Friday, April 13, 2007

Heather's Most Memorable Experiences

One friend asked us to write about whether we still felt taking six months off was a good decision, knowing it could negatively impact our careers, finances, etc. My answer: It was one of the best decisions we have ever made. It was a dream come true to spend six months together exploring other countries, learning about other cultures and gaining new perspectives about our lives and what is meaningful to each of us. It also affected us in ways we did not expect. We both feel more aware of environmental problems facing our planet and we decided to change our eating habits to become mostly vegetarians (eat fish or chicken once a week). We also made the big decision to try and have a baby!

My advice, to quote Mark Twain, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.”

My most memorable experiences (in no particular order):

1. Spending time with Bob’s Kids in Bodhgaya, India and visiting the Kiran Center. Their smiles and warmth moved me to tears and laughter.
2. Trekking in Nepal surrounded by the magnificent snow covered Himalayan Mountains on the Annapurna Circuit.
3. Staying at a Zen Buddhist Monastery in the alpine mountains of Mt. Koya, Japan.
4. Hiking in Jiuzhaigou National Park while visiting the Tibetan villages and temples in China.
5. Falling in love with all the elephants in Chitwan National Park, Nepal – the breeding center, bathing elephants, watching wild elephants, and even seeing elephants walking by me when sitting at an internet café.
6. Sleeping overnight in a tower in a wild animal refuge, seeing rhinos and wild peacocks and listening in silence to all the jungle wild things come to life in the darkness. (Chitwan National Park, Nepal)
7. The amazing beauty of the Taj Mahal.
8. The exotic desert oasis of Pushkar, India – wild langur monkeys roaming everywhere, florescent colored turbans, camels, and a holy lake surrounded by white temples and ghats.
9. Two candlelit romantic nights in Bangkok – dinner at the Oriental Hotel overlooking the river and drinks on the top of the State Tower.
10. Three day cruise on the Mekong River, Laos – visiting ancient ruins, villages, school children, waterfalls and watching billowy clouds drift overhead as we sailed.
11. The self indulgence of having a custom made suit in Hoi-an, Vietnam.
12. Our five day Milford Trek in New Zealand with soaring glaciers; fiords and pristine rivers.
13. Scuba diving with sharks, turtles, colorful fish and vibrant coral gardens in Moorea.
14. Palm reading by Ketut Liyer in Ubud, Bali.
15. Meditating with chanting monks in a temple in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Alex's Top 10.

Nearing the end of our trip, I began thinking about putting together a personal “best of” list about our experience. Inevitably, people will ask variations of the same question: “what was your favorite ___________ (city, country, ‘part,’ day, etc…),” so it made sense to stand back and take a little stock. I first thought of listing my favorites, or “best” experiences, in the sense of what was the most interesting culture, breathtaking view or finest meal. But, on reflection, I realized that approach would only scratch at the surface. Because our travel reached into such disparate environments as rural India, ultramodern Tokyo and the Vietnamese hill tribes, I would fail myself if I did not try to give some attention to even the most “foreign” experiences—those that were unpleasant or uncomfortable, because it is from these that I probably learned most about myself.

Here, then, in no order whatsoever, are my top ten “most memorable” experiences from our six month sabbatical:

1. Getting to know Bob’s Kids, Bodhgaya, India.

These kids were beautiful, amazing, heartbreaking and inspiring and were the highlight of the entire trip. Big thank yous to Derek Whitefield, Michael Bourne, Anil Chaurasia and, of course, Bob Chartoff, for letting us participate in this most worthy cause.

2. Diving with a giant sea turtle, the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Imagine diving in stormy, low-visibility water and looking up to see a giant turtle floating gently overhead, sleepy eyes at half-mast, munching contentedly on a bright orange jelly fish.

3. The 6 hour train ride from Beijing to Datong, China.

This was one of those miserable experiences from which you emerge, hopefully, a bigger person. Basically this was a 6 hour journey stuffed into a crowded steel box, alternately cold and hot, filled with human pollution of every kind.

4. Sharing the beach with slumbering cows, Goa, India.

5. Wrestling with juvenile monkeys in the Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

6. Eating sushi for breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan.

7. Utter and complete disorientation in the Akasaka train station, Tokyo, Japan.

The main thing I seek in travel is to be confronted by cultures and surroundings as different as possible from my day-to-day existence. Our second day in Tokyo we submerged into the depths of this train station. I am not exaggerating when I say that nothing was familiar. Nothing. Nothing written in an alphabet I could understand; even the signs made no sense. We couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. I felt like I’d dropped acid or something—really strange.

8. Stalking Rhino in the Royal Chitwan Nat’l. Park, Nepal.

Does it seem like a pattern is emerging here? Animals, animals, animals.

9. Encountering the Taj Mahal, Agra, India.

Simply the most beautiful man-made structure I’ve ever seen. The surrounding town of Agra could use a little sprucing up, though.

10. Being excited to come back home.

When we embarked on our trip I was so excited I couldn’t fathom ever wanting to come back. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover in mid-February that I was actually excited to return, to our family, home, cats and—believe it or not—my job!

We're Baaack!

We arrived at LAX safe and sound. We were greeted by Heather's Mom (Shirley Sourial) accompanied by her beloved dog, Bebe, and our friends, Ann Weinman and Robyn Bensinger. Shirley brought an elaborate gourmet picnic "bag" filled with goodies, Robyn brought flowers and Ann generously drove us to Union Station to catch our metrolink train to San Bernardino, where we met Heather's Dad (Alfy Sourial) accompanied by his handsome dog, Kitsune, and my Mom (Mary Craigie). Thanks, all. We're glad to be back.