Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lessons Learned

Travel is amazing-- meeting new people and seeing different places every day for over a year becomes addictive.  I was afraid if I didn't come back soon it would become increasingly difficult, so even though I was less than thrilled to end the journey I booked my flight back to 'the real world'.

Coming home wasn't easy, especially when you are delayed in Houston, Texas of all places!  I've been gone for 13-months, in 35 different countries, and Homeland Security doesn't even bat an eye- humm, go figure.  Yes, my time in those sanctioned countries was lovely! ;-)

Of course my family and friends were happy to welcome me home.

First stop- Philadelphia

I arrived Easter weekend since the entire Porter fam would be together, Greg up from DC and Laura down from New York.  It was great to see everyone after so long (except Harry who I'd just seen- see Chile)-- those babies got SO big.

Cora Porter even bowls now.  Wow, bowling with a 4-year old is not the speediest process.  This may have been the first time I've seen a ball stop halfway and roll backwards.  We were all pretty terrible, with Cora almost beating us, but thankfully those bumpers helped, as did Cora's super light ball. 

Next stop- New York

Elena and Angelo (aka A & B) were nice enough to wake me up bright and early for a trip to the playground (which seems like a death trap, right?) before their first play.  We went to see the puppet version of Wizard of Oz and Elena showed off her moves weaseling her way to the front row (I was thinking how proud grandmom would have been).  They also introduced me to The Little Gym which should be my next career given it is Little Money Pit to join.

Of course I had to catch up with all the yummy NYC food (really the only NYC thing I missed) and my great NYC friends (who I did miss).  I was really nervous about returning to New York fearing I would instantly be stressed and impatient, but I'm happy to report it wasn't able to shake my new mellowness.  In fact, it didn't really feel so manic.

Believe it or not, I really didn't mind being homeless living out of a backpack, but it was nice to get a little bit of my old life back (and some clothes from storage). And thankfully Victoria was able to return my hair to it's proper color!

Luckily, I also returned in time to enjoy the social event of the season-- Cora's 4th birthday party at the Camden Children's Garden.  How is it that the merry-go-round makes all the grown-ups sick yet the kids love it?

For those that are curious if I got what I was looking for from this trip, I thought I would sum up my feelings.  To be fair, I wasn't really looking for anything in particular so it was pretty easy to achieve that goal!

First, my favorites:

Favorite Places- Funny enough, my favorite places seem to be those where the people live under terrible, oppressive governments, yet still manage to be lovely and generous-- Burma and Cuba.  Perhaps it is also because these countries are less touristic so I got a sense of genuine life.

Favorite Region- SE Asia. I just love this part of the world- great, hard working people, yummy food, it's cheap and so different from our Western existence.  Refreshing!

Most Beautiful- South Africa with such varied and stunning landscapes, hopefully they can fix their problems

Most Spectacular (Natural)- Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the sand dunes of the Namibian desert, Mt. Everest and Turkey's Cappadocia and Pamukkale

Most Spectacular (Man-Made)- Burma's Bagan, Cambodia's Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Great Wall of China

Best Food- Come on, Italy of course! Top meal goes to Antica Osteria della Fragoletta in Mantua--- ah, that panna cotta with zinfandel and strawberries still makes me salivate! Those meals at the vineyard were also pretty incredible, too bad I can't replicate them now :-(

Best Drinks- Wine tasting around the world-- South Africa, New Zealand and Chile being my favs (the only problem with SE Asia is their lack of wine, but they do have $0.50 beer)

Best Nightlife- Budapest, Argentina and Cuba definitely top that list

Best Shower- The Gibbon Experience tree house shower, there is nothing like it anywhere

Funniest- Chasing down my bus on a motorcycle in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia

Most Bazaar- The fire balloon festival in Burma- fireworks up close look pretty different

Most Exhilarating- Being face-to-face with an enormous silver back gorilla in Rwanda and the perfect bungee dive over Victoria Falls

Proudest- Reaching Mt. Everest Base Camp in Nepal with a group of amazing women (and men, but the women were more amazing ;-)

.... and #1- ALL my new friends around the world!!!!

Now, some lessons learned:

People are genuinely good. I traveled, mostly alone, to 35 countries with virtually no problems. Strangers throughout the world really looked out for me. The people of Rwanda checking my ticket to make sure I was boarding the correct bus. The little boy in Cambodia whisking me away from my hugger? The taxi driver in Colombia who found us a safe bus and then practically held our hands. While they may not have material things they are kind and have a generosity of spirit.

Everything works out when you don't have a plan.  I finally learned to be happy in the moment with no set expectations and really enjoyed life as it presented itself.  It's must less frustrating!  Although I over planned Africa, I am glad the rest of the trip was open since it allowed me to visit all sorts of unexpected and amazing places, some of which ended up being my favorites.

You miss so much rushing, rushing, rushing. With time and patience a delay or unexpected closure doesn't matter so much.  I never would have chatted with the Cambodian teacher about his morality class, discussed Harry Potter with a Burmese monk or bought art from Sampath at Phare Ponleu Selpak if I had somewhere to be, and I would have missed out.

We have NOTHING to complain about.  Ours lives are pretty sweet and for the most part we've chosen to complicate our lives and can also choose to simplify them.  There is NO reason to be unhappy-- find your passion, figure out what makes you happy and do it!

I've traveled all over the world only being able to speak English, I can do anything!

I am afraid of nothing, except maybe the uncertainty of my future. ;-)

It's liberating not being defined by 'what you do', or identifying yourself that way, and just being comfortable with who you are.

I am lucky to have been born in the US, especially as a woman.  Alfonse in Rwanda and Zha Zha in Burma are unforgett- able kids that weren't so lucky.  Even with our problems, it really still is the land of opportunity if you work hard.  But, we do have to work really hard!!  Europeans have a much better perspective on the work/life balance and value their holidays-- we are the suckers with our 2 week vacations!

Even with Obama, people still hate Americans, with many Brits thinking we are all stupid (yes, amazingly rude and close minded, but true).  To be fair, we don't help ourselves with the popularity of stupid people like Sarah Palin and TV shows that glamorize the ignorant (e.g., Jersey Shore).  We really need to have more pride!  (Wow, I sound like Dad-- am I getting old?)

UNESCO has too many World Heritage Sites!!!!

This trip was by far the best thing I've ever done!  I highly, highly recommend it!!  And for those of you with kids, I did meet a few families traveling for a year, so it can be done.  It is life changing, and with some effort hopefully permanent since I like new, mellow me way better! :-)

But wait, I am not done yet, I still need to see the U S of A! :-)

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Best for Last

What better way to end my worldwide adventure than with an old friend for the best Semana Santa (aka Holy Week) festivities in the world in Antigua, Guatemala.

George and I worked together way back in the advertising days and like me he fled New York and corporate America for his own adventure in Guatemala, starting a travel agency in Antigua.

I had originally intended to start my journey in Antigua, but my giant weather spreadsheet lead me in a different direction. I’m glad it did since spending time with George helped ease the pain of my trip coming to an end.

Although a little late, I arrived to Antigua in time to wish George a happy 50th birthday (I know, he looks half that age ;-) and see the first of many Semana Santa processions. How nice that they threw George a procession for his birthday! A good introduction to a lovely town.

Antigua is in the central highlands, about an hours’ windy drive from Guatemala City, and you guessed it, ANOTHER UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE.  It’s a colonial town, founded in 1543 by Spanish conquistadors after the neighboring town was destroyed by the nearby Volcan de Agua. Known for its Spanish Mudujar-influenced Baroque architecture and ruins of colonial churches, Antigua is the tourist (and expat) heart of Guatemala.

In addition to the previously mentioned Volcan de Aqua, to the west of Antigua is Volcan de Acatenango (which erupted in 1972) and Volcan de Fuego, the most active. George kept saying the volcanoes make the city even more striking, but I didn’t get a glimpse until 6am on day 4 when the clouds finally lifted and they showed themselves, complete with puffs of smoke!

Unfortu- nately volcanoes aren’t the only problem, in 1717 a 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit Antigua destroying over 3,000 buildings, followed by another in 1773 leaving the city destroyed and all but abandoned--- hence all those church ruins.

Good thing everyone didn’t leave or we wouldn’t have modern day Antigua and its famous Semana Santa (or Santa Semana as I prefer since it sounds jollier).

During Holy Week Antigua is abuzz with procession after procession of a crucified Jesus. So Christ doesn’t have to walk on the bare street, people spend hours creating beautiful, elaborate and colorful ‘carpets’, or alfombras, along the procession route.

I am not talking about a block or two; these processions sometimes start in the middle of the night and go for 12 hours, with 100 men at a time carrying the float. That means a LOT of carpets!

It also means a lot of time walking around the cutesy city looking at alfombras, as families traditionally design new carpets each year made of dyed sawdust, pine needles and flowers. All that Catholic school finally came in handy as I was able to interpret some of the themes--- yeah, loaves and fishes (I always liked that one- it seemed like magic)!

In fact, I took a 6AM walking tour of the carpets on Good Friday to see the best and biggest (there was still an ice cream vendor out at 5:45AM). Unfortunately they were not as impressive as normal given the overnight rain (Easter was late this year and bumped up against Guatemala’s rainy season), but they were still pretty incredible!

Very un-American--- there is no competition. No winner! What?

That is okay; I had my own personal awards:

And the best….. watermelon Jesus!!!!!!!!

We also had the perfect viewing spot for the largest procession from La Merced. Picture Roman soldiers, some on horseback, hundreds of men in purple carrying the crucified Jesus on a humongous float, weighing more than 3 tons. Smell the incense. Hear the slow melancholy band. What a site! It is pretty moving and I don’t even consider myself religious!

The men are then followed by women in white carrying the Mary statue, dressed in black today since she is in mourning.

We also had primo position for a bit of wine and the procession from the Cathedral being at the only window next door to the Cathedral thanks the George’s friend. Super cool and SO much better than being with the masses in Parque Central! I have dibs on it for next year!

These processions go day and night and are really very solemn and reverential-- people here are really pretty holy.

The one thing I didn’t really get was the Children’s procession where the kids max out at 10 years of age. Seriously, what has a 7-year-old done that needs atoning for by carrying a really heavy wooden thing around for hours? We would never do that to our kids—certainly this is cruel and unusual punishment.

Although processions and carpets dominated, I did get a look at some of Antigua’s more interesting sites per George’s recommendation.

The Cathedral of San Jose was once one of the largest cathedrals in Central America, but has only been partially rebuilt after the 1773 earthquake.  It is lovely from the outside, bordering Parque Central, but the interior is nothing special.

La Merced Church is a lovely yellow and white baroque building opened in 1767 and home of the largest Semana Santa procession.

Pilgrimage site Inglesia de San Francisco is home to Saint Joseph Betancur, who was canonized in 2002, complete with his hall of miracles. Nice!  The garden within the ruins is also a lovely spot.  The best part was George’s delightful fishing friend Wilver buying me churros in the courtyard--- awh, so sweet and yummy!!!

Santa Clara, constructed in 1734 didn't last long before being destroyed in the 1773 earth- quake.  Too bad- it must have been impressive since the gardens and ruins are still beautiful.

Across the street from Santa Clara are public clothes-washing sinks, where George tells me village women still come to do their laundry.

Santo Domingo is a ruined monastery dating from 1538 that now houses interesting museums and a very nice hotel.

I also loved zipping around on George’s scooter with people staring at the gringos, going to the Cross in the Hill to take in the whole city near sunset.  I disagree, George doesn't drive like Chucky! ;-)

The mime giving (verbal) directions to a tourist was also a highlight--- hello, you are a mime!!!!!!!!!

George’s Travel Club also brought some lovely and fun clients to town who provided some amusement. And of course being with a former New Yorker, we ate well! One restaurant even made an alfombra for us to walk on which was fun (even if the pine needles stuck to my shoes).

Maybe it's wrong, but what a happy Holy Week I had!

Thanks to George for being the cherry on top of a magnificent year abroad :-)