Alex and I hoisted up our backpacks for the last time and walked off our overcrowded train into the crowds of Penn Station. New York welcomed us with its customary assault on the senses—rush hour sidewalks, oppressive summer heat, car horns and angry pedestrians, the alternating smells of dollar-pizza and sewage— and as we made our final trek from the train station to our temporary apartment on 26th Street, we couldn’t help but wonder why we had been so excited to come back here. After months of utter calm, many of them literally lying on the beaches of Thailand, New Zealand, Australia and French Polynesia, in that moment, New York felt like a special kind of hell.

But then we showered, put on our best clothes (for me at this point, a ragged polo shirt and jeans) and went to dinner with Alex’s parents. The next night we ate with friends, 18 of us crammed around a small table in the East Village for cheap Chinese food. And somewhere in there, surrounded by people whose company we had gone without for most of a year, New York’s charm clicked back in.

Home. Same same but different. At the outset of our adventure, we wrote about our goals for our trip, namely to explore different ways of living, and so throughout we had accumulated these little bits of reflection about ourselves and our lifestyle. We like getting up early and having a morning routine. It’s surprisingly easy to create less trash. Work was more stressful than we realized. Alex actually really likes not having a packed calendar. Hiking is fun. We really like spending most of our time together. Etc. Now, strung together, these realizations are the tinted glass through which life in NYC is refracted. Of course the gravitational pull of old habits is strong; we’re sleeping in until at least 9:00 most mornings and Alex continues to schedule lunches with friends a month in advance, but at least we now do this consciously and with aspirations to do it differently.

Of all of these reflections/observations, one stands out. When I think back on our travels, I’m struck by the richness of memory. Since we’ve returned, days pass in a blur of weekday repetition punctuated by memorable weekends, and I know when I return to the déjà vu-inducing flow of office life, it will run together even more. I literally have no idea what I did last Wednesday, unless I look at a calendar. And yet, I can describe precisely what we passed on our many afternoon walks through Tokyo neighborhoods, or what we cooked for each meal on our three-day hike on the Rakiura Track on Stewart Island, or what we talked about with our scuba instructor and his friend in Okinawa.

We didn’t have the chance to collect much in the way of souvenirs while we traveled, but I’ll settle for nine months of clear, vibrant memory. For me, it’s this retrospective sense of a life lived fully that makes so travel so addicting. And when I think about the experiences that define me, it’s those memories that flow thick and clear and viscous that eventually harden into the new bits of me—souvenirs effortlessly collected and carried forward.

Fortunately, I think the root of the memory is just newness, which is in no way limited to travel. We are primed to register change, and so travel, which forces novelty through a change in environment, is a simple formula for lasting memory. But there is ample room to explore, meet new people, and do new things, all within a single city, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

As we step back into real life, that mindset is what we hope to maintain. Next week I start work, and I’m sure Alex’s days of funemployment are numbered. We are both going to try something different and see where it leads us. The question will be whether, within the routines we will build for ourselves in New York, we will be able to do enough and take enough risk to create that same variety and richness of experience that has defined our last year. Or will we have to take off again.  

We got no troubles, life is the bubbles! (Under the Sea)

On the morning of our first full day of diving on our 3-day, 11-dive scuba liveaboard trip to the Great Barrier Reef, Cole and I—bleary-eyed and groggy after a rocky and drug-induced sleep on the boat—made our way to the dive deck. It was 6:45 AM, and we yanked on our wetsuits as we waited for the debrief, a short meeting in which the ship’s director talks through the conditions of the dive site (current, site layout, the type of marine life we might see, dive time, visibility, safety stops, etc.). We had done two short “check-out” dives the previous afternoon, which I think are meant both for you to ease yourself back into the sport since your last dive and for the staff to evaluate each person’s skills and comfort level. Along with three others, Cole and I had been paired with Tamir, a friendly Israeli guy, for our check-out dives. I love diving with a guide. They point out cool marine life that we might otherwise miss (and sometimes write their names on a white board under water so that you know what they are), they monitor depth and safety stops so that you don’t have to, and, perhaps most importantly, they make sure that you won’t die. Because of these reasons (okay, really because of the last reason), I had never planned to dive without a guide. So, imagine my terror when, on the first full day of diving on our scuba liveaboard trip, I saw that Cole and I were paired together… alone.

I should mention that, as someone who has anxiety, I should avoid scuba diving for myriad reasons. (Mom and Dad: you might want to skip this part so you don’t run through this list in your heads every time I go diving). Spending time under the sea means relying solely on rented (in our case) equipment for breathing—breathing—while simultaneously embracing the fact that my literal survival is compromised if I freak out and decide to shoot straight to the surface (thanks, nitrogen bubbles). I could be eaten by a shark or accidentally brush against a poisonous fish, my dive computer could break and I could run out of air without realizing it, I could get stuck in a cave or on a piece of coral and never get out, I could run into the propeller of a boat, or I could get left behind by my dive boat and be abandoned in the middle of the ocean like those people in Open Water. The list goes on. Oh, and someone just told me about a woman who threw up while diving, choked on the throw up, and died. That’s actually one I had thought of myself, dismissed as my anxiety talking, and then heard in real life when someone told me that story. 

I’d be lying if I said these thoughts don’t go through my head before each dive. Each time I pull on my wetsuit, I think of the thousands of things that could go wrong on the dive. But then, I get in the water and I descend under the surface. Below the waves, everything goes silent as ambient noise is reduced to the sound of my breathing and even anxious thoughts somehow float away. I take in my surroundings and orient myself to this new world, my new weightlessness. My fin-clad feet propel me in slow motion over the reef, and I become a small part of the seascape. Majestic, velvety giant clams over 100 years old and 4 feet long clamp reflexively as I wave water towards them; massive schools of unicorn fish eye me like accused Pinocchios; neon parrotfish with buckteeth seem to sing to themselves as they swim around busily getting ready for a party. Clownfish click, turtles fly; turning a corner I nearly swim into a sleeping leopard shark. Fortunately, under water, my gasp is silent.

In diving, I have found the only place where I am able to be entirely present. This colossal underwater world, with its hundreds of thousands of life forms, presents me with seemingly endless questions about the unknown. And yet, instead of my usual anxiety surrounding existential questions (and all the things I’ve convinced myself could go wrong on the dive), I am overcome by pure wonder and awe. I can’t emphasize enough how completely unprecedented this is for someone like me.

Anyway, enough of my meditative bullshit (but seriously, it’s not bullshit, it’s totally transformative). Cole and I got paired alone, and despite my anxiety, everything was fine. Having a guide is luxurious because you can relax a bit more, but being by ourselves (on this and all subsequent dives) enabled us to be truly independent divers. We could chart our course—thereby experiencing a dive that is unique to us—and develop our own complicated set of silent sign language to point out various marine life, communicate our path, and swim/dance to various songs from the Little Mermaid soundtrack (as one does when under the sea). This newfound language is ours, and, holding hands as we take in the sights, I’m reminded of how incredibly lucky I am that my dive partner is also my life partner.

-       Alex

4,000 Miles of New Zealand

On our first night of camping in New Zealand, we went for a night walk on the beach. The beach (pictured below) is on the Karikari peninsula in Northland, New Zealand, where Alex and I would spend the next six days road-tripping / camping / glamping with Alex #2 (my friend from middle school) and his wonderful partner Annabeth. We arrived late to the campsite, which meant that by the time we had finished our scrumptious vegan meal of couscous and vegetables, it was dark and I was tired, feeling a cold coming on, and ready to crawl into my tent. But fortunately I also suffer from acute FOMO, so when Alex and Alex and Anna suggested we go for a walk, I reluctantly agreed.

We switched off our flashlights on the beach and were plunged into the kind of darkness you can’t find in the tri-state area. For a minute we walked in blackness, the sound of the ocean on our left, Alex tucked under my arm inside my jacket against the cool wind. As our eyes adjusted, the beach reemerged before us. No moon, but enough starlight to paint the silhouette of the dark hills surrounding the beach and light up the water with the glint of its reflection. The water was calm, small waves breaking around knee height, and we let the cold water wash up over our ankles. Looking down at the water around our feet, it was a perfect reflection, pinpricks of light on the black water mirroring the night sky.

Except that the water was not calm enough to be a mirror, and the pinpricks of light didn’t shimmer like a reflection—they moved on the waves. We were standing in a sea of bioluminescent phytoplankton, flowing around our feet. Stars above, stars below.

Upon this realization, we all regressed something like 20 years in age. For the next hour we were kids playing in their first snow. Alex was wearing jeans so I gave her a piggyback into the ocean to where the waves broke. There we stood, 15 yards from shore with the plankton spinning around us, until an unexpected wave soaked my shorts and we retreated to shore. On the beach we discovered that the plankton that had washed up on the sand sometimes responded to pressure, lighting up our footprints. So we walked the length of the beach, seeking out little patches and stomping through them like kids through puddles, leaving temporary trails of light. Only when the incoming tide forced us did we reluctantly trudge up the dunes back to our tents for the night. The next day, I woke up sick but happy.

A lot of people ask us what our favorite part of the trip has been so far, and, after months of annoyingly saying, “Uhhh, it’s all been really great. It’s really hard to pick…” this moment has finally given me a frontrunner. No photos to share sadly. New Zealand consistently laughs in my face for picking up a camera, daring me to try and capture its grandeur in a puny photo, and this particular scene was pitch black. But then again, there’s something reassuring that this moment won’t risk the diminution that might come from a confusing dark photo of some specks of light (not that I didn’t try).

We’ll be sad to leave NZ later this week. It’s kind of the best place ever. More natural beauty than you shake a stick at and a government agency that maintains over 950 huts out in the wilderness so you can access it all. More extreme sports than anywhere else I’ve been and comprehensive nationwide accident medical insurance that patches you up for free when you, with no experience, try them out. In a few hours on the road here, you can pass through green rolling hills, across Martian red desert, beneath towering mountains and past ice-blue lakes, all the while listening to podcasts from the comfort of your tiny rental car.

They say that the best way to see New Zealand is by car, which is something we took to heart. I recently calculated our total mileage and was shocked. Say we had started in Miami, where do you think we could have driven to? Alex guessed Rhode Island (why would we drive to Rhode Island?) Try ALASKA. Yep, unless my math is terrible, which it’s not, we put roughly 4000 miles on our tiny rental cars since we arrived, which would get you from Miami to Prince Rupert, which is in BC but pretty much in Alaska, with a couple hundred miles to spare. (That’s also 60 hours of car time… and podcasts… seriously, I would probably confuse Ira Glass for my father at this point).

Needless to say we’ve covered some ground. From South to North, we visited Stewart Island, Bluff, Invercargill, Milford/Doubtful Sound, the Catlins, Dunedin, Queenstown, Wanaka, Mount Cook, Fox/Franz Josef Glaciers, Arthur’s Pass, Punakiki, Christchurch, Kaikoura, Wellington, Hawke’s Bay, Taupo, Auckland, Cape Reinga. (We just posted lots of pictures!) Which only leaves Marlborough, the Bay of Islands, Nelson, Hobitton (that’s probably like the 10th biggest city in New Zealand), Abel Tasman National Park, Rotorua, the Coromandel peninsula, Waiheke Island, the Cook Islands… the list goes on. Even though we’ve spent more time here than any other country thus far, we will leave here with the longest list of things to come back for.

We'll also be sad to leave the life that we've built for ourselves in Dunedin over the past couple of months here. In between our frequent road trips around the South Island, we’ve lived a life of unemployment: crashing at our friends' house, cooking vegan food, being outdoorsy, and having no set plans—pretty much the opposite of life in NYC. While we do miss the pace of life in New York and having our own place and eating meat, we are trying to experiment with other lifestyles, and to that end New Zealand has definitely been our greatest success. Much of this is owed to Alex #2 and Annabeth, who in their own laid-back, vegan, environmentally conscious, community-organizing way, have served as excellent other-lifestyle-models. It’s also been a function of the style of travel. In New Zealand we've been able to slow down, develop a sense of place, and start doing the things that we would normally do in New York (cooking and working out and watching Netflix), but doing them differently. So in that way, it's been a break from our break, and now we return to life on the road…

…Which brings me to our updated itinerary! We’ve loved the Pacific and have decided to stick around for the remainder of our trip. We’re hoping to lock down the details soon, but here’s what we have so far: 

  • Early- to Mid-April: Australia—Sydney, Cairns, Great Barrier Reef, Adelaide/Kangaroo Island, Great Ocean Road, Melbourne, and back to Sydney 
  • Late April to Early May: South Pacific—Samoa, Fiji, and Vanuatu 
  • Early- to Mid-May: USA! USA! Road trip from LA to Seattle – hit us up if you’re around
  • End of May: A quick stop in NYC, NJ, and Philly
  • Early- to Mid-June: Dublin and London
  • After that: TBD, but probably home


- Cole

The "Friends + Family" Post

First of all, we have to apologize for neglecting our blog and photo uploads for nearly two months. Since we last posted, we have been lucky to spend almost every single day with friends or family (and sometimes both simultaneously!). And as it turns out, when you’re adventuring around Thailand, Hong Kong, and New Zealand with some of the people closest to you, your blog tends to fall to the wayside. Sorry about that!

We spent our last two weeks in Thailand on the beach with wonderful friends, Scott and Sean. Having been in the country for about a month already, Cole and I felt like pros and eagerly played host. We taught them how to speak Thai (specifically, we taught them to say hello and thank you, which is as far as we got), created a checklist of the Thai food they had to try (mango sticky rice, penang curry, pad see ew, and larb moo are among our favorites), and shared our newfound knowledge of Thai cultural norms. Thailand is a place of where manners are taken seriously and tourists constantly blunder through offending the locals who are too polite to say anything. Beckon someone or hail a cab with your palm facing down, not up; be very aware of your appearance, dress well and don’t look disheveled; never say anything bad about the king (or risk ending up like this guy who is facing decades in prison for mocking the king’s dog—the dog); don’t touch or point at anything with your feet; maintain a smile and even temper in all situations (or risk losing face). Though maybe not natural for me, I only violated this last one once, when a Bangkok cab driver took me—alone—45 minutes out of the way to the wrong destination despite my pleas and manic gesticulation towards Google Maps, but that’s another story…

Scott arrived first, and he was a sight for sore eyes—not least of all because I had sent him tampon shopping stateside (you’re a champ, Scott!), and he brought cigars for Cole. He was on a short stopover after business in Hong Kong, but we made the most of our time hopping around Koh Samui. Samui is the largest of the three major islands in the Eastern Gulf of Thailand, and is the only one that seemed (to me, anyway) to have adequately paved roads that made most of the island accessible by rental car (many braved the hilly dirt or half-paved roads on the other islands by motorbike, but after our hotel van driver laughingly told us about the 18-year-old Russian guest who had snuck out in the morning on his motorbike and landed himself in a coma, I put my foot down). On one day, we drove to the Southeast of the island where we found a beach to ourselves, clear water on white sand. The next day we almost died in An Thong Marine Park, where our guide insisted that all three of us should enjoy the two person kayak, only to discover that yes, in fact, it was only built for two. Having survived, we treated ourselves to delicious mango sticky rice later that night.

Sean had a bit more time in Thailand, so we were able to island hop around the Gulf. We stopped first at Koh Tao, the smallest of the islands and the farthest from the mainland. It’s also paradise if you’re an 18-year-old on a gap year, and while we certainly stood out as the creepy older people at the beach parties, we easily entertained ourselves—mostly by drinking beers alone in our plunge pool. After Sean’s first scuba dive and a boat ride around the island with Flash (a 30-something British Star Wars junkie who told us snorkel-themed ghost stories), we moved along to Koh Phangan. Koh Phangan is known for its Full Moon parties (and Half Moon parties, and Black Moon parties, and Jungle parties, and Waterfall parties, and Night Nature parties, and really Any-Occasion-Where-Tourists-Will-Do-Drugs-And-Have-Sex-On-The-Beach parties), and the island accommodates something like 30,000 tourists for the major events. Knowing this, we were obviously worried Koh Phangan might be too staid for our taste. Nonetheless, we spent two stints on the island (before Sean arrived, Cole and I had been for yoga and diving) and managed to steer clear of the beach party scene. In fact, we felt pretty isolated most of our time there, and it ended up being our favorite island. This time on Koh Phangan with Sean, we focused our efforts—and our location on the island—on kitesurfing. And when I say “we,” I really mean Cole and Sean. I spent my time pretending to watch them kitesurf while sipping piña coladas, getting massages and listening to podcasts in the sun (side note: I am really into podcasts these days—current favorites include Startup (thanks, Arad!), Reply All, Radio Lab, and Modern Love—and am always looking for new ones; if you have any you love, please write them in the comments section!).

Vacation continued in Hong Kong—a city that had all the trappings of home, including my parents, who came to visit us almost exactly halfway through our trip. It was my parents’ inaugural trip to Asia, so it was especially interesting to watch them wander through (and smell) the open-air markets, uncover the cultural differences, and experience being a minority for the very first time. After four months traveling around the continent, Cole and I had begun to take some of these distinctions for granted. Hong Kong is a bustling, international city with packed streets, great shopping, a beautiful waterway and access to outdoor activities, and insanely delicious food. The weather wasn’t particularly cooperative, so we spent most of the week moving from meal to meal, eating our way across the city and catching up (though my mom would argue that thanks to WhatsApp and FaceTime, she didn’t really miss me or need to catch up at all, but I’m pretty glad she and my dad came to visit anyway). And when we weren’t eating, we were planning what we would eat next: noodles, Peking duck, bao, sushi, scones with clotted cream, and doubling down on dim sum. Hong Kong was a culinary dream, and we were living it.

We were also so lucky to see close friends in HK, which also made us feel at home there. Katherine—one of my bridesmaids and best friends from high school—took vacation in the city with Joe, her amazing boyfriend who proposed to her at the top of a gorgeous rooftop overlooking the skyline. It was such a privilege to see them make it official (and to try to stealthily take photos of the proposal without freaking out the restaurant staff), and we celebrated afterwards with truffle soup dumplings from Din Tai Fung and karaoke. It was perfect. Fiona—a close friend and fellow soprano in my college a cappella group (beeeyouuuuweeeepp, SfK)—invited us into her inner circle of family and friends in Hong Kong, her home city (Fiona had also generously brought our a cappella group to Hong Kong in 2009). She included us in her boyfriend’s raucous birthday party on Lamma Island, where we met a fun group of both locals and expats. Later in the week, Fiona and her family shared the most divine, authentic Cantonese meal with my parents, Cole, and me at her family’s home in the mid-levels neighborhood. Experiencing Hong Kong with some of my favorite humans made me love the city even more—it just felt so natural for us all to be there together.

We were passed from one set of parents to another when we landed in New Zealand after our redeye from Hong Kong. Cole’s parents picked us up at the airport and whisked us to beautiful wine country in the Hawke’s Bay region of NZ’s north island. The scenery was breathtaking—and it became immediately clear that New Zealand would be one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been. Consistently. The place is just consistently stunning. It’s barely real. We had an amazing time relaxing on the beach, checking out vineyards and views, and being fed homemade lamb chops thanks to Libby (you guys—lamb here is $1 USD per chop at the supermarket. It’s NUTS). We then drove down to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. Wellington sits on the water at the southern tip of the North Island and has tons of delicious seafood and hikes that you can start from the middle of the city. With a population of 398,000 people, NZ’s capital is the size of the 93rd largest city in the US, which is—you guessed it—Greenville, South Carolina. We loved the city, but we couldn’t help but notice how completely empty it felt. There were basically no people there to enjoy the outdoor bars or the stingrays cruising through the crystal clear water in the marina. Minus the slight feel of zombie apocalypse emptiness, we loved Wellington and were happy to have it to ourselves.

Since Cole’s parents left, we’ve been hanging with Cole’s best friend from middle school, Alex, and his fantastic partner Annabeth. The two are generously hosting us here in New Zealand. More to come on our adventures here later (seriously, we promise!!), but in the meantime, make sure to check out our new photo galleries. We’ve finally uploaded pictures from our time in LaosChiang MaiBangkokTaipei, and the Thai Beaches. Hong Kong and NZ photos to come shortly!

- Alex





Happy New Year

It’s a New Year, which might warrant resolutions or ponderous reflections on 2015, but I think instead we’ll go Christmas-card style and make this a cheesy update on what we’ve been up to since we last posted.

Since Myanmar we’ve been to Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos, Taipei in Taiwan, and Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Chumphon and Koh Phangan in Thailand. We’ve taken cooking classes, swam in waterfalls, zip-lined through the jungle, cared for elephants, taken kitesurfing lessons, seen Star Wars, paddle boarded (Alex insisted I add this even though it’s clearly the least exciting of the list), and gone scuba diving, among other activities. Eventually we’ll get pictures up.

As you may know, I’m a fan of activities, so the active schedule has been great, but actually the highlight has been the social schedule. After a few months of solid marital isolation, we’ve started seeing other people, which has been awesome. First, we were welcomed by a college friend in Vientiane (thank you Hannah and Anou!) and there we also spent time with a friend of Alex’s from a high school summer program in Paris. In Bangkok, we saw more college friends and a friend of mine from high school. And then we had the privilege of attending Courtney and Neil’s amazing wedding in Taipei where the cultural experience was incredible, but again the highlight was the company. We are so grateful to everyone who has hosted and entertained us over the past couple of months. Needless to say, Alex and I had run out things to say to one another in Japan, so it’s been great to have other humans around. And fortunately there is more to come! Over the next two weeks we have our first friends who are flying to meet us on the Thai beaches. May they be an inspiration to you all.

In other news, Alex has decided she is "chill." In her words, “I’m not as crazy about knowing what we’re doing the next day… I’m living much more in the moment.” Otherwise said, when she has no responsibilities, little in the way of obligatory plans, and is lying on a beach in the Thai islands, she doesn’t mind the possibility that things tomorrow will be the same as they were today. Of course, as I write this she has just handed me a tentative schedule of meals for our week in Hong Kong. Bolded and underlined days with bullet-pointed meals below. At a quick glance 8 of 16 meals planned so far. Can’t always escape your nature. But of course she’s very chill about that, too.

In fairness, I totally support the meal planning (it’s Chinese New Year so good places will require reservations) and we have been starting to let our travel style shift away from a vacationer’s mentality toward that of the unfettered vagabonds we are mimicking. Where at the beginning of the trip, we planned and then we executed, now we’re starting to let ourselves change our minds and our plans as the journey unfolds. In Myanmar, when our flight was delayed and we risked missing our connection to a boat upriver which would have thrown off the entire jam-packed itinerary, we just didn’t get on the flight, called the travel agent we’d been working with and went back to the beach for a few more days of lounging. In Chumphon, the idyllic little beach we had picked to “get away from it all” was in fact covered in trash and annoyingly isolated, so instead of 8 days, we did 3 days of kitesurfing lessons and then caught a ferry to Koh Phangan.

We’re beginning to allow for the possibility that sometimes even the best laid plans are limiting when you actually arrive. The other day for the first time we walked around to a bunch of places and picked one to stay in, rather than booking ahead online, and we ended up with a little bungalow on the beach for $50 a night. Sure the shower water smelled like sulfur (and thus did Alex’s hair), but who doesn’t prefer a hose on the beach to a windowless bathroom anyway? For a few days it worked perfectly. And then two days later we woke up, found a guy with a longboat willing to brave the chop and puttered and rocked our way along the deserted rocky coast to our new destination, a moderately-priced hippy village on a cove in the jungle.

It’s an interesting crowd--an eclectic mix of healers (we each get a healing session in our “all inclusive yoga package” so Alex is trying Reiki tomorrow; I’m still in search of something that I will be able to take moderately seriously… Tarot maybe?), hula-hooping hippies, yogis, and slightly-alternative moderately-wealthy people on vacation. Painfully aware of how in the latter group we are, Alex and I have spent a lot of time reading and sunbathing, but we have participated in a few of the organized offerings. In addition to a few yoga sessions, this afternoon we attended a free talk with a professional life coach called “how to change your life.” Suffice to say henceforth Alex and I will be eating healthy, sleeping more, and meditating every day. When I asked her what advice she gives to people who are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, she delivered this nugget of wisdom: “try everything that interests you and see what works.” So yea. Look out world, here I come.

Other than that, Alex and I still happy and healthy, in love, and enjoying the trip. Being away from friends has definitely highlighted for us how important to us you all are, so please keep in touch. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “we can’t wait to go home” but it’s a good reminder of why eventually we will and be excited to do so.

Happy New Year!

- Cole


19 Days in Myanmar

When our tour guide in Inle Lake took us to see the “longnecked” women—members of Myanmar’s Kayan ethnic group who wear brass rings around their necks, and who are often portrayed in tourist ads promoting Myanmar—I didn’t know what to expect. Instead of taking our long boat to a village, which is what I had anticipated, we pulled up to a souvenir shop on stilts over the water. A bit confused, Cole and I got out of the boat and pushed our way into the crowded store. Our guide tugged us through the pack, past piles of key chains and bracelets, past silk-and-lotus scarves and Myanmar cigars. There, on display at the back of the store like the other souvenirs, were the longnecked women. Some were weaving, while others simply sat and smiled for the dozen or so tourists who shoved cameras in their faces, jockeying for the spot that would allow for the best angle. Our guide encouraged us to take pictures, too, but we were instantly uncomfortable. Instead, we decided to capture this strange moment of tourists determinedly documenting Myanmar’s “traditional” culture. It made us uncomfortable, though it begs the question, is this inauthentic? The women are paid, which enables them to feed their families and support their villages. This also enables them to share a bit of their culture with tourists, who otherwise wouldn’t likely venture to their villages. On the other hand, despite their smiles, they couldn’t communicate with the people taking pictures of them. Did they feel like models or cultural ambassadors, or did they feel like zoo animals? Perhaps more importantly, are we really in a position to judge? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but they are hard to avoid in a country where tourism is so new and the country is changing so rapidly in response.

As Myanmar has opened up over the past few years, there’s been a fascinating cycle of change that both attracts and reacts to tourism. Cole and I spent almost three weeks in the country, which after decades of human rights violations, fighting, sanctions, and military rule—all of which led to the country’s isolation—has begun to stabilize over the last five-or-so years, enabling much greater engagement with the international community. There have been myriad advances over that period of time alone, some tangible (ATMs and access to banking; vast 3G networks and SIM cards that have dropped dramatically in price; hundreds of newly-built hotels and guest houses to accommodate the tourist boom), and others that buzz through the air like high voltage waves (sweeping optimism and giddiness surrounding the very recent election in which the National League for Democracy took a landslide victory, ending nearly 50 years of complete military rule). Every Burmese person we spoke with was absolutely thrilled about each one of these developments and the pace with which they have been emerging and changing. As an outsider, I’m more cautiously optimistic. For example, the rapid economic development is not without its cost; in its efforts to raise funds, the government has turned to monetizing Myanmar’s natural resources by selling them to China, mortgaging the country’s economic future. And while the election is a massive win for the people in Myanmar, it comes with some pretty limiting stipulations that the military baked into the new constitution in 2008. For example, the constitution can’t be changed without military approval, the military gets 25% of the seats in parliament, and the army also has the right to select significant security ministers.

Inevitably, to travel in Myanmar is to observe this process of rapid change. As Myanmar has opened up, the country has been inundated with technology, imports, and pure newness—so much so that it’s all being adopted in bits, and with varying success, creating a patchwork of development. The haphazard chaos makes sense—I mean, how do you build a world of future technology when you lack basic infrastructure? The answer was clear as we made our way around the country: any way you can. On our two-night trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, we passed through multiple villages. Some had 3G networks and power lines, while others relied entirely on solar panels to power their homes for small periods of time each day, and none had running water. In Yangon, where electricity is ubiquitous but goes out at least once per day, motley crews of men in flip flops and tank tops gathered in groups to hang power lines, stringing them like Christmas garland from pole to pole, which they climbed with a rickety step ladder. In Ngapali Beach, where there were no cell networks and abysmal WiFi, people were still using satellite phones instead of standard cell phones. Flight delays are communicated by pieces of paper taped to walls, and flight boarding is communicated by a man running around the terminal with the flight number written on a white board, frantically looking for people wearing a sticker that indicates their flight (yes, you have to wear a sticker that has your flight number written on it). Immigration records are written by hand, creating massive lines as airport officials scrawl passport and visa numbers into massive books.

Myanmar may be fumbling to find its stride amidst these developments, but the country is gritty and beautiful. And maybe it’s the newness of foreigners (multiple groups of domestic tourists wanted to take a picture with us, and a few asked our tour guide if we were movie stars!), or maybe it’s simply the Burmese culture, but the people we met were incredibly welcoming. The particular moment with the longnecked women described above was so uncomfortable because it felt like one-way observation, but most of our time in Myanmar didn’t have this feeling. Rather, the Burmese people were constantly reaching out, allowing us to tour the culture via these interactions in a way that was decidedly genuine. On our trek, farmers waved animatedly from ox-drawn plough carts and excitedly displayed newly harvested carrots. Kids sprinted after us as we walked through their villages to thrust flowers into our hands. At Inle, teachers allowed us tan impromptu visit to observe their 3rd grade class in action, reciting a Burmese poem in their building on stilts in the middle of the lake. In Bagan, women at the market painted my face with thanaka, a paste made from bark that Burmese women (and some men) wear both for beauty and to protect their faces from the sun.

There is no doubt that Myanmar will continue to evolve, but its people’s optimism and warmth will carry its character for years to come. 

- Alex

Welcome to China ("it's been waiting for you")

It was probably pretty different from your typical Taylor Swift concert. According to Alex, the crowd in Philly (the other concert she went to) was a highly diverse crowd of women ranging from small packs of 13 year olds with “13” written up and down their arms like an age label to gaggles of 40 year old women on girls’ night. Lots of neon, everyone in costumes. Here it was mainly couples, late teens/early 20s, with a few coed groups of friends, same age group, all dressed for a casual night out (not much subversive TS 89 gear in sight). And relative to the melodious din of the Philly crowd, here people were fairly quiet. They knew the major entries in the T-swift canon— Love Story, Shake it Off— and chimed in tentatively for the choruses, where they got most of the notes and vowel sounds right. But otherwise it was fairly quiet, which, except for the flamboyant 19 year old Chinese boy behind us who knew all the words and was determined to attempt them all, gave Alex a private audience. Not that she minded.


Alex’s enthusiasm was enough for the whole section, lifted as it was by whirlwind of luck that had over the last 36 hours, taking her from Seoul, where she didn’t even know that Taylor Swift was performing, to the Mercedes Benz arena in Shanghai, singing her heart out. For me, watching the whole thing unfold reinforced one particular observation of life in China: the importance of knowing the right person. For us in this instance, that person happened to be a college friend, also named Alex, who has been living in Beijing for the past 6 years. After failing at various online searches and getting a "no" from the Amex platinum concierge, Alex(andra) had resigned herself to the sad fact that we were probably too late to get tickets to the sold out show. But then, Alex(ander) suggested we try Grabtalk, a new Beijing-based WeChat concierge service that might be able to help. Sure enough, after following them on WeChat (for the uninitiated, WeChat is the Chinese version of every social media (facebook, twitter) and practical (venmo, uber) app rolled into one), we had been connected to an English-speaking concierge who took our request… and 24 hours later we walked out of our Airbnb to meet a messenger on motorcycle pulling up with two tickets to the sold out concert. Checking the face value of the tickets, I was shocked to see it was only 20 dollars less than what we had paid. So easy. You just had to look in the right place.

It’s not that things in China are clearly corrupt (though corruption is certainly a problem), it’s that for a foreigner, it’s a difficult place to navigate, as the contours of the business landscape are made up more by relationships and insider knowledge than by laws and public information. Alex and I were both impressed by the amount of opportunity and entrepreneurship in Shanghai; the vast majority of the people we met (through a friend of Alex’s and through our friendly Airbnb host) had started businesses of one kind or another- restaurants, a bar, a design firm, etc. But even the conversations with those people highlighted the same fact. For instance, as an entrepreneur you might need a “fixer” to deal with licensing problems, or you might need to “fix” things yourself. On this front the best anecdote I’ve heard was about a friend of a friend: After living in Shanghai for some time, this expat had started an ice cream place, which in a short amount of time took off and became extremely successful. Then one day he showed up to the shop to find it closed, boarded up with some mysterious health violation. At least mysterious until a week later an almost identical ice cream shop opened next door, run by a local. Now you might think the story ended here, but the man was undeterred. Instead of moving on to a new venture, he looked up the official who had shut him down and over the course of a couple months became friends with him, took him to dinner, etc. Later, when he asked to be put back in business, the official boarded up the local shop and let him reopen. I particularly like the story because it highlights that it’s not a game that closed to Westerners. It’s just a very different game.

Our time in Shanghai was great; we found the city surprisingly cosmopolitan while remaining thoroughly Chinese, and a lot of fun. But our time there was short and after only three days we flew to the Yunnan province, which was also thoroughly Chinese and fun, but otherwise had very little in common. Yunnan, with its vast expanses of land, pockets of human settlement, and agriculture dotting rolling hills and majestic mountains, is one of those places that reminds you how large the world is and how for the vast majority of people, New York is not at the center of it. Landing in Kunming, Alex and I had one of the moments where we were like “wow, can you imagine living here?” And then from there you drive for hours and town after town passes by the window and you think “wow, what it would it be like to live here?” But people do. Lots of them.

We did get the chance to meet a local entrepreneur. We met him near the ticket office to the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike, when I asked him for directions. He was a short man probably in his sixties (though he could have been older), Naxi by ethnicity, wizened and crinkled by sun. He pointed us in the right direction, and then, as we started to walk up the road toward the start of the trail, to our surprise he started to follow us. We passed by a couple donkeys on the hill, and as he passed them he untied them and then continued after us. We stopped, he stopped, staying about 10 yards behind. We started, he started.

Within a half hour his business plan was all too clear. While many friends had told us of the beauty of the hike, they had neglected to mention the difficulty, and Alex and I were both carrying all of our gear. 40 lbs each, at altitude, scorching sun, straight up the dusty mountain. 45 minutes in, in the middle of our 20th water break, the man finally approached us and offered to take the packs. We refused. He shrugged, and we shouldered our packs to resume the arduous climb. But he didn’t leave. By an hour and a quarter into the hike, it was becoming clear that we weren’t going to make it, and he began to tell us so. Of course, at this point our bargaining position was not good. Without his help (and there wasn’t anyone to pit him against) we probably weren’t going to make it before dark, and we both knew it. But finally, I had to ask the ominous question… “How much?”

5 hours later and 130 US dollars poorer we arrived at our guesthouse, tired but happy to have made it one piece, reassuring ourselves that it was the best 130 dollars we ever spent. Except then we met another hiker who had left his pack with a guesthouse at the beginning of the trail. How much for this fine service? 1 dollar.

In the end, the more significant expense was the realization that our original plan to hike to Yubeng, a town on the edge of Tibet only accessible via a difficult hike, was maybe a bit out of our league at the moment. So instead of a string of cheap guesthouses we audibled to an all inclusive lodge with a nice view of the mountains. Pricey, but when you’re on the road for nine months, sometimes you need to kick back and enjoy the view.

- Cole