Highlights

How about a pictorial post featuring some highlights from our various travels the last few years? It seems like a good idea to me. As you probably know if you read the blog thoroughly, we do talk about our travels a bit, but we’re not really travel bloggers in the sense of step-by-step, day-by-day chronicling of our journeys. That has its own appeal, but lots of people do it and probably better than we could. Instead, I offer a handful of what I think are our best instagrams capturing some curious, challenging, or memorable moments from our adventures, and a micro-snippet of a story for each one.

You’ve gotta be kidding me. Another staircase! AAAAAH! Italy, 2014.

Maybe the coolest looking mall in the world? Even the bathrooms were awesome. You should go there, because it’s technologically amazing. Thailand, 2014.

I attended the Sweihan Camel Festival with a small busload of my students. It was phenomenally boring. We drank coffee together and sat around at one point. UAE, 2014.

South Africa, 2013: no better way to see the hills, or a mongoose. Thank goodness for our friend who watched the little one while we spent an hour doing this!

When you gotta drive following some rain. UAE, 2013.

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Hangin' on the beach with the cattle in Sri Lanka.

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There were cows moving about freely, and there was trash strewn everywhere, too.

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#russia #ryazan #kremlin

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Who cares about the frigid weather and icy walkways? Russia, 2012.

You never know what you’ll encounter in Downtown Dubai. 2012.

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In #Baktapur. #Nepal #BTspringBreak #Travel #Temple

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We strolled through Bhaktapur’s beautiful squares, toddler in tow. Nepal, 2015.

Turtle LOVED off-roading and exploring. Jordan, 2014.

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#wadirum #jordan #travel

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LOVED, not least because there were no seat belts in the Land Cruiser!

Curvy, narrow roads, steep drop-offs, staying just ahead of bad weather. Liechtenstein, 2014.

Seeing the Himalayas–from 32,000 feet. 2015.

Close encounters of the monkey kind, descending from Swamabhunath Temple on a hilltop–Nepal, 2015.

The child loved snow, too, but not mittens. Czech Republic, 2014.

Getting around Wadi Rum the old-fashioned way; the baby aboard in the Boba carrier. He got used to it and didn’t mind after a little while. Jordan, 2014.

The way out of the temperature-constant caverns. France, 2014.

Sometimes sitting on a park bench lets you witness a story. Could it be true love? France, 2014.

Peculiar local customs. UAE, 2012.

More peculiarity–drive-in shisha cafe. UAE, 2012.

Sometimes napping just can’t wait, like here in Nepal, 2015.

Fancy a freshly fried snack? We didn’t. This was at the night market in northeastern Thailand with friends. 2014.

I Love Your Life

What a thing to hear, huh? About a week ago we were sitting under a rented umbrella on a rocky Nice beach, and a woman sitting nearby with her family asked where we were from. She has, by the sound of it, a good life herself, where she works from her midwestern home. Mrs. Kramer and her family were taking a shore day while on a Disney Mediterranean cruise, which seems kind of nifty to me. But when she found out that I teach in the UAE while Jenia does photography on the side, her eyes grew wide and she got a big smile on her face. A few more questions asked and answered, she exclaimed, “I love your life!”

That’s the kind of compliment that will make you grin every time. It’s also a little hard to respond well to. “Thanks,” I managed, while feeling a tad silly. I wanted to say, “Actually, my life is pretty mundane,” because it doesn’t seem too special. Yet, given more thought, I’ll admit my lifestyle is somewhat unusual. It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? I have set foot in 12 countries to date this year, including the one I live in, and yet life seems nothing if not, well, ordinary.

Jenia and the wee one enjoying time on the beach in Nice.

Jenia and the wee one enjoying time on the beach in Nice.

That is not to say I didn’t get a kick out of going for a speedboat trip in Thailand, or driving the confusing roads of Siena, Italy. I thrilled at touching Liechtenstein rocks as I hiked to the castle over Vaduz, and I laughed at being one of the many tourists cramming into a pizzeria’s doorway in Vernazza, one of the picturesque Cinque Terre towns, in the midst of a sudden downpour, trying to stay dry. I rejoiced in surprise when the kind brothers who operate a gelateria in Milan gave us free ice cream. Walking the avenues of Venice with my lovely wife was ever so romantic, even with toddler in tow. I’ll admit, this seems a life less ordinary as I consider it further.

But would anyone still smilingly say, “I love your life” if they knew what the normal, routine part of my life is like? The getting up at 6, going to scan my fingerprint to sign in at school, standing through my 13,340th morning assembly (hmm, I wonder how many I’ve really shifted my weight from one foot to the other through?) conducted entirely in Arabic, deal with difficult youth in a constantly changing and inconsistent environment, handle the workload in a responsible manner, try not to balk at conflicting expectations and realities, and then go home and do normal family guy stuff. This is boring at best, isn’t it?

Indeed, day trips to Abu Dhabi or Dubai are even blasé. “Which mall should we go to today, honey? Do you want to swim in the gulf again?” We find ourselves bored as we walk among folks clad in kandoras and abayas, as we notice at some point and then forget again that we are the only white people in the room. We yawn at the idea of going to the same old amazingly green park nearby again. Life in the desert has become normal. The special part is mainly what happens during holidays.

The saying goes along the lines of wherever you go, there you are, and that’s a tried and true if cliched sentiment for a reason. I’m no more happy now than I was when I had what you might call a regular job in a typical school in the States. There was a phase where I was really stressed out by moving, on the contrary, but I’ve adjusted long ago. I’m still me, and I’m the same in the USA, France, or the UAE.

That said, over time, assuming I am not resistive to it, traveling and working abroad does change me. I notice that I don’t bear the same political or social prejudices, and my cultural biases have altered. I think these changes are good ones, but who’s to say I wouldn’t change similarly if I worked at home in the USA? I’d grow and mature regardless of where I lived, wouldn’t I? But I certainly wouldn’t be able to explore the world as easily if I hadn’t packed a few bags and relocated overseas.

So here’s what I’m getting at. I live a life that is a bit unusual, yep, but much of it isn’t anything worth talking about. It’s a struggle, same as any life, anywhere. But Mrs. Kramer, thanks for making me ponder it a bit. Thanks for reminding me that I’m blessed. And I know you were thinking about the glamor of travel and life abroad in glitzy Abu Dhabi, but when it comes down to it, what really makes my life special is the people in it. Teaching a classroom full of kids is more rewarding when I learn some Arabic phrases from them, when I build some relationships there and remember that this is a job that’s different and memorable when compared to the one I had back home. So yeah, there are those people, students, but they’re not really the ones I’m talking about. Venice would have been ho-hum without my wife. Sitting on the sea-washed stones of Nice would have been less fun if I wasn’t able to watch my little son enjoy the waves in his mother’s arms. Going to exotic places is more fun when I can share the experience with my loved ones. Exploring is about expanding, and the most important thing to expand is the love in my heart. It’s easy to forget that in the clamor of day to day living, no matter where in the world I find myself.

A Scene from France

The baby is asleep in his Graco car seat. The wife and I share bits of conversation as the miles (excuse me, kilometers, for we’re in France) drift lazily past. We haven’t gotten to the interstate highway yet, and I don’t think we will. It’s become increasingly obvious that those green signs with white letters that clearly pointed toward Luxembourg in the center of Reims weren’t indicating the most direct route.

Pop music plays on the radio until we get tired of it and switch it off. Most of the songs are in English, and it’s nice to turn the dial and be able to find any number of radio stations playing music that is comprehensible to the average Western ear.

We zip from one small town to another. The speed limit’s not posted, but the other cars on the two-lane road seem to be moving about 100 kph, so that’s where I keep it, more or less. Sometimes the road gets rough, the faded blacktop mottled with pockmarks, and I slow, and at one of these points a guy in a heavy black BMW sedan who’s been behind me for a while blows past. I wonder how he can move so fast on this rough pavement and not be endangering himself and his passengers.

The sun comes out for a little while just as we leave another of the villages, and as the gray clouds peel back to expose blue sky, we marvel at the beauty of the gently rolling hills that stretch out until the eye can see no more to either side. There are pastures and recently cut wheat fields in shades of gold and green. Monolithic windmills spin slowly in the gentle breeze, and farmhouses and barns perch picturesquely in the distance.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

The vast and lovely French countryside.

“I know why Van Gogh found this worth painting,” I tell Jenia.

“It’s beautiful.”

Van Gogh's Wheat Field, 1888.

Van Gogh’s Wheat Field, 1888.

As we continue, the road is lined with trees on either side, trees that jut proudly upward, forming an umbrella over the road now and again. Beyond these, there are no trees to the left or right, just fields reaching out into the distance.

The Ardennes region of France, along D980, 7 km from Cauroy.

The Ardennes region of France, along D980, 7 km from Cauroy.

When we make our way slowly through a tiny town called Cauroy, there’s a community yard sale that seems to be in its final moments.

“Oh, I want to go,” Jenia says. So I take a side street that I figure will lead back to the little square, but the road instead brings us to a big shed and farm equipment. A man nearby watches us curiously. After turning around, I park beside the road and watch chickens through a fence while Jenia goes to browse the junk on sale. She comes back in 10 minutes with a couple of kitchen goods, items unique and inexpensive, nifty souvenirs.

This is because we took the long way.

Thursday List: Lessons Learned

In no particular order, allow us to present lessons we learned while we traveled this summer.  Humorous?  Maybe (or maybe not, you be the judge).  True?  We think so.

1) The Toyota Yaris is one of the worst cars ever built.  We rented one for a day in Georgia (that would be the state, not the country).  The steering had less feel and was more vague than a careless comment that could be either a compliment or an insult.  The blind spots were larger than a Ford Expedition.  The centered gauge cluster is less sensible than a drunken, raving Mel Gibson. The acres of plastic swathing the interior epitomize the notion of “cheap,” along with every other aspect of the automobile.  Also it has no power.

2) The author of the CNN article “The New London, Paris and Rome” is totally wrong about Ostend.  Ostend is boring and the beach unappealing–not “oddly restorative.”  Besides, we got locked in a Japanese garden while there.

ostend

Ostend. Bland, forgettable, and certainly not worth visiting.  Sorry Belgium.  We love some of your other cities.

3) Couchsurfing is infinitely more fun than staying in a hotel.  And couchsurfers are, as it turns out, not all hippies–they’re a varied group of interesting folks.  We stayed with a guy who works in the Belgian steel industry, two air traffic controllers, and more.  We met fellow surfers who had careers as mind-blowing as molecular modeling researcher and astrophysicist.  Not kidding.  The astrophysicist, a guy named Lorraine from France, is also a beekeeper.  He shared a story about how he was asked to deliver a beehive to the Prime Minister (all true, mind you). He said yes, of course.  “But I told them that because it is summer, if I put the beehive in the car to deliver it, it could be a problem.  Because of the heat, the bees could die.”  The person he was speaking to said, “No problem.”  “Yes,” he said, “It would be a problem.  The bees could die.”  The other person reassured him–“No, no problem.  You will not have to stop.”  He ended up having a police escort through the center of Paris so that he didn’t have to stop and wait in traffic, and he delivered the beehive and set it up at the Prime Minister’s place.

4) Traveling with a baby is not only possible, but for the most part, quite easy (and there’s a post about that in the making).  As a side note, carrying a baby in a carrier starts to hurt one’s back after a couple days (but it is notably easier than pushing a stroller all over creation).

5) We now understand our friends who told us a year ago that they were looking forward to being back in the UAE. Then, we thought they were, well, nuts. Now, we are those people, too.

6) It can be rather hard to explain to those back in the US – or the people we met during our travels – what life here is really like. It seems that there is a backstory to every story. Also, for some reason, it’s easier to tell about the negative experiences.

7) Speaking of backstories, here’s one now: just kidding.  Lesson learned when telling stories to family back home–trim the backstories to the bare minimum, or your loved ones will tune out before you get to the good stuff.

8) Strangely, following the most obvious road signs from one place to another doesn’t always yield the fastest route.  Take our trip to Reims from Luxembourg, for example: this should have been a short two hours, judging by Google Maps, but it took us no less than six hours of meandering secondary roads.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

We found some great mountain roads between Luxembourg and Germany.  This was just over the German border.

We found some great mountain roads between Luxembourg and Germany. This was just over the German border.

Somewhere in France...

Somewhere in France…

9) That brings us to this point: enjoy being on the verge of lost or completely off track.  Make it a point to simply have a great time exploring.  Make the best of sore feet (an excuse to stop at that little cafe!) or winding back roads (pull over and get a photo of the picturesque mountain pass).  The single best day of our trip was when we were driving, completely by accident and thanks to the road signs, the French countryside.  And enjoy the crummy places you end up, too (within reason, of course), like Ostend.  Where else would we have ever gotten locked in a Japanese garden?  It was a memorable experience at least.

10) It’s good to come home.  We already knew this.  But what we didn’t expect was to grow tired of traveling, since we both love it.  Still, we did.  After what started to seem too long on the road, we found ourselves especially grateful to have our own space and the chance to return to our routines.