Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Charles' Thoughts on the End of Our Year Long Journey

The thoughts and memories of this past year that are flying by in my mind right now are completely incomprehensible but utterly lucid. It’s hard to put words to the feeling that is in the pit of my gut. In some ways it is similar to all the other plane rides home I’ve taken after traveling internationally: the anticipation of getting home; the slight annoyance of having to head back; the sorrow of a trip past; and the excitement of getting back into things. However, this time, there’s a whole other layer of complexity added on top: the amazement of everything we’ve seen over the past year; the comfort of a journey well completed; a warmth of contentment and a layer of inconceivability that whispers, “did that REALLY just happen?!”

Yes. It did. All of it. The 17 countries, the 340 days and counting of traveling, the 65 passport stamps, the 57 flights, the 167 different beds we’ve slept in and the everlasting memories of this past year.

Seeing a lioness 10 feet away in the Serengeti. The long walks on the beach in Palimino, Colombia. The quiet moments with Kate. The mountain pass on the Santa Cruz hike. The long desolate stretch of Peruvian highway. The overturned bus in India. The monks chanting in Chaing Mai. The late night food markets. The friends met along the way. The uncertainity of a new land. The agony of learning to drive a stick in South Africa. The wading through the Milford trail. The Bariloche Bonus Day. The millions of smiles from kids around the world. The awkward exchanges with a local when neither one knows the other language. The sunsets. The happy hours. The long dinners and slow lunches. The early morning flights and the late night bus rides.

Yes. It did. All of it. And more.

I remember at the beginning of the trip, I purposefully shied away from using superrlatives when describing things because I didn't want to have them lose meaning. I wanted “amazing” to be “amazing” and not some poor cousin of “amazing” that had lost meaning because the word had been used to oblivion.

At this point, I don’t have that worry any more. This past year was amazing. In every way possible.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Kate's Thoughts As We Return Home

I don't think the gravity of what is happening(going home) has truly set in, but then again, I'm not sure it will til we are back in Colorado.

I never knew for sure how I would feel about this day. And even as I write, I find it hard to articulate. It has been an absolutely incredible journey. Both in seeing the world and in my relationship with my now one year husband. 
It has flown by overall, but at times has moved slowly. I am more conscious of my reactions and even if I still struggle to choose the ones I want to, I think I am getting closer and recognize it will be a continual focus throughout life rather than something you learn and then walla it's easy. 

Most of all I am thankful to have found such an amazing man to share this crazy adventure with and couldn't feel more confident that he is the best man for me. At this point he knows me better than I sometimes know myself and that is pretty crazy. 

For me, my favorite parts of the trip were the times and conversations shared with him and others where we had the time to step out of day-to-day life and appreciate something extraordinary, even sometimes the ordinary things. 

A beautiful sunset, a glass of wine, a perfectly sunny day, a great meal, a long walk, conversations with others about the power if travel, feeling let inside of a different cultural world, a great pillow, finding good cheese, sleeping in, so many things. 

This year I felt more invigorated by conversations and life and the world than I can ever remember feeling. It was amazing to share this with Charles, but there were also some incredible moments where I realized I was sharing these moments or conversations with people from around the globe, who maybe we had just met, we had known for a few days, or had come half way around the globe to see us.  

I keep saying it, but seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, appreciating the simple things- this has been the most powerful part and the part I most want to ensure we take with us as we continue. 

I am excited about the next few weeks as we slowly make our journey back to CO but I am most excited about getting back to CO and settling into our home and really making it our home.

Editor's Note: Kate and I took 20 minutes to write down the thoughts that were going through our heads as we took off from Buenos Aires to return to America after traveling for the past 11 months around the world. We've tried not to edit them too much after the fact. What you see is what we were thinking. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Traveling Mindscape - The Flow of Travel & Time

There are times when the afternoon feels impossibly long.
And there are times when the last week passes by with the blink of a eye.

There are times when the morning seems as if it will never end and the thought of both lunch and breakfast seem infinitely far away.

And there are times when the previous month is merely a blur of distinct visions.

There are times when, lying in bed at the end of the day, the memories of the past day couldn't possibly reside within the time bounds of 24 hours.

And there are times when, after being back home in Denver, we wonder if the past year ever actually happened.

Somehow all these aspects of time make sense.
A long afternoon - in the best way possible
Ever since I've read Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, I've been fascinated by the aspect of the mind state of flow. It's a state were time loses it’s meaning; individual mastery of an activity is critical; and the mind and body get lost in an activity or space that causes everything else to be blocked out.

This is where we have found ourselves over the past year. When life was at it's best, somehow an hour would seem like a day and a minute would take forever.

The aspect of time has an elastic bound which previously I’m not sure I've really had the opportunity to experience. Days walking and sitting on the beach somehow seemed to last forever. Hours wandering around foreign neighborhoods somehow transported us into a time warp where women still washed their laundry by hand, men still worked the fields with their backs and children still ran around naked in the yard smiling and laughing as they chased the chickens around the yard.
Time has a tendency to stand still in many places in the world
It’s one of the aspects of traveling that I didn't ever expect to find but once I did, I looked for it wherever I was. And it’s one of those things that you can’t look for; you just have to take a moment to stop and appreciate it.

Over the past year there were moments when we'd look at the clock and say to ourselves, “There’s no way that it’s only 10:30 in the morning! I feel as if we've already had a full day of activity!” Moments when, in the middle of a leisurely lunch, you consider just how much you have to look forward to for the rest of the day. Moments when you are walking down the street and all of your senses are exploding because everything is so new that a minute can seem like a life time and a moment can seem like an eternity.
Somehow the minutes go slowly at this altitude
A friend once told me that there were two types of people in the world. The first type get energized by walking down a foreign street, their senses bombarded by new sights, sounds and smells; their comfort zone shattered by the newness and the pulse of the experience energizing your soul. The second type expended energy to get through the exotic experience. It left them drained, tired, exhausted and longing for home. It’s an interesting differentiation and neither is right. But it's clear which side of the equation Kate and I fall on.

And it was in that time and space of long term travel, of exploring new and distant lands, that the aspect of flow was most easy for me to fall into.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Best of... A Year Long Journey Around the World... Favorite Town

Kate and I continue our "Best Of..." series with our picks for our most favorite small towns that we visited over the past year.

Favorite Town: Clarens, South Africa
It could have been the tidy artsy town with tree lined streets. Maybe it was the day hike in the hills around the town - our first hike a month. It might have been the Clarens Brewery; the best micro brew we'd had since we left the States 3 months earlier. Or maybe it was the wonderfully furnished efficiency apartment a few blocks from the main square. Or maybe...just was the mac & cheese we made the first night in town - to this day, Kate's benchmark for homemade mac & cheese.
Little Clarens, nestled into the Drakensburg of South Africa
Whatever reason it turned out to be, Clarens turned out to be our favorite small town we visited along the way. This is a huge upset over other, very much well loved towns along our journey and, as such, holds a very special place in our heart. We are not big city people; we're more of smaller cities and town people so, it's with no small amount of fanfare that we anoint Clarens our favorite town of our trip.
Charles, toasting Clarens
Amazingly, we only spent two nights and two days exploring this little slice of heaven but it obviously left a big impression on us. We arrived immediately after the infamous car crash in Durban and, likely for the first time on our trip, felt at ease and at home. In Clarens there was a calm that almost transported you out of Africa and the crazy hustle and bustle that accompanied so much of our time there.
Trust us; this is not what a typical South African town looks like
Great hiking straight out the front door. Lazy tree lined avenues. Great local bread, cheese and wine shops to stock up on. Terrific restaurants that punched way above the weight of the size of the town. A local brewery on the town square that had an outstanding deck. A BBQ to grill some chicken and a kitchen to make mac & cheese. Friendly people. The cool winter weather that felt like a crisp autumn day. It's not the easiest place to get to; but in some ways, that made it all the more worthwhile when we arrived.
Great hiking & views right out the door
Also super comfy inside the door
Clarens, for us, at this time and place, had everything we needed. And we were able to appreciate it like never before.
Kate, showing her appreciation, for Clarens

Honorable Mention: In my humble opinion, this category might have been the most difficult one to choose a winner. Each one of these towns provided us with such great memories, experiences, food, libations and love that to term them "honorable mention" is like picking a favorite child. (We've been told at least) that you love each one in a different way. Well that's how we feel about each one of these following places. So in due order, we'll give each one a bit more love than in other Honorable Mention categories.

Queenstown, New Zealand
I've likely already waxed poetic about how much I loved Queenstown too many other times in this blog. How much walking off the plane made it feel like coming home. How crazy it was to run into a friend from 10 years ago the very first morning on a street corner as Kate and I were walking into town for coffee. Just how unreal the Remarkables are to look up at from anywhere in town. So I'll save you the effort of mentioning all that again.
A town fit for the Queen
What I would say is that Queenstown is a special place that few people forget once they've been. Trust me, you'll notice when talking to someone who's experienced the adrenalin rush of the adventure activities or the pleasant meals by Lake Wakatipu or the never ending late night partying that occurs there... talk to them and eyes light up. A smile creeps onto their face. Details not typically remembered from holidays long ago emerge. Words like "beautiful", "unbelievable" and "spectacular" bounce around without a hint of the superlative.
The Fosters & The Westrins enjoying a hike out our back door
Queenstown is that type of special place.
Not a bad spot for a town
And, we, can't wait to return again someday.
Will return both for this... 
And for this... 
Leh, Ladakh, India
Kate, had no desire to return to India. Charles, couldn't consider not going to India on the trip. Ladakh, in the far most reaches of northwest India, was the compromise. And what a great compromise it turned out to be.
Leh - India but not India like you think of it 
The thing about Leh, is that nobody gets there on accident. It's simply too difficult to get to. First you have to get to India. Then you have to either catch a flight from Delhi (way too easy for us to consider...) or take a 14 - 17 hour bus ride from Delhi to Manali, then hop a 2 day hired car ride over multiple 17,000 foot tall passes to arrive into Leh.
Yes, the car ride was long, but when you see this at 15k ft above sea level, it makes it worthwhile
But once you're there, you're in Little Tibet. Gone is the trash, the smell, the chaos of India. In washes the prayer flags, the clean mountain air of 11,000 ft and the arid dustiness of an oasis carved into a high alpine desert.
The 2013 Ladakh Festival
Tibetan culture on full display
Apparently Leh has been popular with German and French teachers, nurses and professionals for a few years now. Regardless of who's been going, go now while you still have the chance. Guest houses are popping up everywhere and the quiet quaintness of this little town will soon be a bit louder and less serene.
Serenity can still be found in the remote Merkha Valley, a 5 day home stay hike that was a hiking highlight of our trip
"Highlight" because of views and days like this. 
It may be a long ways to get there, but after 10 days hanging out here, even Kate had to admit that she liked traveling in India. (Ok. Maybe just Ladakh.)
Leh: Go now
Nelson, New Zealand
So by now you can probably deduce the primary considerations for a Kate & Charles favorite town: located in a beautiful natural setting; plenty of hiking/activities out our back door; great food and restaurants out our front door; nice accommodation walking distance from the town center and, more than likely, the fact that we ended up staying for a week or more. Nelson had all of these things and more.
The view from our front door in Nelson
Our lock off apartment had a stunning view over the Abel Tasman sound; world class hiking was a stone's throw away in any direction; the town turned out to be the hop beer AND wine capital of New Zealand; and we hunkered down for 6 days to drink it all in.
The Nelson Lakes was a surprisingly beautiful park
Highlights included hiking in the Abel Tasman and Nelson Lakes National parks; Kate dominating yard games at Louise's house for a Kiwi BBQ;  easy access to great places to eat in town (sushi! beer gardens!); and frequent stop offs at random microbreweries and vineyards along the way.
The Abel Tasman
Our favorite micro brewery
Kate & Louise dominating the yard games
Nelson is often overlooked when compared to many of the South Islands more famous destinations, but that might be OK. Best leave it to the locals and few travelers who decide to stay for a while...
Nelson: Sea, mountains, a small town and sheep (aka quintessential NZed) 
Luang Prabang, Laos
Laos was our surprise favorite country and Luang Prabang was our surprise favorite town in the country. Never really heard of it? Well, neither had we heard much before we arrived via the slow boat into this little French colonial town that time seemed to forget.

If I told you that French colonial architecture blended seamlessly with the Buddist wats and daily alms walks by the monks, would you believe me? Probably not, but that's what you get in Laung Prabang.
Laung Prabang? Who knew?! French Colonial architecture...
...with a bit of Buddhist flair.
A traveler here also gets cheap eats at one of SE Asia's most colorful nightly markets or cheap eats at one of Laos' best restaurants.
Umbrellas at the night market
Fish Laap - some of the best we had
Cheap Beer Lao at one of the backpacker bars or cheap yoga located in a temple for the next morning's cleanse.
Pretty sure a cleanse was required after this night with Dave & Noelle
Oh. And new friends. Definitely new friends. This was where we met both Flo & Nina - our favorite German couple who we proceeded to travel with AND Dave & Noelle - our favorite Chicago couple who were likely our traveling couple from another motha. (I don't know...Work with me here. There were a lot of similarities is all I'm trying to say...)
C&K, with Flo & Nina and the rest of the German contingent
And none of this mentions the world class waterfalls a short distance from town, the easy vibe of the Mekong river flowing by or the amazement that somehow Laung Prabang isn't as well known for its' many charms as it could be.
Diggin the waterfalls...
And (of course) the rope swing

El Chalten, Argentina
El Chalten was one of the last small towns we stayed in during our trip and, unlike Laung Prabang, we came in with some high expectations. Also like Laung Prabang, El Chalten delivered in spades.
El Chalten: Delivering in Spades
Turns out we should've known when this was the view for our bus ride in
Chalten offers the best of what a great mountain town should be...Some of the best hiking of the entire trip out our front door every morning; great food, beer and coffee a block away from our tidy little apartment; and wonderful friends to enjoy it with as we found ourselves hiking through stunning mountains and hanging glaciers with our favorite Belgium family.
Our local brew pub
The view out of our bedroom window
The Ronsse & Westrin families
We split our time between staying in El Chalten and staying in El Pillar, which is a 17 KM drive to the north. If you go to one; be sure to find time to go to the other. Both are well worth the effort necessary to go there. 

El Pillar; also providing nothing to complain about
Our friends Clayton, Jenny and Cody are heading to El Chalten in January...don't think that Kate and I haven't talked about trying to crash the party and join them just for a bit to relive it all over again...
I'm purchasing a return ticket immediately

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Best Off... A Year Long Journey Around the World...Off the Beaten Path & SPG Luxury Stays

Best Off-The-Beaten-Path Stay: Casa de Charlie (The Llanganuco Lodge), Yanguy, Peru
The Llanganuco Lodge is locally known as Casa de Charlie.
Casa de Charlie (or Dirk) depending upon the day
The proprietor, Charlie, is a British expat rugby player who has managed to build, piece by piece, a little slice of heaven tucked under the shadow of some impressive mountains in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to meet Charlie while we were there; instead we had the immense pleasure of being hosted by Dirk, a Dutch expat who gave up the trappings of working for a Big 4 accountancy firm and turned it into living on a whim in Peru. Needless to say, it all worked out to our advantage.

Sunsets: Also working out to our advantage
The Llanganuco Lodge, like all off the beaten path stays, is a bit of a pain to get to but one is rewarded with some of the best hiking Peru has to offer, literally out your front door. It's located at over 10,000 ft so the view is not the only thing taking your breath away. We stayed 4 nights here, did 4 different day hikes and loved the family style meals each time we dined.

At the time, we felt as if we were splurging a little because it was so expensive. However, in looking back at our expenses it turned out that we spent $500 for 4 nights of lodging and all food included for the two of us. So I guess it turns out it was a steal.
Our daily hikes would start here... 
...And end places like this. 

Kate, over the course of the trip became an expert at searching out these type of places and making sure we found a way to work them into our itinerary. And, without fail, they usually ended up being some of the favorite places we stayed in a given country. In my opinion, it all started with Casa de Dirk.
Kate, Dirk & Charles
Honorable Mention: The hiking, mountain views, all you can eat pizza and general splendor of staying at El Pillar (El Pillar Hosteria, El Chalten, Argentina);  the nicely appointed log cabin, delicious food and lively conversations provided by Patricio, our gracious host at Refugio Tranquilco (Refugio Tranquilco, Huerquehue National Park, outside of Pucon, Chile); the 4 hour hike into Refugio Cochamo rewarded us with the best deck, food and hiking in Chile (Refugio Cochamo, Cochamo Valley, Chile); Kate's well documented love affair with tented camps in the Cape of Good Hope (Hoerikwaggo Tented Camps - Smitswinkel & Slangkop, Cape of Good Hope, Western Cape, South Africa); Estancia Rio Mitre, where Kate's childhood dream of galloping through a mountain plain came true - the endless food, drinks and hospitality of our host, Estaban didn't hurt things either (Estancia Rio Mitre, half way between El Calafante & Glaciar Perito Moreno, Patagonia, Argentina); once we found out what luxury safari tenting could be like at Oliver's Tented Camp, we were happy that we choose it to be our last night on safari - anything else after would have only disappointed (Oliver's Tented Camp, Tarengeri National Park, Tanzania); the simple luxuries like a soft bed, a flush toilet, a warm fire and world class views over Middle Earth while hiking through the Routeburn Milford tracks and staying at the DOC huts in New Zealand (Routebun Huts & Milford Track Huts, Fiordland National Park, South Island of New Zealand.)
Refugio Cochamo: The best deck in South America
Patricio: The Best Host in South America, Refugio Tranquilco 
Oliver's Camp: Lux safari'ing will never be the same after
The NZ DOC Hut System: Simply the best in the world
The Hoerikwaggo Huts: Still have no idea how to pronounce that name... 
El Pillar Hosteria: Simple luxury in the shadow of Fitz Roy
Estancia Rio Mitre: The best dinning room view in South America
Favorite Starwood Hotel Stay: The Krabi Sheraton (Krabi, Thailand)
Our travel mentors, Dave & Jesse, provided no shortage of inspiration to us when we were planning our trip. That being said, one of the best pieces of advice that they provided to us was how, when and where to use our Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points.

We liked to say that we'd stay high brow and low brow. Mixing in suite nights at the Cape Town Westrin with a dirt floors in straw huts in Moshi, Tanzania. Truth be told it was a lot more low brow than high brow time, but that only meant that we appreciated the high brow moments ("Another go at the free happy hour appetizer buffet? Don't mind if I do!") all that much more.
Another on the house? Don't mind if I do...
All told we spent 45 nights (or about 12% of the year) laying our head in the luxuries of the Heavenly Bed, loving the Heavenly Shower, enjoying the free breakfast, club lounge and drinks associated with Charles' years of traveling finally paying off in Platinum status. So we'd like to think ourselves a bit of an expert when it comes to Starwood hotels.
Soaking up the good life at the Krabi Sheraton
That being said, we'd have to say that our favorite Starwood was the Krabi Sheraton. It wasn't nearly as nice a room as the Cape Town Westin. It wasn't nearly as nice a breakfast buffet as the Delhi Westin. And it didn't have the great open bar happy hours of some of the other SPG's that we stayed in but it did have a lot to offer.

First. There was this: The multiple pools and beautiful beach to walk on:
One of 3 infinity pools to choose from
It also had above average breakfast buffets and happy hour offerings:

Happy Hour became a great time to check email and do planning
And it had walking proximity to other restaurants, convenience stores and activities. Should I pay $90 dollars for a Thai massage in the resort? Or $8 at the massage place just 2 minutes down the beach? (It's a no brainer...)
Same meal at the Sheraton would cost $15 - $20. This cost closer to $4. 
Honorable Mention: the massive suite overlooking the waterfront AND Table Mountain in Cape Town at the Westin (The Westin Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa); the super modern decor, huge breakfast buffet and generous happy hour (except on Ghandi's birthday) at the Delhi Westin (The Westin Gurgaon, Delhi, India); the sprawling resort, beach, breakfast buffet and hospitality at the Westin Phuket (The Westin Phuket, Phuket, Thailand).
The Westin Phuket from afar...
...and upclose
Our top floor suite at the Westin Cape Town
Never has a clean bathroom looked so good!
The view from our Westin Cape Town suite on the top floor
The hospitality of the Westin Phuket (no need to mention that it wasn't my birthday...)