stuff we had accumulated through the years. In our basement, there were boxes of stuff that we had not unpacked from college, for crying out loud! What's the point of that?

We came to the realization some time ago that we had more house than we needed, even though our house was quite modest to begin with. One bedroom served absolutely no purpose whatsoever. It was literally empty, except for the closet. And did we really need that formal living room and dining room that we hardly ever sat in, even when we had guests? We decided that when we moved, we were really going to work on paring down our stuff and living more simply.

But as our conversation has continued, it has become become even more philosophical. What does "enough" mean? Is the concept of "enough" subjective, or objective? As long as God is more important to you than your stuff, is it OK to still keep a lot of stuff?

Jesus said, "There's only one thing left to do: Sell everything you own and give it away to the poor. You will have riches in heaven. Then come, follow me." This was the last thing the official expected to hear. He was very rich and became terribly sad. He was holding on tight to a lot of things and not about to let them go.

I am not an ascetic; I don't believe that God requires us to take a vow of poverty and literally give away everything we have in order to be His followers. But I also don't believe that Jesus was kidding when He said that, or using hyperbole to make a point, or only speaking to the rich young ruler specifically. I'm still trying to work this all out.

What about my TV (which we just sold -- enjoy, Jan and Diedre!), for example? It listed at $1000 when we bought it on clearance for $450. That's a pretty good deal and it made me feel better about spending the money on something as frivolous as a larger TV. It wasn't ostentatious or anything, but did we really need it? Couldn't we have just continued to get by with the older 23" model we had?

Stuff. It's seductive. Just one hit and you want more.

We're about to go to some of the poorest countries on the planet, and I fully expect to be hit hard by the poverty that I see. When I've seen really poor people before, like in Mexico, one thing I note is that lack of stuff and unhappiness do not automatically go hand-in-hand. And I know the opposite to be true as well.

I don't think it's an accident that this conversation is happening when we are going to be visting a lot of countries that are primarily Buddhist. I think that the Buddha was onto something with the whole idea about releasing your hold on the material world. Jesus and the Buddha probably could have had a nice chat over coffee on that subject -- if either of them had owned a coffee maker.

I don't know where the conversation is going. But I know I'm not going to be the same person I am now once it gets there.

Posted by Bwinky 07:24 Archived in USA Tagged preparation Comments (2)

Acclimation

Adaption to a physical or cultural environment

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There is an old adage among gamblers: "Play hand you're dealt, not the hand you wish you had." Or, it's possible that's not an old adage; I may have made it up -- I can't remember. If it's not an old adage, it should be, so please pass it along to any degenerate gamblers you might know. Anyway, it expresses a great deal of wisdom... In life, we always have to adjust our attitudes to the reality in which we find ourselves rather than pretending the situation is what we wish it was.

Life does, after all, have a tendency to throw curve balls.

Today, for example, I am writing from the sound booth at the theater during a matinee performance of Pride and Prejudice, the play that I have directed.

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Prior to opening the theater to the audience, we had a photo session to take pictures of the production. I had a list of 20 I wanted to take, but I was only able to take half of them because of a miscommunication: one of the actresses sent her dress home with the costumer for laundering, and neither she nor I remembered to tell her that we needed it back earlier than normal. So now, I am going to have to take more photos before tomorrow's performance.

This is the kind of little readjustment that takes place on a daily basis in all of our lives. The bigger the event, the greater the readjustment that is required. It's one of the laws of the universe, I suppose.

As travellers, we often talk of acclimation: getting used to different physical or cultural surroundings. A mountain climber, for example, needs to rest at stages of elevation to allow the body to acclimate to the different level of oxygen. Sometimes we experience "culture shock" when we first arrive in an unfamiliar place and have to adjust to a different way of doing things. In China, for example, I have read that there is no such thing as an orderly queue to get on a train; all ticket holders just push their way on in a fashion that would be unthinkably rude to the Westerner. I'm sure there will be plenty of experiences like that on our trip.

And then, there is the tendency of the unexpected to happen when we travel. One of the more memorable nights of my travels during college was when an Italy-bound train pulled into the station at Lausanne, Switzerland, where I was waiting in the middle of the night with my friend Julie. When I attempted to board it, I found that I had somehow missed that it was sleeper cars only and I had no reservation. So, after a brief and fruitless attempt at sleeping on a wooden bench in the waiting area, we spent the remainder of the night in the 24-hour coffee shop. Wound up being quite interesting; we started talking with some girls from a Catholic boarding school who gave us a great insight into the mind of European youth at the time. It wasn't so fun being up all night at the time, but as is so often the case it made for a great memory.

Readjustment has been on our minds this week. After posting last Sunday that we had a buyer for our house, the deal fell through. The woman turned out to have lied to her lender about her finances, and had extremely unrealistic expectations about the discount she could expect for not considering our air conditioning system sufficient for her tastes. Now, our A/C is a little underpowered for the size of the house since we had the upstairs finished, and it can be a little warm up there. But the system works, and we did not feel it was our responsibility to pay for the equipment to give her the climate she desired. She didn't have the ability to acclimate, so the deal is dead.

And that is requiring a huge attitude readjustment on our part. We now have to accept that we are not going to have our house sold before we leave, and it's going to have to happen by proxy while we are gone. This is an unpleasant bit of stress to carry along with us, and it will make it harder to enjoy ourselves. But it could always be worse; at least we found out about the finances before closing and have time to make arrangements. We still know that God has a plan for us and isn't going to leave us hanging, but we sure feel like we're a lot closer to the edge than we'd like to be.

He always makes things interesting. We just need to acclimate.

Posted by Bwinky 14:28 Archived in USA Tagged preparation Comments (0)

Disconnect

Suddenly it's all starting to become so real...

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Disconnect (N) To separate one thing from another thing: detach, disengage, uncouple.

This has been a pretty huge weekend, with a lot of things in our life coming together. On Friday night, Acacia Theatre Company's production of Pride and Prejudice, which I directed, opened. It's a fantastic show, and I'm incredibly pleased with it. Directing this play has without question been the biggest undertaking of my theatre career, and I'm really proud of the results. We have had very good audiences, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It was amazing to sit and watch the fruit of my last two months' labor. Only a total maniac would try to direct a play while fixing up and selling a house, getting ready for a cross-country move, and preparing for a four-month backpacking trip.

Guilty as charged, I guess.

The other major event of the weekend is that as of noon yesterday, we have accepted an offer on our house, to close on July 31st, two days before we leave Milwaukee. It's contingent on inspection, of course, but it's a solid offer from a woman who seems very nice (she responded to my ad on Craigslist, so we've been emailing back and forth) and I'm sure it's going to go through. This is a relief of a magnitude that I can't begin to put into words. My posture today is noticeably more erect from the weight off my shoulders.

I honestly can't say that I'm surprised, though. In a real estate market consistently described in the media somewhere between horrible and apocalyptic, we have an offer for our house for close to our asking price in less than 10 days. Amazing? Maybe, but I knew in my heart that it would come through. The whole move to Houston has had God's fingerprints on it from the very beginning two years ago, so I knew He wasn't going to leave us in a lurch. Getting the house ready has been stressful, but I always had peace that everything would fall into place. And it seems to be.

As a traveller, I love to go independently and with my own plans, forging my own way. On the trip through life with God, sometimes you need to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

But all of these events are creating a really strange feeling. The opening of my last show with Acacia, my theatrical home for the past six years, and the offer on our house, have combined to crystalize the fact that we are leaving. It's all really happening, and there is no stopping it. In 20 days, we will get up early in the morning, get in the car, and start the drive to Houston. Four days later, we will be off.

As I write this, I'm sitting in the lobby cafe at our church, Mercy Hill, which has been our spiritual home for the past year-and-a-half. I love this place, and am so thankful for our time here. God led us here after a very difficult period in our lives, and the friends that we have made here have been a huge part of our healing. From the beginning of our time here, we have known we would be leaving, so it always had a bit of a feeling of being a temporary oasis.

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But this morning, I am really experiencing a strong feeling of disconnection, probably because of the offer on the house. For the first time, it feels real, and when I walked in this didn't feel like my church anymore. I feel like I'm here visiting friends whom I love very much, but I don't feel like I'm part of this body. And that's a little sad.

There will be many more moments like this over the next three weeks. After this afternoon's performance, there is a combined cast party and send-off for us, and I'm sure that will be emotional as well. But in spite of the disconnection that I am feeling this morning, the beautiful thing is that as part of a larger body, we are never truly disconnected.

Posted by Bwinky 09:58 Archived in USA Tagged preparation Comments (2)

Mind... The Gap

Oh my, what ARE we doing?

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Mind... the gap. Mind... the gap.

For anyone who has been to London, those words instantly evoke the world of the Underground -- "the Tube" in local slang, or the subway as we would call it in the States. You are standing on the platform waiting, and suddenly a strong breeze begins to flow from the tunnel in front of you. A light appears, followed by the train wooshing from its hole like a giant metal earthworm on a severe caffeine trip. It slows and then stops, the door inevitably closer to someone else than you, and as you step aboard you hear it: the oh-so-proper recorded voice in perfect Queen's English, emotionlessly intoning, "Mind... the gap. Mind... the gap."

This is, of course, the very polite and very British way of gently reminding you of the mild danger that you might conceivably get your toe stuck in the "gap" between the platform and the train car. In New York, if they bothered with such a warning at all, it would probably be, "Hey stoopid -- don' stick yer foot in der!"

For Brits and other members of the Commonwealth, "gap" has another connotation: a year between major phases of life, most notably between school and becoming a productive member of working society. Many do a "gap year," sometimes volunteering with a charitable organization, but most often just traveling. And they do it for a whole year -- sometimes more. For some (often Australians, it seems) it would be more accurate to talk about the time that they are at home working as the "gap," since they seem to spend their entire lives in an endless cycle of travel and saving up for travel.

Not a bad life if you can swing it, really. One English gal we met in Mexico was on the tail end of a three-year-long trip that started in Australia and took her through Asia and Latin America. Whenever she ran out of money, she just stopped and worked for a few months -- being a nurse, she could get away with it. I have always longed to be able to lead that kind of life.

I don't know how I got bit by the travel bug as severely as I did; probably had something to do with chronic over-exposure to public television as a kid. When I was four, my parents left me with my grandparents for the first time and went to Detroit for the weekend. When they got back and told me where they had been, I was crushed. "You went to the Henry Ford Museum and Dearborn Village without me?" I wailed. I had seen the promos between Sesame Street and Mister Rogers, I guess; I still have a vague mental image of the fronts of big old steam train engines. My parents were stunned that I knew what they had gone to see without their telling me! Guess that was the embryo of my "amateur travel guide" alter-ego coming out.

They lovingly nutured my addiction with trips throughout the United States while I was growing up, and then to Europe following high school. But it was studying at Harlaxton College in England that really ignited the traveller in me. My semester there included such adventures as hitchhiking in Wales, coaxing a barely-operational Renault 4 through the Alps in Yugoslavia (on an alleged ski trip that featured no snow), and trading black marketeers jeans for military clothing in the Soviet Union. But it was the following two months spent bumming around the Continent with a backpack, guidebook and Eurail pass that solidified who I am today as a traveller.

Lynn and I have taken almost a dozen trips together through various countries in Europe, as well as Mexico, since we got married. But the limitations of work schedules have always prevented anything longer than a few weeks, and that drive to spend a significant chunk of time on the road has remained bubbling under the surface. So when we decided to move from Milwaukee, where we have spent most of our lives, to Houston, we decided that it was time. For the first and possibly only time in our lives, we will have no job schedules, no house, and no responsibilities. We will probably never have another chance like this while we are still young enough for our bodies to handle months on the road living out of a backpack.

It is, without question, time for us to "mind the gap."

And so, we are embarking on a four-and-a-half month, ten-country trip through Asia. We leave Milwaukee on August 1st and drive to Houston, where will be storing our stuff and leaving our car. Then we fly out on August 6th and will spend (more or less) August in Indonesia and Malaysia, September in Japan, Korea and China, October in Vietnam and Cambodia, November in Thailand and India, and the beginning of December in Nepal. We arrive back in the States (after about 36 hours flying Kathmandu-Bangkok-Taipei-Los Angeles-Houston) on December 14th, find a place to live, drive back to Milwaukee for Christmas and to pick up the last of our stuff, and drive back to Houston.

"Why Asia?" I hear you cry. Well, the cultures and history have always really fascinated me, especially Japan and India; it's so radically different from here. My uncle and his family have lived in Indonesia for years. But from a practical standpoint, there's also the time and cost factor: since it takes so long to get there, being the other side of the world, it's harder to do short trips, so it makes sense to try to see as much as possible in one long trip. And, because the cost of living is so cheap in most of those places (Japan being the notable exception), once you're there it's really reasonable -- higher ratio of travel thrills to the dollar than just about anywhere else.

A few people have asked how we can afford to do this. Well, it's a pretty significant expenditure, I confess, but not as much as one might think. And we have made it a priority to make it happen. We've chosen to live simply to save money for travel because it's what's important to us, and I have a strong conviction that we only have one life that is our gift from God, and it's our responsibility to live it joyfully and with abandon. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing what it takes to do it.

Are we scared? No; maybe a little nervous about Lynn finding things to eat in cultures that seem to want to throw a little fish into everything, up to and possibly including ice cream. And we are definitely stressed about getting everything done that needs doing before we leave. The logistics of packing up your life are huge, the logistics of travelling through ten countries in four-and-a-half months equally so. Last night was another of those all-too-frequent nights when we don't sleep well.

But progress is being made. Our house goes on the market this weekend. All our tickets are bought. We have places to stay lined up for most of the first couple of months. And now this blog is up and running; look for continuing updates through the coming month before we leave, and then frequently during our trip. I hope to offer some interesting and amusing thoughts and observations, more than just "Today we saw the Great Wall of China..."

Because even though we are going to be half-way around the world from you, our friends and family, that gap will be minded as well.

Posted by Bwinky 12:05 Archived in USA Tagged preparation Comments (0)

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