Reality Check

"Real travel is not a consumer item, it is a private, idiosyncratic thing, the traveler feeling the urge to go forth, unprotected, to confront the unfamiliar and being happy to accept modifications -- hitherto unimaginable -- of the standards and prejudices with which she left home. That unprotected confrontation of the unfamiliar, implying trust of one's fellow beings, is what makes traveling a mutually enriching experience." Dervla Murphy in her introduction to Traveler's Tales: A Woman's World

Salli, Cassidy and Samantha at Agra Fort

True travel, the kind of travel that makes a journey, our kind of travel, is a lot of work. Travel with a family takes an unbelievable amount of energy because the logistics are more complex, and the consequences of things going awry are emotionally magnified a thousand fold. Planning is often of little help--the reality we encounter is usually far different from the one we imagined.

We've been on the road for over four months. We've been together almost constantly day and night. We are tired – especially after coming out of India. During this time (sort of our mid-semester report card) we have discovered that:

WE ARE GOOD TRAVELERS, each of us having a role to play in our little group. George is a natural, his feet always itch to go, he longs to tackle the next problem, find the next adventure, and he is never homesick. Samantha is amazing, meeting challenges and prejudices head on and getting things done. She shoulders more than her share of the "luggage" of travel. Cassidy opens doors, makes new friends, cheers even the most glum of us. When her mood shifts downward, we know that our group is in trouble. As for me, I am the ground wire and Chief Medical and Laundry Officer. But between India and recalcitrant ATMs, I've been nearly "done in" imagining the worst for our happy little band. I'm still learning to let go. But we have gotten to a point in our travels that we

just can't face another hard bit of travel. We look forward to long plane rides as a reward – where the toilets work, the food can be trusted, there are current movies and news papers, and all you have to do is ask for almost anything. No logistics, no work.

WE LIKE EACH OTHER – we are best friends – and while we sometimes long for some time alone, or to be with friends our own age or alone as a couple, we wouldn't trade this time together for anything. We recognize each other's strengths and weaknesses more fully than we ever have before. We applaud and use those strengths, and try to help each other grow beyond our weaknesses. We have had many a loving but difficult session as we help each other face our problems. This must be true family therapy.

WE'RE LOSING WEIGHT. Between the lighter foods of Asia, the desire to eat less, the ability to eat when we please, long daily walks and occasional poor tummies/intestines we have all lost weight. All of us have baggy pants – especially George and me, who were the only ones among us who needed to lose weight. We can grab our pant legs and courtesy, and our belts hang inches over the edge when we chinch our pants up enough to stay on. This is not a weight-loss method we recommend, but we are both happy to be pretty much back to our pre-sedentary – middle-age weights. We adults still have more to go, but we hope all future weight loss comes with pure exercise rather than diet and illness.

WE GIRLS DO GET HOMESICK (made more vivid by the fact that we have no home to return to, and thus no image to hold in our mind for the end of our travels). Fortunately, we seem to do this in shifts, so we can help each other through it. In the end, faced with the possibility of ending our adventure with the next plane back to the States, we always come around. But we do miss friends, family, pets and the rhythm of our lives. We miss familiar faces, places and foods, where things are known quantities and we can navigate with ease and competence.

Gift of Story

"Of all the gifts that people can give to one another, the most meaningful and long lasting are strong but simple love and the gift of story."

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D., "The Gift of Story: A Wise Tale About What is Enough"

Sometimes the girls fight homesickness by taking mental strolls down the aisles of our favorite Anchorage grocery store (Carr's), selecting salads, cheeses, meats, cereals, fresh fruit, their favorite cookies or crackers and Mexican food. If they are really homesick they might mentally stop off at Taco Bell!

Our habits have changed on the road:

1) Hygiene. Well, our standards have slipped considerably since we started this trip. We have gone from having clean clothes that we'd wear only once or twice between washings to seeing how long we can make it before we have to wash clothes. There are no laundromats in Asia as near as I can tell, and if you do your laundry in the sink or handy bathing bucket (or have it done) in your hotel or guest house you'd better have time to let your clothes dry on a line, or chair back, or on a tree in a sometimes humid climate before you push on to your next destination. Underwear lasts a minimum of three days, outer clothing lasts until you absolutely can't stand to put it on any more. The first time we had laundry done in India, part of the clothes came back in shreds.

As for bathing, we seldom have correct conditions to bathe except maybe every two or three days when we're lucky. We are on trains or buses, or there is no hot water because the wood burning hot water heater hasn't been fired up, or it's too cold, or there are too many mosquitoes, or you feel like you'd come out dirtier rather than cleaner given the condition of the bathroom. In India, the standard offering (if there is one) seems to be "cold shower, warm bucket bath." A bucket bath is taken standing in the bathroom (which has some sort of floor drain) using a large plastic bucket of (hopefully) warm water, and pouring water over yourself with a small plastic pitcher (being very careful to not swallow any of it). If it is cold (no rooms that we encountered are heated), a bucket bath can get pretty cold. Cold showers may be nice in the summer, but in winter in Rajasthan, they leave a little to be desired. (I note that as soon as we got to Amsterdam, we took several hot showers and baths each day!)

2) Food and Water. Since Hong Kong, we have had to be sure to drink only bottled water that we either open ourselves, or have opened in front of us. We have to be sure to have bottled water with us at all times, not only for drinking, but also for things like brushing teeth.

Since we left Japan with its super-cleanliness and good food, we have tried to be careful about where we have eaten. We almost never eat from street vendors (except for a few "proven" ones in Thailand), but we have still gotten the "Touristas," especially in India, and Cassidy has contracted giardiasis. Things just aren't that sanitary. We have learned to ignore an occasional ant in hot, milky, sugary tea, figuring that we can't avoid it unless we don't eat or drink. And we have followed the advice that for fruits and vegetables, if you can't boil it (and eat it hot) or peel it, don't eat it. How we long for a salad, an apple with the skin on, a piece of good cheese, good bread and some meat. But we are also afraid our systems will rebel when we reach Europe and are able to satisfy these cravings. (They did a bit, but we happily slept through it).

In India, we pretty much became vegetarians. If you want meat, you get stringy strong mutton (usually goat meat) or chicken that probably died a cruel death from malnutrition. At the end of our stay in India, none of the Indian foods sounded, smelled or tasted good. We've had to force ourselves to eat something, and we are so tired of "finger chips" (French fries) and pakora (bite-size, firm squares of cottage cheese or vegetables dipped in chick-pea flour and deep fried) or crackers and cookies that it may be some time before we are able to eat them again without groaning.

We are all more adventurous in our eating habits--especially the girls. From trying bee larvae in Japan, to the very hot and exotic foods in Thailand and India, the girls jump right in. Although Cassidy had a few close calls with spices requiring the intervention of large amounts of sugar to cool the fires, she remains an intrepid eater. Samantha, who was a fairly picky eater before this trip, has developed a whole host of new and exotic food favorites.

3) Conservation. We have become very good at conserving things. Not only are our clothes less than clean, saving all that water and soap, but we can brush our teeth with no more than a mouthful of bottled water (no running tap water here!). We don't take our medicines indiscriminately, saving it for almost dire needs. We can shampoo with just a dab of anything resembling soap, and except for my occasional bang trims, none of us has had a hair cut. Best of all, we can judge just how many squares of that precious commodity--toilet paper--we need to take care of our needs. All notebook paper is used front back and sides, and we pass our books and trade a few clothes among ourselves and other travelers.

Although we can eat pretty much whenever we want to, we usually eat one good mid-afternoon meal, and then just snack (tea and toast or chapatis, cookies or biscuits and fruit, pakora or French fries) in the morning and evening rather than two or three full meals each day. It seems to suit our travel schedule, style and appetites.

4) Stuff. After four months in pretty much the same clothes (that don't fit all that well any more and show the strains and stains of constantly being on the road) we long for something new--something just to feel like we are not in the same old travel clothes. We long for it, that is, until we think about hauling along our new acquisitions, and what condition they'd be in by the time we were done. Besides, they probably wouldn't fit for long anyway. We are patient, and we can wait. Occasionally, Sam and I have managed to trade some clothes with other women travelers--they are just as worn, but they are different. And it helps.

Even souvenirs are scarce--we pretty much just keep a few coins from each country since they are small, cheap and serve the purpose. And, while we wish we could send a few gifts back home, we can't. We must choose between experiences and things, and this trip is about experiences. And we'll share those experiences with the gift of our stories.

We have shipped home some things we thought we didn't need (most of which, like down vests and hats, we didn't; some, like sweatshirts and sweaters we really miss). So our stuff list still looks pretty much the same: a couple of pairs of jeans, one pair shorts, a bathing suit, a couple of tees and a long sleeved shirt, fewer pairs of socks than we started out with (yes, sock partners disappear on the road just like they do at home), a few changes of underwear, a night shirt, a dress up outfit and a jacket. We've lost shirts, socks, toothbrushes, flashlights, an address book, gloves, etc. , we've repaired holes in jeans and shirts, and used up some of our medicines and toiletries. Our packs seem lighter.

(P.S. I did break down and buy cheap rain ponchos before we took our final leaving of U.S. shores. While George refuses to use his, the rest of us have used them a few times in Japan and Thailand . )

Every now and then we take stock of the things that are the most important to us on this trip. Always, it is our journals (we are on our second ones) which could never be replaced, and usually our Eagle Creek packs and our walking shoes, which make our travel somewhat easier. Always it is the small photo albums we keep with us showing our travels--for us, so new experiences don't overwhelm the ones we've had, and to share with those we meet along the way. For Cassidy, it is her stuffed animal, Daddy Dog.

5) Money. It IS much more expensive to travel than we thought, both because we've had some bad information, or hit someplace during "the season" when prices can quadruple, and also because we are a family and much more inclined to go for mid-range accommodation than low-end. As a result, our trip will be somewhat shorter, and some places will not be visited. But each place will be fully experienced and savored.

Traveling for a year means you don't just take a big wad of traveler's checks with you. Not every place accepts them anyway. When our credit card expired in December, we didn't worry too much. After all, we were promised that we could do all our banking electronically through international ATM's (automatic teller machines). But what we have found is that was a false (and sometimes dangerous) promise.

First, very few ATM's are connected internationally. In India, for example, where we had specifically asked about ATM's, there were NONE available through our bank (unless you had an account in India), and only a few international ATM's available through Hong Kong Bank in the four major cities (Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras)-- each of which was a minimum 24-hour express train ride apart. You can never know what your account balance is, what the usage charges are (pretty hefty in some cases, although we were told by our bank that charges were either non-existent or minimal), so you'll seldom know if you'll be able to get money or not. On a few occasions, after great effort and expense to get to an ATM, we discovered the machine was out of money or receipts and we were out of luck.

When you CAN get money, you are tethered like a goat to the ATM because you can only take out a small amount each day (usually $100 the day a deposit is made; $400 each day after that). And if you get a big wad of cash, you usually can't turn it in to traveler's checks since it is only delivered in local currency. Going to the ATM Altar has become a highly emotional experience because we never know what is happening, and whether we will have enough money to pay for food and lodging (a couple of times we've talked our way into lodging with just a promise that we'll be able to access money in a day or two. Fortunately, we have been able to meet these promises.)

We have not been in one place long enough for a new credit card to catch up to us, but it is high on our list of priorities. We will also try to have money wired and purchase traveler's checks once we hit Europe. We highly advise NOT believing promises made by banks, and having many different forms of payment available (e.g. ATM, several different types of credit cards and traveler's checks) if you travel for long periods of time.


As we reach the end of this first phase of travel, our Thai tans fading, our bodies reshaped and our minds mulling over what we just achieved and what we missed, we wonder what changes and adventures lie ahead. Travel in Europe should be easier, and perhaps we can find a spot to rest for a few weeks. I long to cook a meal, to let the girls wander down the street to a local park on their own, to have some time to assess where we've been and where we are going without worrying about the next round of logistics.

Stay tuned for what lies ahead. . . . . we can hardly wait!
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